Sexual Harassment in Political Science and International Studies

Aug 15, 2013

The last two years saw some major stories in my corner of the blogsphere concerning sexual harassment. Colin McGinn’s resignation from the University of Miami saw widespread discussion across the academic interwebs, even if we didn’t say much about it. McGinn’s case seems not terribly unique in philosophy, as the What’s it Like to be a Woman in Philosophy blog has been chronicling for years. Sexual harassment at science-fiction conventions is also an ongoing problem. Genevieve Valentine’s treatment at Readercon produced an online firestorm last year.

Some of the discomfort with Brian’s recent post [which Brian has now pulled] derives from a generic rejection of its sexualization of conference dynamics. But some of it comes from the realities of sexual discrimination and harassment–not just in our field, but at conferences in particular.

I don’t need to rely on hearsay to conclude that sexual discrimination is a major problem in international studies and political science. My partner now refers to “practicing political science with ovaries” as a shorthand for acknowledged and unacknowledged sexism in the field.

On the other hand, most of what I know about sexual harassment at conferences comes from oblique, semi-whispered, or ‘you didn’t hear this from me, but’ style conversations. The problem seems both widespread and largely unacknowledged in the general community. Indeed, searching for “sexual harassment at APSA“, “sexual harassment at the ‘American Political Science Association’“, and cognate searches for the ISA turns up little more than documents describing official policies, a long list of conference papers, and reports on the meetings of caucuses within the organizations. Either the problem is not widespread–which I doubt–or we haven’t even reached the point where we have a safe environment for an open discussion of it.

My main impetus here isn’t to critique or defend Brian’s post. As I noted in comments, I think that our collective silence on power dynamics contributes to the same environment that enables ongoing discrimination and harassment. At the same time, tolerance for humor that uses offensive gendered language is also part of the problem.

Rather, my central claim is more basic: that there’s something seriously wrong with the current state of affairs–in which serial harassment remains tolerated, extreme sexism flourishes on internet fora, and ongoing serious discussion of these problems occurs almost exclusively within specialized caucuses and sections.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.