July 19 2024

Are Blurred Lines Really the Problem?

by Kate Ott, Drew University

Every year as the AAR Annual Meeting approaches and closes, I am struck by the instances of sexual harassment that are relayed. Maybe I hear about more of these because of my past role in training and research related to clergy sexuality education, my interest in sexual health as a professional ethics issue, or because I’m a woman (more about that in a later section).  

  • A colleague comments about avoiding a session or a reception because a former harasser will be present. It’s easier, safer to avoid this person than to relive painful memories, angry feelings, and sometimes fear.  
  • A student jokes about a professor’s conduct at the bar or reception the evening before, brushing the tale off as if it were a “combat story” that initiates one into a club while simultaneously seeking affirmation for their interpretation of the events.  
  • I attend a session and watch aghast as the presider and other panelists systematically dismiss a scholar’s ideas, deny the opportunity to respond, and redirect questions while overtly making comments related to the scholar’s gender or sex.  

These are not benign or exaggerated issues. They happen every Annual Meeting. These are forms of sexual harassment.

Many of us are familiar with the legal, workplace definitions of sexual harassment, which fall into two categories: quid pro quo (sexual behavior is expected in exchange for something else) and hostile environment. Sexual harassment in either form is making unwanted sexual advances or remarks as it relates to one’s gender or sex. These can take the form of verbal comments, physical gestures with one’s body, or through gifts, letters (electronic or hardcopy)—and let’s add virtual avenues, given our rapidly developing knowledge of inappropriate text messages. However, the modes are not as important as the key word, unwanted. What many of us fail to understand is that in the case of harassment (of any kind), what was intended doesn’t matter. The effect of the harassment on others is what matters—how the event(s) was received. Such interpretation goes back to the U.S. Supreme Court rulings under Title VII of the 1980 Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments.

Yet even though many of us are trained to recognize and not to engage in sexual harassment, it still happens. A professor who asks a student to engage in sexual intercourse in exchange for a recommendation letter or better grade can be understood as quid pro quo sexual harassment. Likewise, a senior male professor who consistently, suggestively, and publicly comments on the attire and body type of women colleagues, assistants, and students may create a hostile environment. As Nadia M. Lahutsky, associate professor of religion at Texas Christian University, points out in her 2010 RSN article, the statistics consistently show that sexual harassment is not a thing of the past.  

Why is this still an issue? Because the student knows the risk of reporting an issue is potentially more damaging in the long term, both for their career and the school or organization, than the short-term suffering and hoped-for professional reward. Even with policy on the side of the student, the power of a professor usually trumps any complaint—often buoyed by other identity markers, the tendency of institutions toward self-preservation, and a culture of hypersexuality and heterosexism. Similarly, in the other scenario the senior male professor is probably often confronted by colleagues who remind him he cannot say things “like that”; but the effort to document the problem and our collective lack of faith in the system to actually prevent him from using his institutional power to dodge the charges lead most of us to laugh away the comments offering platitudes like “he’s old,” “he’s harmless,” and “he doesn’t really mean it.”  

We have a culture of denial and thus one of privilege. A number of factors contribute to this problem: sexual harassment policies and reporting structures can be convoluted, thus adding to the burden on an already victimized individual. Another impediment can be the (perhaps rightly) high legal thresholds that dole out strict and standardized punishment with little concern for nuance. Finally, most of us struggle to keep our personal needs from interfering with professional responsibilities, a problem that is exacerbated by sociocultural distortions of the relationship between sexuality and power. With regard to the first concern, the AAR has a clear sexual harassment policy and reporting structure, thanks to the work of the Status of Women in the Profession Committee in the late 1990s. The AAR sexual harassment policy provides adequate options to address the second concern that rely on standards of professional ethics, so that legal thresholds do not serve as a deterrent to reporting. As for the third issue, there is still much work to be done.

Bl-uurrr-red l-iiii-nnn-es … plays like a loop in my mind as I write, with Robin Thicke and Pharrell moaning the chorus. The recent hit song is a concrete example of the cultural soup we live and breathe that is so skewed we can hardly identify appropriate boundaries. Bl-uurrr-red l-iiii-nnn-es, indeed! When it comes to sexual harassment, the AAR Annual Meeting is a space that serves multiple functions. The circumstances promote blurred lines or boundaries. As professionals, we eat, room, and go out together. We may feel free of our larger institutional contexts and even our smaller familial relationships. Consider the many roles members inhabit during an annual meeting—colleague, friend, spouse of another colleague, advisor, mentor, student, chair, presider, presenter, audience, member respondent, dancer, organizer, host, editor, roommate. Not any one AAR member is all of these, but each member is often balancing four or five of them. When filling multiple roles, personal needs or desires can easily interfere with professional responsibilities. In order to prevent further instances of sexual harassment, we need perspective, clarity, and accountability.

We need perspective …

As a professional organization we are not immune to the ills of the larger society. Sexual harassment has roots in heterosexism, which privileges male gender roles and heterosexual orientation, a distortion of the relationship between power and sexuality. This does not mean that women or those who are LBGTQI identified cannot or do not sexually harass others. It does mean that it is more likely that women and LBGTQI members will experience harassment based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. As the AAR policy on sexual harassment states, “Such an atmosphere cannot and does not foster intellectual rigor or valuable, trusting human relationships. Both are necessary ingredients for good scholarship and professional excellence.” As a professional organization, if we are not actively working to combat sex and gender discrimination, we are contributing to the perpetuation of an oppressive climate that already exists due to male and heterosexual privilege. In other words, the lines as they are currently drawn are blurry, given the society in which we reside. 

We need clarity …

In order to clarify the lines, we need to better understand how to sustain a high level of professionalism without sacrificing personal relationships. We do not gather as a group of friends, even though we are friends with many of our colleagues. We do not gather for the purpose of dating or hooking up, even though the job center feels like speed dating. We gather as a professional organization first and foremost. We need clearer boundaries about the purpose of our attendance and participation, from our conduct on the elevators to a trip back to the airport, from a panel presentation to scrambling for lunch amidst thousands of colleagues. At a professional meeting, one cannot take off their role as professor, student, or administrator like work clothes and switch into party clothes, leaving the power and impact of their role in the suitcase. This does not mean we cannot dance, or drink alcohol, or go out to dinner with friends—it just means we do all of that as professors, administrators, editors, students, and so on.

We would all hopefully agree that a professor who makes a sexual advance toward a student while insinuating that she will receive an “A” in class is an example of sexual harassment. What about the professor who is an instructor in the PhD program to which a student hopes to apply in the future, but the professor cannot predict that? What about the professor who isn’t in the same field and won’t ever share an institutional connection with the student? As a professor and student there is always a power differential. Granted, there may be many other power-related factors in this exchange—race, gender, and economics, to name a few. Yet as a professional society, at some point we must face the question of how our various statuses vis-à-vis the “profession” create power dynamics that we cannot simply “wish away” because we find someone attractive (even if they also find us attractive). The power differential impacts free consent. Whether it is professor-to-professor, student-to-student, or administrator-to-professor, we need to be careful and aware of how our professional roles impact and are impacted by the decisions we make regarding our sexual interactions at professional meetings.

When sexual harassment occurs, it is often the result of one member thinking they are not beholden to professional conduct and ethics when at a reception, or dinner, or walking the convention halls. Or, more blatantly, they think they can use the power of their role or identity to intimidate another member into silence. Even though sexual harassment often happens across different roles of status and power, this is not always the case. When two colleagues are of the same status and a sexual remark or advance is unwanted, it is still sexual harassment—maybe not the kind that meets a legal threshold, but certainly it is an abuse of professional ethics.

We need accountability …

Unless there is a collective shift in the number of members reporting harassment and our willingness to hold colleagues accountable, a policy is just another web page. It is not a living practice, sustained and cultivated, and thus does not have authority to shape our lives.  In those cases, the power then lies with the harasser. Look at the numbers in university reports, listen to people’s stories, and watch more closely at this upcoming AAR Annual Meeting. We have a culture of ambivalence at best, and denial at worst, that is permissive of unwanted sexual remarks and advances. We have learned to live with sexual harassment instead of taking it seriously, reporting it, and holding each other accountable. This year, I encourage you to say something. We have to get over the fear that we are wrong or have misinterpreted someone’s intentions. Intentions do not matter; perception does. If you perceive something to be harassment, you are right! No matter the policies in place or the number of earnest people who are members, some of us will make mistakes and others will intentionally harm. Both need to be held accountable in a fair manner. What happens one weekend a year can have ramifications for the length of our careers.

Recently a number of women members of the American Philosophical Association raised their voices through a blog about the hostile environment that characterizes that field. In response, the association appointed a new committee to study the sexual harassment women have encountered and develop recommendations on how to address sexual harassment as it happens and how to prevent it from happening in the first place. To generate further accountability, the Women in Philosophy Taskforce maintains another blog that is “devoted exclusively to discussions—anonymous or not—of what individuals and institutions are doing in response to problems for women in philosophy” and ending sexual harassment more broadly. The written word and accounting of so many instances of sexual harassment make it difficult to dismiss claims that behavior of members of the association contributes to a hostile environment—from the way claims are made in academic discussions to blatant physical misconduct by colleagues. I shudder to think what a similar blog by AAR members might contain.  

Starting a similar blog, Being a Woman in Religious Studies?, may not be our avenue for accountability. It is one example, however, and a persuasive one. Yet it leaves out men and LGBTQI members who also experience sexual harassment, for harassment is not limited to one gender, sex, or orientation. To foster good scholarship and professional excellence, we will need multiple avenues of accountability. The first avenue may be a task force that includes our member advocate to ensure voice, those in the presidential succession line to lend authority, and a variety of members, not just the Status of Women in the Profession committee, so that many groups and different levels of expertise are represented. The lines are only as blurry as we allow them to be. Such allowances dehumanize members of our organization and the integrity of our profession. We can do so much better.



Hill, Catherine, and Elena Silva. Drawing the Line: Sexual Harassment on Campus. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, Additional Resources list.

Jung, Patricia, and Darryl Stephens, editors. Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach. Fortress Press: forthcoming December 2013.  

Dr. Kate Ott is a feminist, catholic scholar addressing the formation of moral communities with specializations in sexuality, technology, children/youth, and professional ethics. She is an assistant professor of Christian social ethics at Drew University Theological School in Madison, N.J. Her writings include: Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) and the coedited volume Faith, Feminism, and Scholarship: The Next Generation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Prior to Drew, Kate was the deputy director of the Religious Institute, a nonprofit committed to sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society. There she led the project and publication of Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice (2009). To find out more about her work visit www.kateott.org

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