Sexuality, reported actions, and the body: A refutation
[The following is a guest post by Clinton McGruff, written in response to recent events.]
What do you call a man who exposes himself to women for pleasure? A philosophy professor, of course. Why does this joke work? Because sexual harassment is so common in academic philosophy. But also because of the tension between the image of the lewd “flasher” (a certain type of harasser) and that of the staid professor. When you think about it, most times that you are naked it’s not even about sex: when you bathe, dress, or are examined by the doctor, for example. The ancient Greeks used to wrestle naked and artists still use naked models. Indeed, without the body human culture would not exist. So really the body is very respectable and vital to human flourishing. We are a corporeal species.
I have in fact written a whole book about the body, Pretension, in which its ubiquity is noted and celebrated. I even have a cult centering on the body, described in this blog. I have given a semester-long seminar discussing the body and displays related to it. I now tend to use nudity in the wide-ranging manner just outlined, sometimes with humorous intent.
Suppose now a professor P, well conversant in the above points, slyly exposes himself to his graduate student, who is also thus conversant. The astute student, suitably primed, responds after a moment by saying: “Um… you’re not trying to proposition me, right?” Professor P replies: “You are clearly a clever student—I can’t trick you. That is exactly the response I was looking for!” They then laugh nervously together. Academics like mind games.
But suppose a naïve onlooker, seeing this witty display, jumps to the conclusion that the nudity is indicative of something sexual. He then reports the act of Professor P as follows: “Professor P propositioned his student.” He has failed to see the joke and has no knowledge of the intellectual background of the display he is trying so ineptly to report. He clearly misreports what Professor P did, missing both the content and the humor. We might accurately describe P’s action as follows: P exposed himself to his student. Completely innocent.
These reflections take care of certain false allegations that have been made about me recently (graduate students are not what they used to be). One has a duty to take all aspects of the situation into account and not indulge in rash descriptions. And one should also not underestimate the sophistication of the flasher.