Naomi Wolf sets back the fight against sexual harassment.

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Feb. 25 2004 8:07 PM

Crying Wolf

Naomi Wolf sets back the fight against sexual harassment.

Naomi Wolf and Harold Bloom
Wolf and Bloom

In the cover story in New York this week, Naomi Wolf reveals that Harold Bloom, a famous humanities professor at Yale, "sexually encroached" upon her when she was a student. The transgression, she tells us, "devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student." Wolf insists that her true target isn't Bloom, whose behavior she calls all too "human." Rather, it's Yale, she claims, that continues to have a systemic problem with preventing and prosecuting harassment.

The piece makes a serious charge about the failure of higher education anti-harassment measures: Wolf claims that Yale—like other institutions she breezily alludes to without naming—still has no truly "transparent" procedure for students to lodge grievances against professors. She concludes this based on her own experience with Yale following her recent disclosure of her two-decade-old encounter with Bloom.

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Both her evidence and her reasoning are deeply flawed. Yale's Grievance Board statement is posted here—and is easily available as the kind of standard response she allows us to believe, for much of the piece, that the college doesn't have. What it seems she really wants from Yale is for its administration to bend over backward for her now that she's come forward, and thus prove that it really, really cares about its students. When it doesn't, she says that Yale must not be truly "accountable to the equality of women." This is a kind of bait and switch. Yale's response to her disclosure of a 1983 offense is not necessarily predictive of its response to a present-day offense—not just because the statute of limitations for what Bloom did to Wolf expired 18 years ago, but also because what Bloom did may not have been explicitly wrong by Yale's standards at the time and by law (though from our vantage point it looks sleazy). We don't know, since Wolf never tried to find out how Yale would have handled the charge. This is typical of the way in which Wolf's article is disingenuous. She makes a dangerous extrapolation from the personal to the political—but the personal undermines the cause that is the pretext for writing the piece in the first place.

Wolf's allegation against Bloom is this: During her senior year, in 1983, she took an independent study with him. Somehow much of the semester "slipped away" without a meeting. Finally Bloom invited himself over for dinner at her house—Wolf lived with one of his graduate editorial assistants and her boyfriend—during which he drank several glasses of Amontillado. Afterward, he cornered her and breathed, "You have the aura of election upon you." "The next thing I knew his heavy, boneless hand was hot on my thigh," she tells us. Wolf says she fended him off and vomited in the sink and that Bloom packed up the sherry and snapped, "You are a deeply troubled girl."

Bloom's neglect of his academic duties (he failed to meet with her for the rest of the semester and then gave her a B) is itself troubling, and his come-on isn't pretty. But Wolf acknowledges that what transpired was not, strictly speaking, sexual harassment. Meanwhile, we still don't know whether, according to Yale's policy at the time—a "discouragement policy"—Bloom could have been fired or censured for his action had she brought a grievance.

This may sound like splitting hairs, but it's not. Naomi Wolf extrapolates broadly from her experience with Yale today to suggest that "the atmosphere of collusion that had helped to keep me quiet twenty years ago was still intact—as secretive as a Masonic lodge." Let's stipulate for the sake of argument that Yale has not dealt well with Naomi Wolf in the months since she excavated the Bloom incident. This doesn't mean that Yale's current policies aren't sound. Today, according to its rules Yale would unequivocally say that Bloom's behavior was wrong and that he would be subject to discipline.

Most of Wolf's broader case against Bloom—and the oppressive atmosphere at Yale in 1983—rests on hearsay: "Some women friends, however, persuaded me not to speak to anyone official … the university saw him [Bloom] as untouchable, my friends warned." An old professor of hers recently told her that professors and students "gossiped" about Bloom's affairs, and a woman who had been a graduate student at the time (and is now a tenured professor) recently "confirmed" to Wolf that "it was known; it was in the air." Was it known, or was it in the air? In an American court of law, a man is innocent until proven guilty. Here, Wolf invites us to be scandalized by an accretion of rumor and personal recollection. Think about what happens when a man makes damning public charges about a woman's sexuality based on "gossip" and things that were "in the air." (Full disclosure: I was a student at Yale in the 1990s and studied with Bloom. He never hit on me, or anyone who told me about an incident directly, though I did hear the kind of vague rumors that Wolf cites as evidence.)

Then there's Wolf's hyperbolic rhetoric. She calls Bloom's hand "boneless" (meant to conjure another appendage, perhaps). She casually describes "an atmosphere at Yale in which female students were expected to be sociable with male professors." The passive construction makes it sound as though Yale's co-eds were little more than privileged New England geishas—as though Wolf had to play along with Bloom's flirtatious games to have a shot at being a Rhodes scholar. What Wolf leaves out is that she chose to buy into these outdated expectations. In Promiscuities, her memoir of teenage sexuality, she writes about the calculations women make about their (admittedly limited) erotic power over professors on the same page that she discusses, with pseudonyms, inviting Bloom over to dinner. (It's worth noting that Promiscuities has a different account of the details leading up to the Bloom incident. See this New York Observer article, which explains the differences. When I asked Wolf about this by phone, she contended that these weren't inconsistencies in her story, but changes made by legal necessity.)

In marshalling evidence that Yale handles sexual harassment badly, Wolf recounts four stories of sexual harassment at Yale, taking place between 1985 and 1999. The incidents are troubling but too muddy to evaluate for several reasons. She makes no distinctions between events that happened in the 1980s and those that took place just five years ago. This lapse is crucial; it's not news that schools handled harassment badly in '80s, and the thrust of her piece purports to concern universities today. Moreover, she makes no distinctions among the gravity of the charges, which range from rape to a professor putting his hand on the knee of a student not enrolled in any of his courses—the kind of thing Jeffrey Rosen argues might better be called "privacy invasion."

Wolf argues, convincingly, that we need to move away from the discourse of victim/victimizer. But she undermines this move within her own piece. She jumps through verbal hoops to make it clear she was not "personally traumatized," yet she spends paragraphs describing the incident in precisely those terms, telling us that she spiraled into a "moral" crisis after Bloom's come-on—that her grades slipped; that she didn't get her coveted Rhodes Scholarship because her "confidence" was "shaken." She neglects to mention that she later was awarded a Rhodes; that might dam our sympathy.

Is there a problem with sexual harassment at Yale? It's entirely possible, but the piece isn't persuasive on this front. The strangest thing about it may be that Wolf failed to talk to any contemporary Yale undergraduates, so there's no sense what any of them think. Wolf says that Dean Brodhead told her that the number of meetings held by Yale's Grievance Board's weren't for public release. (Wolf says "committee," but I think she means "Grievance Board.") Helaine Klasky, a spokeswoman for Yale, told me when I asked that the Grievance Board had brought four formal complaints of sexual harassment against faculty over the course of the last decade. Of course, those numbers could mean anything—that women at Yale are relatively safe and well-off, or that they're afraid to come forward. (This piece from the Yale Herald in 1996—when I was at the university—says that an ACLU study of sexual harassment there found that 17 students felt that they had been "made to feel uncomfortable" by professors and teaching assistants at some point, and that 70 percent of students would have gone to a Grievance Board had they been harassed; only 8 percent knew exactly how to proceed.)

What's particularly frustrating about Wolf's piece is that it is raising an important question irresponsibly. Sexual harassment continues to occur on campuses. On the day her article came out, Slatehad an editorial meeting, over the course of which it became apparent that the female editors took it for granted—in some cases because of personal experience—that campus sexual harassment was a live issue. The male editors, on the other hand, were shocked to hear that harassment continued to take place and go unreported. Is it possible that, unreported in a post-Clarence Thomas, post-Clinton, post-Tailhook era, universities are still not behaving responsibly toward women? Wolf's article confuses the issue rather than clarifies it. Her gaps and imprecision give fodder to skeptics who think sexual harassment charges are often just a form of hysteria.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.