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The feminist reaction to sexual harassment has ended with this jaw-dropping statement from the American Astronomical Society’s executive officer. Effectively, he’s telling astronomers not to date each other. I’m not exaggerating much. He’s specifically and explicitly saying that the risk of sexual harassment is so great that you are not allowed to date anybody you meet at a conference, even if you scrupulously behave yourself:
Second, do not treat any AAS meeting or other event as a venue for finding a romantic partner. Yes, there are people at our events, and yes, people do make romantic connections, and yes, there may even be opportunities to make such connections at our events, but please, everyone, just shelve these inclinations for our conferences. Too much damage is being done. Just one negative interaction in the poster hall, at a session, in the bar during the meeting, or at a restaurant or offsite event may be all it takes to dissuade a bright young scientist from participating in our field. This is unacceptable, and it needs to stop.
Some of our members and other meeting attendees are likely going to be upset at this message, claiming that they act responsibly and with consent — why should they curtail their social activities at meetings just because a few bad actors are ruining things? I get that. I understand that. I enjoy the social aspects of being human, being at a conference in an interesting place, and being engaged in such an exciting field of research with people I find interesting and might even want to dance with, drink with, dine with, or whatever. But I am distraught over the damage that has been done and could be done in the future. Frankly, it is not worth the social happiness of a majority if just one of our attendees is made to feel uncomfortable, under pressure, or damaged enough to leave our profession or to attend future conferences in a fearful state.
So let’s recap: Out of the roughly 7,000 members of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), and out of the 2,000-3,000 who attend our major meetings, he cites six cases of “sexual harassment.” (I only put the quotes because the details aren’t public, and the term has gotten awfully broad—much broader than most of us would accept. See the “If it’s unwanted, it’s harassment” sign on the page.) That 0.09% harassment rate (or 0.2%, if you only count meeting attendees) is so unbelievably high that we’re going to go nuclear and forbid dating between astronomers at the meeting. Or who met at the meeting. Or forbid meeting at the meeting before dating, or something.
Considering the radicals’ claims (admittedly debunked) that one-fifth or so of all college women will be sexually assaulted during college, one marvels at the remarkably low rates of professional sexual harassment under even the vague terms of the AAS. A comparable response would be to forbid dating between well behaved, consenting college students, because it’s just not worth the risk!
Dr. Marvel (great name for a superhero, but he’s got the crazy scheme of a comic book villain) has no real way to enforce this besides stigmatizing dating between astronomers. He’d be sure to say that he only means it to apply at meetings (our AAS president actually suggested we go pick up women in bars instead!), but is he suggesting that it would be better to date an astronomer you work with? Like that’s playing it safe with harassment issues? I’m not against it, but there’s long been a broad wariness of dating people at work.
The fact is that meetings are where we astronomers meet. We’re a relatively small profession—just a few thousand in the United States, and we’re often in small groups scattered across the country. I met both my wife and my previous two girlfriends at astronomy meetings. In each case, we lived hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. The growing panic at the AAS doesn’t merely seek to constrain human nature in productive ways. By pretending that even well-behaved interactions between men and women are too fraught with danger to permit, it is a very denial of that nature, and this can’t end well.Published in