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Fruitbat sex again

Recently the Irish high court ruled on the case of Dylan Evans. It gave a ruling which can be divided into three parts. The story can be read at http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=414495

1. Dylan Evans was guilty of ‘sexual harassment under the university’s “dignity of respect” and “right to dignity” policies.’

2. But the punishment imposed by the university was  “disproportionate” and should be lifted.

3. That the university is free to investigate Dylan Evans for “alleged breach of confidentiality” regarding the leaking of the case papers to the public domain.

Now before we get going I would like to say that I am not equipped to comment on point two as I have no idea what the correct penalty should be or how the university court came to their choice of penalty. I can also not comment on point three as the university must be left free to consider the matter without commentators remarking on every step of the process. But I do feel equipped to consider Dylan’s reaction to the case.

I read with interest on Dylan’s web site (http://www.dylan.org.uk/fruitbat_freedom.html) how he thought that he had been the unlucky victim of “extreme feminists”. He asserted that this group of “extreme feminists” viewed other women as weak fragile persons who can not make choices for themselves.

I thought about this, I know that occasional extremist such as Valerie Solanas (The woman who shot Andy Warhol). But it is unreasonable to define the entire movement or gender because of the views and acts of a small minority. To my mind Emmeline Pankhurst and the other suffragettes were early feminists, I have no problem with what the suffragettes wanted. What they wanted was equal political rights no matter which gender you were. From what I know about Emmeline Pankhurst she did not seem to be a person who regarded other women as being weak minded persons who are unable to makes choices for themselves.

I would like to consider the question of what is disgusting and offensive.

I hold the view that it is possible for papers in the scientific literature to be horrible, disgusting and offensive. I have read some things which in some people would inspire horror and disgust, for instance in some scholarly works I have seen serious (fatal) examples of radiological injury. I will not give you a link here as some of you might rather not have such disturbing images in their minds. Putting aside for a while papers which contain graphic pictures of serious injury I would also like to point out that some papers will contain ideas or text which is offensive to some people. For example a person who is ideologically opposed to the nuclear industry might find the idea of a new reprocessing method as offensive. This alone is not a justification for condemning the paper as offensive and as being worthy of being banned.

Material should never be regarded as offensive because the reader did not like it, instead a more fair test is required. We could consider the Miller test.

The Miller test is a test which is used in the USA to decide if pornography is legal or not. The Miller test (http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/printer_friendly.pl?page=us/413/15.html) has three points. To be obscene to the point of needing to be banned you need to ask three questions about a work.

A.  Does “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest ?

B. Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct ?

C.  Does the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value ?

After having read the paper about the sex lives of bats I would have to say that it would not be banned if we use the logic of the miller test as the answer to question C is not yes. The paper does have some scientific valve. However after reading the paper I hold the view that it is not suitable for universal reading. I would not dream of supplying a copy of this work to a child, a student or a coworker in the same way as I would not dream of quoting the Marquis de Sade’s books when I teach organic chemistry. After getting a quick no for question C, I gave up and stopped thinking about the other two.

I have to supervise PhD students, I have several people in my research group who are working on topics such as iodine chemistry and recycling polymers. When I was a student, I was once given a reference to look up by a member of staff (not my normal tutor or supervisor. I will refuse to name names so do not bother asking). I went to the library and I looked in the lancet and discovered that the paper was a reference to some sexual injuries. I then asked myself the question “what has this got to do with my studies ? Answer: Nothing, it was someone’s idea of a joke (Not funny).

The incident made me think, one  pedagogy prof calls this “using critical incidents” (http://gup.ub.gu.se/gup/record/index.xsql?pubid=103790), this is the idea of looking at an event in the past using a given method (http://www.apa.org/pubs/databases/psycinfo/cit-article.pdf). I thought long and hard about it, some years ago during the obscenity trial of a book ( Lady Chatterley’s Lover,  D. H. Lawrence) a remark was made by prosecutor (Mervyn Griffith-Jones) when he asked “if it were the kind of book ‘you would wish your wife or servants to read ?’ “. To be blunt with you I am not bothered what my PhD students read in their spare time as long as it does not adversely affect their work. But “What should I require my students to read ?” is an important question.

I would not go as far as to apply the all the ideas of the Hays code (http://productioncode.dhwritings.com/multipleframes_productioncode.php) to my work and their reading lists, but I will say that the Hay’s code has some good points such as……

Salacious, indecent, or obscene titles shall not be used. (Teaching events should never have rude names)

I do not have an easy or good answer to this question yet, but I would like to state that so far the concept of “need to know” does apply, the idea of “need to know” is based on an idea from the military sector.

Does my student need to read papers about sexual injury ? do they need to read how bats have sex with each other ? Do they need to read how to make MDMA ? I would say that somethings there are things which are interesting but might have clear potential to offend or be close to the dividing line between what should be allowed and what should be outlawed. Before I supply a copy to a student or encourage them to read it, I need to make sure that there is a good reason for the person to be reading this borderline matter.


4 Responses

  1. The woman actually never complained about the paper or the content of the paper. She complained about Dylan Evans’ behaviour and his comments to her – in her complaint (circulated by Evans) she said “He invited me to read and comment on the subject matter of the paper. I felt harassed at his behaviour which I consider inappropriate and offensive. I felt hurt and disgusted and therefore decided to make a complaint. With the excuse that I could not read the paper properly because I didn’t have my glasses with me, I asked him to leave the paper with me, he agreed and then left.”

    This “hurtful and humiliating” episode followed others involving inappropriate touching, petting and personal compliments.


    • I am well aware that showing the bat sex paper to the young lady was not the only thing which Dr Evans did. The other things he did were in my view perfectly reasonable reasons for the woman to file a complaint of sexual harassment. His unwanted discussion of sexual topics and the unwanted touching which was also the subject of the complaint are clear topics which I do not think are subjects which I have anything interesting to write about.

      I chose to consider the question of is the “fruit bat sex paper” obscene or not, and the other question of is it acceptable for a university teacher to supply such a document to another person. After having read the paper, I would say that it is not obscene (under the Miller test) but clearly does not get a U rating. I think that if I was to award a film classification to the fruit bat sex paper it would be an X with a further strong warning.

  2. The case involving Dylan Evans actually had nothing to do with the content of the paper, and everything to do with Dylan Evans behaviour when presenting and talking about the paper. There has been a lot of web spin claiming the colleague was disgusted by the paper, which was not her complaint.

    The Times Higher has quite a good story at http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=414495

    • While the paper might be “a formal publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal” (Dr Evans’s words as reported in the newspaper) I would say the showing it to another worker is not a reasonable thing to do. I hold the view that it would be equally unreasonable for me to show fellow dog walkers, random passerby and school children “gross-out photos” of serious injuries photocopied from an academic report by the UN (IAEA).

      The only time I think the display of such photos to the general public would be justified would be if a serious incident had occurred recently and a need existed for the general public to learn to recognise a rare type of injury. In this hypothetical situation the potential to disgust and horrify would be outweighed by the need to protect public health.

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