Bat fellatio paper in sex harassment dustup

Remember that paper from PLOS One on the act of fellatio in fruit bats? Sure, you do. New Scientist offers the following mind-jog, just in case.

The story had a certain prurient interest, which was only heightened by an explicit video that went with it.

Now, we all got a good chuckle out of that research, but it's stopped being a laughing matter at University College Cork in Ireland, where the bat fellatio paper is at the center of a controversial sexual harassment case. Short story: A male academic showed the paper to a female colleague. He apparently thought he was sharing the information in a jokey manner, but she understood it in a way that was a lot more skeevy and insulting.

Which, frankly, given the subject matter, isn't terribly surprising. Nor is the fact that the University opted to uphold the complaint, while also ruling that the male professor hadn't meant to cause offense. (There also seems to be a lot of back-story that goes into why the female professor made a complaint to Human Resources, though the details of that back-story are disputed and murky enough that the University opted not to rule that as sexual harassment.) As part of the final ruling, the male professor was censured, and given a two-year period of intensive monitoring and counseling. He says that has prevented him from getting tenure.

This is a complicated story that, from my perspective, doesn't have a clear villain. It's a story about how human beings interpret each other's ambiguous actions through the lens of culture and context. What's frustrating to me, though, is how this is being interpreted elsewhere—which is, to say, as a story about a horrible whiner who couldn't handle a discussion about peer-reviewed research and decided to ruin a man's life. There's even a petition going around to remove the censure on the grounds that it will stifle all academic discussion between colleagues.

I don't think anyone deserved to lose tenure over this situation, but I'm equally skeptical of the idea that, because something is peer-reviewed research it could not possibly be presented, as part of a one-on-one conversation, in a way that could logically be interpreted as offensive or sexually harassing. We're talking about bat blowjobs, for pete's sake. They're funny. But I can see how they might not be so funny, or scientifically enlightening, under certain situations.

I'm also pretty skeptical of this ruling as a blow against free speech. Saying that, "in this situation, a guy talked about bat blowjobs in such a way that it was reasonable his female colleague felt uncomfortable" is not the same thing as saying, "Do not talk about bat blowjobs." Asking people to think about how their conversation might be interpreted by others is not the same as telling them to shut up.

I'd support changing the outcomes for the male professor. But I can't support the way this case is being presented, in order to get to that change.