Ah, the ISA never gets in the news in a good way. Last time, it was my blowing up an ISA proposal on blogging. This time, it is their reaction to a complaint about sexual harassment at a conference. I have been reluctant to comment because: a) I am in Korea doing fieldwork and spent most of my typing in poor ergonomic conditions on transcribing notes; b) this is very much a tempest in a teapot kind of thing, getting far more attention than other, more severe problems in the discipline; and c) as a white guy, I am probably not the best to judge whether this joke/complaint/reaction/counter-reaction is problematic or not.
Having said that, of course, I have thoughts, and as someone who has commented much on sexual harassment in the discipline, folks have asked what I think about this episode. So, here I semi-spew about this incident.
First, tone matters a great deal, so we don't know how snide or not Lebow's tone was. But making a joke to the guys at the expense of the women, which is how the story sounds, is not good and not appropriate.
Second, Lebow has a reputation in the discipline which makes it hard to judge things--he is seen as a difficult person, so I am not surprised that he is, in my view, overreacting. He should have taken his lumps: "I am sorry. I made a bad joke, and I offended you" and moved on. Instead, he pushed back and wanted to publicize it all. Congrats to him on blowing this up.
Third, hierarchy matters--Lebow is a big name in the field so with great power comes great responsibility. Contra to Roseanne Barr, punching up with jokes is more acceptable than
punching down. Indeed, that is one way to challenge the powerful. I remember quite clearly that I made a joke about a junior woman's appearance (her height) at a conference, the person called me on it, I felt abashed and ashamed, I apologized, and I don't think I repeated that behavior since. Would I have behaved differently had it gone directly to an ISA procedure? I don't know, but I probably would not have been looking for media outlets to air my side.
Fourth, I feel for the ISA folks, as they faced no good choices in this, and now they look like humor scolds.
Fifth, contra to this piece, yes, one can make jokes that involve sex at conferences but you do it with your friends and not complete strangers. Context matters and audiences matter. So, saying you can't joke at conferences and can't joke about sex is simply wrong. But the content and context of the joke matters. Sure, "ladies lingerie" does not have much content to it, but in a small box full of strangers, it is a bad context.
Sixth, I can't really judge Simona Sharoni as I don't know her and have not been in her shoes. But I have seen enough sexism in academia to understand that senior women are fed up with a lifetime of accumulated grievances and react when they see more of it. Would this be a hill I would die on? No, but again, white guy who has faced not much sexism or other identity-based difficulties over my career.
Most importantly, I worry that this incident will be used to trivialize complaints about sexism and sexual harassment. I saw this every year when I was at Texas Tech, as the yearly sexual harassment training session turned into a competition among the senior men in the department to undermine the presenter. As that department was thoroughly toxic at the time due to the sexual harassment by one of my colleagues, this trivialization of the issue was incredibly problematic. Sexual harassment is real, and sexism matters a great deal (see all of the work on citations, on leaky pipelines, and all the rest), so focusing on whether "women's lingerie" as a joke distracts us from the more serious issues facing women in political science and international relations. For some, this is an opportunity to do exactly that--distract us from the serious issues. For others, they see this as part of a larger pattern. And I stand with the latter, as I have seen the former do too much damage.