Feminist Voices Column

An open letter to Professor Burrin

For this week's Feminist Voice, the Feminist Collective decided to publish a letter that a disappointed student sent to Prof. Burrin his jokes, the sexualisation of learning environments and the male gaze.

by one voice of the Feminist Collective

TW: mentions of sexual abuse and sexual assault

A couple of weeks ago, Brooks reminded us that Philippe Burrin had eluded any accountability for what he said in his interview with Le Temps. The Feminist Collective received this letter anonymously. These are the words that the author could not address publicly to the outgoing Director of the Institute, as the Q&A was cancelled. Instead, they sent him a signed French version of the text, with their contact details in case he wanted to discuss the content.  Acknowledging that the letter does not reflect the personal experience of each and everyone in the Collective, we take responsibility for it and sign it in support and solidarity to the author and to share a testimony of the strong direct impact that the interview had on some member of our community. Reach out to us through the contact details below for any doubt or comment.

Dear Professor,

You were making a joke, or so you thought, and the word ‘affriolant’ was meant to convey your intentions to all potential readers. For the record, as a native French speaker, I do not agree that your word choice persuasively conveys this intention, but that is beside the point. 

My real concern is how you could not realise that your pleasantry would inevitably make some of  us, your employees, colleagues and students extremely uncomfortable, and especially those who identify as women – since you are, on the face of it, a heterosexual man, it is women who are, on the face of it, on the receiving end of your fantasies. 

As I am sure you are aware, in our common cultural imagination, pornography set in an university context most often involves a lecturer and their student. Therefore, your interview naturally evokes this very image in the mind of most readers. You are also most likely aware of the power of representations, from which it follows that the image summoned by your words necessarily re-iterates a social system shaped by the patriarchy. This joke, therefore, reinforces – for students and staff alike – the notion that it is normal, alluring, or even desirable, to invite sexuality in a learning context.

Of course, sexuality is (perhaps even invariably) a part of how people interact. Many people have met their partners – whether for a night or for life – in university classrooms, or their workplaces. However, your ‘pleasantry’ sexualises these environments. In a way, it reduces students, professors, and co-workers to the role of a frame onto which the male gaze can project its sexual fantasies, and in this case, its power fantasies. 

You most certainly have also been made aware of the unease that has been lingering in our hallways for a while now, mainly due to rumours about unwanted advances, abuses of power and so on. Whether these rumours are in fact verified, I cannot myself know. Although it is an important issue, it is not what I wish to discuss here. For me, the fact that rumours exist is enough to alert us that there exists an improper climate. 

You are surely aware that your students come from various cultures, some of which do not see sexuality in such a ‘permissive’ way as the old French intellectual guard does. This ‘permissivity has, by the way, long been problematised by the (French) feminist movement.

You cannot ignore that, in Switzerland, at least 22% of women over 16 years old have already being subjected to non-consensual sexual acts, and that 12% of us have being raped, according to Amnesty International and GFS Bern. In Switzerland therefore, one in five women has being sexually abused. This number is much higher in other parts of the world. Forbes, which is by all standards not a leftists/feminist propaganda machine, devoted several articles to the problem of sexual abuses in US universities, using statistics which show that one in five women was sexually abused during her studies. This of course does not include the many women who choose not to report the abuse, women who have not studied, those who have being abused during their childhood or in the context of marital rape, for instance. It also only includes women, which completely ignores the fact that sexual abuses also affect people who do not identify as women These statistics therefore completely underestimate the number of survivors. 

In this context, because of your position as the representative of the Institute, this joke supports and becomes symbolic of an institutional and societal culture which sexualises professional and learning relationships. 

How could you not realise that your words would create deep-seated unease amongst many of your co-workers, employees, and students? How could you not realise they would trigger memories of incredibly painful experiences? The fact that this joke crossed your lips,-  in the context of a public interview on the subject of your legacy at the Institute – and that you then agreed to have these words published, clearly demonstrates that you do not really care about our well-being, or at the very least preferred making (or so you thought) a certain Geneva milieu smile.

Perhaps you are not understanding – emotionally or intellectually – why I am so angry and dismayed . Perhaps it all seems like a technicality or the rambles of an angry bitter woman.

If this is the case, it is because you do not have to worry, every time you interact with a professor or a fellow student. You do not constantly have to ask yourself:

‘Am I being too nice, smiley, outgoing? How will my actions come across?’

‘Could this blouse be too revealing and is that why this person is looking at me so intensely?’

‘Did they mean this remark as a double-entendre? How should I react?’

‘If I sit next to them in class, will this be understood as an opening?’

‘How can I best avoid any situation where I will have to say no?’

And this is simply the tip of the iceberg. 

Can you imagine how much mental energy this takes, constantly? Can you image how much of a feeling of constant unease and sometimes insecurity this creates in me? Can you imagine how it holds me back? For instance, I always hesitate before going to a male professor’s office hours to ask for advice, because it means I will be alone with him in his office.

So imagine the anger of those who like me, have to constantly navigate between politeness, niceness, and the fear of being misunderstood, the fear of being undressed by an inappropriate look, the fear of becoming the receptacle of fantasies. I’d rather study in peace, thank you very much.

Your ‘joke’, Professor, shows very clearly that your students’ and co-workers’ well-being is not your highest priority. And here I was, naively entrusting you symbolically with my education, and thinking part of your role was to help create a productive learning environment in which I could flourish. 

Instead, you publicly reminded me that I was somehow, in your imagination and perhaps in the imagination of some of the professors and students at the Institute, reduced to the promise of sexual pleasure, with all the entitlement to my body this presupposes.

Your ‘joke’, Professor, is too close to reality to be funny. Your ‘joke’, Professor, makes me think that you don’t understand the power of words, nor your position of power.

I am only left hoping that the next director of the Graduate Institute will help make this Institution a part of the creation of a more inclusive world, where differences are respected and each of us can flourish.

Photo (featured in full below) by Max Maxini of a mural at l’Usine by Catherine Grangier, Nadia Seika, Amaëlle Mischler, Catalina Ravessoud, Yara Victoria et Sarah Nevenka. You can find the full photo here.

Feminist Voices is a fortnightly column curated for the Graduate Press by the Feminist Collective in collaboration with QISA. It aims to be an open and eclectic forum of discussion on issues concerning institutional and lived inequalities due to hierarchical power relations amongst people of different sex, gender and sexual orientation, regardless of whether they identify monolithically with their perceived categories. Why is it necessary? Well, give a look at our first article

If you want to write a piece, to be part of the Collective, to give us feedback or to just say hello, reach out to us on our Facebook page and groupInstagram, or by email.

1 comment on “An open letter to Professor Burrin

  1. Pingback: A Student Publication of One’s Own; Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow – The Graduate Press

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