Another story of late ’90s sexual harassment in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic

A few days ago, the Al Jazeera Investigative Unit reported on the alleged sexual harassment perpetrated by Andy Orchard, who was a lecturer in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNaC) at Cambridge (1991-2000), then was at Toronto (2000-13), and is currently Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. I was an undergraduate in ASNaC 1997-2000 and remember sexist remarks from Andy and from accounts I heard as an undergraduate I have every reason to believe the allegations in the Al Jazeera podcast. (None of which, I should admit, stopped me asking for Andy to be the external examiner of my Ph.D. in 2004.)

Despite this report, I know there must be people reading about Andy’s behaviour and wondering ‘was — is — he really that bad?’ (because some people always do), or (perhaps a more niche query) thinking ‘well, that’s Andy, but otherwise everything was fine in ASNaC in the late ’90s, right?’

The most serious stories about Andy’s behaviour aren’t mine to tell. But I think I should add the story that I can tell, which is that I was sexually assaulted by my Old Norse lecturer Paul Bibire when I was an undergrad in ASNaC. I’m not here to share any graphic detail about the harassment and assault itself; it wasn’t violent, but it wasn’t consensual either; it certainly wasn’t right; I don’t think I was damaged by it in any profound way, but I don’t remember it at all fondly. My main point is that in my personal experience, ASNaC in the late 1990s was not alright in more respects than Andy.

If I were to tell it in detail, this would be a profoundly different story from the accounts of Andy (though, in irritatingly clichéd ways, it would still be a very Cambridge story). For a start, Paul hardly published anything, and he retired in 1999 (I think), so he doesn’t have anything like Andy’s scholarly profile or current institutional significance. I would be very surprised if I was the first student this had happened to, but it’s plausible that I was the last. It would be a story about a troubled and gentle (albeit, obviously, in respect of sexual harassment, wrongful) man who entered adulthood before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 began the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. It would involve veiled warnings issued by one or two students a year or two above me which were, however, framed in ways that were too homophobic for me to want to pay them any attention: back then, insinuating that someone was gay was viewed as more or less the same thing as insinuating that they might behave inappropriately, and just resisting that everyday homophobia was a job of its own.

One reason why I’ve never been public that I was assaulted is simple embarrassment on my part — even at the age of 42 I worry a bit about upsetting my parents (hi Mum!) and at the time I partly felt too embarrassed just at the fact that I’d fetched up in a situation where someone assaulted me; I knew I wasn’t to blame but still felt ashamed about it.

Another reason is that I’m sure some people would wish me to be telling this story in a more censorious tone than I am. I neither want to suggest that what I experienced was anything like as damaging as the sexual harassment many other people face, nor that we should expect other people who’ve had the same kind of experience as I did to come away from it as untroubled. I haven’t seen Paul for years, but despite me being upset and angry at the time, we have never not been on good terms; it was only when I did some training at work about dealing with sexual harassment cases that I came to understand that this kind of complexity is common. I also have friends and colleagues from various universities who first met when one was a member of academic staff and the other was a student who have beautiful, respectful, lasting, happy sexual relationships, and I have no wish to cast aspersions on people who have found ethically good paths through life’s myriad intricacies.

I loved studying ASNaC; I am hugely lucky to have built a successful career on the education I received there; and I certainly remember the ASNaC department much more warmly than my old college. But if anyone is wondering whether the culture regarding sexual relationships between staff and students in Andy Orchard’s department in the late 1990s was OK: it wasn’t.

(Thanks to the people I’ve talked this over with over the last few years as I’ve moved towards posting this — and obviously to the people who got the case of Andy Orchard into the press.)


About alarichall
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1 Response to Another story of late ’90s sexual harassment in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic

  1. Hrǣdiȝbrǣcc The Gruelmaker says:

    Younger brother was hoping to attend ANC in the very early 90s, First time I think I have been glad he didn’t make the cut. Thank you for your openness and , yes, bravery.

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