They say we should never meet our heroes, but I never really listened to what they say. My hero is a moral philosopher, who devotes his life to global justice. When I met him at a conference I didn’t think he’d remember me, so I was surprised when he sent me an email, prompting a regular exchange between us. He told me he’ll be coming to visit the city where I lived and invited me to his hotel. We talked for hours about philosophy and shared personal anecdotes. I remember worrying about the possibility that he must already have someone in his life, and my friends reassuring me that he wouldn’t be inviting me to his room if he did. He must be a good man, this moral philosopher. He has, after all, devoted his life to global justice. Towards the end of his visit, he gave me a rose, took me to a concert, and dinner. I took it as a sign, and, when we returned to his hotel, I declared I was staying. When I asked him if he had protection, he replied that he hasn’t had sex for many years, and that I shouldn’t worry about it.
The second time he visited City X, he opened the door to his hotel room naked and told me he’s been sleeping. I asked him if he always slept naked, and he said that, because he lives by himself, he always sleeps naked. When he got the date for his grant interview, he sent me an email telling me I’m the first to know, giving me the impression that I was important to him, that there was a vacancy in his partner department.
The third time he was visiting City X, we decided he would stay in my apartment. While we were lying on my couch, I expressed astonishment about being with him, my global justice hero, and told him about how I worried that someone as amazing as him would already have someone in his life. He admitted he’s been with the same woman for several decades, before I was even born. I was shocked by this revelation. How could he extol honesty, whilst omitting this crucially relevant information? I was in tears. He held me in his arms and told me that he’s fallen in love with me. He assured me that his relationship with his partner has now become a platonic sibling-type, that she would be happy for him that he can have “love and romance” in his life.
But why did I believe him? The simple answer is because I wanted to. But also, I believed him because I understand what it’s like to want to stay with someone after the romance has fizzled out. I am, in fact, in a similar situation. I am in a long distance, non-monogamous long-term partnership with someone, who will always be part of my life. My partner was the first person to know when I started dating my hero, because we think that part of having an open relationship is honesty. So I believed my hero when he said that, like me, he also has a mutually consensual, non-monogamous partnership with someone who would bless our relationship. In hindsight, I should’ve questioned why he didn’t tell me about his partner, especially since I told him about mine from the very, very start.
My hero started to make plans to move to the prestigious university in City Z, which is an hour away from City X, to “ease our commute,” as he put it. He’s been asking me to go to another country with him in September, booked me a ticket for (another country) next month, even asked to meet my parents. As time went by and after a week together in yet another foreign country, I inquired about why he still hasn’t told his partner or anyone about me. I was not prepared for his reply. He said that he has no intention of ever telling her, because “it would make her sad and serve no purpose.” I was perplexed. I thought he said she’d be happy for us? This was when I realized that he’s been lying to me.
As it turns out, what he calls an open relationship is essentially a case of him having affairs behind his partner’s back. His housewife actively desires his fidelity. I asked whether, given the fact of his three-decade partnership, what he is doing with me, what he did with my predecessors, is ethically justifiable. He replied that it “clearly” is, that his partner “has no problem with you/us so long as you’re not insisting that I leave her.” I railed at him and asked how his relationship is different from all the other patriarchal types, where older women tolerate their long-term partners’ affairs with much younger women, for fear of abandonment, for fear of being alone when time has robbed them off of their youthful beauty. I never received an answer, despite my persistent interrogation.
Instead, he accused me of tyranny and conservatism, of imposing a conception of how partnerships should be, for infringing on his precious liberal freedom. He said that his partner is free to leave him, but she chooses not to, and that I must respect her free, voluntary choice. I highlighted the inequality, pointed to adaptive preferences, and how the desire to be with him, her fidelity and desire for his fidelity, whilst he repeatedly has these affairs, undermines her own dignity. I said that like the ADULT African women who choose to undergo female genital mutilation because they couldn’t find husbands, like my aunts and grandmothers who had no choice but to bitterly endure watching their middle-aged husbands gallivanting around town with women half their age, his partner’s choice to stay with him is not as a result of free choice, given more favorable and dignified conditions. I am not blaming him for patriarchy, but I am citing him as an example.
I should’ve never met my hero, because when I did I found out that, just like his mentor (another famous philosopher), he vehemently refused to subject the private sphere to assessments of justice. I found out that it wasn’t true that he hasn’t had sex for many years, and that I was joining a list of his secret mistresses. The one before me was a 22-year-old virgin, his student in a summer school. Most of my predecessors were sexually inexperienced young women. I was an aberration from his type, he said, for I was not as inexperienced as he usually prefers them to be. He confessed to being unable to find to experienced women closer to his age attractive, to having a preference for innocent and inexperienced young women because older, experienced women remind him of his god-awful mother.
I should’ve never met my hero. Because I found out that his modus operandi is to befriend pretty young women in various cities, young women who admire his work, young female scholars who, like me, he meets at conferences. I falsely assumed that the man who calls affluent westerners human rights violators would treat women with dignity. I was naïve to believe that he’d be different.
I write this with much reluctance, because I support his political causes. But I also write because I know there’ll be others like me, who will fall in love with the man who devoted his life to justice, whilst unapologetically replicating gender injustice in his private life. I write because there is a PhD student in India, who wears a sexy negligee and stays in his hotel room whenever he visits. I write because there’s another PhD student in City Z, who, like me, fits his skinny Asian type, gives him a hug whenever they see each other, invites him to concerts and other non-professional activities. There are other young female scholars that he hosts in his apartment. This is how his affair with the virgin student started; she was invited to stay as a guest in his apartment.
He will never make a move on these young scholars; he’s way too smart and has too much to lose for that kind of behavior. He will not get involved with someone who is officially his student, but he will “befriend” pretty women who aren’t officially his students. If my experience is anything to go by, he will design the conditions under which the so-called friendship could evolve, by sending invitations for philosophical discussions in private spaces, declare his love prematurely, make far off future plans, and lie by omission about his status as a free and single man.
I write this knowing full well that he is probably the most powerful person in the academic area that I work in, and how this could mean sabotage for my future. I tell this story because, no matter how he dresses it up, the facts remain: He is an old man, occupying a powerful place in academia, who has a penchant for young, inexperienced women. I write because of his partner for three decades, the housewife who takes care of his taxes, laundry, and household, because I have unwittingly done her wrong.
Perhaps I shouldn’t worry too much about going public with this story. In the end, no one really cares about these things. This is all within the realm of the untouchable sacred, private sphere. It is I who assumed that his words and actions meant he was unattached, I who assumed that he will be as honest as I was to him, I who didn’t think about the existence of his housewife, I who didn’t think about the young Chinese virgin, the one he promised – along with others – that he would leave his housewife for but didn’t.
At the end of the day, I am but a mere graduate student; he is a big-shot Ivy League professor. At the end of the day, nothing will happen. At the end of the day, powerful men will reciprocate sexual and romantic gestures from pretty young women, so long as there are no legal repercussions. At the end of the day, this wrong that I speak of is the norm.
He will continue giving his lectures about justice around the world, pretending not to eat meat for moral reasons, inviting young women to his hotel room for philosophical discussions, and I’m just among the other young women scorned by the moral philosopher, who devotes his life to justice. There can be no moral condemnation. I brought this upon myself, and I deserve to live with the consequences of my free, voluntary action.
But there is a silver lining. I’ve learned a lot from this experience. As a PhD student about to enter the world of professional philosophy, I now know better what I’m getting into. My hero, who regularly uses and condemns sexist practices in his lectures, said that Person N is not a real feminist, because she wears miniskirts when she gives lectures. He sat around with other renowned philosophers from the prestigious university in City Z, grumbling about how a stupid woman does not deserve her new prestigious university post. Now I understand better what they mean when they say that academic philosophy is a white boys’ club. I am barely starting my career, but my eyes are already wide open.