A Professor Was Called a Pedophile Because of His Work. Academics Are Keeping Their Distance.

Thomas Hubbard has received no complaints of sexual misconduct. But his work on ancient pederasty and the age of sexual consent has made him the target of protests at UT Austin.

University of Texas at Austin, June12, 2018. Years of efforts to prevent sexual harassment of women in the fields of science, engineering and medicine have not succeeded, and a sweeping overhaul is needed in the way universities and institutions deal with the issue, a major new report by a national advisory panel concluded on Tuesday. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times)

The University of Texas at Austin campus on June12, 2018.

Photo: Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times via Redux

On December 9, 2019 at 3:30 a.m., a brick crashed through the window of the house of Thomas K. Hubbard, a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Probably the same night, someone spray-painted “Child Rapist” beside his door and a hammer and sickle on his driveway. More graffiti was spotted some miles from Hubbard’s home: “PEDO HUBBARD, WATCH YOUR BACK.”

The following evening, about a dozen masked members of a student group called Fire the Abusers amassed in the dark on Hubbard’s porch and lawn. They banged on the door and chanted, “Thomas Hubbard, come outside. Pedophile, you can’t hide!” After police escorted Hubbard away in a car, the protesters, mostly women, remained in the street, shouting through a bullhorn. Fire the Abusers posted a 50-minute video of the event on Twitter. Hubbard left town.

The actions against Hubbard came at the end of a season of protests demanding the termination of two tenured professors found in violation of university’s sexual misconduct policies in 2017 and 2018, temporarily suspended, and reinstated for the 2019-2020 term. Activists also pressed the administration to publish the names of all employees who’ve run afoul of these policies; the university complied in January. Of the 17 violators, 10 lost their jobs. Many of those fired were low-level employees: a dishwasher, a janitor. If class inequality was on the students’ minds, none asked the administration to rehire the dishwasher. Instead, the report seemed only to reinforce the suspicion that tenure confers a license to harass.

In fact, reactions voiced at a January student-organized event billed as an “open dialogue with UT leadership about sexual misconduct policies and practices” made clear that only one thing would satisfy the activists. The university president mentioned culture change. A woman replied: “How is the culture supposed to change if you continue to keep [these] faculty members on staff?” The provost voiced the belief that people can “learn and grow.” “NO” signs rose in the audience. In other words, axe them all.

Few names were named at the forum. Still, there’s a difference between Hubbard and the men in the report. Those men committed acts in violation of university policy and/or the law: from carrying on a prohibited consensual relationship with a graduate student to subjecting students or co-workers to unwanted touching, sexual comments, or stalking. By contrast, in 30 years of teaching, Hubbard has received no complaints of sexual misconduct. Nor has he ever committed a criminal offense. He is being targeted for speech. Hubbard, an eminent scholar, is best known for his work on pederasty — love and sex between adults and adolescent boys — in antiquity. Most of his work concerns the nerdy depths of classical studies. But not all.

One article, published in the journal Thymos and on the syllabus of at least one of his courses, has become a battering ram against him. In “Sexual Consent and the Adolescent Male, or What Can We Learn From the Greeks,” Hubbard portrays pederasty in unfailingly glowing terms and suggests that it be a model for thinking about current ages of consent. He believes that the U.S. should bring its laws more in line with teens’ actual sexual activity and with most other countries, where the age of sexual consent generally ranges from 14 to 16 (in Texas, it is 17). He proposes that boys be free to express their “natural and powerful sexual urges,” including with older partners. Yet — just as he neglects to place pederasty in the context of a slave-holding, woman-subjugating society — he dismisses feminist “preoccupation” with legal gender neutrality as “quaint” and says girls need to be “protected” until 17 or 18, because they are “easily pressured” and might get pregnant. Apparently, girls have no sexual urges and are too dumb to use contraception.

In 30 years of teaching, Hubbard has received no complaints of sexual misconduct. Nor has he ever committed a criminal offense. He is being targeted for speech.

Cued by campus protesters, the Dallas Morning News editorialized that taxpayers should not have to subsidize such trash, putting Hubbard’s “research” and “scholarship” in scare quotes. The next day, in a letter to the editor, UT Austin President Greg Fenves agreed that Hubbard’s ideas are “outrageous.” A campus leaflet listed “trying lower the age of consent” first among the professor’s crimes. And he wins no friends among some feminists by loudly criticizing UT’s Title IX sexual assault policies and the research they’re based on.

Hubbard released a Q&A to try to answer his critics. In it, and in conversation with me, he decried the inadequacy of Twitter, Wikipedia, and the local press to get the facts straight or discuss complex issues. None of these is “peer-reviewed scholarship,” he told me, indignantly. His insistence on rational discourse refereed by readers with advanced degrees sounded almost nostalgic.

But whoever is judging it, a bad article is not a fireable offense. And in fact, reasonable people (including me) agree that our high ages of consent, while intended to shield children from adult predation, actually punish normative teen sex (according to Impact Justice, more than 100,000 people on sex offender registries broke the law as minors).

Yet unlike other academics censured for their views, Hubbard is out in the cold. Almost no one would speak on the record for this article, for or against him. A student who admires him had “no clout, no standing” and feared attracting the wrong kind of attention. One classicist said they respect Hubbard’s scholarship and endorse his right to free speech but find his views so distasteful that they would have to qualify that support and don’t know if that would help or hurt him. Seemingly obvious allies, like UT Austin’s LGBTQ studies advisory council and the Society for Classical Studies’ queer-supportive Lambda Classical Caucus, turned away.

The reaction against Hubbard is extreme because the terror of “pedophilia” — a term that has come to include desire for anyone under the legal age of consent — is extreme. We naturalize our revulsion against such desire. But, as Hubbard’s work shows, sexual mores are shaped by history and culture. For instance, the same 1885 law that raised Britain’s age of consent only for girls from 13 to 16 also criminalized “gross indecencies,” or homosexual acts between adult men.

Educational institutions reflect these changing moralities. “Non-normative sexual or gender practices or studies have long been targeted by universities,” not to mention criminal law, said Karma Chávez, chair of the Department of Mexican American and Latino Studies at UT Austin and a member of its LGBTQ studies advisory council. “There is the assumption, expressed in right-wing evangelical fears around [gay] ‘recruitment,’ that the very speech act by a queer person is in itself harmful.”

Is political action a display of personal wounds or a mobilization of collective power?

David Halperin, a University of Michigan professor of history and theory of sexuality and a founder of the Lambda Classical Caucus, reminded his LCC colleagues that such assumptions are not far in the past. In a letter to the caucus urging it to publicly support Hubbard’s academic freedom, Halperin recalled the 1980s and ’90s, when he was charged with harming undergraduates and “recruit[ing] teenage students … into a high-risk lifestyle of homosexual behavior,” simply by teaching queer studies. Because Hubbard’s work has been endorsed by the North American Man-Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA, a November press release from UT’s Students for Safety charged that he “has used his position to further a community of individuals hoping to prey on underage boys.”

On the LCC listserv, suggestions to support Hubbard were met with his denunciation; a flame war ensued. The caucus chairs ruled that since opinions differed, there would be no public statement and no further discussion. Victory went to the default position: exile the pervert. UT’s LGBTQ studies council also rejected Chávez’s proposal to issue a letter questioning the idea of speech as harm and stating that Hubbard is “not harmful and that all of us are implicated potentially in the same kinds of critiques.” The council was checked by “homosexual panic that we’d be targeted,” said Chávez, noting the irony.

The historical resonance of this enforced silence did not escape Halperin and others of his generation. “I’m old enough to remember when [gayness] was an ‘unspeakable desire,’’” said UCLA classics professor Amy Richlin, using the Victorian euphemism for male homosexuality. Today “pedophilia is the ultimate unspeakable desire.” Social obloquy and criminal penalty make this desire perilous to fulfill — as it should be. Yet even to speak of it with compassion or curiosity — anything but disgust — is read as advocacy. Hubbard denies any sexual interest in minors; he opposes unlawful activity. It is enough that he is a gay man asking people to reconsider what is now considered the most outré — indeed, evil — sexual practice.

The charge of pedophilia clings like the ancient Greek miasma, a moral contagion so potent that it can be eradicated only through the sacrificial death of the guilty person. Hubbard’s banishment-by-association alone, Richlin suggested, is reason to extend him a hand of solidarity.

Universities that discipline faculty for unpopular ideas “oftentimes invoke [student] safety concerns as justification,” said Will Creeley, a senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. This allows them to defend academic freedom at the same time as they — regrettably, we are usually told — violate it. In an email to the Dallas Morning News, UT threaded this needle. “The university condemns ideas or world views that exploit or harm individuals,” it said. “However, the study of controversial and even offensive ideas is protected by academic freedom and the First Amendment — as is the right of others to strongly disagree with and draw attention to those ideas.” In other words, professors can study and “others” can express. What may Hubbard express? And, more important, how might his opinions “exploit or harm” anyone?

Students who object to Hubbard’s views can decide not to take his classes. Yet the assumption is that he poses a huge, if undefined, danger — and that campus life is infinitely unsafe. This anxiety is embedded in a genre of feminism that claims vulnerability both as identity and injury, virtue and grievance. To get a response from the administration, “a lot of student trauma had to be commodified for your consumption,” said one woman at the forum. “I want to know why it took so much out of us for you to finally protect us so we can arm ourselves with information,” said a student at the forum. Is political action a display of personal wounds or a mobilization of collective power?

UT Austin’s protesters have had some wins. The administration released the list of sex policy violators. It instituted a student-faculty Misconduct Working Group to review its policies and procedures and indicated that most are on the table. A new state law, SB 212, criminalizes the failure by a UT faculty or staff member to report all known or suspected sexual misconduct to the Title IX office, even if disclosed confidentially.

Some of those “wins” were grisly. In 2018, pharmacology professor Richard Morrisett came under fire after the Austin American-Statesman reported that he had pleaded guilty to domestic abuse of his girlfriend two years earlier. Dogged by demonstrations and escalating threats of violence from the Revolutionary Student Front, Morrisett killed himself. Commented RSF: “The world is better off, if only marginally, for having one less abusive, dangerous man breathing in it.” If only marginally. Is safety unattainable?

Chávez told me that she’s talking with students about more restorative responses to sexual harm. But SB 212 limits what she can do. “If you are discovered to not have disclosed,” she said, “you face summary termination.”

Meanwhile, Thomas Hubbard is on leave, in an undisclosed location.

Correction: February 16, 2020, 1:40 p.m.
A previous version of this article stated that the age of consent in Texas is 18. It is 17.

Join The Conversation