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Fruit Bat Sex Chat Prompts Sexual Harassment Spat

17 May 2010 2:31 pm
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Fellatio, fruit bats, and allegations of sexual harassment. These are the ingredients of a scandal boiling over in Ireland at the University College Cork (UCC). Last year, a formal complaint of sexual harassment was lodged against biologist Dylan Evans by an unnamed UCC colleague. A few months ago, after a committee investigated the matter, UCC sanctioned Evans, requiring him to undergo counseling, which he claims has damaged his chances for tenure. The crux of the case? A scientific paper about fruit bat sexual behavior, according to UCC documents leaked yesterday.

At least one thing is beyond doubt: Fruit bats of the species Cynopterus sphinx do perform fellatio. This unexpected observation emerged in a peer-reviewed study published last year in the journal PLoS ONE. Evans, whose research topics have included the evolution of emotions, robots, and decision making, was apparently so intrigued, he shared the paper with several UCC colleagues, including the one who leveled harassment charges. In a letter to the university, Evans claims that he did so not as a sexual advance but "simply because I was reading the paper when walking by her office and thought she might find it interesting."

The UCC investigating committee sympathized but still found Evans at fault, noting in an 11 February letter to the university's president, Michael Murphy:

The question for us is whether Dr. Evans' action can reasonably be regarded as sexually offensive, humiliating or intimidating to [name redacted]. We find that the action was a joke with sexual innuendo and it was reasonable for [name redacted] to be offended by being presented with it in her office alone. We therefore find that the complaint on this action is upheld though it was not Dr. Evan's intention cause [sic] offence.

In response, Murphy sanctioned Evans on 23 March, concluding that "behaviour of this type is utterly unacceptable." (Evans has provided copies of this and other documents related to the case on this Web site).

Evans claims that he is being unfairly attacked and that the facts of the case have been distorted. For example, he claims that there was another colleague present in the office when he shared the fruit bat paper. Evans told ScienceInsider by e-mail that he will not release the name of this witness because "it would be too easy to identify the complainant if I did, and I wish to protect the complainant's legitimate anonymity."

In an open letter on his Web site, Evans adds:

One of the investigators stated during our meeting that he found the scientific paper to be "smutty" (his exact word). This suggests that the investigator has no acquaintance with the scientific literature in this area.

Scientific bloggers have rushed to Evans's defense, and the Irish Federation of University Teachers has sent an open letter (pdf) to UCC calling on the sanctions to be reversed. Over 2000 people have signed a petition in his defense. In a press release posted today to the university's Web site, UCC decries the leaking of the confidential investigation's documents and states that "it would not be appropriate to comment further."

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