I had a conversation with my advisor from grad school today and was once again left confused about how how sexual assault and harassment could be so pervasive and yet virtually non-existent for anyone outside the circle of active players. I recounted an event from grad school that left him feeling upset and apologetic (even though he did nothing wrong himself).
The funny thing about the #MeToo campaign is that a lot of men were curious about what event the hashtag referenced for each person. I’m here to tell you that I, and probably a lot of others, can’t narrow it down to one, or even a handful of events. Just a few weeks ago I was grocery shopping and a man in his 60s followed me through the aisles calling me ‘fine’ and making disgusting comments. I had to drop what I was doing and leave because telling him to stop repeatedly did nothing. But in this post I’m not talking about instances like that or all the times random men yell at me to smile or call me ugly after I refuse their advances.
The story I recalled today was sexual assault in its purest form. I was a Masters student at a conference. I was at dinner with several students, one of whom was a PhD student and several years older than me. Throughout the night he repeatedly asked me to go to his hotel room and flat out asked me to have sex with him multiple times. Each time I gave him a concrete no. Finally I had had enough and stood up to leave the group (which was now gathered in the hotel lobby). As I stood up he grabbed my chest and then my arm trying to pull me back to him. I spun around, slapped him, and ran away.
I would love to sit here and tell you this was out of the ordinary for scientific conferences but that would be a lie. I have had my knee rubbed by “professionals” under the dinner table (as a graduate student). I have been the recipient of many inappropriate touches to my back, thigh, and shoulders.
Knowing what I know now, I wish I would have reported the student who assaulted me. At the time I told myself it was an isolated incident. I learned several years later that I was, of course, not the only one to receive this treatment. However, he still got his PhD. He still got a permanent job. I still see him at conferences and I still want to slap him all over again. But what would have happened if I had reported him? Others, faculty even, witnessed him act like a disgusting buffoon and did nothing. Most likely, I would have made a name for myself as a trouble maker and been black listed by the good ol’ boys club.
So mentors and advisors out there, please understand that your students deal with this, too. It was never an option for me to report because, honestly, it wasn’t anything I didn’t expect, and I knew I would be the one to pay the price for his behaviors. I have to hope that things are different now and that those reports would be taken seriously. However, you have to be the one to do the asking. I had all the support in the world from my advisor and still did not tell him until today. The fact is that you can’t protect your students from everything but you can be the pillar of support to ensure they don’t feel isolated and alone.