Confronting Sexual Harassment Ten Years Later: Speaking Out, Empowerment, and Refusing to Accept Defeat By Gina Messina-Dysert

Much of my research and activism thus far has centered on rape culture*, sexual violence, and spiritual wounding.  This being said, I have given little consideration, and have shared even less, of my own experience of sexual harassment perpetrated by a professor at the end of my undergraduate career.  Although I had called myself an advocate for women who had been victimized by various forms of violence, sexual included, I was unable to advocate for myself when confronted with my experience.  What’s more, although I have called for a speaking out of one’s experience of sexual violence in order to challenge the rape culture and begin the healing process, I have not been able to do this myself.

My professor sexually harassed me during my final semester of college in the very last course I needed to graduate.  The first time he approached me he asked me to stay after class.  Initially I was nervous thinking I had done something wrong; however I was surprised when he began to ask me personal questions.  I was engaged at the time and Dr. X commented how lucky my now husband was.  He then reached out, hugged me, and stroked my hair.   I didn’t move, I was scared and wondered what was happening. After a few moments, I forced myself out of his arms and with my head down, unable to look him in the eye, I said I had to leave and darted out the door. My initial reaction was to downplay his inappropriate behavior and I convinced myself that I must have misinterpreted the situation. 

My next encounter was more disturbing and obvious.  Again, I was asked to stay after class. I felt sick to my stomach and did not know how to navigate the situation.  The power dynamics were very clear and I was fearful that any confrontation on my part would affect not only my grade, but my ability to graduate.  Thus, I stood silent with my head down.  Dr. X offered no small talk; he reached out, attempted to grope and kiss me and backed me into a corner where I hit my head on the door trying to dodge his perverted efforts.  The end result – Dr. X kissed the top of my head as I wiggled downward out of his arms in tears and pushed my way out the door.  Although the word “no” never left my mouth, I wonder how my body language, crying, and clear attempt to escape didn’t clearly communicate that I was not willing to be handled by him.

Although I initially thought I was the only one falling victim to his behavior, I came to find out that Dr. X was harassing other women in the class as well.  For some reason I was unable to give myself permission to accept that what my professor was doing was wrong.  However, hearing the experiences of other women allowed me to acknowledge that I did not have to tolerate the harassment any further.  I made a pact with the other women to never leave the class until we all left together.  Although we did not directly confront the harassment, we made a statement through our support of each other.  Once the class ended, I never spoke of my experience again.  I felt embarrassed and ashamed; for some reason I had always felt that I had done something wrong.  For ten years I carried that shame and felt that my spirit was wounded.

Earlier this year, I was forced to sit through a standard training on sexual harassment for the university I now teach at.  Although I attended it begrudgingly, it was during the training that I came to terms with the harassment I had endured years earlier.  Holding a similar position to my former professor, I realized that he knew what he was doing to me and other women in his classes and recognized it was necessary for me to speak out, even if it had been a decade.

Through my research I have adamantly made the claim that healing begins with speaking out.  Following the training, I felt it was time for me to practice what I preach.  Thus, I spoke out and shared with friends and family explaining that I was going to empower myself by reporting the harassment, even though I knew it had been far too long for there to be any consequences for Dr. X.  To my surprise, speaking out did not begin the healing process.  Instead, those family members and friends questioned my experience and thought my plan to report was ridiculous at best.

When I did reach out to the HR department at the university, I explained that I fully realized that there would be no consequences for the professor but that I wanted to empower myself to acknowledge what had happened and to have the experience documented at the very least to demonstrate a pattern if there had been other instances reported.  Again, to my surprise, the HR representative demeaned my experience.  Not only was she unsympathetic, but stated that I was wasting her time.  When I told her that I was planning to confront the professor myself with a written letter, she asked “Why?” and stated “It’s not like he is going to show anyone.”  The power of speaking out was lost on her.

I did send a letter to Dr. X and it went unanswered – no surprise, I guess.  The entire experience left me feeling that speaking out served to disempower rather than empower.  There was no positive outcome.  I felt no support from those I assumed would give it, and at times I felt more shame and embarrassment than I had initially carried.  This being said, after serious thought and consideration, I realized that no other outcome would make sense in a rape culture.  How could I possibly expect a different outcome within a culture that functions to perpetuate such abuse against women?  I decided that I had two options: I could accept defeat or I could continue to speak out – and thus, here I am speaking out.

*Rape culture is a culture where violence against women and victim blaming is the norm –  it is alive and well in our society.  For additional information on rape culture see Buchwald, Emilie, Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth. ed. Transforming a Rape Culture. Minneapolis: Milkweed, 1993.

Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D.: Feminist theologian, ethicist, and activist, Gina received her Ph.D. in religion at Claremont Graduate University focused in the areas of women’s studies in religionand theology, ethics, and culture.  She is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Loyola Marymount University and Co-founder and Co-director of Feminism and Religion. Gina has authored multiple articles, the forthcoming book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence, and is a contributor to the Rock and Theology project sponsored by the Liturgical Press. Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence.  Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed athttp://ginamessinadysert.com.


Categories: Activism, Power relations, Rape Culture, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women

Tags: , , , ,

35 replies

  1. Wow, Gina. I’m so sorry that you experienced that. You definitely experienced what you have described as double victimization – once from the series of harassment, and next from the surrounding culture (including your own family members) who were non-supportive to say the least. I am proud of you for taking your own healing in your hands. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Grace, thank you so much for your comments here. In all honesty, I woke up this morning sick to my stomach wanting to take the post down. I’ve been uneasy about it all morning. As you state, it is the culture promotes such feelings. I felt that given my research it was necessary for me to put this out there. How can I ask other women to do this if I am unwilling? Thanks very much for your support, it really helps to ease my nerves.

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      • Gina – as you know, any kind of “exposure” leads one to feel all kinds of vulnerable and so I can appreciate how you probably went back and forth (take it down? leave i tup?) But I am so glad that you’ve decided to keep the post as it is. In fact, your post prompted me this morning to reflect on my own experiences in this area (nothing that would fit the legal definition of sexual harassment, but definitely things where the male authority figure crossed the line; I can blog about that later). I didn’t want to put that here in my comments because I want your experience to be your experience. So see? Conversation breeds conversation!

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      • Thanks so much for your encouragement, Grace. I am very much looking forward to reading your post and continuing the dialogue on this issue!

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      • Gina don’t you feel that way, all people need to hear your words men and other women, you are not alone. Why people can’t be supportive of something like this when it happens I’ll never understand it. You had every right to confront this person. He was your teacher and he betrayed you…. you should let everyone know who he is, so other women can know what to look out for, or who to look out for. I once dealt with a date rape situation and never said anything until now, but it angered me so, because I knew this person for four years. Maybe anger in some people’s mind isn’t the most appropriate emotion, but it made me feel dam good to confront this person many times about what he did. Frankly I believe it haunted him, I hope it did, that he might just think twice about doing it again.

        If I would have told anyone I have no doubt I wouldn’t have gotten anymore support than you did. Your a very brave woman, don’t let anyone ever tell you different or that your wrong about your feelings.

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  2. I really appreciate you sharing your story, Gina. Thank you for that. I’m glad you left the post up. That’s horrible – like you said at the end, I both can’t and can believe how little support you’ve received. What a sad commentary on a society that should feel the shame you’ve taken on yourself.

    I’m curious – given where you are now and what you’ve experienced, what do you want to have happen? How would you feel most supported, either by friends, family, colleagues, or anyone else?

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    • Kevin,

      Thank you so much for your support and your acknowledgment of this devastating culture we live in. Your questions are so important – and how interesting when reading this, I was not sure how to respond. I am still thinking about this – but I know what was very important for me in revealing my situation was to do what I have asked so many other women to do who have experienced various forms of sexual violence. My feelings of humiliation stemmed not just from the harassment, but from feeling like a phony. I call myself a feminist and ask women to speak out about their experiences and yet I have not had the courage to do it myself. This, I think may be why I felt shame the most – that I did not confront my professor and did not acknowledge my experience.

      As for feeling supported, well that has certainly happened here. The responses from you and the other women and men on this post have been overwhelming. My hope is that more than anything, that everyone will work toward acknowledging the culture and interrupting thoughts that clearly support it. This is the only way to make change, right? So, feeling supported is important, but working towards change is really the focus. As Sharon Welch points out (in Feminist Ethic of Risk), change may not happen in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work toward it.

      Thank you, Kevin. I truly appreciate everything you said here. :)

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  3. Gina,
    I know we have talked about this before I am so happy that you sent him your letter. Your piece clearly shows that sexual harrassment, sexism, and many other “isms” are still alive and well in our culture today and the fight to combat and end them are FAR from over.

    Thank you for your bravery, strength and your continual willingness to share personal stories so that other people can come out and do the same.

    You inspire me daily!

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    • Thanks so much, John! We should definitely talk about this more. I certainly felt supported by you when we talked about this in the past. I know initially you thought that perhaps sending the letter was not a good idea, but I was determined to do the work. Not to put you on the spot – but, why did you think the letter was a bad idea? Can we dialogue about this here?

      You inspire me as well, John. I continuously learn from you and I am thrilled to call you friend. :)

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      • I thought it was a bad idea? Oh boy, was I wrong or maybe I misspoke! I am so sorry. Maybe I thought it was a bad idea based off our conversation and I didn’t want you to look for a letter from him to validate it? I cannot remember but I know it was over one of our dinners.

        Let me now say that I think it was a GREAT idea that you sent the letter. The fact that he saw, after all this time, that his actions still HURT people and I am sure that you were not his “only one.” The sad reality that we live in is that men like him openly abuse women and then only get a slap on the wrist when women are held to all these social, institutional, and personal standards.

        If all the women in the world send their attackers or the individuals that had personally hurt them like this professor did to you just think about what that would mean! You made the right decision Gina and I am SO happy you did not take down the post. Your strength inspires more people than you know.

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      • Wow, my brain is really not working today! Please accept my apologies. In the first sentence of the third paragraph I meant to say:

        “If all the women in the world sent their attackers or the individuals that have personally hurt them, like this professor did to you, letters, just think about what that would mean and look like in the world!”

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  4. Gina, thank you for speaking out. Thank you. Your story, of both the original harassment and the second wave of harassment and trauma that comes from people’s belittling of your experience, truly does reflect the rape culture in which we live. People’s lack of appropriate response (empathy, outrage, validation, support…) is part of the denial and refusal to *see* that effectively functions to maintain and perpetuate such a culture.

    I am proud of you for continuing to speak out and doing so against such opposition. I know you do it for both yourself and for so many other women who have had such experiences. It takes a lot of strength and courage to continue to speak out when the forces work to silence you. But I am so grateful that you so – and please know that you do not stand alone. I commit with you to always speak up and speak out!

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    • Xochitl, you truly are an amazing woman and I feel so fortunate to know you. I’ve learned so much from you in the time we’ve known each other and your encouragement means the world. Thank you for standing with me and for all the amazing things you do! :)

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  5. Every college campus needs the harassment police… a group of say 25 women students who can march right on down to that jerk’s office and confront him publically.

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  6. Thank you, Gina, for sharing your story. The professor’s behavior was beyond appalling, as was the university’s response. So many times, people question the veracity of a woman who chooses to speak up about rape/sexual harassment many years after the fact (if it was true, why didn’t she report it earlier?). But speaking up about such things in our rape culture is not easy, and I applaud any woman who finds the courage to do so, no matter how long after the fact it was.

    If that professor is still teaching at the university, then I condemn the HR representative for not taking the charge more seriously; after all, if this man harassed even a single woman–and, in this case, multiple women!–he may still be doing so today.

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    • Raishel, thank you so much for supporting me and sharing your thoughts here. Yes, the professor is still employed, promoted to full professor sometime in the last few years and apparently with a clean record. I have no doubt he has continued his behavior – he was so bold and was harassing so many of the female students at that time, I would think that his behavior wouldn’t have changed, particularly if there has been no consequence.

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  7. So what do we intend to do differently, knowing the behavior of men as well as we do?

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    • Turtle Woman,

      Thanks so much for your support. I think we, as a society have so much that needs to change. Addressing the rape culture, acknowledging its existence and the damage it does daily is so crucial. But I also think it must be acknowledged that not every man behaves this was and in fact some women also utilize power positions to harass. So I think the question is, how can we each work towards acknowledging this culture and changing it.

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  8. When I was in high school, an annoying boy that sat behind me in class used to snap my bra straps, they could be seen through my uniform shirt so I suppose he thought he had quite the opportunity. For a while I tried to ignore it, believing I could get him to stop that way. After a bit, it dawned on me that this was not going to stop unless I told the teacher, I did and his seat was moved. I felt violated, shocked, and angry and I vowed never to let this kind of thing ever happen again.

    Later on in my high school career, in a computer class, an upper classman who had always been slyly snide toward me, decided he would once again playact like he was asking me on a date and brushed his pinky finger across the back of my head. I got angry, I got loud, and declared in no uncertain terms: DON’T TOUCH ME! He backed off right quick and I was proud of myself. That was the most empowering moment I had in high school.

    I’m sorry to hear about your experience. It sounds horrific but it was nothing *you* should be ashamed of. The predator does not determine the moral value of the victim.

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    • Maat,
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience here. I would imagine there are so many women who have had experiences like this growing up. I certainly had similar encounters in grade and high school. Boys are raised to think they will grow to be men if they are able to dominate women and so this behavior begins so early.

      I am so glad you shared. Your courage is inspiring!

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  9. I remember at SJSU a professor was finally fired after 5 women discovered he had “jumped” on all of them during his office hours. However, even the female dean at the time said that yes, he should have be censored for outrageous behavior, but no, there was no need for a policy against professors dating students. I think there should.

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    • Carol, I couldn’t agree with you more. Yes, college aged women are generally adults, but the power structures at play between a professor and student are massive and although they may change over time they will always exist. Any professor should know this – and claiming not to, I think, is a lie. Shame on the dean for not recognizing this.

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  10. Thank you so much for your post. I am very glad you didn’t take it down! I am inspired and empowered.

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  11. Gina, I want you to take a look at the statistics for rape and sexual harassment in the work place. Several mainstream studies report that 31% or more of the harassment cases are done by men. That men rape 99% of the time, and that female harassment of women is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. THIS is a gender problem, and it is a male problem, and every damn study out there reveals this.

    So the thing is, if we don’t say loud and clear that this is a male problem, and that men must stop this, and that men must speak up against this, we won’t change things. It means that every time you are a blond beautiful type of woman, you need to pay attention to who is doing what to whom.

    Now I know it is hard for non-radical feminists to deal with this. It’s scary to name the agent, to name the criminals. Women by nature want to be fair and balanced :-) but we need to look at the facts. If we don’t name the agent as MEN going …. if we don’t say loud and clear that this is what millions of men and boys do every day to women…
    If we don’t put our collective feet down, and pay attention to all those mainstream studies that report this again and again and again, it won’t change.

    So I’m asking you all, why do you keep saying this? It is by a huge and statisically significant sample very very very rare for women to do this to men or other women. An attorney who talked to the women who accused Herman Cain of harassment in 1999 said in 40 years of legal practice in this area of law, 100% of the male clients denied ever harassing women. 100% denial every time.

    What will it take for women collectively say LOUDLY and without fudging that this is a male crime, that it is a male problem, and that males have to get good and angry and put a stop to other males who are doing this sort of thing. That is what needs to happen, and as women we need to stop avoiding the issue, stop covering for the boys. We just need to stop covering and fudging and being… well door mats and enablers. Sory to be so blunt, but I’m not an academic, and I don’t cover for the oppressors EVER!

    So what will it take for you to NAME the agent. NO NO NO this is not a human crime or a female problem, this is a male problem, it about patriarchy, it is about male supremacy.
    You’ll see women opt out or refuse to support other women… like the HR person did to Gina. But that is not the same thing as being the perpetrator.

    I know from extensive personal experience that women will go to co-gender events, and sexual harassment or “unwanted” attention by men will be going on. I am a personal witness to this often in the business world. There are many times when I speak up loudly and clearly about this, that I go to management or I challenge the men IN PUBLIC to stop it.
    And you know what happens? Straight women defend the men, they go along with the guys, because they are too damn afraid to DO SOMETHING. My public and very aggressive defense of straight women is dangerous for me as a very out very gender nonconforming lesbian. Now I want straight women on this blog to at least hear this, and stop saying this is a human problem. The straight (I think) HR woman who didn’t stick up for Gina does the woman thing. By not naming the agents, you are doing this as I am speaking up, and I want you to stop it. I want you to demand your freedom, and I want men to stop other men from doing this.

    It is up to males to stop other males. Women don’t run the patriarchy, but males do run it.

    What will it take women?

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  12. Anyone notice that in discussions of the Herman Cain sexual harrassment scandal, almost no one wanted to talk about the fact that sexual harassment is widespread and that no woman should have to experience it. Nor did anyone that I heard say that it is outrageous that many Americans, female and male, do not seem to care whether men in power harass or not.

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  13. Gina – have you seen this? http://www.aauw.org/learn/research/crossingtheline.cfm (New data from the AAUW about sexual harassment in schools in grades 7-12).

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    • Carol: Re: Cain. Yes, the specter of Clarence Thomas again (as Cain’s people have pointed out). This is difficult because several things are true: (1) black men historically have been portrayed as more sexually aggressive than others (leading to hysteria and lynchings, etc.) (2) white people are (rightfully) conscious of #1 and thus just don’t know what to do about allegations of harassment/molestation/rape, etc. of black men because they fear they will be called racist.

      Re: the lack of public sentiment; this, too, is tricky. As you recall, it was so painful for the public to have learned that the Duke Lacrosse players case had all of that prosecutorial misconduct and then the Dominique Strauss Kahn case fell apart. I think that the public is somewhat gun shy – they don’t want to believe anything until these is conclusive proof (which, short of something being filmed and not doctored with after the fact) is next to impossible.

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      • Grace and Gina,
        This mess with Herman Cain is getting to the point where he and his campaign staff are mocking the women as well as who they choose for legal representation. This news article just recently came out:

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/07/herman-cain-gloria-allred-sharon-bialek-twitter_n_1080208.html

        His campaign is tweeting horrible remarks about the woman one of the accusers is using for legal representation. The whole situation makes me sick as well as bringing back too many similarities to the Anita Hill vs. Justice Thomas Case as Grace and Carol have pointed out.

        But what happened with that case (and most likely will with this one)? The men get a slap on the wrist and (in some cases) rose to the highest levels of political and judicial authority. (Sorry for my lack of optimism here, I have just seen this happen FAR too many times to still be optimistic ALL the time)

        For Anita Hill, as well as these women, the issues never go away (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/for-anita-hill-the-clarence-thomas-hearings-havent-really-ended/2011/10/05/gIQAy2b5QL_story.html)

        Re: In regards to Grace’s comments about the Dominique Strauss Kahn case, I cannot remember how many times I heard the media state that due to DSK’s “French nationality,” his hyper-sexualized treatment and reactions towards women were normal! French men are “more” sexual because it is in their nature and that means it is normal! The media was making excuses for him and stating that the victim clearly did not know this because she was 1.) Foreign and 2.) Did not speak English fluently.

        It is all very troubling and it is through intense discussion like this and political and social activism that we can try to change the tone of how we view and treat sexual harassment (and rape) claims.

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      • Also, the silence of Cain’s wife is being compared to the current CBS show “The Good Wife,” which basically (although very melodramatically) asks the same question that some of us have been asking on this forum: “What does his wife really think?”

        Of course Cain stated the claims hurt his wife more than him (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/06/herman-cain-gloria-cain_n_1078989.html?ref=politics)

        We all have to wonder why she is being so silent and why is he speaking for her?

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  14. Mellissa Harris Perry spoke with Rachel Maddow about Cain. She did not even mention the race issue. She spoke only about how ready people–including women–are to assume the best about the man and the worst about the woman.

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  15. Hi Gina,
    I just wanted to say thank you for this article. I recently met you as you were a guest at CSUN in Dr. Cartier’s class. Towards the end of class, Dr. Cartier had you help by going around to the students individually and having them tell you about the midterm problem they were going to address. When I told you mine, you immediately said it was a great idea. “Sexual Harassment in the workplace.” I personally went throught something similar as you had, regarding sexual harassment, and when I fould this article it made me feel better about my midterm problem I was planning on addressing. Thank you again for sharing your life experience.

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  16. Gina,
    We, as a class were grateful to have you in Dr. Cartier’s class (Feminist Ethics 360).
    I congratulate you for speaking out. It was amazing the support that the other women in the classroom gave you. Unfortunately, I have also being sexually harassed in one ocassion for a proffessor. I did not have the support from my project group. For the contrary, they advised me to accept him. My group even said,” That will be perfect; we will get an A+.” He was harassing me for a few months, until one day I decided to confront him. Eventhough, I told him that I did not have any interest on having any love affair with him, he inssisted saying that he wanted to start something serious with me. we woman don’t have to tolarate this behavior; we have to stop it.

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  17. This is a powerful post. Thank you. And I, like you, believe that speaking is always empowering. It gives us a voice and a face, making us a real person, that cannot (or at the very, very least: should not) be violenced against. You are brave and inspiring.

    Like

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