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.