As a 35 year old woman, my flirtations with UK academia and two of its male protagonists led me into situations for which I was ill-prepared. Whilst academics aren’t known for their understatements, to say I got more than I bargained for is a huge understatement I feel necessary to underline publicly. I have decided to keep this piece vague and relatively brief as to not identify people. Despite the fact calling them out is probably something that needs to be done and should be done, and I hope it is done before long. In the interim, this short account might make some junior academics or students think again before they swoon at (or get sucked in by) the advances of a more senior man or woman in their field.
A number of years ago I was in the middle of my PhD studies. My supervisor and I were getting on well. I didn’t have much to compare it to but he had been absent due to ill health when I first enrolled at the University. After months of limping along with what felt like a lack of direction, I was feeling very glad and grateful he was well enough to come back to work. Admittedly, he had an unconventional style of supervision which regularly involved the pub and a bottle of wine. It was a venue and a method I was not averse to in the beginning. In fact, I thought I had hit the jackpot. The conversations were good, thought provoking, and relevant, given an obvious mutual interest in an area of research. Not only that, we shared some history relating to some bad stuff that had happened to both of us in our lives in the past. Everything was working well, fieldwork had begun, and then came an incident where I didn’t agree with him over a political point. It ended with him angrily declaring that he could no longer supervise me because I wasn’t the person he thought I was. He proceeded to contact the Head of Postgraduate Research to say so, which shocked all involved. I was beyond anxious, there was no one obvious in the department who could supervise me. Anyone who has been engaged in this sort of work knows how absolutely personal the PhD becomes. Within days it was resolved, my supervisor said sorry, and I took him back. Already the relationship had become awash with toxicity and the warning bells were ringing loudly.
As weeks passed we continued our chats, and our e-mails (which had now moved from work to personal accounts at his suggestion), and somewhere between the quips and philosophical discussions, he professed his love for me. To some degree I knew what I was doing, we were flirting, and I am simplifying the whole thing here for brevity. I did like him for sure, and there was something about him being more knowledgeable which made him more attractive. I admired his work, so I was sort of flattered. All recognisable clichés I shamefully embodied. And I could have said, ‘that’s too much’ or ‘that’s going too far’. And I didn’t. This was partly because I didn’t want to because I was swooning (aka getting sucked in) but also I was a little scared about what would happen if I said no. Would it be like that disagreement we had a month before? Would he refuse to supervise me? So I went along with it, and I enjoyed some parts, but as soon as we had an intimate encounter in a hotel, I realised it was a mistake. I didn’t find him physically attractive and our liaison had made that reality abundantly clear to me.
After the ‘event’ I tried to tell him this couldn’t happen again, but he wailed at the train station because he ‘needed me’. I tried to avoid e-mail conversations and meet ups but I felt compelled to because I taught his seminars and he was still supervising my research. He made it impossible for me just to end it and put it down to a mistake. Every time I tried to leave it, tell him I wasn’t interested, he told me my work was useless, and ‘what do you even mean when you say…?’ quoting directly from my writing and laughing at me. He regularly vehemently claimed that I would never find anyone to supervise me. Of course, this was utter abusive rubbish and he should have been reported and dismissed from his post (or at least suspended under investigation) instantly. But because of the history and feeling a degree of culpability in the ‘affair’ I was too scared to report it. He also ‘made fun’ of the bad stuff I had shared with him about my past. I was so stressed, anxious and ill, that I didn’t know what to do. The stress mounted so much that as a result of him threatening to declare what we had done, I just told him to go for it, tell anyone he wanted to. My imagined shame could be nothing compared to the stress and anxiety I was feeling at the time. It all came to a head when he e-mailed to the Head of Postgraduate Research in the middle of the night to say he could no longer supervise me because he was in love with me. It was humiliating, even though she was understanding. I had to recount the whole sorry story, and then speak to the Head of Department who wasn’t particularly interested in supporting me to pursue any complaint because he was coming to the end of his tenure as Head, and apparently ‘that’s just what this member of staff was like’. The Head said he had experienced problems with him, but it was ‘up to me’ if I wanted to do something about it. It was only his replacement who supported me to do something some months later when he began harassing me again and I had to call the police. She supported me to make a formal complaint, which I did, and as a result he was asked to leave the University. As far as I know he left with a reference and a small pay off. I recognise that perhaps in the early days I had some sort of choice but that choice was structured by the control he had over me by virtue of him being my supervisor. Before I realised, I was in too deep.
My second encounter is circumstantially different. On my way out of academia, completing my PhD and busy with a number of temporary teaching and consultancy jobs, I was also experiencing the breakdown of a personal relationship. I had known this (once again, older, more senior, male) professor for a year or so before, mainly from Twitter and conferences. He always seemed kind, nice and helpful enough, offering career advice and help where he could. We would meet up for a coffee every few months to catch up and occasionally exchange messages/memes/jokes on Twitter. Nothing wrong with that you might think. During one of our coffee meet-ups, he disclosed that he was having marital problems. My relationship was at breaking point too, and he took me in by providing a shoulder to cry on, and I fondly reciprocated. An intense relationship ensued in the wake of our former relationships ending. Apparently no one else had ever quite ‘got him’ like I did. It was romantic, intense, and I ‘fell in love’. Nothing like experience number 1.
As months passed (and I was no longer working or studying in academia at this point), the intensity developed into a bad pattern of make-up and break-up. Until now, I guess you could say these are the symptoms of any rebound relationship going wrong. However, getting to know him properly I came to understand that his previous long term partner (and the mother of his 3 children) who also works in a similar academic field blamed me for having an affair with him. It turned out he had indeed been having an affair when he was married, but not with me. Before he and I got together, he had an affair with a younger researcher he met after examining her PhD (I know, I know, I didn’t heed the warning bells there either). It further transpired years before that he had an affair with a junior co-worker, who he previously supervised and went on to work with on research projects and publications. And there were others. Whilst I wasn’t an ‘affair’ I realised that the pattern was the same – him telling them that they are the only people to understand him, lengthy e-mails demonstrating how sensitive he is, and offering the world. (And credit goes to a good friend for making the following astute remarks.). However, this pattern is one of a self-absorbed predator and just because he does a good job of packaging it in a cute, caring, friendly case doesn’t make it any less true. The dramatic affairs were always about him and cultivated via the relative power his position afforded him.
I know he is now chatting again to more junior academics who may have something going on in their lives – relationship breakdowns, PhD woes he could ‘help with’, the death of a parent etc. It worries me. It worries me that although I also had choice in this situation too, that I see from his behaviour (and also, conversations with others) that this is what he seeks out and has sought out, with me and those he has had affairs with before me. This professor uses his work status to seek out these sorts of relationships and uses his position as a vantage point for easy pickings.
From my professional perspective I don’t get it. When I have taught, supervised, managed staff, people or projects, inside or outside of academia, I would always consider more junior people ‘off limits’. I respect professional boundaries when it’s me with the power and feel that to use that power to flirt and embark upon an intimate relationship is an abuse of that power.
It shouldn’t be our responsibility to guard against men with predatory patterns, but I want to put my story out there for junior academics and postgraduate students so that they can be wise to this sort of behaviour. I do take some responsibility for the bad decisions I made, but I also feel like if these men had any sense of professional boundaries themselves, I wouldn’t have gotten into such awful life changing messes. And so, if you are reading this, and you know a more senior male or female who promises to help, has e-mail conversations on Twitter and/or moves your conversation to non-institutional e-mail accounts, you begin exchanging lengthy e-mails about your personal life or emotions, flirtatious innuendos, and if he says you are the only person who really understands him, PLEASE listen to the warning bells, even if they are muffled by tweed, and CLOSE IT DOWN. It’s the best advice I can offer for now.