I took action because I could not look another new young, 20 something female student in the face without feeling utter remorse and empathy for what lay ahead of them.
It would start with invitations to the pub, a few drinks bought for them – the buzz of the informal, rule breaking culture of this radical department. It would follow with a glance at their chest while he spoke to them or a soft tickle of their waist as he leant in to tell them about a conference they should submit a paper to. They would be in two minds, shake off the touching – we have had a bunch of drinks or that’s how they do things in England – it’s not so frigid here and after all, I am an adult now! Surely the ‘lecher professor’ is a trite thing of the past!
Fast forward to the conference where all the money was spent on the booze and again he leans in but this time he tells her “you’re great”. She doesn’t know how or why but she ends up at his place, it almost feels like a challenge – break down those barriers and just let it happen – that’s what he tells her. Maybe she does or maybe she decides not to. Either way, she is no longer a bright-eyed, intelligent human being with ideas and potential. She is sexy and her sexiness is what makes her ‘radical’ to him.
If she opts out (like I did), takes stock of his predatory style and navigates around it (mentions her relationship, confirms her sexual status, avoids drinking affairs) she is in the ‘out crowd’. Her ideas will be dismissed, she wont get that late night email telling her about that bit of money for that opportunity or that there is even an opportunity. She will be told her ideas ‘have problems’ but the problems never explained. She will be shut out from the community and her opportunities will suffer.
If she complains to the man up the food chain he will stumble through, making light of it all, offering consolation while sweeping her issues under the rug. If she goes even higher she will be told that it is her responsibility to individualise her experience and come forward with an official complaint. Without her face and name plastered all over it there is nothing they will do for her. In the meantime she will not have had a supervision in over a year. Her work suffers. She slips away, years go by with nothing finished and she joins the ranks of people that feel sorry for the new cohort of bright-eyed students.
I felt lucky at the time I complained. I hadn’t be sexually harassed. Sure, he had touched my waist a few times at the pub, stared down my top and whispered drunk in my ear how he thinks I’m great BUT he never pinned me against a wall and tried to lay a wet one on my face! Success! I had successfully navigated my way around being sexually harassed by following the code of conduct of all the victim blaming propaganda:
Don’t wear revealing clothing,
Don’t be alone with him,
Play the line of banter and professionalism,
Be constantly aware and vigilant, ready for his next move,
Have a boyfriend,
Present the boyfriend,
Mention the boyfriend in every conversation,
So why did I feel so shit? Why did my work suffer as well? I was emotionally and sexually managing the situation and, to all accounts, I was successful. But I was also exhausted – the mental and emotional labour that goes into every small decision adds up and I realised I was spending more time playing ‘defend my vagina’ and less time playing ‘produce a professional, original piece of work’.
So I should correct my opening sentence: I took action because many of my sisters could not and I could not call myself a feminist if I continued to sit back and watch. I realised I held a position of power by being an ostracised member of the ‘in crowd’: with no political, social and emotional alliance to him I was risking less. I took action because I was tired of playing defense. Really fucking tired.