Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sexual Harassment

UPDATE:  I posted this yesterday.  Today I read, via Pharyngula, about Karen Stollznow's plight.  It appears that sexual harassment is alive and well in academia.  I've sent a small amount to her legal fund, a token really.  And ordered a couple of her books, which look fascinating.  Maybe I should try writing a really crappy porn book, tailored to the rich sexual fantasies of your average manospherean reader, so I could afford to give more?  Anyone care to collaborate on such a project?

I'm old enough to have experienced sexual harassment before "sexual harassment" was A Thing, much less a cause for legal action.  When I was a graduate student I took a part time job taking dictation for a much respected and frequently cited law professor, renowned for his work in civil rights.  I got the gig through the student job center.  Although the work schedule was erratic and inconvenient -- the professor was most productive in the wee hours -- my small stipend as a TA (teaching assistant) wasn't quite enough to live on.  So I felt lucky to have another small stream of income to make ends meet.

The job entailed the professor picking me up around midnight at the apartment I shared with my boyfriend, and driving me to his house across town.  Our voices were hushed as we climbed the dark stairs to the upstairs bedroom he used as his study; his wife and children were sleeping in adjoining bedrooms.  I settled myself in front of an IBM Selectric (this was a couple of years before personal computers had rendered typewriters obsolete).  The professor stood behind me and... well, talked to himself.  He was the kind of guy who needed to have an audience, to hear himself form his own ideas out loud, and the fact that I had little idea what he was talking about did not deter him in the least.  I was a pretty fast typist, and I did my best to capture every word.  Still, it took a lot of focus to follow the unrelenting stream of consciousness through the dark, unmeasured hours.  Sometimes he would make sudden detours, backtracks, need to annotate.  Sometimes he got annoyed (at himself? at me?) and raised his voice impatiently, or stomped about.  These exhausting sessions usually lasted a few hours, sometimes only a couple, depending on the professor's inspiration and energy level.  When he was finished for the night, he drove me back home as though I were the family babysitter (which in retrospect I might have been), and I fell into bed half-dressed, curled up against my boyfriend's bony back, and tried to catch a couple of hours of sleep before getting up to attend classes.

One evening the professor announced that he appreciated my work so much that he wanted to reward me with an excursion.  He drove me to the town's only porn theater and invited me to attend a movie with him.  I demurred.  At that time, the notion of watching a "dirty movie" in a public venue was akin to parading down Main Street nude.  The fact that a professor was encouraging me to do so made me dizzy with confusion and shame.  Reluctantly, the professor turned the car around and we headed to his house where we resumed our work.  However, about an hour in, his voice trailed off... He had another idea.

"You seem like an adventurous girl, Cynthia," he said.  "Would you like to listen in on a phone call?"  It was 1:00 am.  I couldn't imagine who he might call at that hour.  I obediently picked up the extension in the office while the professor disappeared downstairs.  For the next twenty minutes or so, he engaged in what I would now describe as "phone sex" with an unknown but apparently willing woman in another state.  I don't know if she was a former student or a colleague.  I knew it was a long distance call, and I couldn't stop worrying about how expensive it was, and whether the professor's wife would be cross when she saw the bill, or whether these calls were itemized research expenses (like my services) that the university reimbursed him for.  When the conversation had reached its conclusion, the professor returned, looking pleased with himself.

"Well, what did you think?" he asked.  "It was interesting," I replied dully, my cheeks scorching.  Nonplussed by my disappointing response, the professor continued to dictate and the evening proceeded as usual.

The next morning I called the student job center to tender my resignation.  "I can't work with Prof. X," I said.  "And I can't explain why."  Of course, the job center director, a woman, knew exactly why, but she wasn't about to press for details.  Yes, she conceded, they'd had similar reports before.  She understood.  She didn't offer me an alternative job, and I didn't ask for one. 

And so the matter rested...  but not quite.

A couple of weeks later, the professor's wife called me at home, imploring me to return.  "My husband works so well with you," she told me.  "You're not like the other girls."  I fibbed, telling her a change in my teaching schedule made it, much to my regret, impossible.  

The next day I took a job at a shopping mall kiosk, selling hot dogs.  It was a little embarrassing when my students passed by and giggled at the sight of my silly orange plastic visor, but I preferred that variety of humiliation.

I didn't think about this incident for almost two decades because I didn't have the language to describe what had happened.  And I knew, I just knew on some level, that it had all been my fault anyway.  I must have been giving off some signal that convinced the professor I was receptive to that behavior.  There was something dirty and damaged in me that he had picked up on... If only I could figure out what I had done!  (Certainly my boyfriend at the time thought so.)

Not long ago, I looked up the professor.  I figured he was retired by now, but I was curious if he had ever been implicated in sexually harassing other female students.  I was shocked and saddened to learn he had committed suicide years before.  I don't know if anyone understands why, but he apparently had fallen into a deep depression following a lawsuit brought, not by a woman, but by a group of African American students, charging him with -- of all things! -- racism.  Given that he had devoted his career to civil rights legislation, the nature of this dishonor and his subsequent death seemed impossibly ironic and sad.

My little anecdote is common stuff, hardly to be remarked upon, for women my generation.  I wonder if I shared it with younger women, they would dismiss it as part of a quaint and troublesome era, as irrelevant to their professional lives as a Mad Men episode. It would be rather pleasant to believe we have come so far.

And so...

Is the fact that there is a generation out there who don't recognize the name "Anita Hill" yet another reminder of how old I am?  Fortunately, there's a new documentary that will familiarize younger people with her ordeal during the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Justice Clarence Thomas.

It's comforting to learn that Hill prevailed, despite the dirt she was dragged through, with her sanity and dignity intact, and went on to establish the rewarding career she still enjoys.


  1. I was glad to start work in an era when sexual harassment was starting to be addressed, though I still had to put up with my share of casual sexism on the street and at work.

  2. Sexual harassment is still pretty blatant in high money, high stress environments. One workplace I was in had a 'sexual harassment training day' (cue lots of lame jokes) and had a day listening to a lawyer walk us through the issues. He gave us an example of a bank where a senior analyst was brutally raped on the boardroom table. The company paid her hundreds of thousands in 'compensation' so she wouldn't take it to the police. Then they tried to sack the perpetrator, but he said he would claim unfair dismissal and harassment. They basically said, WTF? And he said - you can't accuse me of rape when the victim isn't prepared to press charges. So they had to pay him the same amount (enough to buy a flat) to get him to go.

  3. Poor baby...want a Snickers?

    1. Thanks, but a dry gin martini w/ extra olives is always appreciated (see MRA Drinking Game above).


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