Two years ago I advised a young researcher at Emory University to take down a FB post detailing the blatant harassment she was experiencing in her lab. In a private e-mail to her, I explained why, detailed my experiences reporting sexual harassment to the university’s HR department, and the repercussions — not for the perpetrator, but for me.
I’m sorry, J. I’m sorry I gave you that advice. I reacted as violently as I did out of fear, for you and for your career. My reputation at Emory was damaged beyond repair when I spoke out. I didn’t want you to experience the same reprisals.
Today I would give you different advice. I would tell you to share your story as widely as possible, and I would stand next to you with my own story* and support you until we found someone to hear and act.
Because no one should have to beg for things that should be basic rights as a human being: the integrity of their own body. The right to choose to have both a career and a family. The right to enough income to support that family. The right to an education. The right not to have to grovel and flatter and beg for these things like a starving dog slinking toward a morsel of food.
We keep silent because we cannot count on witnesses to back us up. They know the costs. The threat of being labeled “a troublemaker” or “not a team player.” The threat of losing our jobs and our careers.
I know that some women are quiet in this conversation because they take a radically different view: that women have long used sex transactionally, because it was all they had to bargain with.
This wasn’t easy for me to write.
I hope my words will make it easier for another to speak.
I maintain that certain things are inalienable rights: to live, not merely exist. To maintain the integrity of my body and to share it only with those I choose — and that sharing my body should not be an obligation to gain money, food, or employment.
Some will read this story and shrug it off as just another routine case of sexual harassment.
This wasn’t easy for me to write.
I hope my words make it easier for someone else to speak.
Many people know parts of the story I am going to tell; very few know all of it. I have been empowered to write this by Sara McClintock and Tish Jennings. Thanks, sisters.
I had an opportunity to do an internship at a prominent public health agency, working on mental health epidemiology, especially PTSD — a particular interest of mine. The woman who would be my supervisor had a reputation for being “prickly” to work with, and didn’t usually accept interns. I was thrilled with the placement, and though I was uncomfortable around my supervisor, I chose not to examine why. At first her actions could be interpreted as innocent: when the department would go out to lunch together, she would ask to ride in my car — with no one else — purportedly so that we could discuss work. When we met in her office, she would insist on closing the door, purportedly to avoid distractions. Later she would claim I had initiated sexual contact in these situations. She would also tell colleagues that I had “led her on” by going out on dates with her and by spending considerable time with her outside of work hours, though I never spent any time with her that I wasn’t required to. We weren’t even friends.
She began to attend the same religious institution I did. Two particular events stand out in my mind from that time. During one event she was seated in the front of the room and I was in the back. She spent two hours turned in her seat, staring at me, trying to catch my eye. On another occasion, I attended a ceremony with my boyfriend and had saved a seat for him. She took his seat next to me, even after I told her I was saving it for him. “He can sit somewhere else,” she said. I held a place in front of me; there wasn’t any room left for two people to sit together. He and I were more than irritated. She spent the entirety of the ceremony staring at my manicured toes. I was nauseated.
I talked up my relationship around her, making it sound much more significant than it was, thinking that might be a deterrent. In retrospect, I sound stupid and naive. I also thought that her own marriage might be a deterrent, especially since her wife witnessed some of her most egregious behavior. More stupidity and naïvety.
I TA’d and co-taught a two-day seminar with her at a university near the public health agency. We had invited a noted researcher from another university as a guest speaker he was someone whose work I greatly admired and I was grateful for the opportunity to meet him. He and I hit it off immediately, and were engaged in an animated conversation right up until the first session began. The faculty had staked out the back row of the classroom for our bags and such. I walked back and bent over to retrieve the handouts we needed. I hadn’t seen her follow me to the back of the room.
Suddenly, I felt hips pressed against mine, hands squeezing my breasts and sliding down to my crotch. No one else had seen it happen. She was smirking. When it was time for me to present my own research, I stumbled and faltered through materials where I would normally have been at ease and conversant.
Suddenly, I felt hips pressed against my rear, hands squeezing my breasts and sliding down to my crotch. I stood up and turned around and she walked away, smirking. She knew no one had seen her. I was speechless, shaking. I barely functioned the rest of the day. When I presented on my own research, I stumbled and faltered through my talk, tongue-tied with the material where I would normally have been conversant. But it wasn’t a normal day for me.
That night, about 10 of us went out to dinner. I was seated next to the guest, at the head of the table. Seats weren’t assigned; we just filled in the table as we arrived. My supervisor and her wife were at the other end of the table. (Her wife accompanied her to all of her business functions and on her travel, even when no one else had been invited to bring a spouse or partner.) Engaged in the conversation at my end of the table, I would occasional look down toward the other end. Every time, she was staring at me. I soon realized that she spent the entire evening staring at me. When we left the restaurant, her wife was openly crying.
That behavior would be repeated on a long, multi-city research trip. She tried to arrange for us to be alone together for a weekend in one city on the itinerary, a city I knew well and where I had many friends. I communicated clearly to her before the trip that I would be spending all of my free time with friends. When we arrived there I left the rental car with her and her wife (who had joined the trip at the last minute). I also gave them a list of fun and interesting things to do there, and the best restaurants. Later, it turned out they spent the entire weekend hanging out at the hotel, bored.
I returned to the hotel on Sunday afternoon with a friend and her daughter, so that the child could play on the pool slide and we could hang out at the hot tub and swim-up bar. My supervisor and her wife were sitting on lounge chairs at the edge of the pool. Behind large dark sunglasses, I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was staring at me, following everything I did, moving her chair when she had to. I was angry and disgusted, and I pitied her wife.
I hated going to work and even more, I hated the prospect of ever traveling with her again. I had begun to put on huge amounts of weight while I worked there, an effect of the constant stress. I was falsely accused of fomenting complaints about the work of another member of the group. I lost authorship on a paper I had written.
I wish I could tell you that I did all the right things and justice was served. Attempts to talk with her about her behavior were met with screaming, hysterical denials. Friends and peers were horrified and supportive of me, but there was nothing they could do. I went up the chain of command to her supervisor. There were budget cutbacks, and I was told that mine was one of the contracts that wouldn’t be renewed.
Some women had to sleep with Harvey Weinstein to get a job. I lost mine because I wouldn’t sleep with this bitch.
“It’s always about power.
Sex is merely the weapon,
perverted into an instrument of torture
rather than an expression of love.”
It’s always about power. Sex is merely the weapon, perverted into an instrument of torture, rather than an expression of love.
* The topic of an upcoming blog post.
© 2017 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any manner without the express permission of the author.