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Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

Retrograde Reactions: Lady in the Field on the Aftermath of Sexual Misconduct

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The comments on the guest post by “Hazed” demonstrate that she is not the only person to experience sexual harassment in the field. And so I must share with you the next post in this series on harassment while doing fieldwork by “Lady in the Field.” Like “Hazed,” “Lady” is brave to share her story with us. My hope is that some of what happened in this field experience, particularly the aftermath among the various faculty involved, will teach those of us in positions of power what not to do.

It is unambiguous to me that supporting junior scientists and protecting them from mental, physical and emotional harm, not to mention providing them the resources to flourish, should be the main goal of every academic department. There is never, ever an instance in which our science, or a collaboration, should be privileged over this. And yet, that is what happened here.

Let us think together on what administrative, bureaucratic and cultural practices need to shift to put attention and effort towards the most valuable, yet often most vulnerable, resources in science: junior scientists, which includes undergrads, grad students, postdocs and junior faculty.

* * *

It was happening again.

I looked around the seminar table to see if anyone else had noticed. The other graduate students and the professor remained engrossed in debate over an article—no one, it seemed, had registered the panic mounting in my corner of the room. Quietly, I slipped notebook and papers into my backpack and made for the door, offering the apologetic “I have an embarrassing doctor’s appointment—trust me, you don’t want to know” smile.

I walked home, head cloudy, eyes fixed to the ground. When the crossing-guard teased me for returning early—he usually saw me in the morning, as students arrived at the local school, but never in the middle of the afternoon—I nearly burst into tears. Why could I not shake the feeling that everything I did—in fact, everything I thought—was fundamentally bad, that it invited the wrong sort of attention, that I shouldn’t, by all rights, be taking up space in the universe at all? And why did this terrifying train of thought become more persistent with each passing day?

Several miles of pavement under running shoes, a hot shower, dinner, and a frantic journal entry later, the demons receded. I looked at my watch: eight hours had passed since the onset of the episode, and this had been a short one. In its grip, I could not focus; now, released, I was wrung out and hollowed, the way you feel when a fever breaks. No more work would get done tonight.

***

This sort of episode—beginning with the feeling of being “triggered” by some one’s unknowing remark or gesture, progressing into full-blown anxiety and self-loathing, and resolving, finally, in a feeling of mysterious reprieve and exhaustion—had begun to occur after a senior colleague at the remote field site where I did dissertation research spoke to and touched me in an inappropriate and nonconsensual way.

For several weeks following The Incident—like a 1950s TV police detective, I soon began calling it The Incident—I scrutinized my behavior in the days leading up to it, sifting furiously for the thing I had done wrong. Had I been too open with information about myself, made too many off-color jokes? I was wearing a pink shirt at the time of The Incident—did that mean that I was unconsciously soliciting sexual attention? The colleague, Z., had a history of crossing boundaries with graduate students, a history that the administration ignored because of his professional importance. Knowing this, I had tried to be careful around him, but would anyone believe me? The best thing to do, I resolved, would be to deal with The Incident when I returned to the safety of my home community. Several weeks later, though, I learned that I would be required to interact with Z. again at the field site. The prospect of seeing him left me shaking with nerves. I realized that I needed to let the authorities know what had happened.

My graduate advisor, the field station manager, and Z.’s ultimate supervisor, F., all took my concern seriously. I appreciated their acknowledgment that the issue could not be ignored, and I was grateful that F. asked my permission to speak to Z. When F. did speak to Z., however, the process broke down: Z. denied that anything had happened, claiming that any untoward interaction had to be the product of my fantasy or of my instigation. F. and the other supervisors withdrew, refusing to adjudicate. I was left with the fear that my personal and professional credibility had been damaged, without allies at the field station, and, to my distress, in the company of Z., while the other supervisors attended to obligations outside the country.

The Incident was not repeated—with me, at any rate—either then or in subsequent field seasons. The role of Z. on our joint project, however, had to be settled, and F. was determined to reconcile us to one another. The way to do this, F. decided, was to impel me to back down from my position: namely, that something inappropriate had happened, an apology was in order, and ombud-style mechanisms of arbitration needed to be created to handle future concerns. F. explained to me why these requests were wrong-headed: Z. had suffered enough without apologizing, he said. I had willfully and unjustifiably damaged his reputation. My American feminist radicalism (by the way, was I a lesbian? or had I already been sleeping with Z.?) disqualified me from making rational statements about protections for students, and saucy male behavior was the norm at the field station—no other young woman needed help rebuffing unwanted attention, so why should I? The sort of disturbed emotional state I was manifesting, not to mention my insistence on being overly analytical, were sure to cause me intimacy problems of the kind that plagued his relationship with his wife. Finally, while my professional persona was too subservient—this was obvious from the way I acknowledged the contributions of peers to my work—my recalcitrance radiated “threat,” and that was not to be tolerated.

My graduate advisor agreed with me that F.’s reactions were retrograde. He valued the collaboration with F., however, and pointed out that my taking formal action would effectively terminate that collaboration. As a student dependent on my advisor for research funds, supervision, and credentialing, I chose not to pursue formal action.

The internal contradictions in testimony from Z. and from F. suggest that they were guarding not so much a perception of the facts—what did or did not happen—but a set of limitations on their responsibility in the world. I believe that reluctance or refusal on the part of supervisors to take recuperative or preventive action came from a place of fear: What would it mean for their careers if they were to upset the system? They did not know how to operate differently, and they did not and do not understand why making academic science safe for people with limited power is important. I believe, too, that they are ignorant of the costs imposed by the current system on students and on others with limited leverage.

***

Many months later, as I stalked around my house, wracked by intractable irritation and jumpiness, a sardonic voice in my head remarked, “Dude, you’re not in ‘Nam anymore.” Political incorrectness aside—and appropriation of the experience of a veteran, an experience I certainly cannot claim, aside, too—it was then that I realized that my body and the deepest parts of my mind had, in effect, not come home from the field. These parts of me were on the lookout for Z.—and, more to the point, for F.—everywhere: in mentors, colleagues, and friends; in well-meaning compliments and casual generalizations; in the social tics of status-seeking that characterize our sapient primate species. A trusted therapist helped identify that the symptoms, which included fury, nightmares, vigilance, and paralyzing self-doubt, were similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder. With her help and the financial support of the university, I was able to get effective treatment.

For several months, I marveled at every day that dawned and closed trauma-free. That I no longer need to marvel suggests that freedom from trauma has become normal for me, and I’m profoundly grateful. That I needed trauma treatment to complete my PhD is a sign not of a flaw in my character but of a problem in the system that produces scholars. So, to recap:

  • It is in everyone’s interest to maximize safety in working and learning environments. Coping with abuses of power drains time, energy, and other resources from productive activities, like scholarship.
  • It is particularly important for people in positions of power to understand themselves as stakeholders in the welfare of students. We need to be able to distinguish between our intent and the effects of our actions. Intent is insufficient. Listening and collaborative action are required.
  • Students need contracts and institutional protective mechanisms to ensure that their concerns can be safely expressed and addressed without conflicts of interest or unwarranted repercussions. These are necessary, even if challenging to design and implement, when the student is working with multiple institutions and in multiple locations.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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