Edit. I’d really love comments, whether here or on social media but please read through to the end before commenting.
By now, just about everyone in the US who uses Facebook or Twitter must have run across the following plea: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
I have felt reluctant to just say “Me too” on one of these forums. That’s not because I don’t think there remains a serious problem. I do. And the outpouring supports that intuition.
Rather it is, in part, because although it’s hard to do without Facebook, it has become a place I don’t trust for many different reasons. In part, it is because “sexually harassed or assaulted” covers everything from a wolf whistle to the most violent of rapes.
I have been lucky never to have experienced sexual assault.
I did experience sexual harassment throughout my years in graduate school at the University of London (1966-71). Nothing had prepared me for it.
Although I had gone to a rather sheltered girl’s day school, I had always roamed freely on foot or bicycle miles from home and had taken the 20-mile round trip from village to city where the school was daily, walking to and from the school through the city. I had spent a year teaching in a small town in West Africa. I had majored in geology at a time when this was almost unknown for a woman.
During all this time, I had escaped sexual harassment. I had had clumsy, over-eager advances that could be warded off, I had had lots of interest and many boyfriends, I had faculty who were perplexed about having a woman on field trips (where did she urinate on a wide open mountainside? where could she sleep on a field trip at an equitable price when male students slept many to a room?), and, yes, lots of wolf whistles. But sexual harassment, no.
Then in London it seemed that the skies fell. Faculty followed me home by day, chased me by night to railroad stations, refused to let me enter classes until and unless I promised to go out with them or their friends, and read each others’ comments on my looks aloud in seminars. Not all faculty, but a subset of about five or six.
I survived, as did one other female student a little ahead of me. Two never finished. (It was always a small cohort of at most half a dozen a year, almost all men).
After that I experienced very little that I would call harassment, though plenty of difficulties that stemmed from my being female. There was the Ph. D. examiner who, I only discovered years later, wrote damming letters of ‘recommendation’ because I had rejected him in favor of my husband. There were the many faculty in different universities who took the line that over their dead bodies would they do what is now called a spousal hire (this is actually a difficult issue, I think). There were the colleagues who announced in faculty meetings that I was only hired because of my husband. There was the colleague in my first job who shocked me by asking on our first meeting whether I knew any single women he could date (I now realize he was in shock from a divorce). That kind of thing, which I would not call harassment in the usual sense.
So I wonder if sexual harassment clusters disproportionately in certain circumstances? For the men who plagued my graduate school career, it was a kind of trophy hunting, a game. I suspect certain clusters are particularly toxic: graduate school, the entertainment industry, politics, with powerful men and young and inexperienced women.
Bottom line. My heart goes out to those women whose lives were diminished or destroyed by sexual harassment or, worse, sexual assault. Awful.
Yes, I have experienced sexual harassment. It came close to derailing me, but luckily it didn’t. Although a major problem for five important years, it was just one of many challenges I have faced in the sixty-odd years of my adult life.
And I think it is worth adding that, having been in what were then almost entirely male fields (geology or history and philosophy of science) from the early 1960s to the mid 1990s when I shifted to history of food, most of my support in the bad times, and in the good ones as well, came from men. Most of my friendships, too, were with men and I cherish them to this day.
So just how big is this problem, really?
- Five Takeaways from Food Tech for Social Good, Austin Startup Week
- What’s the True History of Pizza? Consider Argentina