Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Online Harassment: The Dangers and Damages

Today’s guest blogger is Faïza Harbi. Faïza was harassed online by former MIT physics professor, Walter Lewin, during a MOOC. She courageously came forward with her story, Lewin Complainant Tells of Harassment and MIT Says Famous Professor Was Sexually Harassing Students Online. Here she describes how the experience impacted her and what you can do to help.

Imagine a man you don’t know, yet everybody in your study group idolizes and considers a Physics Rockstar, contacts you privately. Imagine him showing you consideration and attention, telling you he’s going to help you regain some self-confidence through his physics course. Imagine you become friends with this man. This is an important event for someone who only has bad memories from physics in high school! It’s going to make a change, obviously, with a man like that caring about your progress and wanting to help you on a personal level. It could have an impact on that confidence issue you have!

Now, imagine that moment when you suddenly realize that it was all one big lie, that all he wanted was to gain your trust to exploit your weaknesses and use them against you, revealing his true motives: to use you for sexual purposes whether you wanted it or not.

This is exactly what happened to me when I enrolled in Walter Lewin’s physics massive open online course (MOOC) run through edX and MIT. I had struggled when I was younger to understand physics. And so when Lewin reached out to me, one of 100,000 students, I was taken aback. I had no clue why he chose me, an average student, who doubts her abilities every single day.

It took Lewin three weeks to insidiously steer our friendly conversations to a sexual nature, taking advantage of the slowly growing confidence he was instilling in me. What was it that he wanted from me? Was it the only reason he was trying to make me feel special? He knew I had been raped at a very young age and to what extent this has influenced my everyday life. He used my past to destroy all my defense mechanisms. He used the fear he knew I felt to force himself on me online, constantly demanding explicit pictures of me and sending explicit pictures of him.

I can’t even describe how helpless I felt, how hard I tried to push him back, how betrayed and violated I felt- he knew my name and address, he knew intimate details of my life, and he used those to extract more and more from me. I told him I didn’t want that kind of relationship and specified I wanted him to stop, but he simply did not care. He kept on asking for more.

I cut ties with him, but he persisted and kept stalking my online presence, posting things about me until I went back online and asked him to stop. He robbed me of that little glimmer of pride. He took from me my flimsy feeling of safety in the education I was accessing through MOOCs.

Emotional agony became my normality.

I was paralyzed by the fear he triggered. I felt sullied to the point of hurting myself. Guilt and shame are such overwhelming feelings that it took me nearly ten months to react.

I can’t explain what woke me up, but when I did, it was to go after him to stop him. I used my own experience and background to search out other victims of his harassment, and quickly found 10 more women (whose names remain anonymous). He used the same tactics on them as he had used on me. Lewin seems to be a creature of habit, including how he targets and preys on young women online. I couldn’t let him destroy anybody else the way he had destroyed me, by writing me that he was with me in my bed, narrating what he was doing to me in very explicit language, telling me about my body in his fantasies in the most vulgar way, night and day. It’s still giving me nightmares.

I started gathering all the data I had, adding what the other victims shared with me to bring rock solid evidence to MIT for further investigation, which abruptly ended any association with Lewin. I wondered during my data collection about Lewin’s possible history of harassment at MIT as well.

Were there other survivors of Lewin’s harassment? Had other women’s innocence and trust been wrenched from their hands? Had the abrupt removal of the confidence imbued on them as that continued attention and interest in their scientific progress fell away to reveal that really, he only wanted to sleep with them? I wondered if I was the first or just part of a crowd of victims he had hurt. I wondered if MIT ever had the slightest idea that Lewin was the kind of person who could so openly rip away our confidence, as he so markedly desired to do to our clothes.

I struggle to survive with what Lewin did to me, but there are at least 10 other women whose lives have been forever damaged by this man. It is also quite likely that he is still seeking out victims through his new Youtube physics classes, created after MIT broke off all contact with him. There is a distinct possibility that what Lewin did to me could have been prevented if MIT had known about his conduct and had decided to act.

If there is anyone reading this blog who was Walter Lewin’s victim from before 2013, please contact me. I want to make sure people like him are punished the first time they strike, and for the institutions responsible for men like him to act swiftly and decisively to punish all aspiring sexual predators out there. They need to face harsh consequences in their careers and reputations for their actions and causing damage to their fields of academic pursuit.