Thursday, July 19, 2018

How to Avoid Becoming a Sexual Predator

By Greg Mace

Greg Mace works as a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin and McDonald Observatory. This post is written from his own perspective as an advisor, white male, father and husband.

Something that has been bothering me about the anti-harassment discussion in our community is the denial from allies that they are capable of being a harasser and predator. In the worst cases there appear to be wolves in sheep’s clothing within our equity and inclusion groups. In lesser cases, we need to acknowledge that claiming to be an ally while ogling or fanaticizing of our co-workers is a form of grooming that is best stopped before it starts.

I wish to be considered an ally, and I also acknowledge that I am capable of harassment and predation.

When I hear others talk about their disdain for harassment and then proclaim their innocence, I immediately question their definition of harassment. If harassment is defined as the explicit intimidation of someone, then I agree that many people are capable of suppressing their bad behaviors when asked. However, what happens when there is a power separation between senior and junior researchers? Does the junior researcher need to explicitly say, ‘I don’t want you to look at me like that,’ or can we assume that they don’t want it? A better definition of harassment is one that focuses on the actions of the harasser. I would say that harassment can be defined as - behaving in ways that you know, based on past experience and the rules of consent, to be inappropriate.

Effortlessly, our society encourages abuse of power by white men and exults those who get away with it. I was trained from a young age to look for vulnerabilities in others and exploit them. This training was provided by churches, schools, movies, video games, books, family, friends, and the internet. Some of the training was explicit (locker room talk) and other encouragement came in the form of a thousand nudges to disrespect women to gain control of them. The risk in getting caught is small when you are protected by white male privilege, and the rewarding admiration of other men is enough incentive to take the risk. Using these techniques in professional interactions, senior researchers can nudge and groom their victims with flattery and encouragement while waiting for the opportunity to strike. All the while, they gain the admiration of their male peers and students, while further perpetuating the cycle of power abuse. The knowledge that these actions would not be supported if openly discussed in a mixed gender space is what quantifies them as harassment. Practicing allyship requires us to actively remove and discourage predatory actions within research, academia, and our daily lives.

So, how do we practice allyship without becoming a predator? Here are my three guidelines to not harassing the people we work with:
1)    Maintain eye contact when they are talking and when they are listening. When you face them to speak, turn to their face in anticipation that eye contact will be needed. Do not ogle them while they speak, while they work, or ever.
2)    Assume that if it would be inappropriate to ask for permission (May I ogle you?) then it is also inappropriate to do it without permission.
3)    For every level of seniority you hold over someone, double your respect of their research and career. They are not talking to you because they want to be your friend or lover – they are here for the science, just like you should be. When was the last time you sat on a couch with a student?  The answer should be never, because no professional interactions occur on couches.

With these first steps we can practice active allyship and prevent harassment before it starts. We also need to consciously monitor our interactions in cis white male spaces. Allyship doesn’t stop when women leave the room and we must find a replacement to the wan smile or nervous laughter we make at inappropriate conversations. I propose we use ‘check yourself’ as a polite way of asking each other to stop talking for a moment, think a little, and change the course of our actions.

With societies continual support of white male predation, we must commit to actively reconditioning ourselves and our research communities. If you let your eyes wander, or you ogle and fantasize, then you are a self-groomed predator and your seniority makes you a threat to others. We are all capable of harassment and predation and it is our responsibility to stop harassment by not starting. Check yourself.