Monday, June 13, 2016

Sexual Harassment: Reports of Serial Groping

Today's guest bloggers are Anonymous A and Anonymous B. A and B are both astronomy postdocs, who realize that they had something quite disturbing in common. They had both been groped by the same senior male astronomer in a public place with multiple witnesses. No one came to their aid. 

Our accounts may sound depressingly familiar to many. The recent, highly publicized sexual harassment cases have initiated some frank discussions about the pervasiveness of this problem in our community — something that far too many women already knew firsthand. We’re adding our voices to this conversation partly to share our individual stories, breaking the silence in solidarity with others who have come forward. But because we happen to have been harassed by the same person, our accounts also illustrate how harassment in our community is ultimately not a problem of individual incidents. 


Anonymous A.

I was a young graduate student attending one of my first conferences. At the conference dinner, I ended up sitting next to a senior professor who I hadn’t met before the conference. His wife and child sat at the next table over, but his young daughter repeatedly came over to our table to talk to her father, and she chatted with me too since I was sitting right next to him. Talking to the small child standing between us required leaning down slightly, but I began to notice that he was leaning unnecessarily close to me when he did this. I tried not to worry about it, thinking I was probably mistaken, but at some point after his daughter went back to her table, he put his hand on my thigh under the table. I froze, unsure of what to do, so at first I didn't react at all. But then he started inching his hand further up my thigh. Finally I got up, excused myself from the table, and left in the middle of dinner.

My immediate reaction was visceral; I felt an intense mixture of shame and anger. This was compounded by the knowledge that I had celebrated my successful talk with a few drinks at the cocktail reception before dinner. I found out the next day that some people thought I had left the dinner because I’d gotten sick from the alcohol -- a story with which I felt compelled to play along, despite adding to my embarrassment.

I did confide in a few friends, who were largely very supportive. One who had been at our table said she’d noticed his creepy behavior, including trying to brush against my breast when I wasn’t looking. However, another person I confided in responded by directly questioning my account (“Are you sure?”), and a friend who wasn’t at the conference suggested that I had put myself in the situation by drinking.


Anonymous B.

I was also a young graduate student when I met this professor, at a party at a fellow astronomer’s house. The professor had been invited as he was visiting our institute. The party was crowded with lots of people dancing. I was standing with my back to the middle of the room, chatting with friends and began to notice that someone kept brushing past me with a lot of physical contact. I kept moving aside, thinking they were trying to get past me and I was in their way. This happened repeatedly until I felt a hand squeeze my backside. I realized that this professor was actually groping me and rubbing against me. I was surprised and embarrassed. Others had seen him do it and everyone just laughed. I turned my back to the wall for the rest of the evening and made sure to avoid him.

I would never have thought to report this type of behavior. This wasn’t a professional setting. But when I heard Anonymous A’s story, I realized that it wasn’t an isolated event. He likely has female students who depend upon him.


We were both very surprised when, while talking one evening at a conference, we discovered that we had both been groped by the same senior astronomer. We realized that these incidents were likely part of a pattern of behavior, and it made us worry for other junior women who may not be able to get away from him as easily as we did. 

This is why it’s imperative for everyone, especially senior members of our community, to be proactive in supporting targets of harassment and speaking out against harassers. The burden of responsibility to speak out cannot fall solely on those who are most vulnerable, whose well-being and livelihoods may be at stake. This applies to everything from the most egregious serial harassment cases to more common micro-aggressions, all of which contribute to a culture of tacit approval. In both of our cases, there were witnesses (including more senior colleagues) who had opportunities to confront our harasser and to be supportive to us. We’ve found that having someone offer even a few words of support, or call out an insensitive comment, can be very meaningful to targets of harassment. Just as the harm of micro-aggressions adds up over time, so too can the positive impact of ‘micro-support’: gestures from those who have more power and can confront inappropriate behavior.   


Anonymous said...

This is a terribly sad state of affairs, yet unsurprising. The so-called
"astronomy community" is nowhere to be found, really, beyond a few blogs such
as these and some pending investigations at AAS. A victim should be able to go
to the first person she encounters and find real support. The truth is that
nothing changed despite high-profile cases such as Marcy.

Another thing is clear: astronomers need to unlearn some of the social norms
inherited from the puritan era. Drinking is not "bad". Sexual harassment is
violence, not sex. Sex is not "bad", or to be ashamed of. Violence should always
be condemned.

Remember that feeling shame and embarrassment when harassed are not healthy
reactions. This seems obvious, but bears repeating as they are so often
considered "natural" ones in our current society (see for example movies), and
that they get in the way of reporting. Today the harasser is the one who runs
free today with mind at ease.

And what does drinking have to do with anything ? I would not call a "friend"
anyone vile and obtuse enough to make this comment. Nobody would turn down
someone physically abused by a senior person, or assumed this is because the
victim drank. Yet when this is psychological abuse and/or involves sex,
reactions are that dismal.

So, how can we warn new female students against these individuals ? After years
of talks and talks, all I see is the same exact situation for new arrivals:
nothing is done. I'm told a confidential list of toxic individuals is
circulating, but this is obviously not done properly. In our time of
filesharing, one would think this could be done more efficiently.

melodaye said...

Hi, I am also a female astronomy postdoc and I am really shocked by the events related in this post... I would like to better understand how such unacceptable behaviours can happen. Can you explain what reasons made you stay silent when these fact happened ? I know that my question is bold and my purpose is not to judge you or put the blame on you. The only one who should feel guilty is this guy. I just think that knowing what you felt may be useful because it can help us learn about how to react in this situation, as a victim or a witness. And if it is too painful or embarrassing for you to answer to my question, I will totally understand that you do not answer to it.

Anonymous said...

I know that there is a whisper-network of those who know who these perpetrators are, and who and inform younger students who might be at risk. Maybe I am in the wrong part of the astronomical community, but I haven't received access to this whisper network, and at every event I wonder if one of the various perpetrators in our community is present. Obviously I would much prefer to know ahead of time who to avoid rather than to find out firsthand. I wish there were a way to gain access to the knowledge that others in the community have.

Anonymous said...

I hate stories like this. The perp is still getting away with this behavior, and I don't know who to avoid, since clearly this person still has a job. Why are we protecting them?

Anonymous said...

Hello melodaye,

Neither of these stories is mine. However, I reported the faculty member that sexually harassed and then ultimately raped me. The reason that I did not initially come forward was I blamed myself. These assaults do not happen in isolation and are often times part of an abusive academic relationship and grooming process.

Additionally, the evidence reviews during the investigation taught me how other academics can be judgmental jerks. As part of his defense, the perpetrator tried to cover up his behavior by saying that I acted "inappropriate" all the time. He even attempted to have two senior colleagues, another male professor and a female professor back him up on my "inappropriate" behavior. The only concrete examples of my "inappropriate" behavior were when senior male colleagues would take the interaction there. One, was a senior male colleague commenting on my appearance before I gave a talk. The other, a male colleague brought up STDs at a professional dinner. My "inappropriate" behavior was how I decided to navigate these situations by ignoring the comments about my appearance or by engaging the individual in a scientific discussion about public health. Both of the professor witnesses labeled this as me acting "inappropriate". Fortunately, the investigators commented on how I was not the one initiating the "inappropriate" behavior.

The investigation taught me that for a young academic being targeted, people will think they got themself into that situation and is responsible for the harassment happening to them. Hopefully, this gives you some perspective on why people don't come forward. I had the benefit of having a lot of evidence and the support of my family and other academic mentors. Not all survivors are so lucky. Particularly because often they are isolated from their networks by the abuser.

melodaye said...

I am sorry for what happened to you, and thanks for having posted your story here. How can people put the blame on victims ?! Well, I guess that this is the effects of the "rape culture"... If our society always put the blame on the victims, I assume that self-shaming and undergoing the "yes but isn't she a bit responsible for that too ?" process is definitely not helping to report these agressions. Maybe that part of the solution is to keep on raising awareness among our community about these issues, and to explain how other people can help the victims and that the blame is always on the perpetrator (apparently it is not obvious...). This should not take place only in dedicated sessions or lunchs in conferences (which is a good start), but on a wider scale to reach every members of our community. This would help victims to find support and know that they can report this kind of behaviour without shame.