Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It happens here

The author of this post chose to keep her name anonymous because she wants to place importance on the issue of sexual harassment rather than her own experience.

When I was a freshman, I was sexually harassed by one of my professors.

I should say right here and now that he never laid a hand on me. Rather, he made several comments about my appearance, and scheduled a private meeting in which he asked me to take an assignment in an explicitly sexual direction. Despite my hesitation, he was adamant in his request, and, when I failed to comply with his directions, he scheduled another meeting. In the second meeting the innuendo got so inappropriate that I made an excuse to leave early. While I never took a private meeting with him again, he pressured me for the rest of the semester about the assignment, and –I believe—docked my grade because I never could bring myself to do what he had asked of me.

Now, my impulse is always to follow that story with an assurance that it sounds worse than it actually was, but I’m not so sure. In the past I have downplayed the scenario’s gravity because, while I felt acutely uncomfortable, I never felt traumatized, or even violated. My reaction more closely resembled annoyance: with an astonishingly casual disgust, I wrote him off as a creep and an asshole and never looked back. Perhaps this was because I was too distracted by the adjustment to college life to fully process the experience. Perhaps it was because I had been sexually harassed before—and by someone who did not respect physical boundaries. Certainly I was in denial that any professor would do what I suspected mine was doing. For whatever reason, I viewed the incident for a long time as “crappy, but not a big deal.”

Over the years that have followed, my attitude has changed, and not because some emotional or psychological effect eventually took hold. Being sexually harassed is a big deal no matter how it happens or how the victim reacts. It is a huge injustice and a huge breach of trust. Particularly when the harasser is a professor or another authority figure, the victim struggles with feelings of powerlessness and betrayal. It is a violation, and a wrong that no student, of any age, or any gender, should ever have to suffer.

This is not an issue that gets talked about at Princeton, which makes me both frustrated and irrationally hopeful. I hope against hope that what happened to me was an isolated incident, and that the lack of dialogue at Princeton about sexual harassment means that no one else shares my experience. I am frustrated because, even if being harassed by a professor is a true aberration, I have witnessed sexual harassment between students and there just isn’t enough conversation about this problem. Students at Princeton hear a lot from the administration about assault, but not about harassment. Students talk a lot about rape but almost never about harassment. This is a problem. It’s time members of the Princeton community treated it as such.

While I’m not interested in becoming the poster child for this issue, I do want to reassure other students who may have had this experience that they are not alone. I also want to encourage anyone facing a similar scenario to act with a courage and a presence of mind that I did not. With all injustice, change comes when individuals bring it into the light, talk about it, challenge it. In some ways, I wish I had done more as a freshman to fight the “crappy” situation I found myself in. I can only hope that my story inspires conversation among Princetonians about the existence of sexual harassment in our community, and incites anyone who is facing or has ever faced sexual harassment to challenge it, to fight back.

Note: the professor in question is no longer teaching at Princeton, for reasons unrelated to the incident, which happened in 2005.

If you are currently dealing with sexual harassment, or are a survivor of sexual harassment, and need help, contact the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education Office at (609) 258 3310

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