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sexual harassment in graduate school


The recent release of the Donald Trump tapes is a good time to say something about my own experiences as a victim of sexual harassment. In the fall of 1992 I was a first-semester graduate student at Virginia Tech. My fellowship job was to serve as an academic advisor to some of the undergraduate students in the College of Liberal Arts.

My boss had a habit of directing crude sexual remarks at me whenever I entered the office. At first I dismissed the remarks, but I soon discovered that they weren't going to stop.

I knew nothing about sexual harassment. I simply wanted to do my work and get out of the office.

The context of these events was the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings the previous year; the post-Gulf War sex abuse and harassment scandal called Tailhook, also in 1991; and allegations of sexual misconduct against Senator Bob Packwood in late 1992.

Although I had never before challenged the behavior of a person in a position of authority, I knew that it would be difficult to do so. My experiences since then have borne this out: the institution almost always sides with the person who is more difficult to replace and in whom it has invested more time and energy. That is, the boss wins and you lose.

Furthermore, I believed that my boss' position as one of the three or four leading feminist academics and administrators in the University would immediately create a big sensation and brouhaha that I was ill-prepared to deal with. I had neither the time nor the energy to get involved in a protracted and potentially divisive fight.

The problem resolved itself at the end of the semester when my fellowship was revoked due to my poor academic performance. A classmate took my job for the second semester.

The dynamics for a man harassed by a woman seem to parallel those of a woman harassed by a man: a lack of knowledge of how to protect oneself or seek redress; a belief that such remedies as may exist would not result in a just outcome; an ill-informed and self-defeating decision to say and do nothing about the abuse; and shame that my failure to speak up may have encouraged the perpetrator to abuse others.

Notwithstanding the above, I don't want people to think that Virginia Tech is a bad place to work. It is not. It's a lovely place, the people are nice, and over the past couple of generations, it has gone from being a good regional school with a largly male student population to one of the top engineering and liberal arts schools in the country for women as well as men.


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