Why I tend to believe Herman Cain’s accusers
[This post may read as off-topic. I don't want to use "me + richard armitage" as a political platform. To U.S. readers: this post is not an entreaty not to vote for Cain or for the GOP, because that's not what it is; you know best your own opinions about politics and you should vote your conscience. Only in that way can our popular sovereignty be strong. In real life as in Armitageworld, kindness and understanding are more important to me than anybody's politics. But my emotions about this issue are standing the way of writing today, and since it's also part of my story, one of the troubles that plagued me for so long and led me to the bad place, and part of the reason I contracted Armitagemania, I'm putting it down here, although it also could be understood to have political connotations. And yes, certain aspects of Armitagemania seem like a solution to this issue, like I might be healing. So that's why it's here. Comments closed because I don't really want to debate sexual harassment, and my reactions to these experiences are not up for debate today. So let me reiterate, this post is not about whether what I feel is "right" -- just about what I feel.]
I don’t know what Herman Cain actually has or hasn’t done, nor do I want to discuss my conclusions about veracity of sexual harassment accusations made against him. What I want to discuss is the reason why, when anyone tells me that he or she’s been sexually harassed and has not felt able to discuss it, my first inclination is to believe him or her.
I have been sexually harassed in the workplace. In two different settings.
As a teen and in college, I called myself “not a feminist.” I honestly thought, even at 20, that women had achieved social parity with men. I had a pretty conservative upbringing for the 1970s and 80s; my parents’ marriage is a very strictly separate spheres arrangement, so most of the things that second-wave feminists worried about seemed silly to me. My best friend in college was and is a very intense feminist, and she convinced me of some things, and as I moved into graduate school and started to want to assert autonomy, I saw some of the sexist obstacles to that desire, but even so, I wasn’t worried they were going to hurt me. Apart from a proposition I got as a TA from a male student who was failing my class, which was more laughable than disturbing, I didn’t encounter such issues in the jobs in which I worked, though now I wonder whether the way I was brought up blinded me to things occurring in those settings.
What I’ve heard lately suggests to me more and more that sexual harassment in the workplace is the norm rather than the exception. I used to think I was unusual, but maybe I am not.
I thought I was immune. Then I got my first tenure-track job: in a department where I was the first ever woman to be hired; on a campus where less than 10% of the faculty were women. I was hired at the behest of a dean who was trying to address this situation and forced into the midst of a tightly-knit group men who’d worked together for decades, never considered they’d have a female colleague, and weren’t about to change their frat-boy behaviors for me. There was a joke among my colleagues that I was hired for my ovaries, and as furious as I remain whenever I remember the context in which I first heard that said about myself, that wasn’t entirely wrong. When I was party to the hiring conversations the next year, I heard a discussion about how to circumvent the demands of campus affirmative action even to interview women for the positions we had advertised. To say that this workplace was highly unprofessional and hostile to women is an understatement; the last semester I was there, several women (though not I) contacted the EEOC to file discrimination complaints. Given the fear that non-tenured faculty have about what might happen to prevent them from being tenured, this step was extreme. Due to the way that the university handled a situation that term in response to a female faculty member who was being stalked by one of her male students, almost all of the women on campus looked for new jobs and 28% of us left campus before fall. The low point for me was a situation in which I asked my department chair, politely, to explain the rationale for a decision he’d made, and he called me a bitch in front of three male colleagues. For asking a question, which he saw as questioning his power — in a situation where he already had most of the power. In a workplace where what we are supposed to be doing is asking questions and teaching our students how to ask them. Even then, a mere question was more than enough justification to put me in a box. And no one protested or even suggested he had been out of line.
Because harassment in that setting was expressed as condescension, anger, threat, and punishment, it was easier to be angry about it. I never wondered if it was my fault. And anger got me to move. People believed us. Because we were angry about what happened as it was happening, because it was clear how we should respond to the treatment we were receiving, and because we did act. The last time I ran into someone from my old department, he told me, scoffingly, that the system chancellor had actually set up a committee to figure out “what the gender problem on our campus is.”
When we talk about harassment in the U.S. these days, there’s a tendency to think victims know right away when they’re being victimized and to conclude that people who are being victimized are automatically capable of speaking for themselves. That’s true sometimes, as my first experience demonstrates. But the second time I was harassed was very different, and that’s what I’m referencing when I say that my first instinct is to believe an accuser. Even when — or perhaps because — an accusation seems timed.
Now well into my career — no longer just a beginning assistant professor who’d been lucky enough to find a first position, but someone whose opinion was starting to be taken seriously, a speaker whose papers were eagerly attended — I had won a significant research fellowship, a prestigious item in the academic cursus honorum, for which I had had to be supported by the other professors with whom I’d be working. One of my supporters was a professor who’d supported me from my very earliest moments as a dissertator, at a point at which even the scholar who was charged with supervising me was suspicious of the validity of my work, which is fairly avant-garde when seen from the perspective of my field. This supporter heard me give a paper and came up to me afterwards to tell me what he liked about it, despite some opposition that I was getting at the conference, and from that moment onward he actively furthered my career. He invited me to speak at his campus and paid for it — repeatedly; he made contacts to other scholars for me; he arranged for me to speak in important international venues; he wrote an important reference; he suggested ways to increase my publication profile, including contributions to his publications with my own name on them; and he was the one to suggest that I apply for this prestigious fellowship.
And then I made it to his campus. In a department with a severe office shortage, he found me an office I wouldn’t have to share in a very out-of-the-way place, separated from the rest of his research group. He had his secretary find me housing (usually the hardest part of a research stay away from home), and he took me out to lunch every week “to hear how your research is going.” He invited me to address him informally. When he found out I loved poems, he suggested poetry I might like. He was unusually touchy for someone in his position, but he tended to be more emotional than most of his colleagues, and I thought he was just deciding to be a good friend. The man is roughly my parents’ age. I wasn’t thinking of him as a romantic partner. Then I was away for three weeks, on a research trip, giving a conference paper, and out sick. On the day I got back to work, he popped into my office, shut the door behind me, came over to where I was standing, as I’d risen to greet him, and said, “I was so worried when you weren’t back last week. Ich hab Dich so sehr lieb — sag, daß Du mich auch lieb hast.” (This is a sweet way of saying, “I love you, say you love me too,” in German — as opposed to the more elevated “ich liebe Dich.”) Then he raised his hand to my right breast, pushed his body against mine, and started to kiss me. When I tried to push him away, he retreated for a second, smiled at me condescendingly, and repeated the action.
I said no and stop, repeating this response every time he tried it. But he propositioned me repeatedly, he trapped me alone in my isolated office, which now seemed like a cage rather than a perquisite, and pressed kisses on my lips and my neck and my bosom, he invited me to intimate lunches where he pressed up against me with his thighs and extended his arms over my shoulders and waist. He hugged me unsolicitedly and repeatedly even after I told him I was not interested in him specifically or affairs with married men generally. He wrote me “love letters” in which he punned on classic poems to indicate his desire to touch various parts of my body.
At first I thought I was going crazy. When I realized I wasn’t going crazy, and these things were really happening, I also realized there was going to be no redress. I couldn’t bring myself to respond physically beyond pushing him away; I didn’t have what it took to kick or punch him. I had no one to talk to. I had no idea how the grantor would react, whether I would be believed if I raised the issue with the administration of my funder, or if I were, if I would be sent home. Because I had been raised with the belief that there are no real problems with gender anymore, and I had learned that daring to ask a question makes you a bitch. Saying “no” to the professor was having no effect. I told a few of my friends at the time, but the man I told, someone who’d also been a fellow there, didn’t believe me — my harasser had and has a huge reputation as a very kind, supportive man who lacks the big ego of the typical professor in his subject — and the women came up with no solution other than continuing to fend him off that wouldn’t end up harming me. I decided to wait it out, try to be in my office as little as possible (hard, because that’s where you’re supposed to be writing your research results), and try to shake it off. (This is about half of what my first academic blog was about.)
I still lack words to describe how damaging this experience was to me personally. I saved every letter he wrote me — in an envelope that was in the major binder that I used to organize the research I did on that fellowship — and then found myself unable physically to open that folder for well over eighteen months, upon which I shut the binder until a moment that I’ll talk about below. What do you do, when someone who’s supported your career professionally for so long, practically since the beginning, starts acting this way? I immediately started to wonder — and I still wonder — if he only ever supported my ideas because he liked my breasts, or what is more probable: that he picked me out to cultivate because he saw someone vulnerable whom he thought could be pressured to give him what he wanted, which wasn’t so much sex, I think, as simply a demonstration that he was still potent, still important, still worthy of admiration.
You might be inclined to say that after more than a decade of professional experience that I should have had more self-esteem, but everything in the academic world depends on what other people think of you and what they are willing to say about it in writing. I’d like to say there was no indication this was going to happen — but it turns out what I experienced was part of a much bigger problem that is now being addressed, thankfully — and there were signs. I just didn’t know how to recognize them because I still believed that gender relations were not really a problem in professional life, even though I’d had plenty of evidence to the contrary in the interval.
So yes, sexual harassment had shut me down, not just as an academic but also as a person who felt able to speak up for herself. As a writer, as a thinker, even as someone who observed the world. I vowed not to talk about it and I didn’t. When I returned home I went into therapy immediately about another problem I was having, and chose the therapist in part because she had published a book on her own experience of harassment — but in two years of very expensive sessions, I was able to broach these events with her exactly twice. I couldn’t even talk about it to help myself. Yes, that is how much sexual harassment in the workplace can potentially hurt someone. What finally brought me to speak was when I heard, through the grapevine, that the problem was repeating itself and about to become much more severe. Specifically, it was about to impact a good friend of mine, one of my oldest friends in Germany. I contorted myself for weeks over the issue, including unpleasant conversations with my ex-SO, who was also inadvertently enmeshed in the problem, trying to figure out how to say anything about it, how to warn my friend — someone I’d known for over a decade at that point — against something she was about to do. And do you know what happened? When I did bring the issue up, including finally getting up the guts to open a research binder that I’d been carting around with me for years everywhere I went but couldn’t bring myself to open, in order to fish out that evidence so she would know I wasn’t lying, this old friend said: “I know there are rumors about this professor, but I don’t really believe what you’re saying. Why didn’t you tell me about it when it was happening?”
I wasn’t able to answer at the time. Given my previous experiences I would also never have thought that I’d be someone who’d be silenced by this sort of treatment. I thought of myself as a person who was able to speak up for herself, to take care of herself, to protect herself. My self-concept was and is heavily dependent on the notion that I do not need. But when I watch women who have to get up in front of cameras and explain their shame to prurient audiences who don’t really care about them but only about the media cycle, I know the answer to my friend’s question. I know why I couldn’t speak then. Because the very act of the harassment weakened me so much that I — hardly a person who’s ever been at a loss for words — became mute. And because even though I couldn’t speak up for myself at the time, the only way that I could redress this radical disempowerment afterwards is to try, at great risk to myself, to prevent it from happening to someone else. I was harassed, but I want you to know that you don’t have to be. I know that there’s a tendency to say that women who accuse years after the fact are doing it for what they can get out of it. But as one of the harassed, that’s not my first response to seeing those women speak. Because no one wants to get up on a podium and proclaim to all the world that they were someone’s subordinated, sexual object. I never wanted to admit that I couldn’t stop something someone was doing to me against my will. It’s not pretty, it’s not fun, it’s not something to be proud of. I lost something like a third of my friends in a certain circle because of the fallout of this situation, and there’s a further third whom I can’t speak to because I am afraid it will come up. I also don’t think of speaking up about these things as courageous so much as unavoidable if one wants to go on with one’s life. If you want to speak, you have to regain your power. Speaking up in a situation like this is a way to try to obtain some kind of feeling of redress, to say, I do have power to change things even though everything you tried to do to me was to take away my power to speak in order to enhance your own feeling of power. You did it to me because you could. You left me only this response. And now I am doing this because in order to feel that I can do anything, I have to do this.
I feel a little better now. There’ll be more Armitage in a few hours.