Content Warning: Sexual Abuse, Suicide
I recently came out on social media about the sexual abuse that I experienced under my famous graduate school advisor. It has gone exactly as poorly as I thought it would. I wish I could say I’m surprised by the lack of support I’ve received from my discipline. Or the cyberbullying, the tone-policing for being “too angry,” the sexist tropes about me being “crazy” (yet another hysterical woman) and the **** threats. But none of this is surprising to a sociologist of gender.
We live in a system that is built by white cisgender heterosexual men and designed to protect them. People who threaten this system must be punished and expelled. I have been punished and expelled because I demand justice for victims (author’s preferred terminology) of sexual abuse within this system. And not only that—I’ve exhibited anger. Maybe the system would have delivered a lighter punishment if I had concealed my anger while talking about my life-altering trauma. But my anger is data, evidence of the damages the academy inflicted upon me by refusing to investigate the whispers about my advisor for decades before I even entered graduate school. I am angry that people in positions of power suspected, did nothing, and ultimately fed me to him. If that anger makes people uncomfortable, that’s fine with me. They should be uncomfortable about what happened to me and continues to happen to others. This is not a comfortable topic.
I have written a memoir about the mental health repercussions of #MeTooPhD trauma, but it will not be on the shelves for at least another year. That deeply worries me. People are in need of solidarity and advice right now. People are struggling with suicidal ideation in their abusive mentorship relationships right now. Thus, I took #PhDVoice up on their offer to write this blog.
What follows is a list of red flags that graduate students should look out for, as well as a list of red flags that faculty members should take seriously. This is not an exhaustive list. It is simply a list based on my own experience. I conclude with some insights into how mandatory reporting and Title IX can compound the trauma that victims experience. We desperately need victim-centered resources, but as of yet there is nothing. Until the academy does something about this massive oversight, I will keep my DMs open to people who simply need to commiserate. The isolation and fearful silence were the hardest parts for me. Feel free to reach out on Twitter at @HelanaDarwin or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Red flags for graduate students-
Is this person too famous or busy to be paying this much attention to you? Does it seem too good to be true? Then it probably is. They want something, perhaps your body. But they won’t come out and say that because that would send you running. They’re smarter than that. More practiced.
First, they’ll make you feel special through “love-bombing.” They’ll shower you with compliments and offer to help you with your career in various ways that establish your professional (and sometimes financial) dependence on them. They’ll initiate an intense getting-to-know-you dialogue, asking you to tell them all about you.
If you take the bait, they will start to groom you as they gradually erode traditional professor-student boundaries. They will foster a level of intimacy that is unprofessional. The issue is that these boundaries are in place to protect the student. At the end of the day, the power differences between student and professor are very real, even if it makes the professor uncomfortable to admit it. They are supposed to protect you by maintaining boundaries.
Why would they be so intent on trivializing the significance of this very real power differential? Because it serves their interests. It makes it easier to introduce flirtation.
If they start to confess to fantasies about you, thinking about you too often, being disappointed by silence on your end, etc., they are about to make a move. They will do everything in their power to get you to think of them sexually and as an equal. This is done subtly so you don’t notice it happening. It is a sophisticated predatory dance that takes time to perfect. They have done this before. Possibly many times. But they won’t tell you that. If you’re like me, you won’t find out until someone else blows the whistle once you’re already professionally dependent on them.
If and when they finally cross the line and do something physical, know that they know better. They 100% know they shouldn’t be doing this. They know that they have power over your career. They have all the power and they have always had all the power. It is their job to control themselves and stop this—or better yet, never do it in the first place. They are supposed to be the responsible one in this situation. You are dependent on them, not the other way around.
Whether or not you say yes is beside the point, given the steep cost of saying no. Consent cannot be freely given between people of such unequal levels of power. This is a coercive abuse of power for sexual pleasure—in other words, sexual abuse. Most universities specify in their bylaws that this type of sexual boundary-crossing is not allowed, due to the very well-documented and obvious fact that it is an abuse of power over a dependent subordinate. Your abuser knows all of this and is proceeding anyway. They care more about their sexual pleasure in the short term than about whatever befalls you professionally, socially, or psychologically in the long term.
Red flags for faculty-
Is a graduate student socially isolated, alienated, and only working with one faculty member? Reach out and make sure they know you are there for them if they need to talk—even if your research interests don’t overlap. They might be that isolated because their mentor is abusing them and they don’t see a way out. Perhaps if another faculty member reaches out as an alternative mentor, they will be able to distance themselves from the situation in a way that feels safe and seems natural enough that the abuser won’t read into it and retaliate.
Is a graduate student acting out in a way that seems strange? Are they irrationally agitated at strange times? Do they seem like they are in constant fight-or-flight mode? That is a trauma response. It’s possible that the source of the trauma is not in the department, but it very well might be. Ostracizing them for their anger will only reinforce their dependence on their abuser and hurt their mental health further. Invite them for a chat and ask how things are going. They might just need to know that someone cares and that they’re not alone.
Has a student tried to hint to you that something bad is going on with a faculty member? Without disclosing further details? That probably means they are terrified of retaliation if the faculty member finds out that they talked. Don’t pry, but do ask if there’s anything you can do to help or support them. If and when they are ready, they’ll say something. Just please understand that they are in very real danger in the moment. Their hands are tied. They can only say so much.
Issues with mandatory reporting and Title IX-
My biggest fear was that my advisor would find out I had talked. I knew he would feel betrayed, he would be angry with me, and he would leave me. I couldn’t lose him. I needed his support in so many ways: academically, financially, and even emotionally, since he was my only mentor. When I found out about mandatory reporting, I realized I couldn’t trust any faculty members as confidantes in my situation…even though I desperately needed other mentors. Problematically, I could not pursue a different mentor without offering some sort of rationale, given that no one else had overlapping interests with mine. They would want an explanation for why I was reaching out to them and it was one that I could not afford to give them. Mandatory reporting resulted in my prolonged silence, isolation, and dependence on my abuser.
I found out about mandatory reporting the hard way. I decided to confide in a faculty member who had just agreed to be on my dissertation committee, without saying his name. She assured me she would respect my request for confidentiality–and then abruptly changed her mind. She reported it to Title IX (without names, thankfully) and then promptly withdrew from my dissertation committee, telling me I had put her in an unfair position. She never spoke to me or even made eye contact with me again. This was the only professional retaliation I experienced (to my knowledge) in my whole ordeal, though not the only time a confidante constructed themselves as my victim.
This faculty member’s betrayal and abandonment of me hurt almost as much as the sexual abuse, which confused me at first. However, my therapist helped me understand this intense pain when she later diagnosed me with Complex PTSD. She explained that adult onlookers of childhood sexual abuse often cause as much lasting psychological damage to the victim as the abuser themselves. The fact that someone saw what was happening and refused to help leads to lifelong issues with trust and expectations of betrayal. The same power dynamic applies to students and faculty members in the academy. This faculty member, among others, knew what had happened, knew I was suffering, and looked away. They did this because it was too dangerous for them to help me in the under-the-radar way that I needed help. This is the dark side of mandatory reporting.
I never reported my abuser to Title IX. I was too dependent on his name meaning something when I hit the job market. I was determined to keep my mouth shut so both of our careers could survive this nightmare. But after I gave birth to my second baby, during the fifth year of my program, rumors started circulating about the two of us which prompted a Title IX investigation. He instructed me to lie, told me how to lie, told me to let him know when it was over, and got very upset with me about the fact that I had obviously told someone. I waited for that Title IX phone call for over a month, with a pain in my stomach from stress. I hated lying for him, but I had to protect him to protect myself. I hated Title IX for making me do this. I asked them to call off the investigation, but I did not have that power. I never had any power.
In the end, someone else blew the whistle on him. I didn’t even know anyone else had a whistle. This came as a shock to me and forced me to reassess everything. It wasn’t a one-time slip in judgment at all. In fact, this man was a practiced sexual predator who had been rehearsing the lines he used on me for decades.
As his name and reputation crumbled two weeks before job application deadlines, my big letter of recommendation went away. I was left with faculty who either barely knew me or actively disliked me for being “too angry.” My anger was unprofessional. After three unsuccessful rounds on the job market with a stellar CV, I finally accepted that it was all for nothing.
My career prospects disappeared because of this man’s sexual predation, against me and against countless other women before me. Because of the trauma his ***** caused me. Because of the anger and pain I displayed while suffering. Because every faculty member and institution I turned to for help refused to help me out of liability concerns. Can I prove that his specific high-profile #MeToo downfall directly sabotaged my job prospects? Probably not. But I would bet anything that my reputation as “angry” or “crazy” preceded me as I applied for jobs. I know in my heart that my trauma, that his *****, cost me my career. None of this would have happened if I had an advisor who let me be a student instead of a sex object.
We need a better system for handling these situations, one that centers the victim instead of institutional and bystander liability. Until such a system emerges, don’t expect victims to come forward. Don’t be surprised when you have graduate students acting out in strange ways because they’re stuck in lose-lose situations. Their hands are tied and their tongues are tied so long as they’re in this abusive and complicit system.
Unfortunately for the system, some of us do decide to tell our stories once we escape the nightmare, whether by dropping out or (in rare cases) graduating. Not everyone can speak up, of course—some are silenced under NDAs, some have jobs they are afraid of losing, some are too afraid of the vicious cyberbullying and other forms of retaliation that I am currently experiencing. But some of us do decide to shatter the crushing silence that nearly squeezed the life out of us. And that doesn’t look good for the faculty members and institutions that refused to help us.
If you care about institutional liability and departmental prestige, you’ve got to start treating your graduate students better. Investigate rumors of sexual predation much earlier in people’s careers instead of letting it go on for decades. And for goodness sake, throw students a life-raft if you notice them drowning. Even if they don’t smile politely while they’re screaming for help.
PhD Voice is committed to giving PhD students, present and past, a way to be heard. As such, the views in this article do not necessarily represent those of PhD Voice.
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