I feel like I’m writing installments for a weird soap opera–“Tune in today for the continuation of the saga. Will there be an investigation? Will the administration give up their lazy ways and comply with Title IX? Will there still be a hearing? What about the other known harassers at the college? What happens when parents get involved? Find out what’s next on ‘The Cowardly and The Compliant’. Brought to you by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.”
The current situation is not what I imagined when I decided to return to grad school. Sexual harassment was not on the menu. Sure, I anticipated that a graduate medical program would be hard. It should be difficult. And, when I realized that my harasser was going to continue in his pattern of predatory behavior after a year of intermittent harassment, I anticipated that reporting him would be unpleasant. Reporting sexual harassment is always unpleasant because you are forced to disclose what has happened to you, and that inevitably provokes feelings of vulnerability and shame. It also raises internal doubts like, “What if no one believes me?” and “What if I am blamed for the harassment?”– and the oft asked question “Why did you wait to report it?”
The questions that are asked of victims of myriad types of harassment and sexual harassment in specific seem to inherently blame the victim, and I suspect that this is the case because there is a culture of blame surrounding sexual misconduct embedded in our culture. Anyone who has been sexually assaulted, raped, and/or sexually harassed knows this. The psychology that arises within victims after experiencing the aforementioned is almost always one of self-blame as well: “Did I do something to make him/her think I wanted that? I think it might be my fault.” And, too often, others are more than willing to agree with that sentiment–“Well, maybe you were too friendly with him/her. You are sort of flirty.” There is, however, something more at play…
“I think the biggest factor that promotes victim-blaming is something called the just world hypothesis,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at the University of the South and founding editor of the APA’s Psychology of Violencejournal. “It’s this idea that people deserve what happens to them. There’s just a really strong need to believe that we all deserve our outcomes and consequences.”
Hamby explains that this desire to see the world as just and fair may be even stronger among Americans, who are raised in a culture that promotes the American Dream and the idea that we all control our own destinies.
“In other cultures, where sometimes because of war or poverty or maybe sometimes even just because of a strong thread of fatalism in the culture, it’s a lot better recognized that sometimes bad things happen to good people,” she says. “But as a general rule, Americans have a hard time with the idea that bad things happen to good people.” (The Psychology of Victim-Blaming)
I have encountered this phenomenon for 26 years. Generally, people are very uncomfortable with the idea that they could do all the right things in life and still suffer. The summer before I started undergrad in the 90s, I unknowingly lived next door to a man wanted by Interpol for human trafficking and other crimes. He had multiple aliases. He was extremely charming and very smart. On a hot, summer day in August, he abducted me, and I got to experience human trafficking. I can’t begin to count how many times it has been insinuated to me that I should have known he was a criminal. I have been told directly a few times that it was my fault. I understand the reasons. People cling to the idea that if you do everything right, then you will escape tragedy.
You won’t. Sometimes the unspeakable happens, and there is no good reason for it. And, I don’t know about you, but that is hard to live with. I’ve lived with the fallout of that horrible experience for the last 26 years of my life. Consequently, on good days, I feel a strange sympathy for the people who blame me for being trafficked or harmed in other ways. They have to in order to feel safe in the world. It is, of course, a grand illusion. I know that, and there is cold comfort in my understanding their perspective. Still, that understanding prevents me from feeling re-victimized when I have to make difficult decisions like filing a complaint against my college with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
And how is that going, you ask?
An investigator with the OCR called me last week for a phone interview. We talked for an hour and a half. She said that she would notify me this week via email if their office decided to open an investigation into my college. I learned last night that the OCR is probably going to investigate my college. This is not a small thing. This will likely take six months. This is a federal investigation. The school will know that I am the one who filed the complaint. It’s somewhat anxiety-provoking. If I’m not currently on their Shit List, then I certainly will be once they get wind of the investigation.
Why did I go so far as to file a complaint with the OCR? I did it because I learned of three other harassment cases at my school that took place within a year of each other, and the administration of the college failed to act in all cases. Another student also had to file for an harassment restraining order (HRO), and it was granted. A teacher is currently being stalked by a student, and the student who harassed me also sexually harassed another woman at my school engaging in unwanted sexual touching. A female student even went so far as to publicly retaliate against another student for attempting to report a student for sexual harassment. In all cases, the college sided with the harassers, thusly, creating a sexually hostile environment. By definition, this is discrimination based on sex which is why it is reportable to the OCR; it is a violation of Title IX. It is also wrong. Something should be done about it. I’m in a position to be the person who does something.
As for the dreaded hearing, it is scheduled for next week, but the parents of the man harassing me have requested that we meet. He is 26 years-old, but it appears that his parents take responsibility for him and his actions. They do not want a hearing. They want to have a “sit-down” this week. None of this feels real to me. Honestly, I’d just like to go to school and become a doctor, but there are dragons to slay, I guess.
Next week, I have midterms.
Stay tuned for next week’s installment of “The Cowardly and The Compliant”. Will MJ meet The Parents, keep her HRO, and pass her midterms? Who’s to say…