Nothing that bad happened to me. Certainly nothing out of the ordinary. I was lucky. I wasn’t raped. I wasn’t sexually assaulted. At most, I was sexually harassed. Cross out at most. I was. And even that is so complex and equivocal and tenuous.
I know it was inappropriate. I knew it then. He was a married professor. I was a single student. He advised me on my projects and he signed the form that let me graduate. Our interactions began at school: before and during classes, around the department, in the lounge, his office, the hallway. Off campus, I can remember three or four social occasions over about six months. Maybe there were more. I’ve minimized things in my memory over time, already blurry from drinking.
What happened? He teased me, he negged me, he flirted. I participated, I initiated, I flirted back. I laughed and nodded wisely at his criticisms of other professors; I shook my head and giggled at his sexually charged comments about other female students. I didn’t file a report or a complaint and I didn’t tell him not to make those comments and I didn’t walk away. I stayed in the bar and I drank the drinks he bought and I listened to him talk about how hard it was to be married, or how I just understood him in ways other people didn’t. I don’t remember many details. The conversations were vague, clumsy but exciting, weighted with illusory significance. A little cabal of two, I thought then. Later I’d learn to revise my count substantially.
The most physical contact we ever had was sitting close enough for our legs to touch, or brief brushes of arms or hands. He didn’t proposition me. He didn’t try to touch me or kiss me or have sex with me. I wasn’t turned on by him but I wasn’t turned off either. I liked the positive attention. I wanted to be a good student. I wanted my professor and mentor, the successful man giving me critiques and grades, to tell me I was smart and had a future, a purpose. I wanted to feel valuable, valued, special, understood, attractive. Many of the things I wanted, he gave me—as my teacher, but also when he spoke flirtatiously, when we held eye contact an extra few beats, when we had emotional, philosophical, personal conversations late into the night. When he hinted at what could happen, between us, if only.
Eventually he veered off. The gestures and intimate conversations faded into awkward avoidance. Later, students who knew his reputation told me that he didn’t “get anywhere” with them because they weren’t “susceptible.” And I was. It’s a common story but it’s not the only story. Do you have to be susceptible to be harassed? Do you have to be weak to be bullied? Do you have to be vulnerable to have inappropriate interactions within a formalized power dynamic?
In any case, I was vulnerable. I was anxious and depressed following a difficult breakup, and I was struggling with school, work, finances, my path in life. I wrote about suicidal ideation on the same journal pages I wrote about our late nights in bars. I was going through a hard, shitty time, as many young students do. He was generous, and kind; he gave me thoughtful, positive feedback on my work; he gave me extensions and support when I was failing to meet deadlines. He also sexually harassed his students.
Was it a big deal? Not to me, not much. Some? Enough? Enough that since I left school and my own understanding of sexism and patriarchy and power grew, I began to name his behaviour with that label I still struggle to use. Enough that I am deeply embarrassed and ashamed. Enough that even before graduation I did not feel comfortable in his presence and still avoid crossing his path many years later. Enough that, as I develop my own career, I have never and will never ask him for feedback or advice or help or introductions or reference letters, all things students tend to ask of their professors and mentors. If he praised my abilities or helped me … would he do so because he believed in my work, or because of everything else? I would never know. It’s impossible to separate; it’s not an either/or question.
Enough that I have felt anxiety and stress that have disrupted my work, my sleep; I have felt empathy and fear and rage for the other women I now know he harassed and assaulted; I have felt helpless and confused and hopeless at the systemic, institutionalized sexism that seems so untouchable and monolithic, the countless others it has hurt. I have spent many hours considering and discussing and questioning the grey areas. I have learned to hear the passwords in other women’s stories.
And I have kept silent. I did not come forward, I did not speak up. I stayed silent because I was, and am, afraid.
I am afraid of people who hear and investigate such reports having biases against women, marginalized people, and victims of sexual assault. I am afraid of people believing that my experiences were my fault, or harmless, or not bad enough to count.
I am afraid of being informally blacklisted within my own field, within and outside academia. I am afraid of damaging or destroying my future career prospects, my financial stability. I am afraid of being sued. I am afraid of legal fees I can’t afford.
I am afraid of my privacy being violated, my statements misrepresented and shared by others without my knowledge or consent. I am afraid of being harassed, attacked, and discredited. I am afraid of causing more harm to other students and women and survivors, of the risks to our health, our work, our families.
I am afraid of all of these things because I see them happen every day to the women who do come forward, to the people who work to support and centre the marginalized, the vulnerable and silenced. I’m grateful to and honour those people who speak out so bravely. I wish I were braver. I wish I felt safer. I wish I felt safe enough to write an open letter asking for change in my community, to call him by name and sign my own on this page.
Either way I’m stuck with the old, familiar, yet still unsettling feeling that my own small experiences are being cast aside; that powerful people who weren’t there are telling me that those experiences weren’t important or couldn’t possibly be true or if they were they shouldn’t affect whether a man gets to be a professor and advisor of students at one of the country’s top academic institutions.
What happened wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t raped. I wasn’t sexually assaulted. I was part of a power dynamic created and upheld by an institution of higher learning, a dynamic that was exploited by the very person the institution taught me to trust and respect. Would I act differently now? Yes. Do I wish I had then? Of course. I wish other people had too—for example, the man being paid to teach women who now wish they had known better.
This essay is published as part of the No Comment project.
More Writing from the No Comment Project
No Comment by Alessandra Naccarato
Erase and Rewind by Meghan Bell
White house, where some family lived upstairs by Chelene Knight
Loyalty and Violence by Ruth Daniell
Burning Bridges by Joelle Barron
Penknife by Ellie Sawatzky
for play by Kayla Czaga
back, cover by Elaine Corden
Sex Work Solidarity as Healing by Amber Dawn
I Was Once That Girl by Jen Sookfong Lee
On Receiving Bad News by Mallory Tater
The Disappearing Woman by Leah Horlick
Boys Will Be Boys by Dina Del Bucchia
Nicomekl River by Claire Matthews
Knowing Better by Anonymous
Monster by Mikiko Galpin
Reframing the Montréal Massacre by Maureen Bradley
Testimony, Part X by Anonymous
Broken Heart Emoji, Crystal Ball Emoji, Stars Emoji by Kyla Jamieson
Bits by Carleigh Baker
Metamorphosis 6: 401-674: A Paraphrase in Still Pictures by Annick MacAskill
black pearls by Jónína Kirton
Not Yet by Juliane Okot Bitek
Sei Turni (6 spells for #CanLit) by Amber Dawn