4 ways to be an ally to victims of sexual misconduct

In 2011, I was sexually assaulted at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. For me, as for many others, enduring sexual assault was just the beginning of a years-long nightmare.

Sexual misconduct in the workplace is one of the most difficult issues facing the scientific and academic communities; however, a number of exceptional allies helped me make it through my ordeal. There are plenty of webpages that give great advice on how to support victims of sexual misconduct. (Here’s one of many examples.) In this post, I’ll list a few additional ways that my allies provided support — these may not be obvious, but are easy ways to provide meaningful support to a friend or colleague who has been subjected to misconduct.

1. Ask, “what can I do to help?” It can be very difficult for an individual to, say, ask you to contact leadership on their behalf, or connect them with a prominent advocate who you know. This difficulty is multiplied by the discomfort that they will feel when telling you about the initial incident of sexual misconduct. By asking what you can do to help, you can move a tough conversation forward in a positive direction while signaling your willingness to be an ally.

2. Ask, “what are your rules?” Victims of sexual misconduct are subjected to many rules that essentially function as roadblocks in their path toward safety and justice. Some of these rules are written, such as the confidentiality mandates that so often protect predators rather than victims, and some are unwritten, such as the “rule” that famous men are worth more than up-and-coming women. In my own experience, neither set of rules was entirely clear. One of the most empowering moments I experienced was when an ally asked me, “what are your rules?” He wanted to know whether he had my permission to warn his colleagues about Miguel Pinto’s history as a sexual predator. By asking an individual what their “rules” are, you not only show them respect, but you also return some of the agency that they had previously been denied.

3. Share solutions, not just stories. Discrimination and misconduct are uniquely humiliating professional issues; if you have not experienced them yourself, telling someone “I’ve been through difficult times too” will often be unproductive. A more positive way to share your experiences is to focus on the solutions that got you through that hardship. So instead of saying, for example, “I know what it’s like to be sad because my father once had a stroke,” try saying something along the lines of, “When my father had a stroke, I could barely function at work and didn’t know if I’d be able to move forward with my career. But I found cognitive behavioral therapy to be tremendously helpful, and I think it could help you to . . . ” By focusing on the solutions that were most valuable during your own experiences, you can avoid distractions and keep the conversation constructive.

4. Extend a professional invitation. Whenever I told a potential ally about what I’d been through, I was terrified of being shunned. I thought, maybe this person will turn their back on me now that they know; after all, many victims of sexual misconduct have been ostracized for speaking out. One of the best ways to allay this fear is to encourage the individual to participate in your professional circle. For example, you can remind the individual that they are welcome at your department’s journal club, or you can tell the individual that you hope to see them present their research at an upcoming conference that you will attend. If you are not in a position to extend this sort of invitation, you can encourage the individual to write a blog post about their research, or to mentor a student. By expressing continued enthusiasm for the individual’s professional development, you show your optimism that they will be able to move forward with their career and you signal that the research community will not retaliate against them for speaking out.