Hello Title IX

This one time I was sexually harassed by a staff member at an Ivy League university. Here’s what happened.

This is a report of my ongoing effort to report sexual harassment as a PhD student. Read the first phase here, and follow my progress as I try to protect myself and others like me.

I am a 28 year old white woman and a PhD student when I give an invited talk at an ivy league institution. This is facilitated by a male staff member in his 50s, an expert in his field. He has a doctorate from my university, and we have communicated about my work by email. He is more knowledgeable about my subfield than anyone else I know. He gives me support, feedback, and advice. He encourages me to apply for a residential fellowship at his university, a prestigious opportunity that would significantly benefit my research.

Isn’t mentorship great!

I don’t need to go into the details of what he says to me, but I can assure you that it is ordinary, nonviolent, and disruptive. He transforms a professional relationship between student and mentor into a sexual one. He does so slowly, over the course of several encounters at conferences and other events. He is explicit about his desires, he apologizes when I tell him that it makes me uncomfortable, and he does not stop.

How do you document this kind of harassment? I send an email explicitly saying that a) his comments made me uncomfortable, b) I am not interested in a sexual relationship, and c) I never want to discuss the topic again. I think this is effective documentation, but he replies in person. This means I do not have documentation of his response, and I do not have documentation of his ongoing harassment. If this were to happen again, I would send a follow-up email after our in-person conversation, and I would continue emailing *myself* on the same thread every time another incident occurred.

Meanwhile, I begin to speak to other women in my field about the situation. I learn that this man is well known for his sexualization of professional relationships with younger women. He has done this to other women. He has done this to undergraduates!

Still, I get the fellowship, and I accept it. How could I let sexual harassment disrupt my career? As a result, I see him more frequently, and am forced to depend on him more in a professional capacity. Now I understand how expertise gives men power: it creates the illusion that they are necessary. It creates the illusion that an ongoing relationship will benefit the woman’s career.

This makes me angry. It is outrageous! But I am thankful that there are systems in place to report these things. I imagine that there is a dossier slowly building about this person. I imagine that once it reaches critical mass, some action will be taken. I hope that is the case. I hope that I can help make that happen.

How to report harassment across academic institutions

It takes me a long time to report this person because I don’t know where to go.

At first, we are at different institutions. I don’t feel that I qualify for any of the HR offices at his university. I have no institutional power, I think, and so I have no way to create an institutional record.

Then I think maybe I should talk to his supervisor. This seems like a great idea, but his supervisor is also an older male with whom I have a professional relationship. It’s silly, but I feel uncomfortable talking to him about it. How will I handle the fellowship if he knows this is an ongoing situation? It makes me anxious, so I put it off.

Then, an older female faculty member suggests that I contact the Title IX office at my university. That seems backwards, but at least then I can have a record of the incident, so I start following up with that.

That leads me to the Title IX office at the Ivy League Institution. I begin to think maybe I have a case, especially now that I am a fellow living on campus and receiving funding from the institution.

How to get help from your title nine office

This is way harder than it seems like it should be! Here’s what happens.

  1. I go to the Title IX website.
  2. I confirm, thanks to the clear and detailed information on the Title IX website, that my situation qualifies as sexual harassment and that the Title IX office is an appropriate place to report it.
  3. I look for information on how to report my situation. There is a complicated flowchart explaining what happens *after* I report the situation. There is a page called “get help” which seems like the right place to go. But it only lists hotlines and emergency resources for victims of assault. That’s not me.
  4. I call the phone number for the Title IX office and leave a voicemail.
  5. While I’m waiting for them to return my voicemail, I call the “sexual harassment resource center,” a phone number listed among the helpful links on the Title IX website. The phone number turns out to be the number for the women’s health office. Do I want to make an appointment at the clinic, speak with a nutritionist, or leave a voicemail for Cheryl, Lindsay, or Adrienne? I hang up.

I’m writing this as a wait for the Title IX office to call me back (or not). Stay tuned for more writing from the annals of really moderate but still disruptive, sexist, and time consuming sexual harassment at a university!