The silence of victims and the odds stacked against them

Both off-and-online, the systems in place do their best to discourage the wrong people

FreeImages.com/Iwan Beijes

In a previous piece, we looked at the imbalance of power in online harassment policies, where victims are held to unfair standards when reporting their abusers.

Today, we will listen to a victim who experienced harassment offline. Her experience allows us to see how the faults in current legal systems and university policies have inspired the flaws in online support structures.

Before we begin, it should be noted that the anonymous author below is only one of many cases which have come to light recently. Caltech, University of Arizona, and UC-Berkeley have each had cases of sexual harassment reported in the last year, all in the field of astronomy.


The harassment began when I was working at a university in a different country from my former supervisor, but continuing to collaborate with him. He was planning a work trip and asked if he could stay at my home to save money and so that we could work on publications together. The harassment during his visit was daily and persistent. He made suggestive and lewd comments, such as asking me one morning whether him masturbating in the next room had kept me awake. He would try to kiss me. Each time I would ask myself: “How do I say no without damaging my career?”

Everything about reporting and handling sexual harassment needs to be overhauled when you have to wonder if your career will be ruined by standing up for your own safety.

A few months later, my harasser published my data sets in a journal article without my permission and without my name on the author list. My boss advised me to submit a formal complaint.

Months. It took months for her boss to suggest filing a complaint, after she had advised him of the harassment she received. Even if her boss didn’t mean to be enabling the author’s harassment, they were still doing so. They allowed the environment to continue existing.

When I did — to his university — my harasser responded with dozens of pages of denials and counter-complaints, to which I was expected to respond. He belittled me, demanded access to my data sets, misrepresented evidence and argued for restrictions that would significantly detriment my career. Because of these issues and the confidential nature of the accusation, I found it nearly impossible to publish during the lengthy complaint process (which took much longer than laid out in the university’s own grievance procedures).

Yet people will still deny that there’s a culture allowing this kind of behavior to proceed with a deck stacked against the victim. The imbalance of power that exists in online harassment is preceded and founded upon the imbalance present in offline harassment reporting. And this imbalance has existed for decades. The author states that the initial incident occurred years ago; can we say anything has changed in the time since?

Of course not. Because universities and other institutions handle these events in ways that are ultimately meaningless:

After almost a year and a half, his university told me that it had found in my favour. It said that he was guilty of both research misconduct and inappropriate behaviour, including sexual harassment. It did not fire him and stressed that I should keep the verdict confidential.

Imagine being told that someone can sexually harass you, steal your work, rifle through your belongings, and that even if they’re found guilty, they won’t be fired. Then, imagine the person who told you this advises you to keep quiet and not mention it to anyone.

Would the same conversation make sense with any other crime?

Some may decide that a university is not a court of law, and thus any punishments handed down are illegal or unethical without a jury of one’s peers being present. They may question why the author didn’t report her harasser to the police.

While these assertions might make sense at a glance, there’s an underlying belief driving them, one where all the blame lies with the victim for not reporting these events in a way that conforms to the asserter’s standards.

You’ll see this scenario played out time and time again when it comes to online harassment:

A victim will discuss in public the horrific actions taken against them, and the immediate response from those sympathetic with the harasser or skeptical of the victim is, “Where’s the police report? Why won’t you provide it?” If the victim doesn’t respond to these requests, the reaction turns to accusations that the victim is lying or made the threats against themselves from throwaway/sockpuppet accounts.

Even if there is belief that harassment did occur, skeptics will claim the victim is benefiting by their refusal to file a report. Independent third party confirmation and statements directly from authorities rarely stem the flow of these accusations.

This thread was submitted Jan. 16 of 2015, four months after the FBI and local police confirmed their investigations.

The parallels between online harassment and the situation the author faced should be of great concern to anyone interested in reforming the current reporting systems in place both online and off:

  • When the author made her harassment known to superiors, the perpetrator had the advantage of flooding her with statements and accusations she was required to respond to in a timely manner. He was able to attack her character using the official system the university had created for reporting harassment. He successfully created a situation where she couldn’t continue working, and the university allowed it to happen.
  • When a victim of online harassment makes their problems known to authorities, the public, and the support teams of the platforms they’re using, the perpetrator and their sympathizers have the advantage of flooding the platform with misinformation and accusations the victim is expected to respond to in a timely manner. The absence of an immediate response to each and every allegation is used against the victim to make them appear like they’re hiding something. Their character will be attacked relentlessly as the flood of false information raises the noise-to-signal ratio. The perpetrator can successfully create a situation where the victim can no longer operate in public, both online and offline, and the systems allow this to happen.

The problems of current reporting systems are compounded by a lack of accountability and the glacier’s pace of authorities playing catch-up. Federal authorities have only recently instituted laws regarding online harassment. Marlisse Silver Sweeney dove into the incompetency of our legal system on this front back in 2014, finding only a handful of successful civil cases involving online harassment, and even fewer successful criminal cases. She also cites the death threats made against Rebecca Watson, where authorities both local and federal were indifferent to pursuing any charges.

But when you look at the frightening backlog our justice system has in handling criminal cases, it’s no wonder why it appears so ill-equipped to handle online harassment on the whole. In 2014, as many as 400k rape kits — some of which were 20 years old — were still waiting to be tested.

Attempts to decrease the amount of time it took for cases to go to court started as early as 1981, but little has improved: pending criminal cases for US District Courts doubled from 1991 to 2014, with the median waiting time sitting at 13 months.

When looking at the broken, bogged-down justice system in the United States, there’s little wonder why victims are hesitant to report their harassment to authorities. This aversion becomes a benefit for the abusers and their sympathizers. They understand the futility of the system just as well as their victims. By accusing the victims of not going through the proper channels, a narrative is framed in their favor — used to convince any observers that harassment is exaggerated, made up, or engineered by the victims themselves.

And the way universities handle sexual harassment among faculty only serves to discourage other victims from speaking up at all. A 2015 survey by the Association of American Universities found that 23.1% of female undergraduates had experienced sexual assault or misconduct through threats, physical force, and incapacitation. It’s no surprise why only 5–28% (variation dependent on specific type of behavior) of these incidents are reported. Sometimes, universities refuse to act even on violent threats, resulting in senseless, uncalled-for tragedy.

The statistics above aren’t the only outcome of failing university systems. As our anonymous author explains:

The confidentiality (secrecy) around verdicts leaves other women unaware that there is a confirmed harasser working at or visiting their department, teaching their lectures, leading their field trips or conversing with them at conferences. The secrecy leaves victims, like myself, unable to explain to collaborators, colleagues, funding bodies and potential employers why their CVs look so lean during that time.

Even the tiniest shred of safety will be denied thanks to the systems in place:

Recently, my boss and I contacted the organizers of a scientific conference to enquire whether measures could be taken to ban my harasser from the event so that I would feel safe in attending. We were told that, because the outcomes had not been disclosed publicly, they were unable to act.

Our previous article presents a mirror of this policy in Reddit’s handling of complaints regarding offsite harassment. Both situations reinforce the unfair standards placed on victims. The sole difference between the two is Reddit’s strange inversion of the Bystander Effect, in which a bystander taking initiative to combat harassment is told their help is not allowed according to policy.

But in spite of that difference, the unfair standards remain the same both on-and-offline. The deck is still stacked heavily in the favor of abusers. Their safety and their right to remain, whether on a social media platform or in a position of power within an educational institution, is valued more than the safety and well-being of others.

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