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

Colby Klaus
Jan 21, 2016 · 8 min read
FreeImages.com/Iwan Beijes

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?

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.

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

Amala Network

Examinations of connectivity. Critical focus on the people, places, and policies which break the stream; celebration of the people, places, and policies holding it together. http://www.amalanetwork.com

Colby Klaus

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Overanalyzing internet culture. Support for Amala Network comes from https://www.patreon.com/AmalaNetwork

Amala Network

Examinations of connectivity. Critical focus on the people, places, and policies which break the stream; celebration of the people, places, and policies holding it together. http://www.amalanetwork.com