The Damage Done: My Experiences with Sexual Harassment
Trigger warning for sexual harassment, sexual assault, and substance abuse.
This week, it emerged on Twitter that a well-known male science communicator who has worked with many prominent STEM organizations (including the Space Foundation) allegedly sexually harassed a woman spaceflight journalist via direct messages. I am not naming the alleged perpetrator because I don’t wish to give him more attention, and his name has been widely bandied about on social media regarding this incident. But as someone who is a survivor of sexual harassment and assault during my careers in the military and as a science communicator, I wanted to finally speak truth to power and discuss my own experiences with these issues during the last 25 years.
If I listed every instance of microaggression, inappropriate language, outright propositions and sexual harassment, and unfortunately, physical assaults that happened during my six years in the Navy, I would probably be writing this piece for several days. I was in the Navy from 1997 to 2003, well before the “Me Too” movement existed, and before there was a more open social dialogue about why and how sexual harassment was wrong. I was also one of the first women in my particular department on my permanent duty station, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. However, I soon learned the title of “pioneer” would weigh around my neck like a heavy stone.
While I do want to emphasize that I am still very close to many of the people I worked with during that time — and I still consider many of them my best friends — by some, I was subjected to scrutiny concerning my physical appearance on a daily basis, some of which was extremely graphic. There was one specific incident where an electrician from another division (remember, he did not even work in my division, as I was a mechanic) came to my workstation, and physically tried to force himself on me, and kissed me against my wishes. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but there were several similar ones involving others. While I tried to laugh and brush these things off at the time, I was deeply impacted in ways I wasn’t even aware of until years later.
I began to develop a serious drinking problem to cope with the combined stresses of my job and the everyday chipping away at my dignity and soul. Around 2001 it became abundantly clear to my family and closest friends that I was mentally and physically deteriorating, as my drinking became too severe to hide, and my weight plummeted. I eventually entered outpatient treatment for my alcoholism, but I ended up relapsing when I discovered the complaint I filed concerning the behavior in my department was thrown out due to being “baseless.” While I never had any disciplinary problems in the Navy, the fact that I received treatment for alcoholism all but ended my career. I felt (and still feel) that my intense work had amounted to zilch. I would dry out again, but as you will see, the main problem would persist throughout the decades.
In 2003 I was honorably discharged, went back to college on the GI Bill, and within a few years found my niche writing about spaceflight history. When I left my Navy experience, I honestly said to myself, “In five to ten years, the problem of sexual harassment will be wiped out…this won’t be happening.” I believed that the growing awareness about the subject and its deleterious effects would change the dialogue in many communities, including the spaceflight community. Again, I will not mention the perpetrator’s name (I don’t believe any of these clowns deserve attention), but these hopes were 100% dashed when I was targeted for abuse by someone I believed was a “friend” who volunteered at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. For a period of just over a year, I was subjected to wildly inappropriate comments that progressed to two incidences of physical sexual assault. At the time, I did not report it because my Navy experience had left me so traumatized, I could not bring myself to say anything…plus I did not want to cause “drama.”
In 2017, I finally did file an official complaint with the Air Force station after a good friend suggested I speak up, but it, too, was thrown out — even though this person had been banned from Kennedy Space Center for other transgressions (I am not sure what said person did to be banned from that site; it may have nothing to do with sexual harassment). After this happened again, I spiraled. I started drinking heavily once more, and considered leaving everything I’d accomplished — my spaceflight writing career, Space Hipsters, everything — because I was so distressed that this person essentially was getting away with criminal activities. When I did make this more public at a later time, I lost a lot of “friends,” and I noticed when I applied for entry to certain events, I was rejected, no reason given. This was the same year I had been named by the National Space Society as being one of the top ten influential people in space.
I have no doubt I was “greylisted” in my own community for speaking out, and raising awareness about a serious problem that no one apparently wants to admit exists. I felt like I was being consequenced for having done nothing wrong.
In November 2020, nearly six months ago, I finally sobered up for good after my husband confronted me about my drinking. I credit him with saving my life many times, and he has been fully supportive through my dark nights of the soul. My own healing is progressing, and after much soul-searching and therapy, I am now fully aware that the fault did not lie with me.
In 1976, futurist Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill wrote The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, a treatise about humanity looking at space as a permanent destination. You may wonder why I am inserting a long-dead male scientist into a personal piece about my experiences with sexual harassment. The reason why is because despite being a white upper middle class male, O’Neill had a very Star Trek-ish view of what space exploration could be, versus what it was at the time. He saw that it wasn’t just a place for people who looked like him — it was a place for women, and people from all countries and walks of life. If we humans are to “open the high frontier” (as O’Neill called it), we must show common decency and respect for all people interested in chronicling, loving, and exploring space.
O’Neill also was aware that things could seem the darkest before root change took place, as he discussed at the end of this mid-1980s video called “The Vision Uncut.” As stated before, I believed nearly 20 years ago we women would no longer be enduring abuse and/or harassment while just trying to do our jobs. It may seem very dark that unfortunately, this problem is still omnipresent.
However, maybe O’Neill was right — maybe we are on the precipice of great change, and maybe if both women and male allies make our voices heard loudly, boldly, and unapologetically, the space community will know this behavior is never acceptable. To quote Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young:
It’s been a long time comin’,
It’s been a long time gone.
But you know, the darkest hour,
Is always just before the dawn.
And it appears to be a long time,
Such a long, long, long time before the dawn.