Sexual (Un)selection

Text: Vera E. Congruent~

Another day, another occurrence of sexual harassment.

I am forced now to think about hard truths.

I am an individual (true) who is part of a society (true) and the organization at which I work (true). I am an individual working within and benefitting from an existing system (true). By not being removed from said system I am complicit in its wrongdoings (false) and the only way to prove my disapproval of many aspects of this vast Rube Goldberg machine is to openly challenge it and anyone else who is part of the waking nightmare (false?).

But I have also been disadvantaged. I have been shattered by those I placed my trust in and gave my professional loyalty to. I have experienced utter desolation and desperation as no one stepped in to defend me when I was the victim of an incident of sexual harassment. I have watched my world-renowned  boss brush away my mental anguish since “nothing really happened” and women have “endured much worse” in the line of duty. I have watched women with strong minds worn down till there was no fight left in them and I have watched the light of idealism within them dim slowly over the years.

You see, we can’t do anything.

There is no escape. Where would you go? Is there a country where the vulnerable are not exploited? A profession where a woman’s dignity is never under threat? Do you believe academia stands apart from the obvious and commonplace social harms? Is there any university or any department in any university where a female scholar can confidently walk down hallways built on the integrity and dedication of those who had passed before her? The kind of dedication that turns science blind to all but fact and truth? And can she trust in that her superiors in the institution, male or female, are above abuse, manipulation, malice and primeval self-preservation? Is there any room in any building in any part of our glorious planet where a young female can sit alone, relaxed, because her preemptive wakeful defenses are superfluous in a serene and protected place as that?

Nowhere.

The worst part of such an incident is not the general disillusionment in everything it results in. It is the moments following the incident. First comes cold relentless fear, staining every crevice of every thought. The paralyzing fear stays on within the body for months to come, a dormant infection that will continue to relapse aggressively without warning. When the first wave of fear retreats, its place is taken by a potent combination of guilt and shame. When such a person, who is not of sound mind, exceptionally vulnerable and confused, requests to talk to her superior, it is of utmost importance that the superior be prudent and gentle. If in that moment, the superior suggests that what occurred is not supported by any evidence and therefore cannot be grounds for a legal case, and in fact, it did not result in bodily harm or is in any way comparable to the real dangers faced outdoors by women every day, then that will force the individual head-first into depths of tragic loneliness, weighed down by illogical culpability.  It is an existence of silence and withdrawal from society.

I asked myself all the questions any outsider would have asked in that instance:

“What were you wearing?” Nightclothes.

“Why did you step out that late?” But I had to use the bathroom. It was outside.

“How can you be so naïve and assume a field station is always safe?”  I was new. I was foolish. No one, not one of the other women warned me. They were and are practiced in the subtle ways of survival at field.

Did you report it to someone?”  Yes.

“Immediately?” Yes.

“How could you let this happen?” I’m sorry…I don’t know. I don’t know.

That particular incident occurred many months ago. I still don’t know what I should have done different.

More recently, at an informal gathering following a conference, a senior professor, old enough to be a paternal figure, casually placed his hand at my waist as he swayed his glass of wine in time to the music blaring through someone’s speakers and asked me about my research. I ignored that particular hand placement and as I answered his question, shifted to graze his large palm away. He glanced unabashedly at my chest as I spoke. He responded with a theory he had about fern germination, and described a botanical term he invented and introduced to the research community. As he spoke, his palm suddenly found its way at my hip. I was a second away from tears. The fear had resurfaced. I wanted to escape without attention. I muttered I would be back with a refill of my Coke. Beside us, not a couple of feet away, were groups of students and faculty, raucously celebrating the evening. No one had seen. No one knew. I was shaken again, just as I was many months ago. Nothing had changed.

It was a wayward hand. That was all it was. But such ‘harmless’ things had occurred too many times before, sometimes with much worse consequences for me. Each occurrence reminded me of the other. He was not one man, but every man who sought to take advantage of me. I was not a young woman, but a fool who had failed to protect herself each time.  I confided in a fellow conference participant immediately. She said she had experienced such behavior herself. “It’s the alcohol”, she said. “Why do you think I’m wearing two shirts and a shawl in this weather?”  She noticed I was trembling and helped me calm down. I excused myself and stayed elsewhere with my favourite playlist for the rest of the evening. The music didn’t help, but the physical separation from the crowd, the party, the man did.

Was I wearing something provocative? Was I being too friendly? That couldn’t be it. I hardly spoke to anyone since I didn’t know anybody at the conference. He initiated the conversation. He approached me, and engaged me in conversation. I was not dressed inappropriately. He was a professor.

Now tell me. Must I step away from the system to point out the flaws in it? But the perpetrators are individuals, each responsible for his actions. What place has the larger system in the matter? Perhaps it is the system’s workings resulting in my own sense of guilt, even when I have received the short end of the stick. Perhaps too often, too many larger older powerful male figures are excused for their actions because they are too valuable an asset to the organization. I do not want any tolerance for injustice or harassment. That makes me an idealist (true?) but it does not make me incompetent at my job, disloyal or ungrateful for the opportunity to be a part of the world of science.

There is no possible reason why it should be suggested that I may not be fit to perform field work or travel if I do not want to stand by and watch something wrong occur, and most definitely not to me.   

I am a person, just like you. I haven’t solved the problem yet. I cannot get highly educated people to acknowledge the problem in the first place. But somehow, I am expected to thrive.

I am expected to be prepared for the world as it is, unfair and dangerous for women, and concurrently accept that the deep-seated prejudice,  crimes against half the human race (yes, harassment is a crime) and predatory invective  are normal. I am guided to choose the wiser path of heightened tolerance that leads to survival.

There is advice pouring in from everyone who cares about me. However I know there is no universal survival protocol. I cannot satisfy them all and attempt to share in all their coping mechanisms. I don’t know when to shift between my identities of Regular Human, Strong Woman, Wise Woman, Weak Woman, Researcher. Maybe someday I will.

For now, I am Vera E. Congruent.

I do believe that there are many paths to reach a certain destination. My revenge is to succeed despite them. I will let the organization believe they have my loyalty and my services. I am in this for love of research and I will dedicate my waking hours to the pursuit of knowledge. I will take from a reputed organisation everything I can, to my advantage. It lost a priceless employee a long time ago. I will use it back, just as it uses me.  I will display not the naïveté that still resides within, but the one thing they will never take away from me:  the strength of my mind.

There is no place free of evils. If there is one, if that is where you are, tell me how to arrive there.

This is the second post in the series ‘To science we don’t owe‘.
You can read the first post here.

Please Note: The post was written by Vera E. Congruent.
priyatamma posts as the admin, and has no contribution to the writing of this article, except editorial comments. 

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