I really didn’t know any better

Posted: May 24, 2012 by Jender in sexual harassment

When I was a second-year graduate student, an old advisee of my advisor’s came back to visit our university. At a dinner after an event he flirted with me, displayed astonishment that someone of my generation appreciated Bob Dylan, etc. At one point he tried to kiss me, and I declined. A few days later he contacted me on facebook, apologized, and said how important the mentoring and support of young women in the profession was to him. I accepted the apology and then didn’t respond to future chats, messages, etc. A few months later at the major conference for our subdiscipline (of which the man in question [I really can’t bring myself to say professor] was head organizer) he sought me out and apologized again, and said he wanted to start on new footing. Why, he suggested, didn’t we each find a couple of friends and all go out to dinner, as colleagues? Naively, I agreed to this. By the end of the night he had zeroed in on my friend, whom I perhaps should have warned but hadn’t, in the spirit of a new beginning. Having plied us with a few bottles of very good wine, he insisted on escorting us back to our hotel. We got lost and when I went in search of directions I came back to find him trying to kiss my friend. I found her, too, in the process of declining.

After this I cut off all contact with him, including walking away abruptly at a conference event the next day to avoid punching him in the face. A friend later reported that he explained this to the group of people he was talking to by saying I was “mercurial.” He contacted me once more to apologize and let me know I was welcome to “unfriend” him on facebook — I can only assume because it made him uncomfortable to think of me reading his announcements about feminist political events, and his loving exchanges with his daughter, who is a couple years younger than me.

Two years later I would never let such a situation occur, and I’m ashamed I did then, but I recognize that, as unbelievable as it seems to me now in retrospect, I really didn’t know any better. I feel guilty for bringing my friend into it and enraged whenever I see his name on an email listserv.

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