I started studying philosophy as an undergrad almost exactly 10 years ago, and have just finished my PhD and started a TT job. In all of this time, I’ve counted myself extremely lucky to have never dealt with any of the horror stories that so many other women on this blog have had forced upon them. To the contrary, I’d had some really exceptional male mentors who have been warm, kind, open, and supportive without ever making me feel in the least uncomfortable or treating me in any even remotely inappropriate way – and this has been especially important because I’ve always struggled with self-doubt in relationship to work, and thought about quitting many, many times. My undergraduate honors thesis advisor, especially, has always been my model of an ideal teacher and mentor – that is, until today. A friend from undergrad just sent me a text message telling me that he had gossip about this professor – apparently, he had not only married an ex student of his, but was seeing a student in my class while still married to her.
And it’s the next part that I don’t really know how to put into words. I feel sick to my stomach, and I’m doubting myself in a way that I haven’t in years. Not only was he my idol and my reason for wanting to be an academic as an 18-year-old – he was also the first person to show enthusiasm for my work, and that enthusiasm and belief continued to bolster me in moments of self-doubt all of the way through my PhD. And now I’m sitting here, crying at my computer and feeling sick to my stomach because I suddenly feel like I can’t trust one of my earliest and most formative reasons for trusting myself and my work. I worry that he didn’t think that my work was good at all – that I was just another potential student to sleep with. And even worse, a part of me worries that my work (or do I really mean “I”?) wasn’t good enough for him to think that I was worth sleeping with, since he never treated me in any even remotely inappropriate way. The last part is the worst because I don’t endorse that feeling at all – there is no part of me that thinks that a professor 20 years older than you wanting to sleep with you is a compliment. I hate that I can feel so unsure of myself so long after the fact, and I hate that I can’t shut up this voice in my head that is saying odious things that I can’t endorse but can’t ignore either.
I know just how minor this in comparison to virtually every other experience reported on this blog. Part of what terrifies me, though, is that I am suddenly struck by how much I can’t begin to imagine how destabilizing and terrible those experiences must be – if something this small, this indirect, and this long ago is making me feel so out of place in philosophy, how do so many of the women who have experienced so much worse ever stay? And when so many women do experience so much worse, how are there any left at all?