Advice To Graduate Students Experiencing Sexual Violence

Note: the following was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jen Dylan (a pseudonym) is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology. She stands in solidarity with all graduate student victims of sexual harassment.

7 Steps You Can Take

Sexual harassment comes in many forms, including physical misconduct and verbal and psychological abuse. My own experience with a tenured harasser consisted of an unsolicited kiss and thigh stroke. I eventually decided to confront him directly, stating that his behavior was completely inappropriate and must not happen again. It never did; he kept his distance from then on.

I was lucky. I am privileged in terms of my social location, I did not work in the same area as this faculty member and I had already forged strong relationships with other professors who supported me in all things. In other words, my choice to confront the perpetrator did not pose any harm to my career.

Other grad students in my department were not so lucky. One friend worked with the perpetrator and endured years of psychological abuse. Others in the department faced racist and homophobic verbal abuse or unwanted physical contact. Some endured a combination of all of the above. After a protracted battle on several fronts, our shared perpetrator, who had enjoyed a successful career and was well respected in his field, was asked to retire. Nothing more, nothing less. Those affected were disappointed that he did not face any real consequences for his actions, despite years of documented harassment.

I fear that my experiences and those of my colleagues are far too common. Over the past several years, professors have been accused or convicted of sexually harassing students at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago and Yale University, among other higher education institutions. However, it is impossible to know how many graduate students have to deal with predatory professors. I am sure many, if not most, victims do not come forward with complaints.

There are several reasons for this. For one, the burden of proof when filing a complaint is often unreasonably high. It can be difficult to collect supporting evidence when the harassment occurs in private contexts. Even if a student does decide to move forward with a grievance or lawsuit, doing so comes at a high cost. If the perpetrator is their supervisor, filing a grievance may put the student’s career in jeopardy. Finding a new supervisor could set them back months, if not years. And academe is a small world. Grad students may not come forward for fear of how it will affect their professional reputation. Finally, all too often, victims of sexual harassment are not even aware of their options for dealing with faculty perpetrators.

I fell into the latter category. It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to deal with the perpetrator. With time, I discovered a network of fellow students and faculty member who had either been victimized or who were willing to take action. Their support helped to clarify the steps that I wanted to take for myself, as well as ways that I could help others. I am not an expert on sexual harassment, and I strongly urge victims to seek out expert guidance that is tailored to their individual experience.

That said, below are some suggestions for action to take that helped some of my colleagues and me through our experiences.

  • Document everything. Write. It. All. Down. Write down times, locations and whether anyone else was present. If you have text or email correspondences, save them. Even if you do not think you that want to do anything about it, you might change your mind months down the road. There is a greater likelihood that your claim will be taken seriously if the harassment or abuse is documented in detail. Or your experience might even provide crucial supporting evidence to help move someone else’s claim forward.
  • If you are privileged along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, ability and/or cultural capital, speak up. For better or worse, your voice gives credence to the experiences of marginalized students in your department. Defend your peers, especially if their complaints are met with hostility. Provide corroborating evidence if you can.
  • Find your people: no matter how well respected the perpetrator is, there is, in all likelihood, a group of faculty members and fellow grad students who are disgusted by the person’s behavior. Seek them out. They may be able to provide comfort and solidarity.
  • Provide helpful advice to younger students as well as those in your own cohort about which faculty members are safe (or not). Doing so ensures that institutional knowledge about the perpetrator gets passed down.
  • Be open yet cautious about going through formal channels when filing a complaint. Administrations may be limited either by a daunting series of legal roadblocks or a lack of will to take action (especially if your perpetrator brings in grant money and is well established in their field). Either way, the burden of proof required to take action is immense, and you may end up mired in a multiyear battle. On a positive note, pursuing a lawsuit or grievance may help you find better social support, as more people become aware of your situation. It may also inspire other victims to come forward, providing more evidence and further helping your case. And while we still have a long ways to go, faculty members in recent years have become more vocal in supporting student victims who have experienced backlash for coming forward. It can be grueling to stay the course, but support is out there.
  • Don’t just blindly follow the guidance you receive from your institution’s sexual harassment or Title IX officers. They operate at the pleasure of the university administration, and while they may be ardent advocates for students, they nevertheless work in a wider organizational context that must contend with operational budgets and public relations optics. Cross-reference their advice with that from a nonprofit or student-run organization that supports victims of sexual harassment.
  • Take the issue to your union. Those grad students lucky enough to work as teaching or research assistants in unionized work settings may be able to file a grievance on the grounds that the perpetrator contributes to a hostile work environment. Unions have resources that make taking action far less burdensome. They have staff dedicated to handling cases of sexual harassment, and they can provide the costly legal support necessary to move lawsuits along.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with perpetrators of sexual harassment in academe, and the above list is incomplete at best. LGBTQ and racialized student victims, in particular, confront additional barriers that make taking action all the more difficult. Unfortunately, while grossly unfair, any type of response on the part of victims usually comes at a cost — be it emotional, psychological or professional.

The most important takeaway for victims is this: do you. If you have experienced sexual harassment, do whatever you need to do to get by.