At the moment there is much debate about the sexual harassment of graduate students by university professors. You can read about Jason Lieb, who just stepped down from the University of Chicago, and Geoff Marcy, who did the same at the University of California at Berkeley. Both left their posts amid flurries of complaints by former graduate students and colleagues that the men had allegedly harassed, abused, and in one case, raped, graduate students. Few are defending these men.
But in other cases, the situation seems less clear-cut. The University of California-Riverside fired English professor Rob Latham in January of 2016, according to Inside Higher Education, “over alleged violations of the university’s sexual harassment and drug and alcohol use policies.” Debates raged on the American Association of University Professors “Academe” blog and other websites that featured the story, often focusing on the propriety of student-professor relationships in the first place. On one side, folks have argued that policing relationships between graduate students and professors infantilizes graduate students. On the other, folks have argued that the power imbalance in such relationships can blur the lines of consent.
I have my own story to tell. You might call it a story of blurred lines, perhaps, but the lines weren’t blurry to me. I was terrified that I would be kicked out of my graduate program because a professor wanted a sexual relationship with me and I turned him down. After I turned him down, after his wife found out he was after me, after rumors started in the department that I was trying to seduce him—I thought for sure that my career was over.
I’m lucky. I managed to get help from outside of the department and graduate without anyone standing in my way. The professor quickly moved on from me to start sleeping with a former undergraduate. Last I checked, he still had tenure.
I have one undergraduate degree and three graduate degrees. That makes me terminally educated. This is a story about one of those degrees. I will be vague on purpose to protect as many people as I can—including the professor’s own family. This story takes place in a town with a university in it, one that I attended. The town could be Durham, Baltimore, Greensboro, or Chapel Hill.
The very worst part of this story is that it really could be any one of those towns: I have a similar story from all of them. In each of these towns, at each of these institutions, a professor I thought believed in me as a student, as a thinker, as a human, only wanted to get in my pants. Maybe he also thought I was smart—but he definitely wanted to get in my pants, too.
Each time it happened, I had the same terrible feeling when I realized I’d been duped. I had the same terrible feeling when I realized that my professors believed I only had one thing to contribute to the intellectual life of my community, and it had little to do with the intellectual life of my community.
All of the stories are terrible.
The worst of the stories is this one.
During the final months of my academic program, my serious boyfriend and I broke up. Newly single, I was dating, but not seriously. I was focusing on my work, not on anyone else’s feelings.
Every Tuesday afternoon, the students in my program had a standing get-together at a cafe near campus. The cafe served coffee, of course, but it also served booze. Certain professors would often drop by. We graduate students all knew what that meant. They were looking to flirt, to feel young again, to get the student gossip.
I believed, hubristically, that I was above that sort of flirting. I believed I could see through these professors’ nonsense. I was a very practical person, very direct, very plainspoken. Sometimes very bitchy. Usually, I was right.
But I had a weakness. I didn’t want to be studying what I was studying. I wanted to be writing novels. I write novels now, but I didn’t know then that I could. I thought I needed a “real job.” I thought there was such a thing as a “real job.” So I’d chosen a track that was more practical. At the cafe on Tuesdays, the poets sat together. The novelists sat together. And I sat alone at the bar, writing my novel and drinking Wild Turkey.
One Tuesday, a professor sat down next to me at the bar. I didn’t know that this professor, with his speciality in fiction writing, would be able to charm me. I still believed I was beyond being charmed.
He ordered, gesturing at my glass. “Whatever she’s having.”
The bartender poured the Turkey, neat.
“Well.” He assessed the beverage with admiration. “She’ll be having another one. On me.”
He didn’t introduce himself. Didn’t need to. Even though he wasn’t in my area of study, he was still a senior member of my department. I knew who he was. He wrote books for a living. His job was to do what I wanted to do more than anything.
I set down my pen and finished the first glass of whiskey, pulling the second one closer. He lifted his in a toast. “To Tuesdays. And new friends.”
“Isn’t that a little over the top?”
He wasn’t physically attractive. Not in the slightest. He probably thought he was cool. He was charming, though, and he was smart. He was also a good writer—I’d been to his readings. Most importantly, though, he wanted to hang out with me. Not with the fiction kids sitting at their table. With me.
I made an error that many a university woman makes when a male professor pays attention to her outside the classroom. I believed he wanted to talk to me because he found me smart and interesting.
After our toast, we talked about breakups. I realize, now, that this part of the conversation might have raised red flags for some people. But we’d been talking about writing and work, and we were surrounded by other students. There didn’t appear to be any danger. There didn’t seem to be any reason for me to look for flags, red or otherwise. We discussed my recent breakup with my former boyfriend, and he mentioned he just been through one, too—he’d separated from his wife. I didn’t examine his words closely, though, because I wasn’t interested in him romantically. Who cared whether he was married. I certainly didn’t. He was a professor, a novelist. I wanted to learn about the trade.
Starting that day, and over the course of some more afternoons, we became what I considered friends. We talked about writing, the novel I was laboring through with no guidance from anyone—from anyone besides him. We talked about his current projects. To me, we felt like colleagues.
I don’t know what he thought we were.
At the time, I was living in a typical graduate school apartment with three other people. The apartment was little better than a flop-house, and we loved it. It was located walking distance from campus, which is all that really matters. The only thing more expensive than rent in a college town is parking. If this story were set in Baltimore, the area is Charles Village or Homewood; if this story were set in Durham, the area is Trinity Park; if this story were set in Greensboro, the area is College Park; if this story were set in Chapel Hill, the area is Westwood or Cameron-McCauley. You get the idea. Every college town has its just off-campus neighborhoods, its apartments where students cram themselves tight to save money on expenses and, perhaps, to stave off loneliness.
One night, after a departmental event, the professor invited himself back to the apartment. I didn’t think anything of it. I had three roommates. I thought he wanted to hang out with us. It would be just like the Tuesday afternoon café gatherings. What was going to happen?
When we got to my apartment, though, no one else was home. So the professor and I sat in my living room and talked. We ate cheese.
After about twenty minutes, he jumped to his feet and ran to the far side of the room. “Oh my god,” he whispered.
“I think that’s my wife outside.”
Through the curtains, the professor had spied the headlights of his wife’s car, parked on the street. “I thought you were separated?” I yelled. To myself, I thought: Where are my roommates? Why is no one here with me? I was distraught about my terrible luck.
“We’re separated, but we’re still living together.” He sounded small. He looked small. And he looked like a coward.
“That means you are not separated, you idiot,” I spat. Then I kicked him out of my apartment.
And then, once I’d locked the door, I started to worry about my future in my academic program.
The next day, a friend told me why the professor’s wife ended up outside my apartment. One of the professor’s students had seen him leave the school event with me. The student had called his wife at home and told her where he’d gone. The caller had speculated about why he’d gone to my apartment. The speculations had been inaccurate, but they’d been enough to send his wife after her husband.
She’d been watching us through the curtains in my living room. For a while. She’d seen nothing, of course, except two people talking. It didn’t matter what she’d seen. His wife was really angry with me. Really, really angry.
The speculations had also started rumors. That I was breaking up a marriage. That I was a seducer of professors. That I was a slut. That I was a troublemaker. And it wasn’t just students that heard these rumors. Other professors did too.
I still needed to graduate and get references for jobs. This man’s colleagues were my gatekeepers. How many of them were friends with his wife? How many of them were angry enough with me to stand in my way?
At the time, I was not angry at the professor’s wife for being mad at me. I would have been angry at me, too. She thought I was breaking up her marriage. I wasn’t, but she didn’t know that. I placed the blame on his shoulders completely—on his, and those of the rumormongers.
And today, I’m certainly not angry at his wife for being angry at me. Since this incident occurred, I’ve gotten married and had two children. I know what lengths I would go to to protect my family.
At the time, though, I was scared of her, just like I was scared of him. I feared for my diploma. I worried that either he or his wife would stand in the way of my graduation and job prospects afterward. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what they would do to me.
The next day, while I was out of the apartment, I got a phone call from one of my roommates. “Something weird just happened. This woman came to the door with her kid.”
I knew what she was going to say next. I just knew.
“She said, ‘Are you Kate?’ And I laughed, because, you know, we look nothing alike.”
I tried to laugh too, and failed.
“I said no. But it’s like she didn’t believe me. She said, ‘I have children!’ And she pulled her kid in front of her and said, ‘This is my child!’ It was weird.”
I could barely breathe. “Then what?”
“She made me write down a note for you. I have it here. It has her name on it, and her phone number. I think she wants you to call her.”
I asked, “What kind of car was she driving?” I needed to know who was after me.
She didn’t know what I looked like, and I didn’t know what she looked like. It felt like she was an unknown assassin and I was her unknown target.
I was truly terrified—all of my hard work and all of my student loans, they would be for nothing. He had all of the power, and I had none. He wasn’t even in my field, but that didn’t matter—I knew that all of the negative consequences would fall on me. I was an expendable graduate student. He was a tenured professor.
When I should have been working on my thesis, I was worrying about whether I needed to protect myself legally.
When I couldn’t take the worry any more, I consulted an attorney.
The entire time I sat in the attorney’s office, I felt humiliated. The man was very fatherly, and respectable, and kind. And there I was, telling him about this ugly fake-love-triangle that I was caught in the middle of. I was Hester Prynne. I was dirty. I cried. I couldn’t help it. “Can he stop me from graduating?”
“No way.” He sounded very certain.
“How do you know?”
“I’m so embarrassed,” I admitted.
He looked surprised. “Why? Do you honestly think you’re the first student he’s tried this on?”
No, I realized. I did not think I was the first student he’d tried this on.
For the first time since the headlights appeared outside my apartment that awful night, I started to relax.
The lawyer helped me make a plan. He gave me his mobile number, and he told me to call him if either the professor or his wife approached me again. “Let me handle it.” I knew I was lucky that I had the means to consult a lawyer.
I’ve since found out that the professor slept with young female students on a regular basis. I know of two young women from that one year alone. One sexual relationship had ended right before he took aim at me, and one began right after me. The reason his marriage ended was because of an affair with a girl younger than I was. His wife had found suspicious credit card receipts.
But here’s the deal, the worst part of it all: I had been afraid that I would get in trouble for turning down the advances of a tenured professor, for false rumors, as there were many of those. I was terrified, yet absolutely nothing had happened between him and me.
But what if I’d been a little more vulnerable, or a little attracted to him? What if I’d kissed him? What if I’d slept with him, believing him to be separated or divorced? Then what? Would that have made me? Would I have deserved the scorn and trouble? Would I have deserved censure by my department? Would I have deserved to have my own advisors turn their backs on me for hurting their friend, his wife? Would that have made me the seductress, the slut, like the rumor-mongers insisted?
Or was he a predator, like my lawyer said?
Of course he was. A predator with lifetime job security and easy access to prey.