My Professor Made A Pass, And All I Could Think Was 'How Stupid Of Me'

(Suhyeon Choi /Unsplash)
(Suhyeon Choi /Unsplash)

Well, apparently everyone “knew” about Harvey Weinstein. It was the biggest open secret in Hollywood, I hear. I don’t move in those circles, of course, so I didn’t know about Weinstein's reputation. But the moment I read about the allegations against him, I realized I recognized them, in a way. So does almost every other woman I know.

When I was in my early 20s, a professor of mine invited a male student and me out for drinks. The professor was probably in his 50s. I felt proud that he selected us from all the others in the seminar. I allowed myself to assume it was because we were so smart and talented.

The professor had a drink, then two, then a shot, then another drink. Somehow his bar stool crept closer to mine, uncomfortably so. He put his hand on my arm, then my knee. He began commenting on my appearance. He asked if I had a boyfriend.

Ohhhh. My heart sank. And this was my first and overriding thought: How stupid of me. I had really thought this evening was going to be collegial; after all, the guy was there, too. And if nothing else, he’d be a witness to obviously problematic behavior, right? I turned to him, hoping for an ally.

What I saw on the male student's face was disgust. I hoped he would help me out somehow, suggesting we both had to leave, maybe. But he made an excuse for himself and left.

I don't recall exactly how I extracted myself. I know I did, and at the next class there was no acknowledgment by any of us that anything had been weird. But I couldn't stop thinking about it. I asked the male student a few weeks later if he'd seen what was happening.

"How could I miss it?" he said. "The way you were giggling and smiling at him, trying to charm him." My mouth dropped open. I had been upset and scared. I was trying to figure out an exit strategy without creating a scene! Any laughter was the nervous kind. But that's not what my male counterpart saw.

"What should I have done?" I asked.

"You could have thrown a drink in his face," he said.

Really? And shown up to class the next day? Should I have filed a complaint with the university against a tenured professor? Maybe. But in the moment I had not felt I had any power. I only felt foolish and vulnerable. And the male student didn't recognize my position at all. In fact, he thought I was trying to trade on my sexuality to get ahead.

From start to finish, I blamed myself. What had I said? And how had I said it? I wracked my brain for anything that could have been misconstrued. For that matter, what was I wearing? Should I not have sat where I sat? Maybe I should never have gone in the first place. How stupid of me.

But worse: my witness, also in a position of relative weakness, agreed with me. How stupid of you.

There was no indictment of the powerful, overly grabby, drunk professor. It was all on me, and my pathetic attempt to get out of there with the least amount of drama. I was young and shocked and naive, but still, the consensus was clear: I was the real problem here.

When I read about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged behavior and the aftermath, I was surprised by none of it. The egregiousness of the allegations, the silence of the victims, and the inaction of the bystanders — I recognized all of it.

My own story, thankfully, stopped before it got anywhere near as ugly as the many accounts of Weinstein getting naked and asking for sex. But it’s all of a piece: Man in power feels entitled to whatever he wants, and trusts that no one will call him out on it. And too often, he’s right: No one does.

I was moved when I read one of the actresses say, “This stops now.” I hope she’s right, I really do. The more women who speak out, the harder it is to ignore these kinds of stories. My daughters are getting close to the age where professors, employers, and potential mentors will start showing them attention, and I don’t want them to have to second-guess themselves. And if (when?) they find themselves in such a position, how I hope their first thought will not be how stupid of me.

READ Naomi Shulman's follow-up piece HERE.


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Naomi Shulman Cognoscenti contributor
Naomi Shulman lives with her daughters in Northampton, Massachusetts.



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