This Is What Happens When A Woman Shares Her Story

(Sergey Zolkin/Unsplash)
(Sergey Zolkin/Unsplash)

The writer Kat Kinsman likes to say, “Don’t read the bottom half of the Internet.” And like many writers, I generally follow that advice. When you write for publication, your words go on to have lives of their own, apart from you and your personal experience — even if your personal experience is what you’re writing about. It’s not useful to get caught up in a back-and-forth with strangers on the Internet, even Cognoscenti readers.

But maybe there are exceptions.

A few days ago, I wrote a commentary for this website in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment allegations. I recalled an incident in which I had been harassed. The basic facts: I was a student; he was my professor. I was in my early 20s; he was in his 50s. He had invited me and a male student out for drinks. He drank too much; touched my arm and knee; made increasingly suggestive comments. I was nervous and upset, but the male student who was out with us later told me he had interpreted my reaction as trying to charm the professor. Even though my male peer was right there, he did not perceive what was happening to me as threatening. I’d thought I had an ally; I didn’t.

Why bring this story up now? I wanted to offer one small example of why someone might feel discouraged to speak up about harassment. I tried to show how I, like many women, had internalized the idea that I must have somehow invited the unwanted attention — that I must have said or done something wrong. Worse, in my anecdote the person who witnessed the event didn’t believe my experience. The entire thing had left me with a sense of shame, and over the years I told very few people what happened. But last week I took a deep breath and let readers react as they would.

As usual, I intended to avoid the comments. But soon friends began tipping me off that this time I should read them — if only because they were darkly instructive. My friends were right. These comments are an invaluable, if depressing, companion to my original piece. One could hardly hope for a better illustration of what people go through when they report sexual harassment.

These comments are an invaluable, if depressing, companion to my original piece.

So what were they? Reader reactions fell into several basic categories:

Victim blaming. One reader made note of the fact that the professor had suggested a venue with drinks. I should have seen that red flag and turned down the invitation. This is a straightforward example of blaming the victim. If she had only done/said/worn something different… No matter what the victim’s behavior, it’s always wrong to harass or assault. Full stop. I wonder how many people would tell a male student to turn down such an invitation.

Assumption of the woman’s dishonesty. “Really hard to relate to the woman in this situation,” one commenter said. “If someone made unwanted sexual passes at me (man or woman) I would not be giggling and acting charming.” The commenter held the male student’s perception as truth, over and above the rest of the essay detailing how nervous and frightened I was.

Minimizing. One reader commented that they didn’t understand what I was complaining about. “How was this incident so traumatic?” they asked. And yes — I was indeed lucky my story stopped where it did. But what the professor did was wrong, just as if it would have been if he had broken into my house and stolen something — even something small. Sexual harassment is illegal. No one would suggest people shouldn’t report a break-in. Why are we continually asked to overlook this type of wrong?

Refusing to acknowledge the power dynamic. “I always felt that any female student who was propositioned by a professor wielded considerable power in putting a black mark on a professor’s conduct,” one reader said. I was a young student and the professor was tenured faculty who had the power to enhance — or hinder — my academic career. But the reader only saw that I could have accused the professor of something (in this case, something he actually did), which meant I had more power, somehow. Another reader brought up Anita Hill as an example of the woman having more power than her harasser simply by virtue of raising any suggestion of impropriety, whether people believed her or not. The fact that Hill was not believed, and Thomas is now on the Supreme Court — one of the most powerful roles one can have — doesn’t factor in.

I’d like to be clear that I do not assume these commenters are any less well-intentioned than anyone else. The male peer in my story was generally a good guy, too. And as I say in the piece, my own first instinct was self-critical. I’ve seen many reactions to the Harvey Weinstein allegations that miss the mark, including from people I generally admire and agree with. We’re all part of the same culture here. We all have to work hard to overcome our ingrained sexism and misogyny.

Other readers posted supportive comments, attempting to speak up for me and, by extension, anyone in my position. I’m grateful for that. But I am also oddly grateful for the less supportive reactions. I want them to stand. I want people to see what happens when a woman voices her experience.

READ the original post here.


Headshot of Naomi Shulman

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



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