Word Worth®
                      World Magazine of Ideas and the Arts™ — ©Summer 2018 Volume XVIII,  Issue 3

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Columns

Harassment

In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, any woman who was raped was foolish to report it because unless she was dead or nearly so, she must have “wanted” it or “asked” for it or dressed in such a way that she “deserved” it. After the most traumatic experience, the policeMEN would grill and insult her trying to find any contradiction in her claim. In some parts of the world, they still stone to death or stab to death a woman who has been raped in order to “cleanse” the community. In a news item in the 70s, police found the dismembered body of a woman in the bathtub of a man’s apartment. “She was a prostitute,” one man replied, justifying the horror, ignoring that no civilization can survive if they allow people to do that to a dog.

 In the same city, there was a bar that called itself “The Silent Woman Tavern” with a plaque depicting a woman with her head cut off.

At the time, if a woman lived with a man without being married, she would be likely to be fired from her job, denigrated by his family and friends, shunned by most of the community, and believed to be a fool. “Whose going to buy the cow when they can get milk for free?” was the accepted “wisdom.” A woman was a cow to be either bought or used.

Sexual mores tend to take centuries, if not millennia, to change. That they have changed so rapidly in these times is worth noting.

Unchanged, however, has been the blind eye toward harassment. A confusion has remained between harassing and dating, especially when it involves a situation of power.

Many years ago in a college in the hinterlands at a time and place where most people refused to believe this happened —and if it did, it was the victim’s fault—the chair of a psychology department made a student his assistant. She graded all of his papers. She was in the building at night whenever he wanted her to be there. She was kept from having any social life with other students, a virtual slave to this married man with three children. She needed his recommendation to move on to graduate school—something he was reluctant to give.

Jess Denson, currently a professor  in a Pacific Coast college related that an instructor in her department dated students habitually—that doesn’t sound so bad, but it worked out really badly for the students and their children. The instructor—we’ll call him Ichabod for both his physical and behavioral resemblance to Washington Irving’s character—preyed upon recently divorced women who were coming out of abusive relationships. In one case, he wrote a poem to the woman that he published in the student literary magazine. He was with her and her three children (girls aged six, three and a half, and a baby twelve months old), at a student opened mike poetry reading. Eager to show off his own efforts, he went to the stage and as he walked away from the family, the baby started crying—she was that attached to him. Soon, he found a student more attractive, and the mother of three with her family were simply tossed aside with no explanation. He repeated that again, and again, usually with young women who had just come out of bad marriages—and nearly always including families with young children who couldn’t understand why he had simply disappeared.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this predatory behavior is that Ichabod was enabled by a cotillion of minimally qualified housewives—not homemakers, housewives: half a dozen women who played at being instructors and made Ichabod department chair so that he could give them special favors with courses and scheduling in violation of seniority and the contract, and they would  accept each of his student paramours as part of the group—until, that is, he unceremoniously dumped them without a word and brought along someone else. His cotillion turned a blind eye to all the pain Ichabod was causing, even though two of his victims included members of the department and of their own little clique.

The first of his department liaisons caused the instructor, despite having a young son, to divorce her husband (who afterwards labeled her “the black widow”). The Black Widow responded to being dumped by constantly complaining about how Ichabod couldn’t be a descent chair because he was always out surfing. She left no opportunity to castigate his behavior, yet with any opening, she invited him into her office for a chat.

The second department affair was with an instructor who was made chair after Ichabod’s term was up. After he dumped her, he was eligible to be, and became, chair again, and all this resulted in meetings where the ex-chair-ex-affair “got even” by playing footsie under the conference table with a young male new hire in the department. Ichabod continued to use department meetings to flirt with the youngest female instructor whom Jess dubbed Katrina Van Tassel.

This avalanche of unprofessional behavior not only made department meetings ridiculous but meant that no serious matters could be addressed.

One of Ichabod’s affairs was with a woman in another department whose husband furiously accosted her in the parking lot for her misdeeds.

 At one point, when Jess was on the appointments committee, Ichabod told her that a part-time instructor could no longer be hired because a student had accused him of molesting her. “He admitted it!” Ichabod laughed. You don't admit it!” he continued.

Having endured many years of Icahbod’s harassing students and younger staff, Jess was complaining about the problem in a small group when the assistant to an assistant vice president claimed that having heard about it, she had to conduct an “investigation.” This was supposedly on Jess’s behalf, yet Jess asked her not to do that. She maintained that she “had to” do it. It involved having individual meetings with every member of the department in a relatively public manner.

After Investigator started her circus, the human resources director told Jess that Investigator always did that and always decided in favor of the accused. So she did in this case.

What she found was, in fact, hostile workplace environment given that the members described the department meetings and conduct accurately, but she was too obtuse and inept to know that or to care figuring that the more popular option would be to side with the accussed. The “Katrina Van Tassel” in the department over whom Ichabod used department meetings to slather “didn’t mind” being slathered over, so Investigator found no wrong, never mind that it created a hostile environment for the half of the department who were women not taken seriously because they weren’t Katrinas.

A presentation about harassment had been given to faculty by a law firm within the previous year. A recent article maintained that companies do this to protect themselves. By having presentations, they can claim that they are taking action against harassment while ignoring ongoing problems.

Jess was so appalled by the outcome that she contacted a law firm. The firm, run by women, stated that they made their business defending companies against harassment charges and felt that representing a plaintiff might make their higher paying clients hesitant to hire them. Good for a women’s firm to be successful, Jess thought, still….

 

In one case in the 90’s, a PhD student in a major university found her lab vandalized and her work destroyed after declining her professor’s advances. Even though this  professor had harassed students a number of times before, and the administration was aware of it, they sided with him and made the student sign a legal document stating that she would never talk about the incident. She had been close to earning her doctorate in a very important field and was thrown out of the university for being harassed.

One of the most notorious cases involving child rape is the Penn State horrors in which Jerry Sandusky raped boys for at least fifteen years and probably much longer under the protection and enabling by head football coach Joe Paterno. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penn_State_child_sex_abuse_scandal

In a memo to Paterno, reported at the time, college officials hoped that Sandusky “would get the message” and not rape any more boys. That’s little different from hoping that a murderer would “get the message” and stop killing people. The NCAA took away the record of all of Paterno’s wins, but then restored them. Restoring is tantamount to another crime, and Penn State will remain in ignominy for decades to come.

Sandusky’s years of crimes were finally stopped by graduate assistant Mike McQueary. He thought that he was fulfilling his obligation by reporting what he had seen to Paterno. He was the first person to do the right thing, but doing so has ruined his life. He is a hero and should be recognized as such. He had no way of knowing that Paterno was enabling Sandusky.

Rape and harassment put the victim’s mind in a cage. Account after account demonstrates that such attacks damage a psyche to the point of crippling the personality.

Things have changed a great deal since the 1950s, but they have not changed nearly enough.

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