She's crazy!

Folks, there are lots of things that chap my ass, but few so much as the automatic defense of well know dudes when an accusation of inappropriate behavior is leveled by an unknown woman. You can count on it like the reflex of the leg jerking when struck at the knee. It doesn't matter if it's Woody Allen, some Neuroscientist with a long history that Vanderbilt has vowed to "vigorously defend", a major pillar of the science blogging community or a senior dude down the hall. Every time someone gets accused of sexual harassment you can count on a ground swell of excuses.

Every. Damn. Time.

Last week we even had a study published making it overwhelmingly clear that science has a problem. And yet the majority default reaction to accusations is to discredit the source. Maybe she didn't understand him or his culture! She's too tightly wound and he was just kidding! She's doing this to get her name out there or for money. I heard she's just crazy.

What goes seemingly unrecognized is that the penalty for reporting is SO high, that one just might have to be crazy to do so, even after enduring years of harassment. The easier path is to endure and leave as soon as you can with your degree/LoR/Paper/whatever. It's the path many choose, because the deck is stacked so heavily against them they stand to lose everything, regardless of the outcome. The false positive rate is vanishingly small, yet treated as the default.

And herein lies the problem. Sexual harassment is beyond tolerated to the point where it's almost encouraged because there is little to no penalty. Until we make reporting easy and effective - with actual punishment for this behavior - there won't be any improvement. The university will defend its lecherous men, science will revere its big names no matter what they did and society will defend the idea of the crazy accuser.

3 responses so far

  • I agree---At this point it's a familiar experience to meet some group that knows a 'crazy woman' scientist and later find out that said woman is just fine. At this point if somebody says 'crazy woman' I'm starting to take it as a sign that she's probably a good scientist and reasonable human being.

  • Becky Fuller says:

    There is something at play here that lots of folks aren’t aware of. There’s a reason (I think) why this keeps happening and why nobody believes that it’s occurring. Let me tell you a story.

    A friend of mine (who is not in biology) and I were talking a few years ago about sexual harassment. I told her that I had received a few clumsy passes over the years, but nothing that I couldn’t effectively rebuff. She told me that she had been on the receiving end of serious sexual harassment at every institution she had ever been. I asked her what explained the discrepancy between the two of us. Was it that men just found her prettier than me? She said that the answer was not that. Instead, the answer was that she had been sexually abused for several years as a child. Here’s the thing people don’t realize. Victims of child abuse find it very difficult to stand up for themselves. What explains the discrepancy between me and my friend is the fact that the instant I feel uncomfortable with something, I send out nonverbal cues (without even realizing it) that tells the person ‘no’. Victims of child abuse are incapable of doing this.

    I believe that we have a situation where most of the men are good guys, but a small fraction of them are these lecherous jerks. Similarly, the majority of women were not abused, but a fraction were. The majority men and women are unaware of this dynamic of lecherous people constantly sending out feelers and victims of child abuse being unable to effectively stand up for themselves. Also, I don’t want to imply that only victims of child abuse experience sexual harassment, but I believe that this population is much more vulnerable to this type of abuse. And, of course, women can abuse men.

    When my friend explained this to me, I had this ‘Aha!’ moment. I used to be one of those women who didn’t quite take these sexually harassed women seriously, because I hadn’t experienced anything significant. But now I get it. Everybody (especially the PIs that lead labs with many undergraduate and graduate students) must have a zero tolerance policy on this issue because you don’t know who has been abused and who hasn’t. Simply saying ‘Why don’t they just ignore it, if they don’t like it’ is flawed reasoning. A fraction of the population has problems rebuffing unwanted advances.

  • anon3 says:

    @Becky - I was not abused as a child and I have experienced direct and serious sexual harrassment, even in the face of negative body language/other non-verbal cues as well as direct, voiced complaints against it. You may be right that this minority of previously abused women/lecherous men is particularly bad news, but it's everywhere.

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