Graduate Student Experiences

After giving a guest lecture as a TA that included a discussion of sexual assault and rape culture, a male student came up to me to argue about the prevalence of sexual assault and how he thought that women frequently falsely accused men of rape. At one point he informed me that "if you define rape as non-consensual sex, I've raped a couple of times."

I reported the student to the appropriate people, explaining that I wanted someone from one of the university's centers that offers resources on sexual assault to talk to this student and offer him education about sexual assault, consent, etc. However, the university's decision was that the student was making a "performative statement" and didn't mean it.

If universities--including professors and graduate students--aren't even willing to talk to their students about sexual assault and consent except to say that they "take it seriously" then nothing is going to change.

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 In my final year of graduate studies, I took a class with a professor in my subject area, an expert in his field. It was very exciting to be in the course. The subject matter had long fascinated me, and I knew a great deal about this man's research. I had read his books and knew, like me, he was from a small community, a community I knew, in fact. It was an inspiration to see how he had become this important scholar on a very prestigious campus. But, in December, the last month of class, his attention to me was unnerving. I shook it off as my imagination. As part of the class requirements, I went to his office to discuss the final project. It became clear that he was not so interested in my research. I was told how he could help me with my academic and career goals, but I had to understand that there needed to be reciprocity. I reluctantly agreed to continue to meet with him after the semester and to provide oral sex. Technically, I would no longer be his student, but I felt powerless against his demands. I also worked on campus and was concerned he would sabotage both my position and my academic goals. At one point, at a conference, he provided me with alcohol and raped me twice. I never pressed charges. I never alerted the campus. I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt and am still receiving counseling. I quit my job and my program and moved to another state. Although life is better now, and I am now in another academic program, I remain afraid of exposing myself, my family, and my friends to the humiliation put on us as the victims of sexual harassment and rape.

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I never thought it would happen to me. I know it sounds cliche, but I had good reason to believe that. I thought my graduate advisor was fantastic. We had a great working relationship and it seemed like we were on the same page both intellectually and politically. I couldn’t have asked for a better advisor. But then one day he hit on me and the naive graduate student world I had created for myself shattered right before my eyes.

I never had a crush on my advisor nor did I think he was attractive. He was like a father figure to me. And yet when he hit on me, my attempt to turn him down politely allegedly came across as uncertainty rather than the straightforward no I intended it to be. I can’t blame this entirely on my fear that he might retaliate against me academically, although that was definitely one of my biggest concerns at the time. The main problem was that I trusted this professor. I trusted that he would never abuse his power over a student. I trusted that he understood I was trying to turn him down without hurting his feelings. But he tried again, and again. His verbal advances became physical advances, and I felt like my words were falling on deaf ears. I became overwhelmed with feelings of anger, confusion, fear, and betrayal.

As graduate students, we are locked into a system in which we feel dependent on our advisors for letters of recommendation and job opportunities. Most of us would equate hurting an advisor’s feelings with academic and career suicide. If an advisor propositions a student and the student turns him down, what are the chances of that advisor-advisee relationship actually working out? Probably close to zero. A student who turns her advisor down is forced to find a new advisor, and if that student happens to be in a small field with very few options, that can be disastrous. Graduate advisors are not easily replaceable, and it gets even harder the more advanced the student is in the program. It doesn’t look very impressive on the job market when your advisor has only known you for a year. It is no wonder that many graduate students who are propositioned by their advisors end up either complying or dropping out of the program (or both). Given our vulnerability, being sexually harassed by an academic advisor equals academic death, not to mention serious emotional and psychological trauma.

If universities came out publicly in support of their graduate students and actually punished faculty perpetrators, maybe we wouldn’t be so scared to speak out. But universities do everything they can to protect the reputation of their tenured faculty. No university wants to admit that it harbors professors who sexually harass their students, so they do whatever they can to pin the blame on the student or to avoid pinning the blame on anyone at all. Unfortunately I didn’t discover this until the university finally closed my case, nearly a year after I had mustered the courage to file a sexual harassment report. I was shocked to learn that the university had made no findings in my case and had instead reached a secret agreement with the professor behind closed doors. Did this agreement entail any sort of punishment? I have no idea because there is no visible punishment and the university refuses to tell me anything, citing “confidentiality laws” as the reason for their silence. As graduate students, how are we supposed to know that our case was ever taken seriously if we are completely shut out of the resolution process and are not allowed to learn the results of our case? How am I supposed to feel safe on campus knowing that the professor who sexually harassed me is walking around as if he never did anything wrong? There is no transparency or accountability in faculty sexual misconduct cases, and this leaves us extremely vulnerable to sexual violence in graduate school.

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When I was in graduate school in the early 2000s, my dissertation adviser pressured me for sex on various occasions, and he touched me inappropriately one year at the annual Christmas party. He would often tell me that his dream was to die while having sex with an undergraduate. My adviser was good friends with the chair of the department and the dean, and I was worried that I would not get the letters I needed to get a job if I filed a complaint. So I suffered in silence with night terrors, anxiety every time I had a meeting with him, and panic attacks when I visited the department. I am convinced that I would not be a tenured professor today if I had spoken up about the years of sexual harassment and sexual assault I experienced.