The #metoo campaign on Social Media shocked me. It shocked me because it shows how many people are victims of sexual assault. I am very aware most of them are women, but I write people on purpose because men are also victims.
So today I decided to share with you something I have never written about. Something only my closest friends know about and I felt ashamed for a very long time. Today I know it isn’t my fault, I know I was a victim (even if I hate describing myself like that) and he is to blame.
#metoo – the time my university professor sexually harassed me
It was late November 2008 and I was 20 years old. For one of the mandatory classes, I ended up with a male professor, whom I had never met – much like any other professor at the time.
(Disclaimer: for obvious reasons, I will not name the professor at hand in this post. As far as I know, he is not allowed to give classes and isn’t even at the University anymore.)
The “innocent” predatory looks
I distinctively remember feeling uncomfortable during class. His attention was weird, his gaze would always seem to find my bust line, he would stare at me in an eerie way almost as if trying to get into my mind.
Everyone had to make a presentation on a topic relevant to the culture of our day and age. I decided to do the project on my own, instead of being in a group. That meant I would go alone to the “project planning” hours the professor had set aside for us in his office. Because his office hours coincided with another class of mine, most of the correspondence I had with him was via email, where he always seemed professional. There were only two times when I actually went to his office when the other class did not take place for some reason.
The “project planning” office hours
The first time I went to his office hours to discuss my presentation, the “only” thing that happened was him calling me “honey” and “sweetheart” – which on its own is already pretty disturbing. He offered me something to drink, which I declined. I didn’t see this as something bad, there were professors with whom I and colleagues often had lunch or coffee.
The second visit to his office hours, however, things went differently. When I gave him my USB-stick that contained my presentation, he said in a joking voice that he liked “sticking things into holes”. He then called me “sweetheart” again and said I should go behind his desk. Apparently, he wanted to explain something on the computer screen and it “was easier that way”. Again, I didn’t see any harm in it and did as I was told.
He then put his hand on my waist and drew me closer, keeping it there. It slid down, keeping contact with my body, passing my butt and then stopping on the inside of my left leg. This is the moment where I would love to say I did something, that I hit him or screamed at him or looked at him in some manner.
It was as if I was unable to move as if my brain had lost connection with my body. I felt my heart racing, my hands getting clammy and my face getting numb. When his hand started going up my leg, something in me snapped and I felt myself taking a step back. Honestly, it actually felt like someone pulled me back. He looked up at me and said it was “ok”. He said we could drink a coffee and sit down and talk. Or, if I preferred, we could go out and talk the presentation over dinner. Then he got up and touched my arm, holding my hand.
To this day, I don’t know where I got the strength to speak. I said no, I said thank you but I was already late for my next class. Yes, I could have said something different, I could have yelled. But honestly, that was the only thing that crossed my mind for me to say! Looking back, I was polite, not even mentioning what had just happened, even though I knew what he had done was wrong.
I would like to say it ended here. That I went home and nothing else happened and I could forget the incident until now. Like many assaults or harassment victims, I felt it was my fault. Had I done something? Had I said something? Maybe it was because I had big boobs (yes, that thought actually crossed my mind).
It was almost the end of the semester and I skipped some of his classes. On the day I was supposed to make my presentation (to an amphitheatre full of people, may I add), he called the groups one by one. At the end of the class, I put my hand up and said I was also due that day and he said there was no time left, I would do it the next class.
There were only three other classes left in the semester, one of them being the written test. In the following two classes, something always “came up” and I never got the chance to make my presentation.
I went in for the written exam with all of my colleagues. When we got the results, we were not allowed to keep the tests. He failed me, simply writing the grade of the test on the front of the page, while no question had any comments. I tried asking him why with his answer being we could talk in his office if I wished.
He then proceeded to tell me I would have to repeat the class the next semester, with him, because my grade was not good to pass. He said since I had not presented my work, he could not grade it – even though he had told me he would grade the power point I had done since I hadn’t had “the chance” to present it.
He wouldn’t even allow me to go to the second exam, which you can do in Portugal if the first isn’t good enough or you wish to better your grade. I did not think this was fair at all, but I knew I couldn’t talk to him about it, without mentioning what had happened at the office that day. I had rejected him and this was his way of retaliating.
So I did the only thing I could think of. I went to the head of our department.
It was common knowledge that our head of department and him were good colleagues. Still, I went in and I told her what had happened. Well, I told her everything, except what had happened at his office. Yes, I made myself dumb, saying I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t allow me to go to the second exam or why he hadn’t written anything on my questions.
An unexpected reaction from an unexpected person
The head of the department closed the door, leaned on the desk in front of me and said: “Tell me what really happened”. I didn’t tell her what happened, not with all the words. It was years before I could tell someone what really had happened. I kept saying nothing had happened, she wasn’t stupid. But I broke down in that chair in front of her, sobbing uncontrollably. Eventually, I said that it was useless because we had been alone in the office and I had no proof. It would be my word against his and I knew I would never win. There were no witnesses and he was a renowned professor at the university.
I didn’t want to get problems with the university, to not be able to graduate. But most of all, I didn’t want to be that girl.
She nodded, without saying anything. Then she told me, if I still wanted to, that I could go to the second exam. When I started saying he had said I couldn’t, she interrupted me and said: “he will accept your exam and will grade your presentation”. And with that, I knew I would at least be free from his classes. I ended up taking the exam and passing.
Karma always comes through
When I went to Vienna for Erasmus in September 2009, that same professor was my coordinator in the beginning. I had a colleague of mine who was also doing Erasmus and also had him as a coordinator, who would always go with me to the (thank goodness) few meetings we had to attend. This way I never needed to be alone with him. I was in Erasmus for two semesters and somewhere during that time, he stopped answering my emails. I thought that was extremely unprofessional but didn’t want any more problems with him so I let it go.
When I returned to Portugal in 2010 and went to talk to him about some organizational issues, I was told he was no longer at the university. He was “taking a 1-year sabbatical” – which is when a university professor takes one year off to do research or something. Another professor had taken his place as a coordinator and at first was not impressed with me never having contacted her. I managed to prove to her that I had never been informed of the change. She assumed he had simply “forgotten” to inform me.
It was only later on that year that I finally found out what had happened. His “sabbatical” was a front for him being suspended from the university. He was being investigated for inappropriate behaviour towards female students. Apparently, the investigation came up empty, with no proof being found. But he was no longer giving classes to Bachelor or Master students, having only a shared class to Doctorate students, with another professor always in the room.
Does this make everything better?
This does not erase what he did to me and so many other girls, but knowing he did not get away with it makes me feel relieved. No, it wasn’t fair! If I had any say in it, he would have been sent to jail and never be able to teach, ever again! But looking back today and going through what I went through, chances are there was no proof. And without proof, he cannot be punished like he should.
The head of the department later told me I was very brave to go to her. Apparently, there were rumours circulating, but no one had ever said anything or come forward. She was the one making the formal complaint against him and she never gave my name up. To that, I am and will always be extremely thankful for.
I am aware that my story may seem to end well, with the predator getting some kind of punishment. What I want you all to remember is: that changes nothing.
I had nightmares for years after that, I didn’t trust any professors, didn’t want to be in a room with any men on my own. My self-esteem went rock-bottom and I didn’t know how to talk about it or whom to ask for help.
For years I felt it was my fault, that I must have done something to provoke it. I didn’t. You didn’t. None of the people who are brave enough to come out with the #metoo tag provoked their predators. Remember that: you did nothing wrong!