Sexual violence on campus: ‘By staying silent, I damaged myself’

Sexual misconduct is now being openly discussed, but universities still lack policies to safeguard staff from sexual violence in the workplace. This means victims remain afraid to speak out, says a female academic and rape survivor

February 1, 2018
Hokyoung Kim illustration (1 February 2018)
Source: Hokyoung Kim

As an academic, I have received mandatory training on how to use a ladder safely to take books from high shelves in my office. However, I have never received any training or even information about what to do if I survive a sexual assault while at work. And I have keenly felt its lack.

Times Higher Education’s recent feature containing accounts of sexual harassment by several female academics ( “Cultures of denial” , Features, 16 November) contained few surprises for many women who have worked in universities. Many of us have shared such stories over coffee or in our offices. The fact that they are now being written about and discussed in open fora is a welcome and significant change. Addressing sexually predatory behaviour is crucial for changing the culture in which we work. But there remains one area that still is not being discussed: how to safeguard academics from crimes of sexual abuse, and what to do when those crimes are perpetrated.

In my 10 years as an academic, first as a doctoral student and now as a full professor, I have twice been the survivor of a violent sexual attack perpetrated by men while I was at work. The first time, I was stalked by a student, who then attacked me in the street outside the university. For two months, he followed me around campus, stood outside my teaching room and repeatedly called and messaged me – and I did not know what to do about it, or who to report his behaviour to. Moreover, as a younger woman teaching students on a doctoral scholarship, I feared accusations of paranoia, or being labelled a troublemaker. I didn’t want to damage my prospects of being hired after completing my PhD. Universities might have strong policies to protect against such repercussions, but we all know that academia is a small and gossip-filled community, and that the whisper-stream can damage a reputation for years or decades to come. So I simply allowed the harassment to continue.

I was fortunate that there were people around when I was attacked, and that I was able to escape relatively unscathed. I ran across the campus, got into my car and drove to a colleague’s home, arriving covered in blood and unable to speak. That colleague and his partner provided advice, a safe haven and support throughout; if it had not been for them, I would not have reported the crime to the police or to the university. Indeed, without them I would not have known what to do, or who to report it to within the university, because there were no accessible policies or guidelines about what to do in such circumstances. When I did inform my departmental manager, she was very supportive but it was clear that senior staff had not envisaged such a situation, let alone been trained in how to deal with it.

For a long time, I looked back at that incident and thought that I would do things differently if it ever happened again, now that I was older, on a permanent contract and had developed a decent reputation based on my research and teaching.

But then I was raped.

It was while I was abroad for work. When it happened, I did not even turn to friends or family, let alone to the police or my university. And I am still not fully clear about why. On the one hand, I frequently discuss the low reporting of sexual violence, in both my research and my teaching, and I can recite many of the widely understood reasons for survivors’ reticence. On the other hand, when it was me who was the survivor, none of those reasons went to the core of why I stayed silent.

First, I was in survival mode. My mind went into shutdown – all I could think about was to get home, and to get tested for pregnancy, HIV and STDs and STIs. I put one foot in front of the other and kept walking for the next two days until I could get on a plane and leave that country. I had conversations with colleagues and continued my work, yet I have no memories of what happened between the rape and arriving back in the UK. I felt so far removed from my body and from reality that when I saw my attacker at work the next day, it barely registered: I only realised that he was in the room when he got up and walked out of it (thankfully, I did not see him again on that trip).

My research takes me to countries where the rule of law is weak, where sexual violence cases have near-impossible evidential standards and where I would not want to be interviewed by the police, or have a medical examination. Somewhere in the fog of numbness, I knew I would not cope with the trauma of reporting the rape in such a place, far from home, far from the people I love and who I needed for support. All I could do was try to hold it together for long enough to reach a place where I felt safe.

But those were only some of the immediate reasons for my silence. With the passage of time, and with the relative comfort of knowing that there is no long-lasting physical damage, I now understand that there are also more complex reasons for why I did not speak up at the time, and why I have still not spoken about the attack to colleagues who were on the trip, those who work with me currently or even those who are my closest collaborative partners.

One reason is that I still have a deep-rooted fear of damaging my reputation, with colleagues or with my university. It seems so ridiculous now as I type those words but, at the time, I wondered whether anyone would believe me, and even if they did, whether they would think that it was my fault, or decide that it was easier not to work with me in future. So much of my research depends on networks that any reputational damage is fatal. I wondered whether the people I was with on that trip would point a finger at me, even though I had done nothing wrong. Or whether they would defend my attacker because he is well known and seemingly well respected. And those fears remain: the fears of not being believed, or of being labelled the rape survivor, or the troublemaker.

They were compounded by the fact that I was still relatively new and unknown within my university, and was already relying on incredibly supportive senior colleagues to deal with a sensitive situation regarding an external research partnership (and therein lies another piece: the politics and pitfalls of the impact and engagement agendas, and how to protect academics who undertake that type of work).

But another important – perhaps crucial – factor was the fact that I could not find any information about reporting processes; so I knew that if I did report it, it would be to colleagues who are not trained in dealing with such things. I wondered if they would think that I was more trouble than I was worth, and I was scared to ask people who had been so generous with their time to divert more resources to me.

I also worried about whether this crime perpetrated against me would be used as a reason to discourage me from continuing to travel to countries that are considered risky, both by the university and by my family and friends. So, in what seems classic survivor behaviour, I squarely turned everything on to myself, and stayed silent. But, by doing so, I damaged myself. I also allowed the perpetrator to escape unscathed – and I contributed to the silence that surrounds sexual abuse in academia.

Hokyoung Kim illustration 2 (1 February 2018)

Sexual abuse happens in every society and in every social context. If there was a quick-fix prevention kit, it would have been created by now. But there are important tools and processes for mitigating risks, and for ensuring that it is dealt with appropriately when it does occur. Safeguarding focuses on having clear policies, procedures and accountability structures in place regarding abuse. It ensures awareness-raising, training and institutional responsibility and support.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the UK universities where I have worked has clear guidelines and policies on sexual violence in the workplace – and I suspect that the same is true across most or even all UK universities. There are policies on acceptable behaviour, academic misconduct, health and safety, well-being and assessment of the ethics and risks associated with research. When joining a university, staff are informed about how to report ill health, and access counselling and occupational health services. I have even received training on how to use a credit card, and on what to do if I suspect that a student has been radicalised. But at no point in my career have I been aware of – let alone required to undertake – training on safeguarding against sexual violence. Nor have I been made aware of what to do if I am abused, or if others, including students, report abuse to me.

An academic career involves frequent one-to-one contact with students and colleagues, including in buildings that may be near-empty. During travel, for research or conferences, one is expected to network outside working hours with academic colleagues and external partners. Since the rape, I am afraid of staying in hotels with colleagues, of being alone in my department, and of walking across campus in the dark. Those feelings would not disappear if I had received safeguarding training, but at least I would be more aware of how to mitigate against some of the risks.

Moreover, risk reduction would not be the only benefit of policies and training. If these crimes were discussed more frequently – and formally, as part of our workplace training – then the stigma around reporting and discussing sexual abuse would be reduced. Perhaps if I had known that my colleagues had received such training, I would not have spent so much time being terrified of reputational damage if I spoke to them about what happened. And perhaps if I had received such training, I would not have felt so ashamed and filled with self-loathing over the violence that was perpetrated on me – despite my frequently articulated conviction that survivors have nothing to be ashamed of.

Of course, academia is not the only sector in which safeguarding does not occur. But it does exist in the NHS, public transport and other public services; hospitals and train stations, for instance, frequently have signs stating that abuse will not be tolerated, and that their staff are trained in what to do if they suspect, see, or are victims of abuse.

I am by no means saying that universities are responsible for abuse perpetrated against their staff. But they are responsible for ensuring that we are as safe as possible at work, and for protecting our well-being and careers when that safety is compromised.

In the current climate, in which sexual misconduct is being discussed widely and openly, failure to do everything possible to prevent and mitigate its vilest extremes can be tolerated no longer. 

The author is a female professor at a UK university.

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