The Don Juans

March 10, 1995

'I was worried it would affect my degree';Claire Sanders tells of her experiences at the hands of a lecherous tutor. It was over ten years ago that one of my supervisors at Cambridge University offered to give me a massage. The offer was followed by a farcical scramble round his room as I sought to escape. But the incident was no trivial matter - and at one time I was worried that it would ultimately affect my degree.

As the debate about sexual harassment rages, very few people will put their names to personal recollections. This is perfectly understandable. The accused supervisor is hardly likely to court publicity, and, if my experience is anything to go by, the student just wants the whole ghastly mess to go away.

I do not think my experience was atypical. One spring term I suffered from a series of colds and sore throats and thought I was coming down with glandular fever.

One male supervisor proved himself to be particularly sympathetic. I rarely handed in work late, but he was always understanding when I did and seemed to take a kind interest in the difficulties I was having.

It was the offer of a massage, because he thought it would relax me, that spelt trouble. There had never been any question of me fancying this middle-aged man, but suddenly I felt terribly guilty. Had I misled him? Had I been over-familiar?

I had a group of female friends at the time who had strong feminist views. When I told them of my troubles with my supervisor, they said that if I did not complain, they would.

Sound familiar? Just think of the plot of David Mamet's Oleanna. A student in difficulty, a sympathetic tutor, a bunch of raving feminists in the background - not to mention a weak-willed fool in the middle of it all.

Oleanna took every liberal male tutor's nightmare and played it for all it was worth. I saw the play, and it was only as I was walking home afterwards that it struck me how similar the circumstances of the play were to my own little story. The feeling of recognition completely threw me off balance at first. Was I as unreasonable and awful as the woman in Oleanna? Was I the sort of person being depicted?

On calmer reflection I realised that I was not, but my experience of sexual harassment was so far from the truth portrayed in the play that I feel it needs voicing.

To begin with, I was extremely reluctant to bring a complaint against the tutor. I did so only because I could not face any more tutorials with him, and yet had to if I was to pass that paper. True, I was pushed to do so by more confident feminist friends - but on reflection they were right.

I did complain. And here I was very lucky. I have an undying gratitude to the female tutor I made my complaint to. She took it seriously, she assured me that I could not be held responsible for a male tutor offering to massage me, no matter how many times he had been sympathetic over late essays - and, most interestingly of all, it had long been known in the university that this particular tutor had been harassing students.

The tutor was not at my college, but his reputation had spread. He also stood out as being left-wing and generally right-on in an otherwise conservative environment.

I have a blurred recollection of what followed. I believe that the tutor was taken away from teaching undergraduates for at least a year. And I did not have to face him again.

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