‘Do I give off a slut vibe?’ A professor addresses sexism in the Ivy League

By — April 26, 2012

“You smell soooo good, I could just eat you up.”

“Here, sit on my lap.” “No, mine!” “I get her first!”

“Putting him alone in a room with a woman is like giving an alcoholic a bottle of booze—he just can’t help himself.”

“She gave a great talk, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her breasts. She had great breasts.”

These quotes might sound like they come from an episode of “Mad Men.” But, in fact, they are a tiny sample of statements I hear daily in my position as a tenured professor in an Ivy League university.

Our department just had sexual harassment training for faculty and staff. Following the training, I casually mentioned to some students that I felt encouraged. That although I continue to experience sexual harassment and misogyny (e.g. the statements above)—most recently having two senior male colleagues argue over whose lap I should sit on in a meeting—I felt confident these problems were going to die out as the oldest faculty retired. Life would be better for the next generation.

Students were quick to correct my misconception. It turns out the sexist comments (being called “delicious”) and outright sexual harassment (having a senior colleague try to put his hand up your dress at a conference dinner) are alive and well in the “liberal” academy. And, most shocking to me, the students appear to have accepted it as a way of life. To summarize a conversation I recently had with a group of students: “It’s just part of being female. You get your bra snapped in junior high. Your father’s best friend tries to kiss you. Your professor tries to sleep with you. You just deal with it.”

When I was in high school, I was in an honors history class. Every time I tried to speak, one of the boys in the class would interrupt me and say something like: “Karestan, you have great legs.” The teacher, much venerated then and since, said nothing. I remember feeling awkward and ashamed at the time. Because the teacher did nothing, I felt I had done something to bring on the unwanted attention. I became quiet and withdrawn. I learned it was better not to speak and bring attention to myself.

Over time, I learned to go along to get along. I pursued a career studying psychological trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder, including the effects of sexualized violence over the life course, but I am ashamed to say I did not confront the sexualized violence I saw and experienced in my professional life. I laughed it off, I skillfully dodged sexual advances, I avoided working with the men who most aggressively pursued me.

But the self-blame and doubt lingers. After the lap incident, I asked a trusted male colleague, and I quote: “Do I give off a slut vibe?” I am 43, but in that moment I was 16 again, wondering what I was doing to “invite” such attention.

Last night I read Mona Eltahawy’s article “Why Do They Hate Us?” in Foreign Policy. Even rereading it this morning, I cannot stop crying. I have read the critiques and debates on the finer points of her argument and I want to state clearly that I am no expert on the Middle East or the men she writes about. But she has hit on something fundamental about the position of women in the world. Despite a recent demographic shift whereby women outnumber men in the academy, the hate is alive and well.

And this morning, my shame is about pretending everything has been okay rather than calling out the hate for what it is. For not doing enough to topple what Eltahawy calls “the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms.” For colluding with the enemy, wherever he lives and at whatever level of society he has reached—whether it is in the street, in the workplace, or in the academy.

Karestan C. Koenen, Ph.D., is an associate professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York, where she does research and teaches about psychological trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder. She has testified about the rape she experienced while serving in the Peace Corps in Niger and the need for reform of the Peace Corps rape response protocols at House Foreign Affairs full committee hearings, and was the driving force behind a Polk Award-winning ABC News investigation. Koenen is a licensed clinical psychologist and epidemiologist and is currently president-elect of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies. Her last piece for Women Under Siege was about how her rape has affected her studies and her life.