The #MeToo movement inspired me to finally report my experiences of sexual harassment—more than 30 years after they happened.
I attended a public high school in Weston, Connecticut in the early 1980s. In my senior year, my high school physics teacher, a man named Kim Russo, relentlessly pursued an intimate relationship with me. I repeatedly refused him, but I was polite because I was a student in his class. In the spring of my senior year, after I had been admitted early action to Yale, he “jokingly” threatened to give me a D in physics if I didn’t hug him, have dinner with him, dance with him at the prom and on and on. (I ended up skipping the dance.)
I needed to pass that class to be able to go to college, so I tolerated his “jokes,” though they disgusted me. I did well in the class, but I wondered whether I really was good at physics—whether his infatuation with me tainted his evaluation of me. I entered college hoping to be a physics major, but became quickly discouraged and dropped out of the program. I wonder now about the impact of Russo’s behavior on my confidence and ability to continue in physics. I also wonder about the impact of his behavior toward me on other students. He was not subtle, and I’m sure other students noticed and probably wondered about favoritism.
In the spring of my first year at Yale, I discovered a love of photography while traveling in Africa; the next year, I enrolled in a photography class, and the professor, Thomas Roma, began to give me special attention in class and asked me to join a group of faculty and students who gathered at a local bar in the evenings. One evening he asked that I meet him at his place to go to the bar. When I got there, he asked me to have sex with him.
I was horrified. When I told him no, he got to his knee and pleaded with me. I told him no again and then left. I was embarrassed to see him in class the next week, and avoided him as much as I could. I finished the semester, but never took another photography class. It would take me years to return to my interest in photography.
Despite the formative influence of these experiences on my feminist consciousness, I had never reported them or sought any accountability from the men who had harassed me—even after I became a lawyer and a women’s studies professor. But the #MeToo movement prompted me to reflect on the impact of these experiences on my life and opportunities, as well as on my sense of self. Before the age of 20, I experienced two teachers in fields I was interested in pursuing who propositioned me while I was in their classes. I didn’t consider myself damaged by the experience—even though I was disgusted and discouraged from pursuing those fields further—but it is undeniable that they had an impact on me.
In my senior year of college, I took a women’s studies class. I remember it as a revelation, because I finally found words to describe experiences I’d had but never been able to articulate or understand. I became a feminist and joined the women’s movement, marching in Washington D.C. many times and organizing in my community against domestic violence and for reproductive rights. In 1990, I joined the inaugural class of the first women’s studies Ph.D. program in the U.S. at Emory University—and later wrote a book about the women’s movement against sexual harassment.
While sexual harassment is still a huge problem, we live in a different world than when I had these experiences. In the early 1980s, there were no Title IX coordinators, and there were not clear laws against sexual harassment nor a social consensus that this behavior was harmful. I don’t even think I’d heard the phrase “sexual harassment” at the time. I remember my fascination with Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony against Clarence Thomas, which did a lot to raise awareness at the time. But we’re in this for the long haul. Patriarchy is persistent. It took 72 years for women to win the right to vote. Feminists named sexual harassment 42 years go. We’re in the middle of this fight, not at the end.
A key strategy of the women’s movement against sexual harassment was collective action. Men who harass and assault are likely to be repeat offenders so there are probably multiple women with similar experiences. Find them. If just one woman steps forward, her credibility is attacked, like with Anita Hill. But if women find each other and speak out together, they are much more likely to be heard. Last Sunday’s New York Times said it well:
Women are now developing tools to find each other, like Callisto and All Voices. And when, after the #MeToo movement re-launched in October, I finally decided to report my own harassers, I reached out to other women, too.
Last month, I contacted the principle of my high school and reported my physics teacher. (Luckily, I was a born archivist so I’d kept every single letter and note I received from him, which I gladly turned over to the school’s Title IX coordinator.) The guy is now retired, but I am hoping for some accountability. When it came to the matter of my college photography professor, I suspected that other women had had similar experiences with him—so I joined the YaleWomen Facebook page and posted a suggestion that the College conduct a survey of alumnae on their experiences of sexual harassment at Yale so women harassed by particular professors could find each other.
Not long after, and unrelated I believe, a group of women who had later experienced sexual harassment from Roma at the School of Visual Arts and at Columbia University came together and spoke out in the New York Times. This inspired me to report him to the Title IX coordinators at both Yale and Columbia. (They both responded promptly.) A few days ago, presumably in response to the New York Times article, Roma announced he was retiring from Columbia, effective immediately.
I’m glad I’ve reported these experiences. We often hear from women who were coerced to comply with sexual demands from teachers or bosses—but harassment is also damaging for women who successfully repel unwanted sexual advances, even when the men do not retaliate. It closes doors on opportunities—like physics and photography for me—and it has a detrimental impact on women’s confidence and their right to be taken seriously as students or employees. It also has an impact on others in the class or the workplace: If people know (or believe) that their teacher or boss is having a sexual relationship with a peer, or trying to, they will question his ability to be fair. Even consensual sexual relationships create a conflict of interest and compromise professionalism in the workplace or schools.
When the #MeToo movement first emerged, I thought that I had no interest in saying the words myself. But I am glad for the unexpected road I have traveled over the last two months. Through reporting my harassers, I found some closure on these experiences—and some measure of accountability.