“Unbearable”: Women in Sexual Health Research Remain Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment

“For the ones who wanted to feel seen and had questions about vaginal masturbation, I knew that the survey would create representation on campus. Soon, the sexual harassment I was facing became unbearable.”

The Power of Papayas: How Women in Sexual Health Research Remain Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment
(Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

Content Warning: The following article includes mentions of sexual harassment, sexually and racially explicit language. 

Two years ago, I never considered papayas beyond anything as a fruit often overpriced at the grocery store—now, I can only see them in a feminist light. My papaya story began in 2019 when I decided to study vaginal masturbation for my women’s studies senior class project at my small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. 

Like many of my peers working in undergraduate research, we needed an in with students, a reason for them to answer our requests, and mine was shock value. I knew I was asking questions that many people either didn’t want to answer or felt ashamed for doing so. But for the ones who wanted to feel seen and had questions about vaginal masturbation, I knew that the survey would create representation on campus.

Soon, the sexual harassment I was facing became unbearable. I want to tell this story because we tend to forget not only the emotional labor we cast on young women, but the lack of protection female-identifying researchers at the undergraduate level possess.

It was a Monday evening, and I was sitting in my women’s studies seminar. We were learning about incarcerated women and how feminism rarely reaches them. We forget about them. We go on with our days and do not offer them any redemption when feminism, above all things, is fighting for other women. 

My phone in my pocket kept vibrating,  so I silently left class and went to the bathroom and sat on the ground in the large corner stall feeling the cool tile on my thighs. 

Barstool Sports, the embodiment of toxic masculinity culture, often has local social media accounts at colleges. They profit off the free labor of problematic men who want so badly to be seen.

One of the many who had received my email asking for their interest in taking my survey had shared it with the college Barstool Sports Instagram account.

The Power of Papayas: How Women in Sexual Health Research Remain Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment
The screenshot that was posted on the college Barstool Sports Instagram page.

People were messaging and calling me to let me know of my new fame. It wasn’t fame I craved. I am a journalist and at my core, always a researcher. In this way, I was researching not only my survey responses but the reception of the subject to my peers. 

The post was later deleted because so many people reported it, but its damage was irreversible to my data collection. 

The anonymous link for the survey had been shared with members of the Barstool Sports account and posted on the messaging board website—4chan.

The Power of Papayas: How Women in Sexual Health Research Remain Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment
A fellow student of Stroozas distributing the survey on 4chan.

I began to get anonymous responses from the users of 4chan and other men at my college who did indeed, want to make my day a little worse.


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My research soon became an extracurricular activity. Men would take it over and over again to not only harass me but any ideology that was not white and heterosexual. It made me realize how much space men take up, even in empty text boxes asking them, begging them, to return to their own worlds. 

Besides the link for my survey being distributed, my email was as well. This made it easier for a harasser to create a 4chan account under my name.

The Power of Papayas: How Women in Sexual Health Research Remain Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment
A 4chan user posing as Stroozas and distributing the survey.

While I was looking through the now obsolete data, the responses that impacted me the most were the ones that were Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and racist. I thought of all of the times I saw penises drawn in the corners of books. Every time I saw a man draw a penis on something, to silently guard their space, and claim it was pure humor. That was what these respondents did: They asserted their space. 

Seven respondents took the survey and wrote the “N-word” for every response (multiple times). They said the Holocaust wasn’t real, or that “Hitler had the right idea.” They posed as Black respondents, Muslim and queer people to mock those communities. They continued to use the space to their benefit to redefine hate, to let me know that these hateful messages are present, and they will continue to be so. Just like every penis drawn in the margins or in the snow on a car windshield—they exist to take away, to demand acknowledgment of their existence while simultaneously taking away others but are thought of as harmless and never held accountable. 

I don’t believe it bodes well to breathe air back into the hateful comments I was told personally, as I want to focus on the use of empty space. It is obvious they were basked in misogyny. I could tolerate repeatedly being called a “pretentious cunt,” but I began an investigation with a detective on campus after I was told I was going to be raped and killed. 

It is important to emphasize that this timeline was a week. I sat with the harassment and stewed, confided in professors and close friends, and then did what I was supposed to do—ask for help. I started a Title IX investigation that soon failed, even though I continuously expressed how terrified I felt. 

I went through the motions and did what one is supposed to when they are harassed or threatened, but instead of safety, I was reassured nothing would really happen to me, and it was only baseless claims—even though I got an email from a man asking me to send him a video of me masturbating. The detective said he couldn’t do anything.

I continued to think of papayas during this time. We use them and other fruits, to visualize the vagina, as it is so politicized it must be turned into something more soluble. My survey was closed that week, and I moved forward with my project. I held a teach-in about my findings that over 100 people attended and wrote a grant to receive free vibrators from a sex store in Minneapolis, Smitten Kitten

The Power of Papayas: How Women in Sexual Health Research Remain Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment
An event Stroozas held after the harassment.

Students wanted more. I was fortunate because for every hateful response I got, there were people in person telling me I was doing the right thing and they fully supported me. They shared personal sentiments with me and thanked me for my work and the representation I provided that they were unaware they wanted so badly. 

The following semester, I was asked to do a second teach-in to talk about empowerment and shame within vaginal masturbation during sexual health week at my campus, and Smitten Kitten granted me 40 vibrators for guests. We made t-shirts, stickers and brochures—all to reclaim our space.

I used the debated papayas on all of my posters for these events. My college pushed back many times during this period, with the most notorious claim being my advertisements would be “too sexual” for the possible children at the on-campus daycare center who would see them. 

The Power of Papayas: How Women in Sexual Health Research Remain Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment
“I share this story not to discourage young people from the research of sexual topics, but to hold institutions and people accountable. I was the first person to study an often-taboo subject and face major backlash at my college, but I certainly will not be the last.” (sneakerdog / Flickr)

I thought of the hard outer shell of the papaya in shades of dark yellow and green. How it begs to be open, unleashed and free. Its ripe center is at the core hiding away unless called upon. I thought of how similar I was to a papaya, my tough shell deflecting comments, and my soft sweet inside that few saw but remained prepared for consumption if you took the time to wait for me to ripen. 

I share this story not to discourage young people from the research of sexual topics, but to hold institutions and people accountable. I was the first person to study an often-taboo subject and face major backlash at my college, but I certainly will not be the last. Institutions that withhold administrative support from students and neglect holding toxic ideologies accountable because they fear comprehensive and intimate conversations are institutions that will fail.

When I think of this small portion of my life, I feel lucky to have the people around me that I did. But most of all, I feel thankful for feminism. At the end of the experience, it was the women and other allies in my life that praised me, and it was feminism itself that taught me that the progress we must make always comes in the form of a revolution, and sometimes with a papaya.

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About

Sam Stroozas is an MSJ student at Northwestern University focusing on gender and sexual health reporting. Her pieces have been published in Newsweek, the Minnesota Reformer, and Rebellious Magazine. You can read more of her work here and follow her on Twitter @samstroozas.