Truth against Humanity

Posted By Pamela on Nov 6, 2013 | 106 comments

This rambling essay attempts to give voice to my struggles with #RipplesOfDoubt, and with the realities I’ve faced as a woman in science and skepticism. This is a piece written with too much honesty and not a lot of poetry. It is written because there are men out their throwing around phrases like, “I can’t be a misogynist – look how I intervened when that guy was about to grab that chicks boobs! Sure, I didn’t report it or anything, but I stopped it, and that is enough.”

No, it’s not enough.

I used to think it was. I used to have among my closest male friends people who thought it was enough to tell me, “Don’t feel bad about how that good thing X didn’t happen. It wasn’t that you weren’t good enough, it was just that you are a girl.” I used to think that’s what it meant for a man to be a good mentor or advocate for women – all he had to do was help her understand where the glass ceiling was and make sure its crushing weight wasn’t misidentified as actual failings of competency. I thought that was enough. But it wasn’t.

How many of us women comfort ourselves with this form of “it’s enough” over and over and over?

If you’ve ever played Cards Against Humanity, you know that sometimes the cards really need trigger warning. With cards like “Overpowering your father” and “Coat Hanger Abortions”, this game leaves no line uncrossed, and I’m not sure I’ve gotten through a game without at least once saying, “I am a terrible human being,” because of the totally over-the-top sentence I had just constructed. But sometimes… there is truth hidden in the cards. While playing with several friends on Saturday, I got the black card “Why don’t I sleep at night?” As a joke I said, “I wonder if any of you will come up with the truth?” 6 white cards came slamming down, and after a bit of shuffling I got ready to giggle.

But there was no laughter.

Black card:
Why don’t I sleep at night?

White card 1:
The Glass Ceiling.

Suddenly it stopped being Cards Against Humanity, and became truth against humanity.

Nicole hugged me. I didn’t read the rest of the white cards, I’d found that truth in 1 flip. We quickly shuffled around to the next round and moved on.

With ever increasing difficulty I’ve been dealing with issues of gender related to my career. Right now, I am struggling with hearing that an event I categorized as “A drunk ass  tried to grab my boobs,” is now being discussed by witnesses as, “He tried to sexually assault her in a bar while intoxicated.” I had created a euphemism for myself, and having that euphemism striped away is making me realize that I have been hiding from myself the true degree to which I have been harmed.

I have previously tried to confront and to give voice to the harm that sexual harassment and gender discrimination can do. I don’t think I’ve ever allowed myself to be totally vulnerable in my words, but during my July 2012 talk at The Amazing Meeting (script I vaguely followed and video here) I came close. My goal was to focus on inspiring people to do good, but I briefly addressed many of the issues that hold women like me back: Issues of being inappropriately touched, issues of hearing workplace banter about our boobs, and the effects all this and more has on our self-esteem. I made the following point as clearly as I could: “I know as I say this that it sounds unbelievable – and how can we report the unbelievable and expect to be believed?

I did not give this talk lightly. I suspected I’d experience backlash for daring to admit that I too am one of those women who has been touched, who has been held back, who has suffered self-doubt related to my gender. What shocked me was the form and degree of backlash. As a result of this talk I faced threat of professional reprimand. Let me state this more clearly, because I admitted that gender related comments hurt my self esteem, there were authority figures who demanded I be punished. While my direct supervisor and the dean we report to have always made me feel respected and have supported me, there were others within my profession who demanded I publicly apologize; that I be formally punished for what I said. I was asked to justify my speech and name names in confidential written documents. For one nearly fatal moment, I believed that if the people in authority knew the truth, perhaps people in power would undertake meaningful actions to make my profession better for women. And I did name names and I did use specifics … and my words were distributed widely enough that word of what was happening got back to me nearly a dozen timezones away. When I learned what was happening, I spontaneously (and thankfully silently) burst into tears. I hid behind long hair as I exited the audience of the conference session I was attending, and I hid in a foreign bathroom thinking my career was over. Three people wrote documents against me, and they named a forth complainant. No one else came forward to back me up in writing, even though for years there were those who felt fine telling me it was my gender that held me back and that when they had power they’d help me. I felt I had to get a lawyer in order to make sure my career wouldn’t be ruined – someone to find ways to use the existing guidelines to protect me. I exhausted my (admittedly small) savings. I started working more and more in isolation. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I tried to hide in my work, and that alone may have kept me going.

More than 300 days after this entire mess started, I received notice that I should be allowed to tell what happened to me without fear of reprimand, but that I have no legal case. Here I’d like to note that the statute of limitations on the relevant laws is 300 days, so it is literally true that I had no case at the time of this decision.

But it was a decision.

After almost a year, I though all the fallout from the talk I gave was over. I thought I could move on. I started moving out of isolation, and I started trying to return to my prior output levels. I went on a mini sabbatical-like trip to the EU to work with collaborators. I submitted a paper to CAPJournal and applied for two grants.

And then last week, the fading scars of what happened were cut open with a rusty blade.

I learned that a witnesses to an event that occurred in 2008 is discussing that event and naming names. During the event in question, a man in power who I’d previously never met made a lunge at my breasts. This is one of the events that weighed on me when I wrote my TAM talk. It weighed on me when I said, “As an astronomer, at conferences, I’ve randomly had my tits and ass grabbed and slapped by men in positions of power and by creeps who drank too much. This is part of what it means to be a woman in science and skepticism.”

I’ve been warned this may all hit the internet. I’ve been warned the social media maybe about to explode. I’ve been warned this could be devastating to my career. Let me put this more clearly: Because someone witnessed a man in power attempt to grab my boobs, I have been warned that I need to worry about my career being actively destroyed by others.

And that is fucked up. I run a program that works to spread science education, to generate science results – we are doing good – and I have to be worried that my ability to do good is going to be limited because I have boobs someone thought would be fun to grab at.

And then that man with power – the one who staggered at my breasts at the moment of our introduction – emailed me out of the blue on Halloween, denying anything happened between us because he’s never done anything like that, and if he has never… then he never did with me. He went on to ask why I never confronted him later, why I never did many things, and I found myself explaining, “There is absolutely no way for a woman to walk up to any man, let alone a prominent man they don’t really know, and say, ‘Pardon me, while you seemed to be drunk, you did this inappropriate thing.’ Inappropriate physical contact is so common at these events as to be just part of being a woman in science and skepticism. People drink. Inappropriate things happen, remembered or not, and for the most part we just move on as though it had never happened because otherwise we could never work.”  I told him he should get help, and I dug out my own prescription for dealing with the PTSD that had me shaking. He promised he would share with no one our communications and I told him I didn’t want to communicate with him at all.

This exchange left me broken – it broke me on my favorite holiday of the year.

I am still broken.

And I hate myself for wishing this would all just go away, instead of wishing that there could be justice. But I guess I fear that justice has a price I don’t have the life blood to pay for.

Over and over, I have made the choice, “what happened isn’t worth raising a stink about. Don’t ruin everyone’s [fun/con/career]”. Over and over, I’ve made the choice, “Yeah, that guy (but he was drunk!) slapped my butt in passing, but he is a leader at what he does, so I need to just get over myself and work with him.”

I hate myself for this.

I hate myself because I made the choice that not raising a fuss was more important than my self worth.

Read that again. It’s fucked up. But it’s who I am, … and when I read the hashtag #RipplesOfDoubt a few weeks ago, I realized how often we women make that decision. I’m fucked up, but I’m not alone. Too many of us fill our heads with euphemisms and excuses. It’s so much easier to think, “It’s a drunk guy being a drunk ass.” It hurts so much more to say, “I had someone try and sexually assault me.”

I am a survivor. And I am the worst kind of survivor – I am someone who never really fought back, and who never demanded justice. All I ever asked was to be allowed to try and do good things.

It’s going to take me a while to come to terms with all of this, and I’d ask your patience and support.

And I’d ask you all to teach your kids this: be honest, keep your hands to yourself, don’t create drama, and leave the world better than you found it.

I am a survivor. And I just want to be allowed to try and do good things.


  1. Now that there is some shit. We need to end this kind of thing, in ever profession. I know that I can’t offer support to you, but I can go be more active about misogyny &c in my own profession. Hopefully that will help prevent similar incidents.

  2. I stumbled upon this today when I returned to Twitter after a hiatus and a friend made sure I saw the tweets with the hashtag and that led to this post. Both have been extremely illuminating, yet with not a shred of surprise.

    I’m not in academia. Heck, I don’t have a degree. But I worked in a business with institutionalized misogyny and harassment, another world that gives no options for standing up for yourself if you want to keep your career. It’s tough and it takes a strong woman to even try. It takes a stronger woman to take the risks and speak up. If it wasn’t so hard to do that things might have been better for women of our generation. I hope we are making it better for the next, because I feel a scary level of desperation from girls and women right now. We are just so tired, collectively.

    I was at that TAM talk and it was deeply inspiring. My goals shifted that day, it made me less self-focused and showed that improving the current condition is something that we need to chip away at however we can, because if enough of us chip at the same block of marble from where we stand we just might wind up with something more beautiful than we imagined.

    We need to talk, we need to make ourselves vulnerable to these sorts of attacks because the alternative is leaving ourselves far more vulnerable to the sort of behavior that started this whole trying journey. Changing paradigms always brings some pushback from those who benefit from the status quo. Charges and lawsuits and actual punishment for the perpetratos, NOT the victims, need to be the goal, but even when we can’t get that we need to speak up.

    I spent years trying to be “one of the boys” and letting far too many things I knew were wrong slide by, coming up with excuses. It can be a great career move. But at what cost?

  3. Hi Pamela! We met a couple of months ago when you were here in Melbourne – I presented a plushie to you. I’m even more proud to have designed it in your name because you are such an inspiration for women everywhere. (I sincerely regret ‘running off’ and not chatting to you more, I’m an extreme introvert and it took me a lot of guts to talk to you. Thank you for taking the time to do it)

    I just wanted to say that you and the other women speaking out about these issues is so very needed and brave. I’ve not been following the rifts saga but am aware of it and I’m always shocked to see so many women being attacked merely for having the temerity to say “this needs to stop”. I’m extremely sorry to hear that you’ve been dealing with not just sexual harassment, but harassment and career-consequences just for speaking up.

    If I wasn’t already a huge fan of yours, this post would certainly have me in your corner. Thank you so much for your courage in speaking up, and as one who suffers from depression, I can totally understand how difficult it would be to do and still maintain some sense of control or balance. Keeping quiet is nothing to be ashamed of though, it’s something that everyone does to protect ourselves. But speaking up is often so important because in doing so we help each other deal with the problem and develop strategies to make things better.

    In actual fact it’s because of the discussions in the sceptical community that I discovered that like you and many others, I dismissed behaviour by someone I knew simply because it wasn’t hands-on but ‘merely’ creepy. I had always attributed it to the fact that I’m bad at social skills or that this person was just a tad more friendly than most people I encounter. I’m now taking a second look at this person’s behaviour to me and treating it with much more seriousness than I did before. It’s thanks to yours and others being open and honest that we can stop excusing things and second-guessing ourselves about what should be bad behaviour. It *does* change things, even if you don’t see the results for yourself. It *does* ripple outwards, because change will ripple outwards too.

    Anyway, my words and letter to you now are just so much worth repeating right now: you do amazing work, you are an inspiration, and please keep doing what you’re doing. You have every ability to inspire more women into science (which can only be a good thing) as you have done with me.

    PS. Donated to Cosmoquest just now as well, so you can keep doing the important science stuff that needs doing. If you have a legal aid fund I’d donate to that too.

  4. I’m absolutely flabbergasted by this. This is extraordinary in this day and age. Its almost beyond belief that there are so-called professionals in positions of power abusing their privelaged status. I hope that it all comes good for you. I saw your talk at Swinburne. It was great! Keep on going and never give up.

  5. Whatever you choose to do, I hope you find some resolution in this. You are among my favorite people. I believe in you and your work.

  6. wow… just… wow.

    I don’t know what to say other than I’m sorry you’re having to go through this ordeal. Like those who have commented before me, I hope you’re able to find some resolution and put the pieces back together. You’re an amazing individual I am honored to know you.

  7. Hello, thanks for taking the time to view my profile. I am an academic writer from the US who enjoys finding new topics to research and write about.

  8. Hehe, det behøver du ikke beklage. Men ligesom du selv skriver ind på vores faio-oekbfanscde, at alle unge ikke er ens, så er alle voksne det altså heller ikke Peter

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