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I have PTSD. It’s from events that occurred when I was young; events forced me to learn first hand that sometimes when you go to authorities and ask for help they respond by breaking your soul. Some of you out there know what I’m talking about, and I love you for going through too many things none of us should have ever experienced. I survived as a person and not just as an empty shell because of the people who lifted me up when I needed it. It took me years to get past what happened. I won’t say I’m over it; just that it is now glaring at my back instead of standing in front of me and stopping me from moving on.

This post has been translated into Chinese and is available here.

I’m not going to go into any more detail than that. Don’t ask. I don’t need to relive it, and you don’t need it in your head.

I’m telling you this so you can understand that while I haven’t experienced prolonged sexual abuse or harassment in astronomy, I do have the capacity to try and explain what it means to be a survivor and to help you occupy the emotional space that survivors must live in. While all experiences differ, certain key issues are unfortunately common.

Being abused in astronomy is something it is almost impossible to move on from. A women in an abusive romantic relationship can move out, get a new place, and move on with hopes of never seeing the man again. It sucks, but it’s doable. They have the option if needed to get a restraining order, and they can (with great struggle and at personal emotional cost) speak about what happened and say, “I just can’t be in the room with him.” It sucks. It’s hard. But starting over and never seeing the abuser again is an option. The same is largely true for most (but not all) cases of workplace abuse. A female computer scientist has 100s of job opportunities scattered around the nation, can seek remote employment and possibly stay in her current home, and may even be able to get a new job on the same public transit line as her old job if the city is right. There will be a chance she’ll run into her abuser, but in some fields the chance is pretty low, and she can speak up about what happened and say (with great struggle and at personal emotional cost) “He abused me, and I refuse to work with him.” There may be (often is?) backlash, but it’s at least understood that it’s illegal.

In astronomy, this just isn’t the case.

N.B. I fully recognize that men are abused by women and abuse can be between people of the same gender. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to use the pro/nouns she/woman for the victim, and he/man   for the abuser. I’m ignoring issues of race, religion, and orientation for simplicity.

When small academic fields allow abusers to stay in the field – unidentified and with the victims forced into silence – the victims are revictimized over and over by their inability to escape their harasser without leaving the field. One man may abuse dozens of women (or more) over a career … many of whom leave the field. If we could own up to how horrible abuse truly is and take real action – sanctioning the abusers in real ways that force them out of the lives of victims – maybe we could protect victims and keep more women in our field. Unfortunately, it seems that administrations have chosen to protect the abusers, and have thus devalued the worth of women.

In astronomy, you can never escape

Working in astronomy is like living in a small town you can never leave; where everyone knew you as a kid and thinks they know your business. Our field is so small that we have meetings where we find ourselves tripping over people from every nation and every aspect of our field. You can never escape that dude you stupidly dated when you were 22, and a women who is abused in astronomy – sexually, emotionally, or through bullying – can never get away from her abuser.

This is a two-fold problem. First of all, there are essentially no jobs. It is almost impossible to get a new job when there are 5 available in the entire world and the person who knows your work best is your abuser. Second, even if you do succeed in getting a new job, there is no place far enough away that you are certain not to see him again.

Let me be very clear, in astronomy you can switch subfields (from stars to galaxies, from planets to astrobiology), and you can jump continents, but you are still pretty much guaranteed to run into your abuser at a conference if you select your travel based on what is best for your career.

I’m not sure I have the words to explain just how awful this is. Imagine sitting in a room getting ready to present, and having someone sit down beside you and saying, “just wanted to say ‘hi'” and when you look, it is the person who abused you, smiling knowingly, knowing you don’t want to see them. Your heart stops. You want to scream, to run, to disappear through a wrinkle in time. The thing is, you can’t do any of those things. You have to pretend you’re ok, so no one notices your flush of fear. You have to be “professional” and act “collegial” when all you want to say is “Fuck off and go away.” You exchange small talk while trying to escape, but you can’t escape because you’re going to give a talk… so you have to sit there. If it’s a crowded auditorium with standard chairs, the thigh of the person next to you – your abuser – touches you. It can’t be helped if you’re an average overweight person. So you’re sitting there, wanting to escape, … and you can’t do anything.

In academia, you are silenced

The way workplace & mentor-student complaints run in academia, the complaint is (in theory at least) confidential and the only people told about the complaint are the person being complained about and people who are asked for witness testimony and sworn to confidentiality. The results of these complaints are in most cases locked behind confidentiality agreements, and if the victim talks about what happened to them, they can be penalized/punished. You don’t have a choice in this. The complaint form for Title IX at my university has a line you have to initial saying you won’t tell anyone you complained, and if the university conducts an investigation on your behalf, it is still confidential unless you refuse to participate… in which case the university will do nothing to help you so you kind of have to participate if you want to at least try and stop the abuse.

At the end, the hope is, someone will just make the abuser go away – just remove the person from your life so you never have to see him again… but if they keep their job, that’s not going to happen. Even if they don’t keep their job, if the issue is sealed and the abuser moves to another university, that’s still not going to happen. You’re still going to see them. And, because astronomy is so small, you are likely to have to serve, for the good of our field, on committees with the people who abused you. Legally, because complaints are sealed, a victim cannot say, “I can’t serve on a committee with him – he abused me.” Instead, she has to sit there, trying to do good, while shattering inside.

Bullies build careers on silent victims

Sometimes the most brilliant people can act like middle-school brats. Remember that kid who wrecked the class outcast’s dinosaur diorama? It always seemed like when the outcast went running to the teacher for help, the teacher would tell them they needed to learn to tattle less, and would then, in some weird, I-guess-I-have-to, kind of way, tell the bully, “Don’t you think you should be nicer? Now please apologize and don’t do it again.” Inevitably, that middle school bully would sidle up to their victim in the cafeteria or on the play ground and whisper, “So the dinosaurs are dead. Next time maybe it will be you.” It was middle school. Kids are mean. Teachers often don’t like the class outcast either. We somehow survived.

But academia isn’t middle school, and not everyone survives.

And the crimes are much worse.

In our field, we have faculty grabbing panties through dresses and asking for sex in their house under the cameras. When the victim is part of an investigation, they are forced to relive what happened to them while going on the record with people they may not even know. When all that is over, as history has shown, the abuser isn’t asked to apologize and generally isn’t punished. They are simply sent off to sexual harassment training.

Think about that. A woman who is sexually violated in ways that could be classified as sexual assault first gets repeatedly emotionally harmed by having to tell her story to investigators, and then she has to watch as the person who assaulted her is simply asked to spend time taking anti-harrassment classes, but otherwise faces few or no penalties. Until recently (still?), abusers have consistently kept their tenure, kept their funding, and kept their power. The woman? She is told she can’t talk on penalty of lawsuit for breaking confidentiality.

For the next twenty years or more, that abuser may sidle up to their victim and say, “You know, if you speak, I’ll sue you,” or “If you say anything, I’ll make sure you never get a grant again or publish another paper.” The victims are often people in the same sub-field as the abuser (that’s how they met), and they are likely to land on committees together. Imagine this scenario – the victim is asked to do inordinate amounts of committee work by her past abuser, and when she tries to complain, she is reminded, “You can’t complain about me; I’ll sue and claim you are retaliating against me for your old complaint.”

The women may be re-victimized over and over and over. … and she’s legally not allowed to explain what’s happening to anyone.

Can there be redemption?

I know one man who made mistakes early in his career, under the influence of an ethically corrupt advisor. He took the job to work with a top researcher and learned more than just how to take and analyze data. Many years later, he looked me in the eyes and said about that past, “it was all fucked up.” He said more, but that’s not for me to blog. Bottomline – he was sorry, has worked to do good, has deep haunting regrets, and I would trust (and have previously trusted) him with my students. We all have mistakes that haunt us. When you look at someone and their reaction is to look horrified and express deep regret and seem to want to avoid their victims as much as their victims want to avoid them… I think there is sometimes room to move on. This isn’t universal. There are people who are only ever sorry they got caught. There are a lot of people like that… but there are some people who have a change of perspective and learn to do better and be better.

The Problem with saying “That was long ago”

Over years the silence can build up. When you hear, “So and so had a complaint against him at university A, and no one did anything, but the students left the field” you worry about talking if he does something to you. When you hear, “There were also complaints at university B, but then everything got sealed… and if they talk they’ll be sued,” you hold you tongue until you can’t help but scream. When you hear, “He’s at university C, and every time someone says something negative there is a threat of lawsuit,” you hold your breath and consider giving up your dreams and that thing – that science – that makes you feel alive. You aren’t just silent, you are afraid and by necessity a part of you has to die that the rest of you might survive.

Eddie Izzard, a British comedian, masks vital truths in comedy. In his “Dressed to Kill” show he has a sketch that discusses mass murder and he points out that when someone kills enough people our brains can no longer comprehend it. He says, “If somebody kills someone, that’s murder; you go to prison. You kill 10 people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick, that’s what they do. Twenty people, you go to a hospital; they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can’t deal with it, you know? Someone’s killed 100,000 people. We’re almost going, “Well done! You killed 100,000 people? Ahhh. You must get up very early in the morning.” ”

I fear that our minds that have been trained for science just don’t necessarily have the capacity to fully comprehend the extent and the impact of the abuse that is going on around us. We are letting the abusers stay, and there are some people (we call them trolls and sometimes colleagues) out there saying, “Well done.”

The abusers stay.

And one by one the victims shatter, and walk away because there is no safe place.

We need to do better.


image by FLASHFLOOD studio