The problem with “otherizing” perpetrators of sexual assault in STEM

Any woman who shares her experiences of sexual assault is brave beyond words. Anyone who does so as publicly and eloquently as Hope Jahren in her recent Op-Ed for the New York Times is truly inspirational. Yes, Hope Jahren sure can write. But I don’t think Jahren’s piece actually deals with the issue of sexual assault or harassment in science. By juxtaposing her story—a saddening, angering story, no doubt—against the issues of STEM’s inhospitability to women, Jahren does not shine a coherent light on issues that are specific to STEM. And this is a shame because there are plenty of issues surrounding sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault that we can begin to address within STEM. By drawing attention to “otherized” perpetrators, we risk letting perpetrators in our midst escape without self-reflection or consequence.

What happened to Jahren could happen to any woman travelling anywhere. It could have happened to a woman on holiday in Turkey, or to a woman walking back to her apartment in New York City. It happened to happen while she was doing fieldwork, but it was not specific to doing fieldwork. The blame for this assault lies with the perpetrator, with the patriarchy, with a depressingly pervasive mindset that the world does not belong as much to women as it does to men. Science is not immune to this mindset; scientists can be as patriarchal as anyone else, as some of Jahren’s other brave writing illustrates. But the solution to this particular case of assault cannot be found within the scientific establishment.

What disappoints me about this Op-Ed is that there are so many problems of sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault that demand change from the people who make up the scientific establishment. Many women have told their own stories of experiences of sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in which the perpetrators are well-entrenched, well-respected members of the scientific establishment (like here, and here, and here). Drawing attention, especially on a platform as visible as the New York Times, to one of these many stories would help to build an airtight case for action within the scientific community. As it stands, a sexist, patriarchal scientist could respond to Jahren’s story by saying that her experience has nothing to do with him, because the perpetrator was just some Turkish Bastard who couldn’t keep his hands off a Foreign Woman. (Intersectional feminists will note that even when put in scare quotes, using the word “safe” to describe the attitude of majority white countries towards women and placing them in implicit contrast with an “unsafe,” majority non-white country, is problematic. And no, a half-hearted caveat to remind readers that “similar things still happen” in the majority-white countries is not enough.) There are many more stories we can be telling, stories that will not allow sexist, patriarchal scientists such an easy out. The stories we tell should force these scientists to confront their own role in perpetuating an environment in STEM fields that is unwelcoming to women. But if the anonymous Turkish Bastard is the bad guy in the story, the story will not cause the sexists sitting in our universities, labs, and field stations any discomfort, or prompt in them any real self-reflection. Jahren’s story is valid and important and heart-breaking, but it is not an example of how “science has a sexual assault problem.”

Referring to the Clancy et al. (2014) study does bring other women’s stories into the picture. As Jahren says (emphasis mine), “I know several women with stories like mine, but more often it is the men of one’s own field team, one’s co-workers, who violate their female colleagues. The women surveyed by Dr. Clancy’s team stated that their “perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team.”” But two sentences written in the language of a scientific journal are not as powerful as a story. Jahren’s story will cause sadness and outrage in anyone with a shred of empathy, including all of the sexist, patriarchal scientists we interact with right here in our universities. And these scientists will congratulate themselves for recognizing their own anger, will consider themselves allies of the women scientists against the anonymous, “otherized”, Turkish Bastard, and will continue to inflict micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions upon women and minorities in science with a complete lack of self-awareness.

Jahren ends her pieces with this paragraph (emphasis mine):

“In August, Lego began selling a set called “Research Institute” that features three female scientist minifigures: a paleontologist, an astronomer and a chemist. I am well qualified in two of those fields, and I am here to say that playing with a different set of dolls will not adequately prepare your daughters for a career in science. You must teach them, rather, to manage their dreams. They need to know that daring to act upon their dreams of science can be both a beautiful and a dangerous thing.”

This is beautifully written, but how is this not (pre-emptive) victim blaming? Yes, even in 2014, we women scientists must manage our dreams, weigh them against our lives and our physical and mental well-being, and this sickens me. But that does not have to be the case for our daughters, and we should not be teaching them to manage their dreams. Indeed, the only way we can begin to make STEM fields more welcoming of our daughters is if all of us, and especially those of us with voices as powerful as Jahren’s, actually challenge the sexism and patriarchy in our midst. Change must begin at home.

25 thoughts on “The problem with “otherizing” perpetrators of sexual assault in STEM

  1. I just can’t stop being appalled at the notion that a women could sit down and write such a piece that essentially says, I’m concerned for the victim BUT so many times. This piece has eight BUTS in it. Which makes me wonder if you’re putting the victim first here.

    You really want to make a difference to curb sexual assault? Stop criticizing victims. Full stop.

    Moreover, nowhere in her piece does she say that this is a problem limited to the sciences, as you say she did. (I don’t know how familiar you are with editorial practices in newspapers, but they write their own headlines and don’t give authors any input or say.)

    You’re saying that her piece doesn’t challenge sexism and patriarchy in her piece? Umm, the whole point of it was to point towards Clancy et al., which specifies what can be done. She’s done more to call attention to the problem than anybody else I can think of in years. And the first htig you can do is complain about it rather than build towards a successful solution? Once you start pointing at victims and blaming them for discussing their experiences in a way that you don’t like, you’re just preventing other women from speaking out or working towards the right solution.

  2. Terry, I think you’ve missed the point of this post. As I read it, Ambika is arguing that there are STEM-specific issues of sexism that need to be recognized and addressed by all scientists. She’s not victim-blaming here, she’s saying that one personal story (even one as powerful as Hope Jahren’s) is not enough.

  3. I think you missed the part where Ambika was saying how Hope told her own story the wrong way and did the wrong thing. This is easily read as a criticism of the victim’s narrative. The victim comes first. Simple as that.

    1. Except for the fact that this is intersectional, and not a piece strictly about Hope’s experiences. She was using it to discuss sexual assault within STEM, but her experience wasn’t such. She could have cited a relevant experience, but she did not. Her article has some very important pitfalls worthy of discussing, and Ambika made it very clear that she supports Hope discussing *her* narrative. But Hope wasn’t just discussing her narrative.

      The victim comes first, but this article wasn’t about Hope as a victim. It was about sexual assault in the STEM field, and as a woman within STEM, I think she was right on point. We need to not otherize perpetrators of sexual assault, and we need to discuss the issues within the STEM field directly.

      Honestly, it feels like you’re coming in an telling Ambika off like a white knight, without considering the important intersectional issues she’s bringing up, issues she has to live with, as do many other women. And you’re framing it all against the issue of victim-blaming. Classy. At no point does she disrespect Hope’s narrative, all she discusses is context and its import.

      How about listening to women when they speak about the world they live in?

      1. Wow Terry, it’s almost like Ambika was talking about something completely different to what you were referring to.

        Which is to say, she was talking about not removing positive portrayals of female scientists directed at children, while simultaneously making sure we talk to them about what the system is like when they’re older.

        While you are saying that any discussion/criticism of an article, that has some White Feminism flaws in its rhetoric, that is written by someone who has experienced assault, is victim blaming.

        Not the same framing at all.

        But I do like that you’re now ignoring THREE women talking to you about this. It’s almost like you know more about our experiences than we do?

        I love it when white men come to tell me How Things Are.

        You haven’t at all engaged with the criticism you’ve received with respect to the nuances at play here. Not once have any of us argued about Hope’s experiences. We’ve argued about the thesis she frames after revealing her experiences. That thesis is definitely open to being discussed.

  4. Yes, the issues that are raised in this post are important, valid, well-considered and necessary for going forward. I thought this was self-evident. Since it’s not, here I am saying that.

    I just wish that it wasn’t couched in a criticism of the specific piece in which a person had the leadership and courage to bring the question to the forefront by telling a personal story to such a big stage. But, as y’all pointed out, it’s not my place to show that concern without engaging with the points you’ve raised.

    Yes, I hear you. Yes, you’re right. You can listen to me at your own discretion.

  5. I think you have grossly misunderstood the term ‘victim blaming’. If there is a sexual assault victim who goes on to shoplift, blaming her for shoplifting is NOT victim blaming. Blaming her for the assault would be victim blaming. Now, let me make it clear that I do not think Jahren has committed any crime. I think Ambika’s point is simple. It is that Jahren, as a victim, is incredibly courageous to speak out. However, Jahren has let go of a brilliant opportunity. And Ambika blames her for it.

    This is NOT victim blaming. In fact, Ambika clearly states that “the blame lies with the perpetrator”. It is true that victims must not be criticized. But that is only for the crime in which they were the victims! To call out Ambika on a public forum as a ‘victim blamer’ is not only unfair but also an act of micro-aggression.

    I would actually go a little further to suggest that Jahren has not only let go of an opportunity, but has also made a huge mistake. By using an example of sexual assault that has nothing to do with STEM to make a point about sexism within STEM, Jahren has allowed all the sexist men in STEM to immediately dissociate themselves from the very sexism they perpetrate. Jahren’s piece clearly allows all sexist men in STEM to ‘otherize perpetrators of sexual violence’ and very conveniently so. There is such little speak-up of sexism within academia that whenever it is done, it is absolutely crucial that one does it right. One simply cannot afford to go wrong, like Jahren has done. Again, I want to make it clear that I don’t think Jahren has done anything wrong by telling her story. She deserves enormous credit for it. But, she has done something wrong by allowing sexist men in STEM to dissociate themselves from the sexism they indulge in.

    Ambika is absolutely right in pointing out that Jahren indulges in pre-emptive victim blaming. If the message Jahren wants to give away is anything close to “be careful if you are a woman and want to do field work”, this is just a milder version of “I told you to be careful”, should something go wrong. There is no question that this qualifies as pre-emptive victim blaming. The problem is precisely that women are being told to be careful of sexual crime. It is the criminals that deserve to be told to back off. Not the women who want to do field work.

    I urge you, Terry McGlynn, to re-read Ambika’s objection and reconsider your stance that she is a ‘victim blamer’. She is not.

    1. Perhaps we have a different consideration of what it means to blame a victim. I didn’t mean to imply, Nava Gaddam, that any accused the author of the Op-Ed piece to be somehow responsible for the crime that was committed against her.

      I do mean to state that the victim is being blamed for writing the wrong op-ed piece. The victim was being blamed for choosing to say certain things, not saying other certain things, and saying some things in a way that others find unacceptable. I’m thinking of this passage:

      “As it stands, a sexist, patriarchal scientist could respond to Jahren’s story by saying that her experience has nothing to do with him, because the perpetrator was just some Turkish Bastard who couldn’t keep his hands off a Foreign Woman. (Intersectional feminists will note that even when put in scare quotes, using the word “safe” to describe the attitude of majority white countries towards women and placing them in implicit contrast with an “unsafe,” majority non-white country, is problematic. And no, a half-hearted caveat to remind readers that “similar things still happen” in the majority-white countries is not enough.)”

      In this passage, the author of the Op-Ed piece — the victim — is being accused of writing a piece that is readily subject to misinterpretation and facilitating racist boorishness. Clearly, she was being blamed for using quote marks over certain words and told this was the wrong thing to do.

      In the last comment “She has done something wrong by allowing sexist men in STEM to dissociate themselves from the sexism they indulge in.” THAT’S WHAT I MEAN BY VICTIM BLAMING. She’s the victim, she was blamed for discussing her experience in a way that you don’t approve. I don’t think that makes me some goofy would-be-white-knight trying to ride in and defend someone’s honor. Lord knows Dr. Jahren speaks for herself quite well enough. My sensibilities were just incredibly rash at reading such a hit piece on her Op-Ed within a day after it was published. You can disagree with me that it’s a negative hit piece that is unfairly critical of how the op-ed was written. But that’s how I see it. I think if you’re familiar with what else I’ve said, done and written, that I’m not an ignorant doofus who is prone to disrespecting the views of others, especially when it comes to race and gender. So please, hear what I’m saying.

      All I see, just as some tenured white dude looking at this from 40,000 feet, is that it’s hard to imagine any more women wanting to come out and tell their story considering that people might write things like this about them if they do. So, people will remain quiet. And the problem will remain.

      1. You may want to avoid describing yourself as being at 40,000 feet, it might be interpreted as condescension.

      2. I can see how someone could choose to see it that way, though that’s not how I meant it. (And someone who wanted to make that kind of accusation wouldn’t really be engaging in productive dialogue unless they really thought that’s what I meant.) I’m just looking at this from a distance, because I don’t have any direct experience with concerns of intersectionality of concerns involve gender, ethnicity, and privilege, as I’m a tenured white dude, even though this is an issue I deal with every day at work.

      3. Of the 13 comments on this page (about to be 14, including this one), 8 belong to Terry.

        Terry, just because you dip your foot in the world of the oppressed, doesn’t mean you can’t be oppressive, and we all know what is intended is not the same as what is. For someone who deals with… oppression… every day, you sure do seem to be talking over Ambika a lot. She has appalled you, and then you backtracked and said her article was accurate but you objected to certain aspects, which was absolutely not clear in that first comment. One might think it wasn’t intended at all in that first comment. Unlike Ambika, who made it clear that she was supporting Hope but not her thesis, you have been quite happy to come here and tell her off as if you were her dad. The criticisms of being patronising, Terry, are not unfounded. Every single apology you have made has been about our perspectives, not your mistakes. Hardly the work of a man who is listening more than the work of a man who is barely reading before he spouts an opinion.

        Take your foot out of the pool and look into it once the ripples you’ve made are gone. Your voice is not the most valuable one here, no matter what you might think. For an educated man, you don’t seem particularly keen to learn from your mistakes.

        Here’s the thing, a person who has been victimized can write an article that victimizes other people. That makes a very big deal about the brownness of her perpetrator before she backtracks. I read it and was very worried by the end of it.

        We HAVE to talk about pieces that end up in papers like the New York Times. The NYT already has a fraught history of racial and other biases in its pages (see Ferguson and their article on Mike Brown, a murder victim, and tell me if you see the victim blaming then). You are twisting feminist rhetoric so you have a place in it, a privileged place… But you do not have any place here except the place we give you. Just like you and I, Terry, have no place in discussions about racism except for the place we are given. We are allies and we are part of the problem. Usually we’re more one than the other.

        Which do you wish to be?

        Don’t worry Terry, I think we both know the answer. Did you know 9/15 is equivalent to 60%?

    2. Sexual assault while doing fieldwork whether done by a fellow scientist or someone you do not know is a STEM problem. It can discourage victimized women from advancing in science careers and make them feel especially unsafe while doing field work.

  6. Fortunately or unfortunately, what ‘victim blaming’ refers to, is not up for individual considerations. It refers to holding the victim responsible (at least in part) for the harm that befell him/her in a said crime. Clearly Ambika wasn’t indulging in any of that. And I think you are wrong in calling any criticism of an Op-Ed author ‘victim blaming’, just because she happens to be a victim in an unrelated crime. It is just incorrect usage of the phrase ‘victim blaming’.

    As for the paragraph you quote from Ambika’s piece, merely pointing out a potentially harmful getaway line a sexist man in STEM could use, owing to Jahren’s article, is not the same as a general take on what the whole of Jahren’s article represents or stands for. Clearly, Jahren’s article contains a very courageous portion where she narrates her story. And this pointing out of something else that is wrong with another part of Jahren’s article cannot be attributed to Jahren’s article as a whole. Fallacy of generalization, if you will.

    It is appalling that you find it convenient to take another dig at Alex B (for pointing out that you were digressing from the essence of Ambika’s article and being micro-aggressive) and Ambika (for what you think is a rushed response, almost suggesting that writing the same piece a week later would have somehow been better), all over again. Disappointingly, in a response to my comment is where you found it appropriate to do so.

    I am not familiar with anything you have said or written anywhere outside of your comments on this blog entry. Contrary to what you seem to suggest, I have no presumptions about you being an ‘ignorant doofus’ or being ‘prone to disrespecting the views of others’. My comment points out that you have misunderstood Ambika’s article. And is not a judgement of you as a person.

    Neither was Ambika’s article an attempt to make it difficult for women to tell their stories in the future.

    It is an attempt to point out that it is often not sufficient to do the right thing (and Jahren did do the right thing by speaking out). But it is absolutely crucial to not let a large set of perpetrators of sexism get away; especially not in an article that attempts to raise issues of sexual violence. Jahren has allowed sexist men in STEM an opportunity to dissociate themselves from the sexism they perpetrate while speaking up about sexism in STEM. And no, this is not my fancied subjective disapproval of the way in which Jahren tells her story, as you suggest. I point to objective negative repercussions Jahren’s piece could have.

    Let me reiterate that pointing out a dangerous negative repercussion of Jahren’s article is not the same as blaming her for the harm that befell her in a sexual assault. The latter is victim blaming. The former is NOT. It is like pointing to a green wall and saying it is yellow. When told again that it is green, you seem to be saying ‘but that’s what I mean by yellow’. Your continued insistence raises other questions.

  7. I haven’t been on social media much lately. But I am just stopping by to say that this piece is excellent. It is the best one I’ve read discussing my original Op-Ed piece. It brings forward all the salient (and complex) issues forward in a way that my writing did not. I am grateful to you for writing it.

    1. Dr. Jahren, thank you so much for reading it and for your words. I’ll reiterate here how much your bravery inspires me, and, I’m certain, other women in science–thank you.

      1. Your article is very well done, and pulls together many threads. You write well and each of your opinions is valid. I feel compelled to state a few items from my point of view. I don’t write anything with half a heart; the direct quotes and journal-style were a part of a conscious choice to weave back and forth from a more lyrical to a more analytical voice. Also important is that the word “manage” (as in “manage your dreams”) was chosen with great care after many days of thought. “Manage” is not synonymous with “abandon” or “compromise”. Indeed, my dictionary indicates a definition of “succeed with pointed effort”. I wish to also remark upon the sexualized epithet you have chosen with which to label my attacker: these are not my words and these are not the words of the “sexist, patriarchal scientists” you invoke, those are words that you chose. I do not believe they were a good choice. Finally, you express a belief that my words will cause established scientists to merely become entrenched in their fear of an anonymous other at the expense of working towards real change (that was my reading, please correct me if I am wrong). In the days since my piece was published, I have not seen this happen. I have received tens of emails from faculty at several levels and at several institutions who have begun to draft new departmental policies for fieldwork practices, that center upon the recognition of power relationships within academic departments, as expressed within the context potential abuse during fieldwork.

        You are absolutely correct when you demand that more voices, different from mine, need to be heard in order to create a fuller, richer and more accurate picture of the experience of women in science. I have written about my experience and its long-term ramifications for my scientific career. Again, thank you for allowing me to write these two paragraphs, and thank you so much for what you wrote. Your voice moves us forward, and I am grateful for it.

      2. I am very glad that there are at least some established scientists who aren’t reading your piece in the way I feared they might, and are moving to take action. Perhaps I’m too cynical. In this case, I’m incredibly happy to be proven wrong 🙂

  8. Ambika, please reconsider Hope’s story with regard to the “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault.” Her story is an example of woman being assaulted by a “Local Community Member” (Figure 2b, left red column, 35 incidents). This risk of assault from local community members is important and it must be addressed in field work policies and expectations.

    As Hope described in her Op-Ed, geologist and other field scientists are expected to establish field sites. What if the best field site to study a particular phenomenon is in an area with a high incidence of assault? If a woman faces a greater risk of assault at some field sites than a man, her choice of field studies will be limited in ways that a man’s choices are not. That is a hurdle or limitation for women, but not men.

    The problem of women being assaulted from superiors in the STEM hierarchy (Figure 2b, right red column, 63 incidents) is also important, but must be addressed with different policies. If you are researching stories of women who have been assaulted by a superior at a field site, the story of women in the Washington University Earth Science Department may be helpful to you

    In case you are wondering about my personal knowledge of this issue, I studied geology at Penn State (BS 2000), and hydrogeology at Stanford (MS 2002), and worked as a geologist until my first child was born in 2005. My husband is a professor in the Wash U Earth Science Department.

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