Home » Academia » On Struggling To Call Myself A Survivor Of Sexual Violence

On Struggling To Call Myself A Survivor Of Sexual Violence

[CW: sexual violence]

Now settling down to write this after abandoning my plan to “take a break” from sexual violence, that queasy feeling is back. It’s the queasiness I first felt in publicly wrestling with the question — am I a survivor of sexual violence?  It’s the queasiness that threatened to lead to actually vomiting as I read Dr. J. E. Sumerau’s essay, “I See Monsters: The Role of Rape in My Personal, Professional, and Political Life.” It’s the queasiness I felt after publishing an essay about the sexual harassment I and fellow graduate students experienced at the hands of Martin Weinberg, esteemed (and, consequently protected) professor of sociology at Indiana University. That same queasiness that slowly grew as I went into a Twitter rage about story after story of sexual violence in sociology programs on The Professor Is In’s #MeTooPhD crowdsourced survey of sexual violence in academia.

This morning’s queasiness is, perhaps, part of the ongoing queasiness I’ve felt for two days now. In response to the #MeTooSociology social media thread to which I have contributed, Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel tweeted:

“I’m sorry, but is coming not just for Sociologists, but sex and gender academics from all fields. We need to talk about the elephant that is sexual misconduct within sex science.

I agreed, somewhat absentmindedly sharing that I had been groped by two white gay cis men at the 2008 Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality conference in Puerto Rico.

I attended the 2007 SSSS meeting in Indianapolis, just two months into my first-year of graduate school in sociology at the nearby Indiana University (in Bloomington, IN). I was fortunate to attend the next year’s meeting in PR, paid in full by the National Sexuality Resource Center (now the Center for Research & Education on Gender and Sexuality) at San Francisco State University. I was one of four graduate students selected to found and chair regional chapters of the short-lived Campus Coalition for Sexual Literacy program.

Early in my first full day at the SSSS meeting, I ran into one of my major advisors from my undergraduate training. Our mini reunion was interrupted when the two aforementioned white gay cis men approached: Christopher Fisher (then a PhD student in Health Behavior at IU) and a professor. In the decade that has passed, I cannot remember whether that professor was [Prof 1] or [Prof 2], both of whom were present during this encounter. I did not know them very well, but knew Fisher from IU’s LGBTQ grad student group (Crossroads), which I co-facilitated during my second year of grad school (2008-2009). I knew Prof 1 better than Prof 2, but Prof 2 apparently has a long-standing reputation as a sexual predator within SSSS. Since this public disclosure may spark discussion within the field of sex research, I prefer not to name either professor without clearer memory of who it was.

Fisher and the professor complemented me on my appearance, dressing nicely for the conference. Looking apparently was not enough. They began physically examining my clothing. That then became fondling me underneath my suit jacket.  Neither my undergrad advisor or the other professor said anything as they watched.  And, as quickly as the intrusion began, it ended.  I felt embarrassed, primarily because it had happened in front of my former advisor.

And… that’s it?  Now that I have written the words down, I question whether it was really that bad.  Does such a “minor” instance of nonconsexual physical contact really warrant a public statement such as this one?  It must, since the president of SSSS (Dr. Eric Walsh-Buhi) affirmed my experiences and noted that he wanted to move ahead with addressing the problem of sexual violence in the organization.

Dr. Walsh-Buhi privately messaged me to ask whether I felt comfortable sharing more than a few vague details about my experiences. In talking with Dr. Walsh-Buhi, that queasiness returned. Suddenly, I felt my body revolting at the recognition that I had, indeed, been sexually harassed. Nearly a decade after harassment by Weinberg, and 10 years since being fondled by Fisher and the professor, I am finally forced to claim the identity of survivor. I want to resist – but why?

Not another victim label. I have already been traumatized by grad school advisors in racialized, gendered, and sexualized ways. I dealt with family members’ intolerance about my queer sexual orientation which, in at least one instance, bordered on sexual violence. I resist survivor because at its root, this label also comes along with victim.

It was a long time ago. Like Dr. Manya Whitaker, it took me a decade to recognize something that, at the time, seemed inconvenient as violence. Do I have a right to speak up now?  Will Fisher even remember me since we no longer had contact after 2009?  Is it fair to “make trouble” now?  And, I never attended another SSSS conference afterward, so it’s not as though I’m even active in the field.

I thought I was just closed-minded about sex. As I noted in my recent blog post about Weinberg, I convinced myself that my discomfort about questionable sexual behaviors was simply a sign that I had not yet adapted to the sex-positive culture of the sex research field. I pushed myself to be “cool” about watching porn in Weinberg’s sexualities course, about him joking that I fisted another grad student, about him asking me to pose nude with another grad student for him. At SSSS, I tried to embrace the lively, sexually-open culture of this new subfield. I limited myself to rolling my eyes on the Bacardi Rum factory tour as the tour guide praised Christopher Columbus for “discovering” America. I politely declined another conference-goer’s invitation to attend sex dungeon party he was hosting after hours. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself at the pool party with free-flowing alcohol. I thought maybe groping colleagues was equivalent to a hug, or that I should be flattered that these men found me attractive enough to fondle me.

It wasn’t that bad. I don’t want to be a bother. Fisher is in a high-ranking leadership position in SSSS. If that comes into jeopardy with the publication of this blog post, I worry I’m making too much of something relatively minor. It’s not as though he raped me. It’s not as though he (professionally) held more power over me. It’s not as though it ever happened again, though he later asked me out at an LGBTQ grad student event. And, from what others have said — besides being a bit creepy, others have not come forward to report other instances of sexual violence. I have long wrestled with naming my experiences — particularly as someone who is perceived as a cisgender man — as sexual violence as though they are on par with those of rape survivors. Isn’t it self-indulgent to even write an essay like this — about me — rather than doing something to support other survivors (especially of more serious forms of sexual violence, and those who have been repeatedly victimized).

I’m aware from my research on discrimination that most victims of sexual harassment do not call their experiences that. Feminist activists have had to raise our consciousness about what constitutes unwanted sexual behaviors in order for more victims to recognize such experiences as sexual violence. They had to demand that laws be changed so that men’s sexual violence against their wives would be recognized and ultimately punished as rape. I have a little bit of knowledge about the ways in which (cis?) men struggle to admit to themselves (and others) that they have experienced sexual violence — and, there are unique challenges for queer men survivors.

So, I’m know that I’m not unique here. And, I know that I should not beat myself up for falling into these same traps. I know that what’s most important right now is prioritizing self-care as I go forward with naming a second (and third, really) person who has perpetrated sexual violence against me.

In some ways, identifying as survivor-or-not is not all that important. Shitty things happened to me. I feel queasiness when exposed to long and/or intense exposure to sexual violence, perhaps experiencing a mild form of triggering. (The first time I watched The Hunting Ground, I had to take repeated breaks to keep from throwing up.) But, in some ways, it does matter. My visibility as a survivor seems to have inspired others to share their own stories. It helps to inform my advocacy against sexual violence, particularly in supporting fellow survivors. It helps me to move past am-I-or-not to focusing on my work to end sexual violence.

To close, I’ll finally state clearly: I am a survivor of sexual violence. I owe it to my 22/23 year old self to no longer carry the silence and doubt around what others did to me against my will. I owe it to others who interact with these men to publicly name their shitty behaviors, hopefully sparing them from sexual violence. I owe it to our collective #MeToo, #MeTooPhD, #MeTooSociology, and #MeTooSexScience movements to shout “it happened to me, too.”

Thank you for reading.

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