Report from the Field: On (Not) Reporting Sexual Violence
During my first six months of graduate school I was stalked and sexually harassed by a guy in my cohort. We were both about thirty years old, both from the South, both thrilled to be admitted to a wonderful MFA program in fiction. For the usual reasons—embarrassment, paranoia that I was overreacting—I didn’t tell anyone at first about the harassment. Our MFA program was a convivial one and we regularly went out to bars together, in addition to our readings, which either happened at bars or ended with outings to bars. I’d already had an uncomfortable exchange with the guy, explaining that I was not interested in dating him or sleeping with him, to which he responded with a rambling handwritten letter where he told me I know you are profoundly attracted to me but that he would respect my decision. Then, in a noisy bar, he would wrap his arm around my waist or squeeze my thigh under the table. I was surrounded by people I’d just met and I didn’t want to make a scene.
Over the next couple months, the unwanted contact escalated, and I was running out of excuses for him: it wasn’t about being drunk, or being in a bar, it wasn’t that I had confused him, or led him on. On campus and off, there was no politely satisfying his demand for “friendship”; he was never satisfied; he didn’t respond to social cues or body language. Somewhere in the fog of my fear and humiliation it occurred to me that I should let a few trusted friends know what was going on.
Respecting the feelings of victims is important, and crucial to encouraging more women to report violence. But elevating the psychological comfort of victims over society’s need to punish criminals will only let perpetrators go free.
The kind of reporting to which Yoffe refers is institutional reporting. Official reporting. Reporting that, at least in theory, leads to investigations, judicial actions. I believe this is what most people have in mind when they consider the act of reporting sexual violence.
But really, there are two kinds of reporting when it comes to sexual violence. One kind of reporting is when you tell your friends, family, significant others, professors, or administrators what’s going on. The other kind of reporting is when you consent to file the paperwork that sets the so-called wheels of justice in motion. The first kind of reporting can and often does happen without the second ever occurring.
One night he showed up at my house. We’d all been out at a Halloween party, before and after which he’d phoned and texted me repeatedly. I was driving my closest MFA friend home and my phone was ringing and ringing—Guess who that is, I said—I knew without even looking—and my friend said, Wow, that’s kind of stalkerish. I laughed and dismissed the idea, but when I pulled up to my driveway I had a premonition. I knew he knew where I lived. I checked all the locks before I went to bed. By 2:30 a.m. he was pounding on my front door, calling, texting. I called my friend—Guess who’s at the door—but didn’t call the police. I regret not calling the police. It seemed too extreme at the time—after all, I had to spend three years in workshop with this guy. My friend asked me to try running out the back door to my car, but I was afraid he would catch me. I told my friend I didn’t think he would break a window or break down the door, and if he did, I would kill him with a kitchen knife. I laughed when I said it. I was too terrified to even get out of bed. I imagined he would be able to hear my footsteps and this would make him less likely to leave.
I now knew—knowing without knowing, the instinctive understanding that had led me to check the locks before he arrived—that he had done this before, to other women, and that he would do it again. After thirty minutes he left. I documented the times of his phone calls and the content of his text messages, and I sent him an email that set clear boundaries I believed I had failed to set before. Of course, “setting clear boundaries” with a stalker is not such a straightforward task when you’re in a fiction workshop together:
do not communicate with me outside of class and the requisite departmental social functions. . . . if you ever show up uninvited to my house again, i will not hesitate to call the police.
And finally I let some of the men in my fiction cohort know. (My cohort comprised five men and me.) I could now imagine a situation in which I needed urgent help or an escort to my car—all those long nights with our colleagues at bar readings, all those long walks back to my car in the dark—and it seemed prudent to have some people around for whom I didn’t need to offer an explanation of my behavior or requests. These men were flabbergasted and completely sympathetic. They wanted to help. I told them I didn’t want them to do or say anything with respect to the guy. I was afraid of what would happen if he knew I’d represented him to our colleagues in a less than flattering way. But just having some colleagues who were in the loop and supportive made me feel safer.
After my email, he left me alone for a little while. (We continued to have forced encounters in the classroom; we continued to offer each other verbal feedback in workshop; we continued to write personal critique letters to each other. Dear Ann, So this draft marks the most story-like workshop submission we’ve seen from you. Somehow it was arranged that he would introduce me at one of our bar readings. He compared me, in his introduction, to a porcupine.) Then, for our winter term, he scheduled a non-MFA class that he knew I was taking. The class met in a building on the far side of campus, next to a river. To return to the main road, or the English building, or any useful place on campus, there was one available route. When class let out, I was stuck walking with him while he followed me across campus, ceaselessly attempting to engage me in conversation. If I walked ahead, he caught up. If I held back, he held back. Not only did I not want to talk to him, but also I needed to enforce the boundaries I’d set in the email. But not responding to someone who’s trying to engage you in a public space is both difficult and unbelievably awkward. Finally I took to hiding in the bathroom after class, hoping he would leave. I knew I was hiding, and I knew it was pathetic.
On and on it went. I finally broke in April. He hadn’t done anything particularly scary this time. At our MFA open house for prospective students, he initiated a conversation that concluded with my asking him, for the umpteenth time, to “leave it alone.” He then spent a long time talking to a non-program friend of mine, whom he’d incorrectly assumed I was dating. He denigrated me personally and professionally to this friend, then gave my friend his “blessing” to date me, followed by a “warning” about me. The next morning he sent me an email—the first since I’d told him not to communicate with me outside of class requirements—filled with his usual narcissistic rambling, this time on the topic of my asking him to “leave it alone”—
I know you pretty well Ann, and I accept you completely, perhaps even in the places you’re not ready to accept in yourself. . . . Yes, it’s entirely frustrating for me to know that I could be helping you out a lot more—both creatively and personally—yet never having the opportunity to prove it. . . . . If there’s one simple task we can begin with, it’s smiling more. Yes, you have gummy smile (haha), but I absolutely adore it and it always puts me at ease.
I drafted a response telling him that his behavior constituted harassment, that it was illegal, and that if he didn’t leave me alone I would report him to program administrators. I sent this letter to three of my close male friends for a gut check. All three of them advised me to be careful not to “incite” him, fearing that he might get physically violent. One suggested, after checking in with a mental health professional, that I seek outside assistance and passed along the relevant contact info for the university’s student judicial affairs and the local police. By now I understood that nothing I could do or say would make him stop, and that I could not go on any longer trying to handle him on my own. I needed more than awareness and support from my friends. I needed an intervention.
I scheduled two appointments: one to speak with a university advocate who dealt with incidents of sexual violence, and one to speak with a professor I trusted in the creative writing program. The university advocate explained that she was automatically supposed to file paperwork about my allegations, prompted by my verbal report of the behavior to her. But, she said, I could take some time to decide if I wanted to make the report official. Because once she filed that official paperwork, it would trigger an alert to the guy who’d been terrorizing me for six months. He would know that he’d been reported; he would know I had reported him.
Yes, she understood that I was scared. Yes, she understood why I feared that this would escalate the situation to violence. She strongly encouraged me to file the report.
The professor gave me a hard time for not coming to her sooner, which made me angry and defensive. She then reported the situation to the other fiction professors and a poetry professor with whom we were currently taking workshop. Two of the fiction professors reached out privately to offer support and assistance. One of the professors—the director of the MFA program at the time—asked me if I wanted him to talk to the guy man-to-man and set him straight.
No, I told him. Already, after speaking to one professor and the university advocate, I’d grown paranoid that I was going to come home to find the guy on my doorstep, enraged and ready for real brutality. This was a guy with a violent past whose position in the MFA program meant a great deal to him. I was afraid to imagine how much worse it might get if the guy discovered not just that I’d reported him, but that I’d reported him to our program director.
Another professor, a woman who had experience dealing with the administrative side of sexual harassment complaints, offered to support me through the reporting process, and I asked her to accompany me to my second meeting with the university advocate.
Meanwhile, the guy had been laying low, and I spent a couple weeks laid out on my sofa, immobilized with fear and guilt—of what might happen if I filed an official report, and what if I really was making a big deal out of nothing. By this point I’d done some research into restraining orders. I discovered, from a university website about stalking and sexual harassment, that the university claims they have a “zero-tolerance policy” for retaliation after reports of sexual violence. Similar to a restraining order, that assurance meant nothing to me. A “zero-tolerance policy” for retaliation doesn’t protect me from retaliation. It doesn’t guard my front door, it doesn’t walk with me across campus, it doesn’t watch me after I leave a late-night MFA reading and walk back to my car.
But, going into that final meeting, I was prepared to report him. I knew now that he’d also harassed an undergraduate—a student in a workshop for which he’d served as a TA. The undergraduate had reported this to my professor-confidante—private reporting, verbal, not-on-paper. I relayed this information to the advocate, in front of the female professor who’d accompanied me to the meeting, and the professor pieced together aloud that the undergraduate workshop in question was one she herself had taught. I understood what the paper trail of a student judicial process could mean for a guy like this. And I knew it would happen again. I felt obligated to do what I could to help the next woman in line. But when the time came to start filling out the papers, I began to sob. I would do it if I had to, I said. But I was scared.
My professor stopped me. You don’t have to do this, she said. If you think this could make things worse, I wouldn’t advise you to do it. In fact, I am advising you not to do it.
I didn’t file the paperwork.
I reported him—to my friends, to my professors, to the program director, to the university—but I didn’t report him on paper. Not because I was prioritizing my “psychological comfort” over the greater needs of “society,” as Emily Yoffe says, but because I feared it would put me at risk of bodily harm.
Here the story splits.
I reported him: And my professor-confidante, after hearing my report and the report from the undergraduate he’d harassed, stopped granting him permission to enroll in her courses. She knew it wouldn’t prevent him from graduating, and it was at least one thing she could do to keep him away from her students.
I mentioned to one of my girl friends in the program that I had finally told our professors and a university advocate about the harassment. She recoiled. You reported him? she asked. I mean, I knew you were, you know, scared or whatever, but did you seriously think he was going to physically harm you? She wasn’t asking sincerely. She meant it as an admonishment. I was taken aback. I didn’t know, I told her. But do you seriously think that I should have just sat around and waited to find out?
He asked the other female fiction professor—the one who came with me to the advocate meeting—to serve as his thesis director. She agreed.
The program director—the professor who’d offered to speak man-to-man with the guy—took the guy aside and told him to “knock it off,” despite the fact that I had expressly asked him not to. Paternalistic? Yes. Risky? Very. I know he should never have done it. But I feel nothing but abundant gratitude that he did. He got lucky. I got lucky. His action directly resulted in the guy leaving me alone (abusive critique letters aside) for good.
I didn’t report him: And the guy began to terrorize another undergraduate, one who happened to know a man in our cohort, a close friend of mine. The undergraduate reported the harassment—privately, unofficially, verbally—to my friend. The harassment culminated with the guy pounding on her door. Unlike me, she escaped out the back, to her boyfriend’s house. Like me, the undergraduate was unwilling to put her report on paper.
My friend was so angry and so disgusted with this series of events that he made it something of a personal mission to put a stop to it. His first strategy was to establish social consequences for the guy’s behavior. He set out to make the guy feel unwelcome. He accomplished this by, for example, walking up to the guy at the Tex-Mex restaurant where we’d all gathered after workshop and literally telling him, “You’re not welcome here. I know what you did, and I can’t believe you came here with us. Go away.” This discouraged the guy from attending some of the MFA social gatherings, which helped at least to limit my exposure to him.
My friend’s second course of action was to investigate for himself what it would take to put down a paper trail of the guy’s behavior. His investigation was stopped dead by our department’s HR liason, who informed my friend that he could be accused of slander since his account was not firsthand. My friend also explained to me that there was no option, as I’d hoped, for me and the two undergraduates who’d been harassed to make a group report and gain some anonymity in numbers; he’d been told that the university would investigate each complaint individually, which also meant that the guy would be notified of each individual complaint.
The HR liason ended up, a year or so later, making her own report, alongside another staff member, of sexual harassment by a department administrator. The report resulted in an investigation, at the end of which the department administrator was removed from his administrative duties but retained his status of tenured English professor. The two female staff members left our department.
I reported him, and I didn’t report him: And my cohort graduated, intact. At our graduation reading, the female professor who had accompanied me to the advocate meeting and subsequently directed his thesis gave him a glowing introduction, as she did all her advisees (myself included). He went on to a PhD program in creative writing. I wonder aloud, often and with some anger, who wrote his letters of recommendation. Surely some were written by our own creative writing professors, who knew what kind of guy he was. They knew who they were moving up the academic chain, to be placed in positions of power over undergraduate women. Or, at least, they knew what I had alleged about him. Remember, I never put it down on paper. I never made a big deal out of it in workshop. What could they do? Not graduate him? Not write letters for him?
Later I heard that a woman in the guy’s PhD program ended up leaving because he was terrorizing her. She left not just the program, but the city, the entire state. I got in touch with the woman, asked her if she would like me to join her in alerting the PhD program staff. I would be happy to help if I could. She never responded.
So, for now he gets to terrorize women from the stance of a PhD student who instructs undergraduates. Maybe later he’ll get to do it as a professor. And I am at fault. Because I reported him, and it mattered, but it didn’t count. Let me be clear, though: decisions like mine not to report through institutional channels are not motivated by some self-indulgent desire for “psychological comfort.” These decisions are about safety and the inability of our existing structures—within and outside the university—to offer it.
The women who don’t report sexual violence—and remember, the number of women who don’t report is “most of them”—are not delinquent or negligent in some responsibility to the greater good. In not reporting, these women are taking action; they are enacting refusal. I didn’t report the man who stalked and harassed me because, in my rational assessment of the existing threat, the university’s investigatory and judicial processes, the likelihood of retaliation, and the protections offered, I reasoned that I would be safer crossing my fingers and hoping for the best than seeking recourse from the police or the university. In my city, and in every city, women are physically and psychologically terrorized on a daily basis. And the institutional systems currently in place that claim to protect women are so ineffective—the risks of participation are so great—that a majority of women are opting out of them.
Ann Glaviano is a writer, editor, dancer, and DJ living in her native New Orleans. Her work appears in the current (Spring 2015) issues of Prairie Schooner and The Atlas Review and is forthcoming in Gravy: A Quarterly from the Southern Foodways Alliance and Please Forward: An Anthology of Blogs and Online Writing about Hurricane Katrina (University of New Orleans Press). A version of this essay was published in the January 2015 issue of Antigravity.