TW: Sexual harassment
I had just presented my first paper at a conference. It had been well received and I was relieved. Because God is twisted, I had to walk a couple blocks in an unknown city to buy a box of tampons (and some chocolate...why lie?). I made it there and back with no issues. One person had asked for bus route information and thanked me kindly when I admitted to not being local, but that had been the only interruption in my “just let me get tampons” zone.
Until I got back to the hotel.
About a half a block away, I noticed him. One man, white, shorter in height, and standing alone with what appeared to be a pizza box about 20 steps from the entrance to the hotel. He was staring. As I reached the end of the block, the light turned red and I was required to wait for the okay to enter the crosswalk. He never looked away. It was creepy as hell, and I began to weigh my options. The only other entrance I knew of was in the parking garage, so that didn’t seem safer than the well-lit public entrance. I hadn’t brought even my personal keys with me because I wouldn’t need them. There were a lot of people around, so I had that going for me. As the walk signal illuminated, I took a deep breath and picked up the pace of my steps, thankful that I had changed to more comfortable shoes for the walk and hopeful that he would take my glare and pace as a hint.
Instead, he started walking and fell in behind me.
The door to the hotel was a revolving one, so that bought me a couple seconds and I took an immediate left toward the elevators. I weaved closely between people, putting as many bodies between us as possible, but as I turned into the elevator bay, I came to the frightening realizations that this bay was my only option, it was an enclosed space, and the mechanisms were really, really old.
I hit the button repeatedly, as if that would help.
The doors finally opened and allowed me into the empty car, but he swept around the corner and got in with me as they closed. Had he been laying in wait around the corner? Likely.
I did everything I could to melt into the walls. I pressed the wrong floor, allowing me to get off earlier and hiding me actual floor from his eyes. He then asked, “Are you here for the conference?” Yes. “Are you presenting? I’m not.” He stepped closer. Yes. I avoided eye contact and kept it short. “You look beautiful.” Thank you. “I hope I didn’t miss it. I skipped all but one session to hit the bar today.” Oh, great. Add alcohol.
At that moment, the best thing possible could have happened. The elevator stopped, the doors opened, and six other people got in.
I breathed again.
“What are you presenting on? You have three floors to convince a PhD.” Great. Play the power card. Remind me of my place. I quickly threw out just enough information to not turn off the other six and still not allow him to find me in the conference program.
I stepped off of the elevator a floor below mind and turned right, instead of left, so he would have more difficulty finding me if he was sober enough to remember.
And I only saw him once again that week. A few hours later across a room. He left quickly.
Why didn’t I report, right? Well, this has all of my favorite hallmarks of harassment by a stranger. He was as much of a generic-looking white guy as your imagination could muster up. He looked like ⅔ of the men present. He hadn’t been wearing his name badge. I had no idea who this guy was. That difficulty is even before we get to the mental gymnastics women learn to play. Nothing really happened. You can’t prove anything. Then, add in the politics of the perp being a PhD in a world where I was considering continuing to that degree. Yes, I regret that it is very likely that he will harass someone else. I’m not sure what else to say about that. Everyone who doesn’t report knows that and hates it. But we self-protect.
I was deflated. Everything that had felt awesome about success in that first paper presentation faded away. It was gross. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I wanted to avoid the mixer that night. I just didn’t want to see anyone. I was alone, knowing no other researchers aside from the handful I had met and none had become fast friends at that point. It was terrible.
And then I took a shower and yelled, “FUCK HIM!” REALLY loudly (sorry neighbors!). He wasn’t even presenting. He was contributing nothing except alcohol-scented CO2 and ick. This was MY conference.
I can’t say that the rush of strength would have remained had we crossed paths for any extended period. And it isn’t even really about that. I shouldn’t have needed that. He should never have stared and he sure as hell should not have stalked me into an enclosed space.
This is how very low the bar is. “Don’t stalk women into enclosed spaces” is too much of an ask. And one might think that academics would be beyond it. One would be wrong. There are harassers in every field.
This isn’t my only story. It is never a woman’s only story. But as conference season picks up this year, it is fresh on my mind. Academics - especially PhDs - please, please look out for the wellbeing of your grad student fellow conference attendees. They are likely nervous and trying really hard and they shouldn’t have to be nervous because of or trying really hard to avoid YOU.