Karissa Fenwick is a graduate student in social work at the University of Southern California.
When I decided to go public with my sexual harassment experience involving my academic mentor at the University of Southern California, I joined an ever-growing number of women who have recently come out with similar stories. Like so many others, my story is one of abuse of power, professional vulnerability and the inability to prove exactly what happened.
My academic mentor made sexual advances toward me in a hotel room in January, which I rejected. The next day, he told me that he would “take down” anyone I told and that the dean would take his side. I knew that by going public, I was inviting people — both those most intimately involved and strangers — to question my story as well as my personal character. I feared retaliation, professional blacklisting, embarrassing my family and burdening my personal relationships. (My academic mentor, who was disciplined by USC, has denied my account.)
This experience has left me so unsure of myself that even simple, factual questions feel like attacks on my sanity, integrity and worth. But questions, scrutiny and doubt are exactly what we need right now.
Questioning my story can lead to constructive conversations that have a chance at truly addressing the nuances and complexities of sexual harassment. We are at a turning point as a society, with women coming forward in unprecedented numbers, public pressure on institutions to reform and harassers finally facing serious consequences. Exposing the individual harassers and the scope of the issue is important, but I want us to use this momentum to create long-lasting change.
With that in mind, I give you my permission and my blessing to question my story. Question my story, because we need to examine our views about sexual harassment and misconduct. We need to bring our latent assumptions and perceptions into the light. Across gender identities, we need to challenge what normal behavior is in different professional positions of power.
We have reached a consensus that sexual harassment is wrong, that it hurts all of us and that it should not be tolerated. At the same time, even good, liberal feminists wonder why she went to his room alone, what her ulterior motives may be or whether it all was just a misunderstanding. I know this, because I’ve asked those questions myself. I’ve asked those questions of myself.
We can’t reframe victim-blaming beliefs or dispel deeply embedded myths about sexual misconduct until we bring them out into the open for critical analysis. Express your opinions about my case so that we can challenge the biases that are the silent and complicit partners to the individual harasser.
Question my story to highlight the weaknesses in our sexual harassment policies. The complexities of real-life cases exceed the limits of our current policies and procedures. By their nature, harassment complaints are characterized by gray areas and few witnesses. Victims and perpetrators are both flawed and sympathetic.
The sexual harassment policies in handbooks typically assume linear decision-making paths and reasonable behavior from both accusers and the accused. But vague, incomplete or risk-averse organizational policies can unintentionally worsen the situation when unexpected contingencies arise. Analyzing institutional responses to real cases such as mine allows us to assess the role that policy has in exacerbating or preventing sexual harassment.
Finally, question my story so that we can talk about bigger societal questions. The issues we need to tackle to end sexual harassment are overwhelming and encompass gender discrimination, abuse of power and cultures of silence. But I think we’re ready for that conversation.
Those who have spoken out against influential men in entertainment, technology and politics started a cascade of allegations that cuts across industries. If we reflect candidly and fearlessly on why harassment has gone unchecked for so long (and if you think it hasn’t, you probably need to reflect on that as well), we will collectively prepare ourselves for the next steps.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who didn’t want to go public with my experience. But now that it is out there, I want it to be used as a tool for analysis, contemplation and growth. Question my story. Do not be afraid of hurting my feelings, saying the wrong thing or making me uncomfortable. Even though coming forward is painful, questioning my story makes it worth it.
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