Content warning: sexual harassment and assault.
In October 2017, just two months into arriving at the University of Edinburgh to embark upon a PhD, I was sexually harassed by a prominent, highly-esteemed faculty member of the university. This occurred at a university event. Other people saw it happen; I said nothing, they said nothing. During my Masters, also at the University of Edinburgh, I was sexually assaulted by an older male colleague while on field work in Kenya.
At this time, I am choosing to refrain from naming either man. Why? It’s the age-old story of the powerful ensuring the silence of their victims. They are both older men in positions of power, I am a young female student at the beginning of my career, and I may need them to access important opportunities as I advance in academia. Is that sick? Yes. Will I one day regret not coming forward with their names? Possibly. Is it my responsibility, as a woman and a feminist, to come forward in an effort to prevent them from harassing and abusing other female students in the future? No.
Sexual misconduct in the workplace (I consider the university to be my workplace, both on campus and in “the field”) is on the front pages of newspapers and floods social media on a nearly daily basis, sparking both outrage and a weary familiarity. Something feels different this time around, and many point to the Harvey Weinstein scandal as the reason behind the renewed levels of interest in targeting workplace sexual misconduct. The Weinstein debacle opened up the floodgates to a torrent of accusations of sexual misconduct by prominent figures, and with it, company HR divisions have responded with tighter policies and training seminars, politicians take to the podiums in feminist solidarity, and celebrities wear black at the Golden Globes. There was the #TimesUp movement aiming to end systemic workplace harassment, and the #MeToo movement went global, as well as #QuellaVolteChe (“that time when”) in Italy and #BalanceTonPorc (“out your pig”) in France. Mass movements in the wake of a huge scandal are nothing new; following Anita Hill’s 1991 Supreme Court testimony against her boss Clarence Thomas for sexual harassment, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission apparently saw a 73% spike in complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.
How does my “workplace”, the University of Edinburgh, fare in all of this? Not great. A 2017 investigation by the Guardian claims that out of 120 universities across the UK, the University of Edinburgh had the third highest number of sexual harassment claims made against its staff. A Telegraph survey showed that 1 out of 3 students have been sexually abused or assaulted on campus. Where is the post-Weinstein wave of outrage and corresponding response within academia? Instead of a post-Weinstein wave of outrage, there seems to be a fog of complacency settled across campuses. A recent Guardian investigation found that more than one third of universities surveyed in the UK provide no training on sexual misconduct to its staff, and two thirds did not have properly trained sexual harassment liaison officers.
The other night I was having drinks with some classmates at the Library Bar. When I brought up the topic of sexual harassment in academia, an awkward tension filled the air. Workplace harassment isn’t exactly a subject that naturally comes up over Heinekens and Strongbows. Then, one by one, the stories came out. Terrible first-hand accounts of abuses of power happening right here on the University of Edinburgh campus, in the field, at conferences. I don’t know why I was so surprised. A university campus, where students are supposed to feel supported and engaged, and women should find a respite from objectification and abuse, does not exist in quarantine from the injustices the rest of the world. A university is just a collection of buildings filled with people, and, well, people are people. Expecting behaviour towards women to abruptly become appropriate when crossing from Potterrow to George Square is, while reasonable, naïve.
So I ask this: who is the University of Edinburgh’s Weinstein? Judging by the private conversations I’ve had with classmates, many of us have encountered one. I choose not to disclose the names of my perpetrators, but I am not silent: I share my story, and will continue to do so, in the hopes that it inspires other women – and men – to come forward with their own stories. And when, not if, the Weinsteins of the University of Edinburgh and of wider academia are exposed, what ripple effects will follow? Because Weinstein-gate wasn’t just about one man’s fall from grace. It’s about the spark of a much wider movement of female solidarity, victim’s rights and the end of casual attitudes towards sexual assault. When will the spirit of complacency plaguing campuses across the UK come to an end? Will we see a #MeTooEdinburghUniversity? Will those of us who see, yet look away, allow ourselves to become outraged and intervene? Because this is bigger than #MeToo. This is #UsToo.
Image: GGAADD via Flickr