April 24, 2018

What One Woman Taught Me About Sexual Harassment

Study Area in Peckham Hall, Nazareth College, Rochester, NYI was beginning my second year of college and still trying to decide on a major. My interests were too broad, but I had narrowed them down a bit by completing many of the general requirements most majors had to meet. It was the first day of a pre-law course with a reputation for being difficult, and I wasn't sure I belonged there. It didn't take me more than a few seconds to spot the attractive blonde and wish that I had the courage to take a seat next to her. I had no idea what she would end up teaching me or that it would take a couple more years for the lessons to sink in.

The difficult reputation of the course turned out to be well deserved. In addition to several essay exams and papers, we would have a group project which would ultimately result in a presentation in front of the class. I would have many group projects like this during my time in college, but this was one of my first, and I was not sure what to expect. I soon found myself in a group that included the blonde. Things were looking up.

It did not take us long to become friends. At least, that is what I thought was happening. She was outgoing and supremely confident, attributes I did not share at the time but found appealing. She could talk to anyone, put anyone at ease, and she was going to give our group a necessary jolt of energy. Unfortunately, she tended to show up late or not at all to the group meetings we scheduled in the library. She always had an excuse, but some of them seemed implausible. The two others in our group made it clear that they had little patience for her but neither seemed capable of contributing much to the project. After one meeting became tense, she took me aside afterward, turned on the charm, and convinced me that she and I should take the lead on the project and do what we could on our own. That was fine with me because it meant I'd get to spend more time with her outside of class.

We usually met in her dorm room. Her roommate was never there, and the idea of having her all to myself was nice. I would soon learn that she did not have many close female friends. In fact, the women who lived on her floor really didn't seem to like her. They would give me knowing looks as they saw me coming or going, but I didn't understand what they were trying to communicate. Sure, her confidence could get close to arrogance at times. I continued to make excuses. Maybe she was just misunderstood. Maybe they were jealous.

I would soon discover that she was not terribly interested in working on our project; she was far more interested in me completing it on her behalf. I'm ashamed to admit that I was hooked by this point, and she manipulated me with such skill I didn't really mind. When she wanted my notes, she got them. When she wanted me to help her study for an exam, I did so. Let her take credit for a project on which I'd do most of the work? No problem. Even as I became aware I was being manipulated, I was willing to overlook it. All she had to do was flirt, and I was putty in her hands. This was all about to change rather dramatically, as I was soon to be jolted to my senses in a way I was not expecting.

We were in her dorm room one evening shortly after turning in our group project and getting through our class presentation, which went better than it should have. She had asked for help studying for the final exam and was showing me a previous exam on which she had not done well. I remember being puzzled about why her poor performance did not seem to bother her at all. Come to think of it, I hadn't ever seen her worry about much of anything.

When I asked if she was nervous about the final, she smiled and said that she was not worried because she would receive an A in the course. I knew enough to know this was unlikely. She laughed and repeated that she would make sure she received an A. She bragged that she was able to cry when she needed to and that professors were inclined to give her what she wanted. She explained this to me like one might explain something obvious to a small child. Her usual charm was gone, and there was something cold about her demeanor. She said that this method had worked several times and that if it didn't, she would just ask our male professor how he felt about being the target of a sexual harassment complaint. As she said that, I caught a momentary glimpse of something I hadn't seen before, something ugly. I remember feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

The class was nearly over by this point. When I saw her next, it was clear that something had changed. She basically ignored me. I had been abruptly discarded because I had no further utility to her. It was striking how what I had previously interpreted as warmth toward me was now completely absent. I was confused but decided to keep my distance. I never saw her again after the semester was over.

The next semester, I ran into a woman at a party who lived in her dorm and had recognized me from my visits there. I learned that she had dropped out at the end of the semester. Evidently, she had accused our professor of sexual harassment in an attempt to improve her grade, and it did not work. I also learned that the reason the women on her floor seemed to hate her was that she had a reputation for sleeping with their boyfriends, starting vicious rumors behind their backs, and was suspected of stealing from a couple of them.

I would not learn about psychopathy for another year when I took an abnormal psychology course. And even then, I would not begin to understand it until graduate school where I would read Robert Hare's Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. As I studied psychopathy and gained some experience working with psychopaths in clinical and forensic settings, I would learn that most individuals with psychopathic personality traits are not criminals and that women can have these traits too. Was the woman I described above really a psychopath? No, but she seemed to have a number of the characteristics associated with it.

Postscript: Sexual Harassment

I cannot help remembering this woman today when I hear about allegations of sexual harassment, especially those coming from sources who seem to have an ax to grind against the alleged perpetrator. Doing so helps me remember that not all allegations of sexual harassment have merit even though most do. Sexual harassment occurs far too often, poses a significant problem, and deserves to be taken seriously. Part of taking it seriously means distinguishing between allegations, which may or may not be factual, and facts (i.e., substantiated allegations). Allegations must be investigated to determine whether they have merit. There are high costs associated with failing to act on substantiated allegations, and there are high costs associated with acting on unsubstantiated allegations. Thus, I try to reserve judgment about allegations of wrongdoing until an investigation has been conducted and the facts are available.

If the woman I described above was being honest in her description of how she used the threat of allegations of sexual harassment to manipulate professors into giving her the grades that she wanted, this was unfair not only to her peers but to all of those facing actual harassment. And so, when I hear the "listen and believe" mantra, I find myself thinking of her.