In some ways, 2017 was the year of Harvey Weinstein. The Hollywood mogul’s sexual crimes have triggered an avalanche of accusations in the industry, a grotesque but riveting spectacle that has had the whole world transfixed. As waves upon waves of women in Hollywood are coming out of the shadows to reveal the sexual assault they’ve had to endure at the hands of him and others, and to expose its murky culture of predation and complicity, many are wondering how many other industries and professional fields are choked with such tales and such predators.
Some indeed, have begun to be revealed already. The casual sexism of the firms in Silicon Valley and its top honchos are now common knowledge after employees opened up about their practices. Lawyers, journalists and athletes are also talking about the abuse rampant in their fields.
But many have wondered: what about sexism and abuse in academics? If power serves to embolden sexual predators, then the power imbalance in the rigidly hierarchical world of academia makes it a perfect petri dish for abuse to take root in and fester, and for victims to be silenced.
But none of that is news to Kristine de Leon. She’s lived that nightmare from the inside. Her assault by a professor two years ago ended up not only scarring her mentally, but also derailing her studies. Now, she says, she’s tired. Tired of speaking up, tired of fighting back, tired of caring about justice, tired of having to relive again and again the incident that changed her life.
It was one of those Alaskan summer nights when the sun never stopped shining, even at 11.30 pm, and Kristine de Leon walked towards the lake with the professor. He had offered to show her the flux tower built inside it, and her scientific curiosity had gotten the better of her. After all, it was the last day of the camp and once she left for her university in Tucson, Arizona, she wouldn’t get the chance again.
De Leon, a 26-year-old doctoral student researching Arctic studies at the University of Arizona, had heard vague rumors from other students that the professor was “creepy,” but it was still bright outside so she didn’t feel that prickle of fear all women know to associate with darkness. He was a professor (we’ll call him Larry Smith) at the University of Notre Dame visiting at the arctic research camp in Alaska, where students and faculty from educational institutions across the country came together to study permafrost, the layer of frozen soil in the Arctic that holds a large part of the Earth’s organic material.
But when the two reached the flux tower, Smith abruptly began to kiss de Leon and run his hands all over her, sometimes over her clothes and sometimes under, as she stood frozen. “I didn’t fight or do anything because I was in shock. My mind went blank. I just let him do whatever. I remember not even feeling anything or even thinking straight,” she says.
De Leon’s was not an unusual reaction. Temporary paralysis is a common response triggered in victims during a sexual assault. Many subjected to such assaults report not having been able to run, scream or resist their attacker – some even report going catatonic – and the absence of these reactions has often been used to discredit the accounts of victims. However, studies have found that it is entirely normal for victims to experience this freezing, or “tonic immobility,”and that fear and shock cause the brain to trigger it as a way to cope with danger.
And there are other ways the brain tries to protect victims of sexual assault by hijacking the body’s usual responses. Another common effect is that victims often have fragmented and incomplete memories of the assault. Experts say that is because situations of high stress and fear interfere with the circuitry of the brain, inhibiting its ability to focus on details or store short- and long-term memories. So victims can often describe in great detail the moments leading up to their realization that they were being assaulted, but have trouble recalling what followed.
“I actually don’t really remember now what happened between the initial part and then how we started walking back to the main research station,” de Leon says.
She says she was following Smith and he indicated that he wanted them to go to his office. “Once we were back in the main campus, I said, ‘Oh I just need to make sure if I left my water bottle with my backpack and I need to use the restroom.’ Once he split, I went to a different bungalow and hid in a women’s restroom.”
Terrified, she stayed there for a long time. “I could hear him walking around outside the bungalow that I was in. He was asking where I was. Then the door opened to the bungalow and I could hear footsteps pacing, so I went to the other side and hid in the showers. And I waited for a couple of hours. I was very scared because I thought he might be upset (that I had gone missing) and I thought, ‘What if he’s out there and I have to go with him?’”
When she finally left the bungalow, she took a path to her tent that would hide her from view and shook awake one of her friends and told her what had happened.
“But she kept saying, ‘Well, did you lead him on? Are you sure you didn’t give any signal that he just misinterpreted?’ And I kept defending myself, but she just couldn’t believe he would do something like this. It made me feel upset and lonely.”
De Leon is far from the first victim of sexual assault to be disbelieved. Even though actor Bill Cosby had been accused of sexual assault by multiple women for decades, it took nearly 60 of them to come forward in 2016 for people to start looking at him askance. At least 16 women have come forward with sexual assault accusations against U.S. President Donald Trump, and yet studies show that 32 percent of the country still doesn’t believe the accusations, and one in five believe them but didn’t care enough not to vote for him. And as for Weinstein, jokes, allusions and indirect remarks had been made for decades about his tendency to prey on women. One woman, an Italian model, had even reported to the police, but soon after, news reports aiming to discredit her began to appear in tabloids and the Manhattan district attorney decided not to pursue the case. It took the word of the New York Times in 2017 and 80 women in Hollywood to bring about consequences for him.
Experts say people have an automatic impulse to disbelieve women who say they have been sexually assaulted, even though studies show false rape claims are extremely rare. This, some say, is because historically and culturally, society has nurtured a suspicion of female narratives and normalised the idea that women are devious. Our religions, legal systems and bureaucratic set-ups have systematically sought to discredit what women say.
Sometimes it can be easier for people to disbelieve accounts than question those they look up to and allow their own worldview to be dismantled. And as with Cosby and Weinstein and Trump, we have the tendency to automatically trust and defend the reputation of those in authority and power. Women who try to question that reputation are made to face twice the hurdles – the first in making people believe their heroes are wrong, and the second when their assaulters use their power to try to intimidate and silence them.
Which brings us to academia, and the power wielded by faculty members and professors over students. A 2015 survey on sexual assault and misconduct at college campuses in the United States found that 10% of female graduate students had been sexually harassed (spell out percent instead of using %) by faculty members. Yet only a few complain, fearing repercussions on their career, their reputation in their field and their prospects in their job market. Even fewer high-profile cases have caught the public eye, and unlike with Hollywood harassers, universities have been reluctant to let go of their predatory faculty, even when their own investigations backed the accusers’ claims. This might be why students like de Leon prefer to stay quiet.
Her friend’s reaction made de Leon even more wary of reporting her assault, of battling more disbelief.
“He’s a professor. He’s more known in the field. I thought that they’ll probably listen to him first and then me. I’m just a student. And I knew someone who reported something like that but nothing really came out of it. I just didn’t want to ruin my career,” she says.
This reporter has reached out to de Leon’s friend, Darya Anderson, but Anderson has yet to comment. To confirm what de Leon said about the assault? Unless you make that clear that that is why you want to talk to Anderson, I could delete this sentence.
It was only the thought that he might assault other women that finally made her report her own. “He’s gonna do it to this girl and this girl and this girl. What if he’s been doing this in his other research areas?”
And that’s when her struggle began with Title IX, a federal law that requires schools to address campus sexual assault.
At the time of her assault, de Leon was in between universities. She had been part of the University of Arizona’s program in environmental microbiology but her doctoral advisor was moving to the University of Ohio, so she was following him/her there. This not only made her case complicated, it forced her to wade through a frustrating amount of bureaucratic red tape in order to even have her case heard.
“The problem with Title IX is that there are different bodies. There’s no one set of rules or people to arbitrate. The discliplinary action for one university could be different from the disciplinary action for another,” she says.
When she tried to report to the University of Arizona’s Title IX committee, it told her that since neither she nor Smith were students or faculty of the university, they could not investigate the case.
After that, de Leon tried reporting to the University of Ohio’s Title IX committee, but they distanced themselves as well, saying that since she wasn’t a student at the time of the assault, they couldn’t work with her. “Ohio didn’t really fight for me, they didn’t want to work hard on it,” de Leon says.
By the time de Leon filed a complaint with the Title IX committee at the University of Notre Dame, where Smith worked, she had begun to lose hope and determination.
It wasn’t just the Title IX rigmarole that had demoralized her. After she spoke out about her assault, the reception from her community of scientific researchers ranged from chilly to downright hostile.
“In academia and science, there’s a stigma if you have personal issues. If you’ve been through something like assault or depression, it’s assumed that you will become sloppy. When you’re a scientist, you are supposed to have no emotions,” she says.
That was a lesson she had already learnt a while back, when she had observed that those who spoke about their mental health issues at her lab were actively avoided. “No one really wanted to be around you if you were depressed. If you have issues, more people are likely to stay away because you showed your weakness.”
That’s a persistent problem that many have already written about. In academia as well as in science, competition, pressure and intimidation are a common part of life and study after study after study after study has warned of the the risk of psychiatric disorders among those who are a part of these fields. Yet, mental health literacy among academics remains poor, so much so that researchers are belittled if they reveal mental health issues and their productivity is questioned.
So when de Leon returned from the Alaska camp, almost everyone she worked and studied with – from the chairman of her field at her school to her Ph.D. advisor to even her classmates – made it clear to her that in “showing weakness” by reporting her assault, she had compromised herself as a scientist.
Some around her hinted, others outright told her she should leave the sciences – even the ones who were trying to be helpful.
“A professor at my school who was an advisor for graduate students told me Arctic studies is such a small field and everybody knows everybody, so it wouldn’t work out for me now that I had complained against Smith. She recommended that I stay away.”
But the person de Leon says she still feels most betrayed by is her Ph.D. advisor. “I felt like she didn’t see me as fit anymore to be a scientist because I’d be distracted. She told me she’d prefer I didn’t continue with grad school because I have issues, and told me to find something else to study. I asked if I could transfer to another lab like others had done, but I wasn’t allowed to. Other students could do that, but I couldn’t.”
The constant knocks from her peers and those she looked up to in her field, and from the Title IX process, had started to eat into her strength and her peace of mind. “It destroyed my confidence in my work and I started to doubt myself. I thought I couldn’t be a scientist, that I was too dumb. I felt powerless and that I couldn’t even do what I loved. So I quit.”
In November 2015, five months after her assault, the University of Notre Dame sent de Leon a letter telling her it had concluded its investigation. In the letter, a copy of which is in the possession of this reporter, the university’s Faculty Affairs Specialist Todd Dvorak wrote, “Your allegations, along with Dr. (Smith)’s admission that he kissed you and other information learned during the investigation, raise concerns about the judgment he exercised while representing Notre Dame at IARC. In light of those concerns, the University is taking steps to ensure that this behavior does not recur. Although Notre Dame does not reveal the specifics of the corrective steps due to our confidentiality policies, we believe that our actions will correct the problems you encountered.”
It was an unsatisfactory piece of communication, one that she was disappointed to note avoided specifics about what disciplinary action the university had taken or whether Smith was still allowed to interact with students.
This reporter has reached out to the University of Notre Dame, but it has yet to comment.
But by this time, de Leon says, she was too worn out by the battles she was fighting in her own school to be interested in the investigation. “I just gave up on it. I was like, I don’t care anymore.”
Leaving science was not easy for de Leon because it had always been such an integral part of her identity. “It was something I defined myself by. If I wasn’t a scientist, then I was nothing, because my whole life revolved around science.”
Severing that part of her identity was so painful for her that it pushed her to try to kill herself.
She had a stash of Vicodin from a prescription that had been given to her after a previous bike accident. “So I tried to calculate the lethal dose of Vicodin, combined it with alcohol, and took them. But I was an amateur at this and it didn’t work. I was asleep for two days and then sick to my stomach when I woke but I was disappointed to find I was still alive.”
That was de Leon’s first attempt to take her life. She made two more. The second time, she took enough pills to damage her heart and be hospitalized for a week.
One year and a few months after that third attempt, De Leon is in grad school again. She has a new goal now – learning to be a journalist.
A few months ago, she googled Larry Smith’s name and found out he was attending a prestigious conference on behalf of Notre Dame University.
Her sexual assault may be behind her, but she still struggles with the depression and self-worth issues it left behind. She says she when she looks back now, she completely regrets reporting it. “I got nothing out of it – no justice or support, and I lost something that I loved. I realized, ‘this is why people don’t report these things.’”