I was young and naive. Isn’t that how these narratives are supposed to start?
I was 21 years old, working on an senior honors thesis about the introduction of hybrid seed corn in the USSR. During the writing process, I had several closed-door meetings with my main adviser, a tenured professor and leading scholar in his field. I also met individually at least half a dozen times with my junior adviser, then a graduate student in Russian history. Neither of them ever asked me to sit in his lap.
I was 22 years old, pursuing a master’s degree in Russian studies. I had weekly tutorials in the offices of various faculty members. None of them ever pressed up against me with an erection.
I was 23 years old, writing a master’s thesis under the supervision of a much-older professor. My topic was the portrayal of women in the work of Andrei Sinyavsky/Abram Tertz. Some of the stories and novellas I was analyzing had sexual content. Even so, my adviser never “ribbed me about my sex life,” or bragged about his own, in any of our one-on-one meetings.
I was 24 years old, working as a researcher in a New York City bank. All but one of the managing directors were men. None of them invited me to lunch under false pretenses or thanked me for wearing a skirt above the knee.
I was 25 years old, thrilled to be starting a new job as a Russian analyst at the Prague-based Open Media Research Institute. None of my superiors ever asked to meet me in a hotel room as a condition of covering elections. My expat colleagues and I frequently socialized outside the office. No one ever “cornered me” for a kiss or slammed my body against a restaurant window.
I was 26 years old, enjoying a three-week stint in Moscow covering the 1995 parliamentary election. The end of my shift overlapped with a fellow Russian analyst’s visit, so he and I spent three days in the same small apartment our employer was renting. It didn’t occur to me to worry about my safety. And as it happened, there was no need to be concerned. My colleague didn’t assault me or masturbate in front of me or even “jokingly” warn that he might “tell people we’re fucking.”
I was 27 years old, spending six weeks in Moscow to cover the tail end of the 1996 presidential campaign. On the night of the runoff election, I hadn’t arranged for a ride home. Boris Yeltsin’s press center was supposed to be open all night, so I planned to hang out there until I could take public transit back home in the morning. But the election wasn’t as close as many expected. By 2:00 am, it was clear Yeltsin was winning. Most of the reporters I knew casually had gone home long before staff announced they were shutting down the press center in the middle of the night. It would be more than an hour before the metro started running.
Beginning to panic, I asked an American I recognized–a big shot in the field–for a ride home. He agreed right away, even though we weren’t well-acquainted, and the last time we’d talked, we’d had a political argument. He didn’t demand oral sex in the car or invite me to his apartment. After the American was dropped off, his driver took me home without incident, instead of taking me to a deserted place or trying to force his way into my building.
I was 28 years old, now covering Russian politics for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, since the Open Media Research Institute had jettisoned its research department. My desk was in the open in a busy newsroom. None of my bosses ever pressed their bodies against mine or told me to put on lingerie after asking me to their offices on a pretext.
I was 29 years old, still loving my job at RFE/RL. One of my favorite colleagues anchored the business news show for the Russian Service. He helped me understand some economic stories and explained unfamiliar slang or idioms in the articles I was reading. I answered his questions about English grammar or pronunciation. I usually walked home from work, but if it was late or the weather was bad, sometimes he would give me a ride. He never tried to get close to me or demand I join him for drinks.
I was 30 years old, back in the UK for graduate school. Every few weeks I met individually with one or both of my advisers. One of them had an old-fashioned tutor’s study, with a small bedroom attached (from the days when unmarried Oxford faculty members often lived in the college housing). He never invited me into the bedroom or made “inappropriate late-night phone calls.”
I spent much of that winter in Moscow covering the 1999 parliamentary election and 2000 presidential election as a freelancer for RFE/RL. None of the journalists I encountered there offered to advance my career in exchange for sexual favors.
I was 31 years old, mostly doing my research at home but occasionally attending lectures or seminars at the college. Sometimes graduate students were invited out to dinner afterwards with the guest speakers, none of whom put their hand on my thigh under the table.
I was 32 years old, well into writing my doctoral dissertation. Sometimes I presented my work at academic conferences. No one ever dangled his hotel room key in front of me or pounded on my door demanding to be let in.
I was 33 years old when I finished graduate school. Still, no person with power over me or my future career had propositioned me or “delighted” in making me “sexually uncomfortable.”
I was young and naive. I thought it was normal for co-workers and bosses and advisers to treat a junior colleague with respect.
I was aware that sexual harassment was a problem in some corporate workplaces, but I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have avoided degrading, humiliating, or aggressive behavior.
Disgusting as they were, the recent exposes of Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood bigwigs didn’t shock me. The predatory nature of show business has been known for as long as “casting couch” has been an euphemism.
Nor was I surprised by last year’s reporting on a Fox News culture of harassment, extending beyond “creep at the top” Roger Ailes to various producers and senior managers. Fox was never a beacon of journalistic integrity.
This week’s revelations about Mark Halperin and Leon Wieseltier are different. Words cannot express my revulsion to learn that at a major news network and a prestigious political magazine, powerful men were widely known to treat young women like crap, with no adverse effect on their careers and reputations for decades. Their influence on our political discourse has been enormous, as Rebecca Traister discussed here.
My sympathy goes out to all the women in every industry who have suffered irreparable harm, professionally or emotionally, because of predatory men. I welcome confidential tips on any Iowa political workplaces or newsrooms where such vile conduct has been tolerated. Surely the problem didn’t begin and end with the Iowa Senate Republican caucus.