Science

What Reporting Sexual Harassment Taught Me

When you report an incident, you’re apparently also supposed to know how it should be prosecuted.

Woman being grabbed on shoulder in office context.
Jutta Klee/Getty Images

When someone broke into my home and stole my bike, I called the police, had a five-minute conversation with them to report the details, and barely ever gave it another thought. I didn’t organize my memories into “pre–bike theft” and “post–bike theft.” It wasn’t that notable of an event in my life. And the same is true for the time a professor grabbed my ass at a conference when I was a graduate student. It wasn’t a self-defining event in my life. Does that mean it wasn’t harmful?

When someone grabs another person’s ass—or her breasts, or her pussy—out of the blue, it may or may not be that big of a deal to the person who’s being harassed. But if the world is just, it should matter for the harasser. This shouldn’t be controversial. Think about how we handle any other crime: If your house gets broken into, it may not upset you much, but it should have a pretty big impact on the life of the person who broke in, provided they get caught. But the impact on the burglar’s life is not taken into account when we consider how to punish the burglar, nor do we say there shouldn’t be any punishment if you weren’t traumatized. That’s as it should be. But for some reason when it comes to sexual harassment, we don’t just judge the harasser based on their actions. We interrogate the harassed as much as the harasser, not just about the specifics of what happened during the incident but about their feelings and opinions about what happened, how it affected their life, and what they think should happen next.

I know this firsthand because I recently experienced what it’s like to report sexual harassment. This past October, I learned through a colleague that three professors from Dartmouth College were being investigated by law enforcement for sexual misconduct. One of those professors was Todd Heatherton, the man who touched my butt at the conference in 2002. I reported the incident to the criminal investigators and Dartmouth’s investigators. I also spoke about it on the record to Slate. (Heatherton issued the following statement at the time: “I do not remember touching her in any way at a conference 15 years ago. I have just recently heard of this for the first time, but, if I touched her as she described, all I can say is that I am profoundly sorry.”) Heatherton retired in June. In an email announcing the retirement, which did not expand on what the investigation found, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon wrote, “In light of the findings of the investigation and the dean’s recommendation, Heatherton will continue to be prohibited from entering campus property or from attending any Dartmouth-sponsored events, no matter where they are held.”

What I can tell you about my experience reporting the harassment is that it is much different than reporting a stolen bike. Here are some questions I got after reporting my case of sexual harassment last fall: Did it have a long-term impact on your well-being or career? Do you think he should lose his job? What if that’s the only bad thing he ever did? What will he tell his kids?

Imagine asking these questions of someone who reported a burglary.

And yet I felt compelled to answer these questions. I still feel compelled to—in fact, I’ll do it now: Was my well-being or my career impacted? No. I barely gave the incident much thought beyond the few days that followed. It was certainly remarkable for its inappropriateness and unexpectedness, and I remember it vividly for that reason (the way I remember that time I saw a baboon eating a Big Mac), but it was not very upsetting to me. But what I really want to say when I get asked this question (as I did during the formal investigation) is: Who cares? My emotional reaction is not relevant to determining that the harassment was wrong. I know it was wrong not because of how much it upset me; I know it was wrong because human beings should not have their asses grabbed out of the blue at professional meetings.

What do I think the consequences should be? I think it doesn’t matter what I think. We have experts who are paid to evaluate this. I’m not the employer, or the investigator, or even a friend or acquaintance of the harasser, so to be honest, I haven’t given much thought to what the consequences should be. If that sounds callous, that’s my point—it wouldn’t sound callous in the context of reporting a burglary. I don’t know what the punishment should be for the person who stole my bike for the same reason I don’t know what the punishment should be for the person who touched my butt: It’s not my job. The fact that I’m expected to know exactly what should happen to my harasser is one thing that makes it more difficult for people to report sexual harassment. I did think long and hard about the accuracy of my report, and I was careful about the parts of the investigation that were my responsibility. But I hope you’ll forgive me for leaving the rest to the experts.

What if that’s the only bad thing he ever did? I would’ve thought this one was pretty obvious: His punishment will probably be less than if it turns out he harassed many people. More to the point, though, how will we know if someone has done one bad thing or many bad things if you’re not supposed to report any of them unless you know about the others? Imagine expecting someone to only report a burglary if they know that it’s a pattern for the burglar. (Note also that we don’t care how many other people’s houses the burglar treated with respect. Because having treated some houses well—even exceedingly well—doesn’t give you permission to invade other houses.)

What will he tell his kids? Yeah, I wondered that, too. Maybe harassers should think about that before they do something they’d be embarrassed to explain to their kids. What does that have to do with me, again?

I understand where these questions come from, and frankly, I might’ve had the same thoughts in response to someone reporting a case of harassment that, they admit, wasn’t a big deal to them. But when I found myself on the receiving end of these questions, I realized how little sense they make and how harmful they can be.

I was lucky that I wasn’t more affected by my harasser’s action, or by the reactions I got after I reported it. I was also lucky that reporting my case was somewhat clear-cut: I did it after I knew there was an ongoing investigation. It was not hard to figure out who to contact. I decided to tell the truth and leave the big questions to someone else. That seems like a pretty good way for justice to work. I know that the relatively painless experience I had reflects, in part, the many privileges and advantages I’ve been dealt.

This is not the case for many people who experience harassment. These experiences are often quite disruptive for people’s lives and careers. And for most people, the path for reporting these kinds of incidents is often difficult to identify and pursue. To me individually, the questions I received were just mildly perplexing. But in the aggregate, and to someone else, they could be a major deterrent to reporting sexual harassment. These questions convey the message that we should only report incidents that were traumatic, and only if we’re sure that the harasser deserves dire consequences. This is part of a broader pattern of holding people who report sexual harassment to an impossible standard. They can’t delay or hesitate about reporting the incident. They have to explain why they didn’t make a scene on the spot. They have to prove that they’re not motivated by money or fame. And then, they have to be prepared to arbitrate their own case. Given these expectations, it’s completely understandable that many people decide not to report sexual harassment.

I don’t know how to fix all of these problems. But after having experienced the reporting side of sexual harassment, I have one suggestion: We need to stop expecting people who report sexual harassment to also adjudicate their sexual harassment. They should be able to tell the truth and leave it there, just like they would if they’d be subject to any other harm. I wish I could tell people that reporting sexual harassment doesn’t have to be an ordeal, it doesn’t have to become your problem. But the truth is, keeping the focus on the harasser and their actions, rather than on your own feelings and opinions, is extremely difficult. It often requires giving seemingly dismissive answers to slightly ridiculous questions. To anyone who finds themselves on the receiving end of these questions, I’d suggest taking a lesson from Taylor Swift. And to the people asking, my request is simpler: Think about whether you’d ask these questions if the crime were different. If you wouldn’t, maybe reconsider.