Academics and Deplorables

As an academic blogger, I hoped to never write the words Donald Trump, but I need to talk about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the ubiquitous threat that men like Trump and his apologists pose to women’s wellbeing in the workplace and the world. Since the video exploded all over my Twitter feed on Friday evening, I have been troubled by how familiar Trump’s words are to me, and to the many talented women whose work I read on the internet. Kelly Oxford solicited stories of women’s first assaults. The resulting thread is agonizing in its chronicle of casual violence against women and girls.



Anne Helen Petersen pushed back against the tendency of many men to challenged Trump’s definition of “locker room talk” with their own stories of male only spaces where women are respected. As a subtle version of #NotAllMen, this line of argument allows men to ignore their unwillingness to acknowledge or intervene against misogyny.


And Jessica Valenti wrote perhaps the most poignant statement of all in her column in The Guardian. She says the video is “painful to watch not just because Zucker doesn’t know what was said about her, but because this is what women are afraid of. That the men we know, the men we work with – or even love – say horrible things about us. That despite assurances that they respect us and consider us equals, men are secretly winking behind our back. That we are not really people to them, but things.”

In short, Trump’s gleeful, self-aggrandizing admission of sexual assault is not shocking to me. It is all too familiar. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen professional and educational contexts from my childhood to the present where men have said or done horrifically inappropriate things to me. But I want to revisit one instance from my Middle School pre-Algebra class. Avoid that boys will be boys impulse, y’all. Men of all ages move through the world with power and privilege and need to be held accountable for their actions.

I was in seventh grade and taking pre-Algebra. I was relatively new to my school as an army brat who moved every two years or so, but I was starting to make some friends in the class. We had taken a quiz and the teacher was handing it back with a grade. I got a 98% and sheepishly placed the quiz on my desk while my nosy classmates looked over my shoulder. Two boys near me began laughing and asked me if I had given the teacher a blow job to get that grade. This became a running joke for the rest of school year with a growing cadre of participants. In this way, my good math grades became shameful to me. In retrospect, I realize this is the year when I decided I was not good at math, a myth that I kept with me until very recently when I began learning about stereotype threat around STEM for girls. I’m an English professor now, and I teach about stereotype threat in my writing class. We watch Debbie Sterling’s excellent TED Talk about her invention Goldiblox, an engineering tool for girls. It was not until I watched this video that I realized: actually, I am good at math. I finished 2 semesters of College Calculus my senior year of high school. How can I carry around this belief that I can’t succeed in that subject area? I wonder how many women have been sexually harassed out of STEM fields by mediocre men.

I love writing for a blog with a large readership of women scientists, because I get a better sense of what women are up against in male-dominated academic fields. In some ways, I am privileged as a Humanist, but even in a field where the gender balance is more equal, my women colleagues and friends face ubiquitous sexual harassment at their colleges and universities. One of my acquaintances quit her tenure-track job due to sexual harassment. Another had to change dissertation advisors when her chair began relentlessly propositioning her. My point is, Trump’s treatment of women in general, or of Arianne Zucker at her workplace in the video, is not unique to the deplorables. Sexual harassment and assault determine the fields where women pursue their talents, determine our career outcomes, determine our mental and physical health. I hope this election makes academics rethink our comfortable superiority in relation to the mass of Trump supporters and look more deeply at how we got here, and what we are going to do about it.

6 thoughts on “Academics and Deplorables

  1. Boys will be boys, my arse. I was taught from an early age to respect girls and women, so I question the parenting of those boys in your middle school and I question Trump’s parenting as well.
    When our daughters were in high school, our eldest was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend during a school trip. He had begun by pinning her against a soda machine and began groping her chest. She responded by defending herself, although she did disobey my instructions, as she stopped beating him when he hit the ground (my instructions were to continue beating him while he’s down until the police remove her from him). He, upon the conclusion of the trip, was returned to class and our eldest suspended from school for fighting.
    I took a trip to retrieve both of our daughters from school – wearing my military uniform and my beret of rifle green, which I wore in when I spoke to the school principal. He knew me back from when I was in Junior High school and was quite surprised to see me in uniform.
    I expressed my grave concerns for the safety of my children, severe chagrin over my daughter being suspended for defending herself from a sexual assault while under the care of school personnel and calmly explained to him that his physical safety was directly related to the safety of my children. I then announced my intention to reward our eldest with a treasured trip to the zoo, then the museum of natural history, with thoroughly undermined any attempt my the school’s disciplining our daughter for defending herself.
    Needless to say, that now former boyfriend was kept well away from both of our daughters.

    But, I question why I should have ever had to have that conversation.

  2. I tried to make the folks on Scott Aaronson’s blog understand how difficult it is to be a women in STEM and that before or at the same time they denounce Trump they should also clean out the neighborhood misogynists. They didn’t get it. Head over there and see how they tried to accuse me of bias and what not and finally banned me from the thread. I am Anon#19 in the comments.

  3. I was 7. A man with an erect penis stood behind me in a crowded bus and rhythmically humped my upper back. I had no idea what was gong on except that it felt uncomfortable. I was sick when I reached home, but didn’t know why.

  4. At my first real job, what would have been a very lucrative career choice. I was the only woman working with a bunch of dudes — long hours, lots of responsibility, also lots of fun doing important work and making a difference. I was really good at my job, better than the guys. Jokes about me sleeping with the boss started pretty quickly. I don’t know what they said behind my back, but they certainly had no problem telling me to my face that management only likes me because I must be giving them special favors. To my great shame, I mostly shrugged it off or joined with the laughter. I stopped protesting early on, because that only seemed to make them believe it more. Two years later, I changed career paths. I am happy with where I am now, but sometimes I wonder how things could have been.

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