When Yes Doesn’t Mean Yes

Seemingly consensual relationships are not truly so when power differentials are vast, argues an anonymous Ph.D. student.

December 14, 2018

Over the last six months, I have been trying to muster the courage to share something -- anything -- about my #MeTooPhD story. But I’ve been scared. Monica Lewinsky was scared, too, when she agreed to participate in the new docuseries The Clinton Affair, but she did it anyway, because she realized she could. She didn’t have to be afraid or silent anymore. Similarly, because the stakes have recently changed for me, I finally feel like I can tentatively, anonymously, share a little bit about my story as well.

There are many angles to my story. This particular one focuses on how even seemingly consensual relationships are not truly consensual when power differentials are as vast as they were between Monica and Bill Clinton -- and as they were between me and my abuser. Of course some people (such as Hillary Clinton) focus on the fact that Monica was over 18 when their affair began, as though the technicality of her adulthood canceled out the marked power differentials between the two parties. Yes, Monica was an adult, but that is only part of the consent equation. Bill was the president of the United States and her boss. On top of that, he was a charismatic and attractive, powerful man whom people adored, and who took an interest in her. How flattered she must have been! But also, how scared. After all, what would happen to her nascent career if she upset him or revealed him to be a sexual predator? I empathize, since that was the trap I found myself in, too.

He groomed me. I didn’t realize this until last year, when I finally began to distance myself from him. Like Monica, I convinced myself in the moment and in the immediate aftermath that what transpired was consensual. Or perhaps more accurately, he convinced me that I was a consenting party, insistent that on some plane I was somehow his equal who could give consent. I wanted to believe that. It felt empowering, much better than the alternative. I held onto that narrative for years after he crossed the line with me.

The alternative narrative (which I could not acknowledge until years later) is that he emotionally and sexually manipulated a vulnerable young woman who was dependent upon his favor. He was a famous academic who took an interest in me and offered to help me get into graduate school. As the first in my family to pursue an advanced education, this offer seemed too good to be true. And it was, in fact, too good to be true. When he started flirting with me, I was taken completely off guard. I was scared that I would lose his attention and assistance if I did not allow our relationship to assume this flirtatious component, so I went with it.

I reasoned that I could keep his attention and affection without doing something I would inevitably regret -- but only if I became his student. He claimed that he would never cross that line with a graduate student, so I accepted the admissions offer from his university. However, as soon as my program began, he surprised me by asking me to kiss him. I obliged, noting with curiosity that I had disassociated from my body -- a common sensation during moments of trauma. He asked me to do something else, as well. Suppressing feelings of defilement, I told myself afterward that he only did that to me because he had feelings for me.

I quickly discovered that this was not the case. He called me later to say, “We can’t do this,” as though there was ever an agentic “we” to begin with, as though I had any power at all in dictating the terms of our relationship. It became clear then that he had achieved what he was after. He iterated all the reasons why this type of “relationship” was a bad idea. This conversation illuminated his awareness of the harm that his boundary crossing could (and did) cause me. He mentioned the possibility of rumors, alienation from my peers and distraction from my studies. He concluded with a warning that if anyone found out, it would jeopardize both of our careers, emphasizing the harm it would cause to mine. I interpreted this as a tacit threat at the time and remained in silence for years, imagining myself experiencing the same fate as Kate Mara in House of Cards. He was an extremely powerful man, and I wasn’t sure what he might do to protect his name.

In this same breakup conversation, he announced his desire to strip away the sexual undertones of our relationship and simply care about me as a mentor. He recited this line in a kindly, paternal tone, seemingly unaware of the cognitive dissonance that this would trigger in my brain. The same man who had very recently used me as a sex object now wanted to transition into a father figure. And I had to let him. I became fully aware of the lack of power that I had in our relationship as he unilaterally flipped the script on me. Again.

I had to keep him liking me. He was the only person with similar interests as mine in our department, so I was stuck with him for years to come. I did my best to suppress my pain and rage toward him and maintain a convivial rapport, but inside I was screaming. I frequently found myself staring off into space with a look of horror etched across my face in a browned-out episode. One day when I caught myself doing this, I called a mental health hotline and shared my concerns that I had Stockholm syndrome. I subsequently inquired into transferring institutions, only to discover that I would lose all of my credits. For many reasons, I couldn’t afford to do that. I resolved to finish my course work as quickly as possible and distance myself from campus and him after that.

I was deeply agitated during those two years, and it came across to everyone in my department. No one could quite figure out why I seemed so irrationally upset all the time. No one put two and two together, despite my utter dependence upon him and my obvious distress. When he began to notice my public deterioration, he became nervous. He told me that I would be his undoing.

I was not his undoing, though I did eventually confide in a few female faculty members without naming his name. I hoped that they might offer me emotional or professional support and possibly replace him as my adviser or at least add to my support team as mentors. But my decision to talk only harmed me -- not him. Each time I hinted at what I was experiencing, these faculty members grew visibly uncomfortable and quickly terminated their relationships with me. One by one my bridges burned, ensuring that I had him and only him.

The first person accused me of being unprofessional by disclosing something so personal to her and grew very cold toward me afterward, suggesting I see a therapist. Another constructed herself as my victim because I had burdened her with such distressing information. She immediately reported it without my consent and despite my visceral fears of retaliation. The Title IX office finally reached out to me years later, but the purpose was not to offer me support so much as to interrogate me. I did not cooperate.

I do not believe that he ever considered the fact that I was a human being when he decided to get his kicks with me. When I realized a few years in that I hadn’t acted as a consenting party but had actually been duped and used, I had a complete emotional breakdown. I scheduled a meeting with him in which I screamed and cried and made him confront the ugliness of what he had done to me. He lived in constant fear that I would turn him in.

But I never turned him in and probably never will. Monica has been my cautionary tale since the beginning. Given the harassment that she experienced in 1998, I can only imagine how much worse it would be in this digital age. I am sure that legions of us graduate students remain in silence for the same reason. Unfortunately, as a result, predators like him remain unscathed by the Me Too movement. But I simply refuse to be a blood sacrifice to “the cause.” I have already paid enough for his actions.

There’s also another more complicated reason why I am disinclined to report him, which may be more common than I think: while he has played the role of my abuser, he has also been the only person supporting my work throughout the years. Although I wish it were otherwise, I care about my captor. This is not surprising, given that he anointed himself my surrogate father figure days after sexually using me. My Stockholm syndrome is real.

What is the take-home message of this story? Consent is not a static, concrete entity. Someone can think and feel like they are consenting to something in one moment and later realize that the consent was an illusion planted by their abuser. That is especially probable when one party possesses enormous power over the other, whether professionally, emotionally or financially. Did Monica consent? Like me, she initially insisted that she did. Only much later did she begin to consider the more painful possibility that Bill had orchestrated the whole thing. Similarly, I only realized after the fact that my abuser possessed all of the power to define the terms of our relationship.

Power differences can be sexy and exciting; as a result, people like me may fail to recognize abuse as they are experiencing it. But this traumatic lag does not make the abuse less real, the abusers more innocent or the survivors more complicit. “Yes” does not mean yes when power differentials are so vast.

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Anonymous is a Ph.D. student in the United States.



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