Reflections of a #MeTooSTEM very rude elevator screamer

Brett Kavanaugh will be a Supreme Court justice until he either retires or dies, because the United States of America has always been a country in which rapists who were born into the “right” families can do whatever they want. The only ray of hope that we’ve had during this entire process was when two brave women, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator about his intention to support Kavanaugh.

Jeff Flake failed us all. He was always going to. But Archila and Gallagher made Flake very, very uncomfortable about his behavior. The fact that Flake demanded an investigation all of a sudden means that Archila and Gallagher made an impact — not enough to stop Kavanaugh’s nomination, but perhaps enough to deter a few Republicans from supporting Trump’s next chosen sexual predator. And after the Senate’s final vote on Kavanaugh yesterday, women have written that we need to continue confronting senators, publicly and rudely, because these are the sort of “consequences that matter to them.”

Donald Trump has christened Archila and Gallagher as “very rude elevator screamers.”

There are two main lessons here.

First, in order to make a difference, you don’t just go after the person who assaulted you. You go after their enablers as well. Enablers create the conditions in which assailants flourish. They make sure your assailant never faces any consequences.

And second, assailants and enablers don’t care about reason, or facts, or your humanity. Or data. Or the integrity of investigations. You cannot make a difference by appealing to any of these things. To make a difference, you must inconvenience the enablers. You must “very rude elevator scream” them.

To make a difference, you must inconvenience the enablers. You must “very rude elevator scream” them.

You can tell that you’ve made a difference, that you’ve really gotten to them, when they accuse you of “harassment.” When Roman Polanski was finally kicked out of the Academy, decades after being convicted for raping a child, his lawyer called it “harassment.” This week, Mitch McConnell complained of protesters “harassing” Republican senators. This “reversal of victim and offender” is the last step of DARVO. When a predator or enabler accuses you of harassment, that’s how you know you’ve reached the final phase of inconveniencing them and thus potentially deterring them from future enabling.

It is very rare to see either of these lessons applied in the realm of #MeTooSTEM. When a new article comes out about a very bad man in STEM, the assailant’s name is burned into our memories but we skim over the paragraphs about his enablers. The Flake’s and McConnell’s of STEM form a conveyor belt of creeps: soon after a sexual predator is outed, his enablers are gleefully enabling a new one.

And there is certainly no very rude elevator screaming in STEM. Our research is so very specialized that you can tank your career by pissing off just three people; even if those three people “forgive” you for reporting the basic facts of your ordeal, they’ll likely find it in very bad taste if you do continue to say true things until your harasser is meaningfully deterred from victimizing others.

This phenomenon can be understood through the lens of “respectability politics,” a term coined by Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. In its present usage, “respectability politics” can be used to describe the phenomenon through which the only effective means of protest are deemed by oppressors to be disreputable and therefore invalid. In other words, you either state your case infrequently, quietly, and politely—and nothing changes—or you state the facts sufficiently forcefully to be heard—in which case you forfeit all respect that your oppressors pretended to have for you. You can make a difference only by sacrificing your reputation.

Respectability politics is a constant feature of public life in the United States, perhaps most notably illustrated by conservatives’ insistence that Black NFL players protest police brutality out of sight and in silence: ineffectively and therefore “respectably.” Respectability politics is something that many survivors of sexual assault have to deal with, but the nature of the academic job market makes respectability politics a particularly tough issue for survivors in STEM.

…the nature of the academic job market makes respectability politics a particularly tough issue for survivors in STEM.

Fortunately, my experiences over the past two years show that very rude elevator screaming is possible in academia, at least under certain circumstances. After it became public knowledge that Miguel Pinto sexually assaulted me and Kristofer Helgen enabled him, Helgen took it upon himself to promote multiple children’s books about his and Pinto’s bullshit “discovery” (of an animal that Native people already had a name for). Unconvinced that it’s a great idea for children to look up to Pinto and Helgen, I spoke up on social media. Helgen, naturally, falsely accused me of “defamation.

And so I did the digital version of very rude elevator screaming Helgen: I treated him with the exact amount of respect that he had earned from me. Mitch McConnell would call it “virtual assault,” which is apparently the term for when an assault victim stands up for themselves with words on the Internet.

I mocked Helgen’s accusation of “defamation” by “defaming” him further. And I explained why I very rude elevator screamed him.

It goes on and on: Helgen stopped pretending that I’d engaged in “defamation” but said I’d made statements about him that are “not accurate,” to which I responded with a detailed comparison of Kris Helgen vs. Guy Fieri. I spent a total of about 30 minutes mocking Helgen in 2017, and you can fire off a whole lot of tweets in 30 minutes, and I have no regrets. Stating the facts will not deter Helgen from enabling sexual predators any more than it would deter Flake. You’ve got to make them squirm. If you don’t want to get in an elevator with them—which I don’t, and also couldn’t, because neither Pinto nor Helgen have managed to remain in the United States—you can at least chip away at their carefully cultivated online facades.

I realize that not all #MeTooSTEM survivors can get away with this. I’m “fortunate,” given the circumstances, in that Pinto and Helgen would never attend the same conferences as me or review my papers. The people who I respect know of Pinto and Helgen only as an assaulting-and-enabling duo, and have no reason to care about their research. Pinto and Helgen have a few remaining buddies at the Smithsonian, but these individuals, too, have no sway among my current and potential collaborators. After I very rude elevator screamed Helgen in 2017, one of his Smithsonian pals embarked on a furtive attempt to dox me, which went nowhere.

It was barely a year ago when I was falsely accused of “defamation,” but the tide has turned tremendously since then. And the Jeff Flake’s of this world realize that attempting to retaliate against the very rude elevator screamers is both ineffective and risky.

Getting sexually assaulted is terrible. Having to deal with enablers in addition to assailants just adds to the terribleness. Navigating the minefield of respectability politics makes everything more terrible still. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from the Kavanaugh debacle, it’s that very rude elevator screaming is effective. Not everyone is in a position to do this. Particularly in STEM. But this needs to be part of the conversation if we want to progress from “Geoff Marcy/Christian Ott/Miguel Pinto/David Marchant/Florian Jaeger did a bad thing” to a world in which future generations of scientists don’t need to worry about getting raped at work.

(Photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash)

Angie NMNH
Angie NMNH

I was sexually assaulted at the Smithsonian, I was falsely accused of defamation, and I'm still fighting to force my institution to do the right thing.

Leave a Reply