Almost 40 years ago, while I was a student at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, a faculty member made unwanted advances.
He began by complimenting my clothes and appearance. During class, he would almost always select me to demonstrate techniques of physical examination, prodding me and running his hands over my body.
He asked me out; I politely declined. He called me at home to tantalize me with invitations to upscale restaurants and cultural events. I listened to his lengthy ramblings while contributing as little as possible to the conversation.
After a number of calls, he gave up. The class he taught ended; I never encountered him again.
I didn’t seek support from friends or fellow students. It never occurred to me to complain to university administration. I was around 30 years old at the time – older and more experienced in the workplace than most medical students. I assumed unwanted sexual advances by powerful males were an unpleasant reality any woman entering a male-dominated profession would have to face.
I wasn’t afraid physically. I knew that doctor lacked the authority to threaten my career. But I often think of the incident with distaste because his persistence made me angry and the home phone calls felt like a violation.
As a doctor, I’ve sometimes been patronized and disrespected because I’m female. I resent it but pretend not to notice. I concentrate on projecting strength and professionalism.
Given time, I’ve almost always been able to earn the respect I deserve. But to some degree, it festers.
So when I hear women speaking out – about sexual harassment, gender discrimination or invasions of personal space – part of me thinks, “Good for you.”
But at the same time, I’m concerned that vociferous complaints about relatively minor transgressions will backfire by making women look whiney and weak. I foresee a loss of sympathy for women and a backlash.
Nobody should have to put up with physical intimidation or sexual coercion. Women subjected to such attacks should raise as much of a stink as necessary to make it stop.
What happened to me didn’t go that far. Threatening or frightening advances are one thing, boorishness is another.
Nobody gets through life without being subjected to obnoxious behavior.
Sometimes it’s appropriate to make a nasty scene and an enemy; sometimes a more measured approach is preferable. The lines aren’t necessarily clear-cut or easily agreed upon.
Older men were raised in an environment where paternalistic actions now viewed as demeaning – a hug, pat on the back or kiss on the cheek with no threatening or sexual intent – were widely accepted as friendly and supportive.
All men should be aware by now that norms have changed, but I can see it would be hard for some to consistently refrain from behaviors that were acceptable in their youth and still seem to them entirely innocent.
Public shaming isn’t always necessary. I know I’ll catch it for this, but some recent reactions to minor male transgressions strike me as more indicative of insecurity than strength.
At least as a first step, I’d prefer a private caution that’s both measured and direct: “What you said/did made me uncomfortable. I’m sure that wasn’t your intent, so I thought you should know.”
I wish I’d had a big enough pair of ovaries to be that direct as a medical student. I think there’s a good chance my instructor would have backed off and that by now, I’d barely remember the incident.
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.