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Believe them

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Believe them

Examining sexual violence in academic spaces through the Neil deGrasse Tyson case

A problematic side effect of the #MeToo movement is its overrepresentation of the stories of celebrities who have experienced sexual assault, at the expense of the experiences and stories of ordinary people. We need to remember that sexual assault is not an issue specific to Hollywood.

Of course it’s important to listen when any person, famous or not, speaks out about their experiences. But by focusing mostly on the experiences of those who are wealthy and privileged, we inadvertently ignore the experiences of everyone else.

This mindset is pervasive — it exists here at our university, and at many others too. As a recent report by the group Silence is Violence has revealed, around 20 per cent of students surveyed had experienced an incident that may be considered sexual violence. The report includes alleged perpetrators who are academic authorities: professors.

In the academic sphere, the deep power imbalance at every level contributes to the pervasiveness of sexual violence. As students, we might feel pressured to go along with inappropriate behaviour to maintain a formal relationship with certain professors we may even think it is the norm. And when the person in question also happens to be well-known, respected in their field, and charismatic, it becomes that much more difficult to come forward.

Nowhere is this power imbalance better exemplified than with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is currently the subject of an investigation by Fox Entertainment and National Geographic, the networks that air one of one of his programs, Cosmos. His other program, StarTalk, was put on hiatus by National Geographic in early January while the investigation is being conducted.

Tyson is the crossing point between academic and celebrity. He is a household name, thanks to his accomplishments in astrophysics and scientific literacy advocacy. Thus, he presents us with a headlining case of how predators in academia can operate.

The accusations

Tyson has four accusations levelled against him. Dr. Katelyn Allers, a professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, alleges that Tyson grabbed and touched her inappropriately during an American Astronomical Society (AAS) gathering in 2009.

Ashley Watson worked briefly as an assistant and driver for Tyson, while the show Cosmos was being filmed. She alleges that he repeatedly acted inappropriately toward her, made sexual advances, and invited her to his home, alone, for alcoholic drinks.

Another woman, who has chosen to remain anonymous, alleges that he made inappropriate comments toward her at a holiday party in the American Museum of Natural History in 2010. Then, there is the fourth and oldest accusation. A woman named Tchiya Amet alleges that Tyson drugged and raped her when they were both graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin in 1984.

In response to all but the anonymous claim, Tyson made a Facebook post on December 1, writing, “In any claim, evidence matters. Evidence always matters. But what happens when it’s just one person’s word against another’s, and the stories don’t agree? That’s when people tend to pass judgment on who is more credible than whom.

In and of itself, that is a valid point. In cases of sexual assault and harassment, which so often happen in private, with few or no witnesses, it can be hard to provide solid evidence beyond the memories of those involved, especially if the event happened years or decades ago.

Tyson’s response to Katelyn Allers and Ashley Watson

Tyson frames the incident with Allers as him taking a quick look to see if her tattoo of the solar system included Pluto. Allers describes Tyson’s behaviour as “uncomfortable and creepy” and says that he does not have “great respect for female bodily autonomy.”

Allers has also said that, had she been able to, she would have probably reported the incident as sexual harassment. But at the time, the AAS did not have a mechanism for reporting sexual harassment. Like so many academic institutions, the AAS took far too long to develop a response to what was a clear issue.

Here at U of T, resources for those who have experienced sexual violence are still few and far between. The tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre only opened in 2017.

As for Watson, Tyson similarly tries to reframe the incidents to make himself seem more innocent. He characterizes their relationship as being close and friendly during the time she was employed as his assistant.

He does acknowledge saying to her, “If I hug you I might just want more,” but he also describes the incident as a well-meaning attempt to “express restrained but genuine affection.” And then, rather than acknowledge the discussion that he allegedly had with her when she came to his home for wine and cheese, he skips ahead in his narrative to her coming to his office afterward to describe the event as “creepy.”

Tyson straddles the line between trying to say that he had, and still has, the utmost respect for Watson, while also casting doubt on her narrative. Tyson writes, “She viewed the invite as an attempt to seduce her,” adding that their conversation was similar to how they always spoke to each other.

Tyson is selective when responding to Watson’s accusations, which gives him the wiggle room to selectively apologize. In Watson’s telling of the story, Tyson took off his shoes and shirt, put on “romantic” music, began talking about how humans need “releases” including “physical releases,” and referred to Watson as being “distracting.”

Tyson reframes both Watson and Allers’ cases to his advantage. Merely reading his response to the accusation makes him seem well-meaning and apologetic, and the accusations less serious. But as Tyson himself points out, the different versions of these stories don’t line up.

Tchiya Amet’s allegation

According to Amet, she and Tyson were friendly but did not date during their time together as graduate students. Then one day, in 1984, Amet says that Tyson offered her water, which, unbeknownst to her, was drugged, causing her to pass out and awaken with him performing oral sex on her. When he saw that she was awake, Amet says, he got on top of her and continued to rape her, and she passed out again.

Tyson acknowledges the seriousness of Amet’s allegations against him, but he frames the story quite differently. First, he says that he and Amet dated briefly and had been intimate a few times at her apartment. And then, rather than simply deny the allegations, Tyson goes further and brings up several facts about Amet, most of which are irrelevant to her story. He discusses how she dropped out of her graduate program failing to mention that Amet says this was because she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the alleged incident — how she changed her name, and that she holds some unusual spiritual beliefs.

Tyson brings up Amet’s idiosyncratic ideas and beliefs for no other reason but to discredit her. He  tells his audience to associate her with something unscientific, thus positioning himself as correct, logical, and honest. This creates a narrative that we have seen time and time again. Instead of discussing Amet’s allegations at a human level, Tyson positions himself as a logical, calm, scientific authority, and characterizes Amet as ignorant and confused.

Indeed, he even writes, “As a scientist, I found [her beliefs] odd.” It is Tyson’s analysis of her actual story, however, that seems most disturbing. He repeats that some parts of her memory are fuzzy and that she cannot remember every detail, suggesting that she has a “false memory” of the event.

As a scientist, Tyson should be aware that trauma can have profoundly strong effects on memory. Indeed, a large part of PTSD, according to researcher Dr. Kristin W. Samuelson, includes “the inability to recall important aspects of the trauma” and “that memory deficits are a product of neurobiological abnormalities caused by PTSD.

Combine this with Amet’s claims to have been drugged and passed out several times, and it’s no wonder that she has some difficulty recalling details of the alleged event. But for Tyson, and for his supporters, nothing Amet claims really matters. As a scientist, Tyson is given the kind of benefit of the doubt that Amet would never be given. By merely pointing to his own credentials, he is able to dismiss her claims entirely, because, again, he is a scientist and academic, and she is not.

While Tyson responded fairly quickly to the accusations by Watson and Allers and the media was also quick to report upon them, Amet has been telling her story since 2010. However, her accusations have only gotten mainstream press coverage recently. Since Amet has such “odd” beliefs, and since she dropped out of her graduate program, she has likely lost some credibility. Also, unlike Allers and Watson, Amet is a Black woman, which likely contributed to her being seen as less believable.

Believe them

At the end of the day, the strongest evidence anyone has to go on about all of these accusations is what those involved say. Tyson presents himself as an honest and trustworthy scientist. Conversely, he presents his accusers, particularly Amet, as untrustworthy. He reframes incidents to seem more innocent and to make his interactions with Allers and Watson seem like innocent mistakes, instead of predatory behavior.

But it shouldn’t matter at all what his motivations were. It doesn’t matter that he’s a famous scientist, or if Amet has strange spiritual beliefs or not. The only thing that actually matters is that we have four women who accused Tyson of predatory behaviour. We have to listen to them.

In the beginning of his Facebook post, Tyson notes that, “For a variety of reasons, most justified, some unjustified, men accused of sexual impropriety in today’s ‘me-too’ climate are presumed to be guilty by the court of public opinion.” This argument is a misleading one. It suggests that such allegations should instead be dealt with in a court of law, because a “court of public opinion” unfairly judges the accused without due process.

But the #MeToo movement is not a legal phenomenon. I doubt most of the people who believe Tyson’s accusers want Tyson to automatically be sent to jail without due process. #MeToo is primarily about providing voice to those who have been long silenced.

For so long, survivors of sexual violence, be they Hollywood starlets or students right here at U of T, were not believed. They were — and still are — dismissed as liars or attention seekers. There was no public accountability. And so their anger turned into decades of silence and shame. Meanwhile, those accused were always given the benefit of the doubt.

Even now, as the recent report from Silence is Violence shows us, institutions that are meant to protect survivors too often let them down, especially when the accused are intellectual authority figures who have gained public trust. As a society, as a university, and as individuals, we have to do better at doing the work of listening to survivors and taking them seriously. So let’s listen to Amet, Allers, and Watson.

Adina Heisler is a fourth-year Women and Gender Studies and English student at University College.

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