Criticism of Donald Trump has become a get-out-of-jail-free card for sexist and cowardly academics
Sexual assault is a topic that we simply don’t discuss in our culture. Victims are often shamed for speaking out, and even when that’s not the case — when we interact with allies who truly have our backs — it’s a traumatic subject that we’d rather not talk about.
And because victims discuss sexual assault so rarely, even with our allies, many academics simply do not realize how prevalent this issue is. They know that it happens, they understand how bad each individual incident is, but they don’t realize how many of us have been impacted by sexual assault and so they don’t grasp that it’s a major reason why women “choose” to leave STEM.
The news story about my experiences at the Smithsonian — where I was sexually assaulted by a researcher who admitted to everything, but the institution nevertheless mishandled my situation for years — was published soon after it was revealed that Donald Trump had also admitted to sexually assaulting multiple women. When the Trump story broke, scientists on Twitter condemned Trump in no uncertain terms, as well they should have. He is a terrible human being. Celebrities and presidents are role models, but Trump does not deserve to be anyone’s role model. His job, like nearly all jobs, requires the ability to demonstrate basic respect toward women, and he is clearly incapable of that. There is never any excuse for sexual assault.
So when the Smithsonian story was published, I expected those same scientists on Twitter to condemn Pinto with equal fervor. Pinto, like Trump, had admitted to sexually assaulting multiple women and apparently never expected to face any consequences for his actions. And while the scientists on Twitter have approximately zero influence over Trump’s career trajectory, this same community has plenty of power to warn women about Pinto. (He is a professor and he supervises seven women.) Scientists on Twitter can scare any would-be sexual predators in their midst, by demonstrating that the research community will not tolerate sexual assault.
I was very surprised to see how many of the self-proclaimed feminists on Science Twitter remained silent about Pinto.
One reason why so many of Pinto’s colleagues have given him a pass, despite condemning Trump, is that speaking out against Trump is just so much easier than speaking out about Pinto. Trump is a climate-change denier; Pinto coauthors publicity-friendly papers in which adorable mammal subspecies are reclassified as species. He talks about conservation in bilingual educational videos. Though Trump and Pinto are equally reprehensible human beings who have engaged in similar conduct, it’s easier for biologists to denounce a billionaire than to denounce one of their own.
But there’s another reason why so many people who were silent about Pinto spoke out against Trump: because Trump is all but universally reviled in academia, pretty much everybody looks good in comparison. So criticism of Trump allows sexual predators, their enablers, and various other sexists/cowards to polish their public image without having to answer for their own misdeeds.
Here’s an example: there’s a PI at my institution who I’ll call “Joe.” In a recent conversation, Joe told me outright that I cannot do any coding of my own — I’ll need help from my colleague “Tim.” Tim is more than 5 years younger than me, and had already told Joe that he has zero coding experience. But Joe went ahead and assumed that I am dependent on Tim, because Joe is sexist and thinks that women are incapable of doing any computer programing without a man’s help.
Before I had my conversation with Joe, he would typically criticize Trump once per hour during social events. In the immediate aftermath of our conversation — when Joe realized just how bad he’d made himself look — he criticized Trump once every fifteen minutes.
Joe knows that he messed up. He knows that he is sexist and that it’s showing. But there’s no need for him to reflect, much less apologize and change his behavior, because he can simply ramp up his criticism of Trump and make himself look like the world’s #1 feminist in comparison.
And so, while the Trump fiasco (well, this particular Trump fiasco) has helped many allies to realize how prevalent sexual assault is and how much damage it causes, it has also led the predators, enablers, and other sexists among us to believe that they have a get-out-of-jail-free card. Criticize Trump in front of your colleagues, and do whatever you want behind closed doors! The revelation that Trump is a sexual assailant is therefore a double-edged sword.
The true allies in STEM must be more vigilant. Period. Many have adopted a circle-the-wagons mentality, in which we suspend any constructive criticism of our own community in order to present a united front against Trumpism. This mentality may narrow our focus and thus allow us to fight more effectively, but the danger is that we’ll forget what it is that we’re fighting for. If we praise famous “science communicators” despite knowing how many women’s careers they’ve destroyed, then sure, we’re promoting “science” but we do so to the detriment of human beings who actually make science happen. It’s so easy to retweet a Trump joke that comes from a sexual predator, and it makes us feel better. Sure, this colleague of mine sexually assaulted his own student, but at least he’s not as bad as Trump. The problem is that this sort of action provides comfort to the individual who shares the tweet, but sends victims the message that they don’t matter. Recognition of real trauma is eschewed in favor of a comforting, but false, narrative.
Our community has unwittingly allowed Trump to lower the bar for acceptable conduct. Sexists’ increased hypocrisy will make it more difficult than ever for real allies to have worthwhile conversations about sexual misconduct, because there’s now an additional layer of bullshit that we have to cut through before we can get to the truth. But if we really care about science, and if we really believe that scientists have basic human rights, then we have no other choice. Because of course, if NOAA and the EPA disappear tomorrow, then Trump wins. But if the ongoing conversation about sexual misconduct in academia is rendered meaningless, and women do not have a safe workplace in which we can conduct our research, then what will we have left to fight for?