Oxford University
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OPINION

Why I am naming the man who sexually harassed me 30 years ago

If things are to change, victims will have to speak out, says Mel McGrath

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By Mel McGrath on

Over the last couple of weeks, the phrase “doing a Weinstein” has entered the language. Those of us (many women and some men) who were subjected to the sexual predation of older, powerful men have had cause to relive our experiences.

Professor David Robertson, who died this summer, and was eulogised by his alma mater, St Hugh’s College, Oxford, as “much loved and greatly missed” regularly “did a Weinstein” on me and, I suspect, on the many other young women he harassed while nominally tutoring us through our degrees.

When I was an undergraduate in the 1980s, one of Oxford’s most prized academic quirks, shared only with Cambridge, was its one-on-one tutorial system. David, who was my tutor, held tutorials in his flat on college grounds and had an uncanny knack for scheduling a shower, at whatever time of day, just before I arrived. He’d open the door – as if innocently – dressed in his bathrobe and, one time, in a tiny towel. For the next hour I would have to undergo the humiliating experience of reading my essay, on which I had laboured hard and with serious intent, while David sat opposite, half-naked and manspreading, often smelling of alcohol and sipping from a mug of what was never tea or coffee. In the midst of my valiant efforts to get a grip on the topic of the week, David might proffer a helpful comment, such as why he preferred it when I curled my hair. Once he dropped a useful note in my pigeonhole to say he couldn’t help noticing I hadn’t got a boyfriend.

Well no. I didn’t have a boyfriend. Not then and not for the three lonely undergraduate years that followed. Part of the reason for that was David, who sent me the message that, in an institution that claimed to encourage intellectual excellence, I could only hope to stand out for my hair and the fact that I didn’t have a boyfriend.

David Robertson was my assigned “personal tutor”. It was to him I was supposed to go if I had a problem. His behaviour was so much of an open secret that we students nicknamed him “Dirty Dave”. So far as I know, he was never officially censured. If the college authorities hadn’t heard the rumours of his misconduct they couldn’t have been listening very hard.

David’s enduring legacy to me, the education he imparted, was shame, the sense of being played for a fool and a corroding cynicism towards men. For a long time I thought of myself as one of those long-caged animals so demoralised that they dare not emerge from behind bars even when the door is opened and they are free to leave.

Sometimes we don’t speak out to protect other victims, sometimes to protect family of the perpetrator

There has been a lot of handwringing over the past week about why people like me don’t speak out, or didn’t, or speak out only, as in this case, 30 years after the fact. Sometimes we don’t speak out to protect other victims, sometimes to protect family of the perpetrator. As the first generation in my family to go to university (my elder sister also went to Oxford – we are a family of clever girls), I felt a responsibility to my parents to make the most of an educational opportunity denied them by their socio-economic background. If I had worked my heart out to get to Oxford, they had worked their socks off to help get me there. I was supposed to be grateful. And I was.

And so, for a perfect storm of reasons – among them background, gender and youth – I felt I had no agency. Worse, it never occurred to me I might.

Now, 30 years later, it’s still scary to name my tormentor. I feel bad for his family and know I will be judged for speaking out. I already have been. When I mentioned I was writing this piece, a male Facebook friend commented: “In an ideal world a victim would not wait three decades to report something, meaning others will be victimised in the mean time. That's where we need to get to.” But no, we do not need to get to victim-shaming. We need to get to men not harassing women (or other men). So there’s that.

In the 1980s St Hugh’s was a women’s college, a supposed safe haven in a larger institution so riddled with misogyny and sexism that, when I came along, it had been conferring degrees on its female students for a mere 65 of the 1000 years of its existence. This was not an institution that made women feel comfortable or felt obliged to encourage others to do so. When I was there male undergraduates (mostly ex-public school boys) routinely referred to women’s colleges as “secretarial schools”. A move to “allow” women students in to Christchurch, known as “The House”, was met by a protest from its male undergraduates who strung up a banner reading “A Woman’s Place is in the Home not in the House”. I was forced to pass beneath this insult in order to get to tutorials at the college.

I routed round the “problem”, which had, naturally, become mine, by choosing courses taught by tutors in other colleges. But the fear (and it is a fear) that men would forever be, as Jia Tolentino noted in The New Yorker,  “switch-baiting”, tricking me into imagining they valued my talents when they were only interested in my body, never disappeared. If anything, it was reinforced during my twenties and thirties by the behaviour of men too numerous to name.

Time has empowered me, as it does many women. Though I understand only too well what it takes to name powerful men, those of us who were or are their victims need to do so where we can. In order for the system to change, accusers must be as accountable for their accusations as the perpetrators are for their abuse. Otherwise it’s all too easy to write off the victims as unreliable and the perpetrators as exceptions. This is a systemic failing. It has been going on too long. To help change it, those of us who have suffered under it, and who can, must try to be brave enough to give specific voice to its injustices.

I am genuinely sorry if writing this distresses David Robertson’s family, but I have decided, like so many other women this week, that it’s time I stepped out of the cage.

Give Me The Child by Mel McGrath is published by HQ

@Mcgrathmj

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 (Picture: Rex Features)
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