What to do when a peer shames you?
August 6, 2014 7:51 AM   Subscribe

In my graduate school, I am in a course where we spent the last day doing a "termination session." One part of the termination session was to tell a peer a difficulty you had with them, and one of the members of my class told me that he found my clothing too revealing and distracting and that I had made him uncomfortable.

He then proceeded to tell me that when I wore a skirt, he was worried that my "everything" would show and that I showed too much cleavage. I was shocked, and the exercise did not give time for us to respond. I left in a daze, and since then I've been feeling more and more sick about it.

We are in coursework toward a degree in a helping profession, and I feel so unsafe and objectified. I really feel like I should say something to someone, but I am also afraid of dealing with the ramifications of it - this is a peer who started my grad program with me and I will be seeing a lot of him for the next two years.

Anyway, I'm wondering the best way to proceed. I honestly don't think my peer's intentions were malicious, but he made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and objectified.

Thanks, AskMe.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (50 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Can you talk to the instructor about how to proceed? This seems insensitive and inappropriate and she or he should be aware that this took place.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:53 AM on August 6, 2014 [34 favorites]

Perhaps you could tell him that his slut-shaming is his own problem, not yours, and provide him resources for not being a sexist.

What he did was wrong, and unless you are afraid he is going to physically hurt you I would suggest that you take steps to nip this behavior in the bud before he hurts one of his clients in the future. Go to whoever the local authority is if you are worried about addressing it directly yourself.

Worried that your "everything" might show is not normal healthy behavior.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:55 AM on August 6, 2014 [92 favorites]

This guy was grossly out of line, but honestly: What a disgusting concept for a class. Your instructor was completely out of line to facilitate and encourage a bareknuckled grouse-a-thon with no time allotted to address legitimate concerns in a safe and constructive way.

I would complain about your instructor to the dean and the ombudsman.
posted by mochapickle at 7:57 AM on August 6, 2014 [209 favorites]

Seconding chesty (and only just now noticing that this is eponysterical). Except I would preface this by taking your instructor aside and say that this is the feedback you got, and you wanted a "second opinion". If - as I suspect - your appearance is actually fine, then you not only have confirmation that it is your peer's problem and not yours, you've also got the beginnings of a paper trail in case you need one.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:58 AM on August 6, 2014 [8 favorites]

This was insensitive, inappropriate, and totally unprofessional of him. Check out your school's sexual harassment policy and go through appropriate channels, document everything - what Mr. Inappropriate did, and then what responses you're getting from the instructor and administration. I'd start with the instructor unless they make you feel unsafe, but if there's another faculty member that you trust you may want to start talking to them at the same time.
posted by bile and syntax at 8:01 AM on August 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would place the blame on the instructor. It sounds to me like the peer thought he was following the instructions given to him. I don't know what the best way to clear this up is, but tagging the peer as a harasser seems unfair in the circumstances.
posted by alms at 8:02 AM on August 6, 2014 [19 favorites]

Staggeringly inappropriate. The instructor should have given better clear parameters for what 'a problem' might legitimately entail, and absolutely should have stopped this in its tracks at minute one. Was this in a group environment?

This person should not be in 'a helping profession'. The person is easily distractible, has poor boundaries, is unprofessional, sexualizes non-sexual situations, and is hostile to women. He would reflect very poorly on the school and if he would be serving a vulnerable population, all the more so.

It's a shame you didn't get to deliver your thoughts on him during a 'termination session' but maybe the school can handle that for you.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:03 AM on August 6, 2014 [47 favorites]

This is a conversation to have with a dean. Maybe you'll end up making a formal complaint or maybe the conversation will never leave that office, but it's what deans are for. I would take this issue straight to them and not go through your instructor/professor. At every school I'm familiar with, this doesn't constitute going over anyone's head; it's perfectly proper.

Don't get too worked up—or placated—by what people on the Internet say about your three-paragraph synopsis. Have the conversation with someone who is on the ground. Good luck.
posted by cribcage at 8:06 AM on August 6, 2014 [17 favorites]

Wow, this seems like a terrible exercise in so many ways.

I suspect that the professor who facilitated this exercise was not intending it to be a personal attack on one's appearance, but a feedback session on the actual coursework, although that it could have devolved to this level so easily illustrates what a shitty idea this was.

Go to the professor and tell him what happened. Give HIM some feedback, "This exercise has left me feeling objectified and vulnerable because of Foo and Bah. In the future you may want to give more explicit instructions to stick to the topic, or perhaps eliminate it all together because I didn't find it helpful."

If you don't feel that your concern has been taken seriously, I suppose you can go to the dean, but only you know if that would yield you a good result or a pissed off professor.

As for the yutz who said something, I'd tell him, "I'm really offended that you'd use a feedback mechanism for our class as a way to slut-shame me. My dress and demeanor is perfectly appropriate. You are the one with the problem. My concern is that in the future that you'd say something similar to a client. Your opinions of MY appearance, or ANYONE'S appearance are none of MY business. In the future, keep such thoughts to yourself."

Grad school is a weird environment (as you are discovering.) I wish you luck. This sounds perfectly ghastly!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:10 AM on August 6, 2014 [17 favorites]

I'm so sorry this happened to you and I agree that you could take this up with the professor or the dean, if you feel comfortable doing so. This was an inane exercise but it (hopefully) was not meant to provide a forum for discussing personal appearance, so the professor and the fellow student both messed up here.

Also, GOOD FOR YOU for seeing that this is slutshaming bullshit and totally the other student's problem, not yours.
posted by chaiminda at 8:24 AM on August 6, 2014 [8 favorites]

I am going to take another route than the previous posters--given this is a graduate class in the helping professions I would suggest the following--I am not sure why you are ashamed--his/her comments were about their experiences/feelings, not about you. However--as part of your own professional development you might step back and assess his/her comments independent of the hurt and inappropriateness. What you wear in a learning environment is generally up to you, the norms of your colleague and the expectations of the teaching institution. However, what you wear and how you appear in a professional working environment is important and is dictated by the nature of relationship and responsibilities for your clients/patients etc. If there is a professional who you respect in your learning situation I would definitely discuss this with them--it is important to separate the other person's comments from your own reactions and what you do with them. For those who say--not your problem he/she is a jerk report them--that is fine if it the social or learning situation that is relatively casual and informal. However--as a professional 'helper" it is your responsibility to sort out your own reactions with a professional instructor/supervisor/yourself. How would you have handled this if a client/patient said this to you. Personal appearance is a very sensitive issue in the helping professions--but most of all--how you appear and behave in a helping profession is all about creating the environment that is focused on what will be most helpful to the client. What I am most concerned about is not the other persons behavior--that is their issue--but your own feelings of shame. I hope this resolves itself in a positive direction for you. My best. I should say I post this with some reluctance--I am not supporting the other persons behavior but asking that this be examined as a part of professional development, distance and objectivity.
posted by rmhsinc at 8:29 AM on August 6, 2014 [52 favorites]

chaiminda--being ashamed does not suggest she is detached from the situation and sees it as a function of the the other person behavior. Also, for those who suggest she confront the other person with their slut shaming behavior is a risky strategy unless she has resolved this completely with in herself. Whether one likes it or not the other student was doing something he felt was being asked of him--it certainly was offensive to the poster but may have reflected his best execution of a very difficult professional exercise that may have not been well supervised. These uncomfortable an unsettling confrontations are not that unusual in graduate level training for therapists/counselors/etc. However--it does appear to have been inadequately supervised. An extremely important element in all of this is what profession she is in, the degree of previous training and the level of course work.
posted by rmhsinc at 8:37 AM on August 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I too would start by talking to the instructor, because this a terrible exercise unless the course is focused around building a high degree of trust and intimacy among a small group of participants, and even then it's very tricky. (I've done some training work with stuff not unlike this - but only in very, very, VERY clearly defined and unusual settings.) It's very unlikely that, if the instructor has used this exercise before, you have been the only one hurt. You might share with your instructor that this exercise puts marginalized groups (women, people of color, etc) at the risk of receiving inappropriate and thoughtless comments from uninformed class members who believe that experiences different from theirs are prima facie inappropriate. (Honestly, this is, like, a harassment and/or racism scandal waiting to happen.)

If there is a women's center on campus, or some kind of sexual health program, perhaps you could meet with a staffer there. What happened to you seems very much in line with ordinary classroom harassment, even though it was enabled by your instructor, and they may have some suggestions.

I think someone has to talk to that guy, although I'm not sure whether that should be you or the instructor (if the instructor gets it). No matter what happens - even if he ends up working with someone who comes to work in a bikini - he is never going to be in a position where it will be appropriate for him to comment on a colleague's dress and especially to share his "fears" about what he will see. That will never be appropriate, and he must never be under the impression that it is. Honestly, I think this ought to be the instructor's job, because the instructor needs to explain that although the exercise may have been set up unclearly, the guy needs to have his own boundaries that are operational in all circumstances. I don't think you should have to be in a position to argue with this dude about his "discomfort" - I think the instructor needs to do it, and I think you should meet with the instructor (and then with the dean or your advisor or another authority figure if the instructor isn't helpful) and say that you need to work with this guy, it's not your job to argue with him about being appropriate and that they need to do it.

Basically, you need to get your school to act like your HR. If you were being harassed at work, you would not expect to go and confront the dude yourself off your own bat - you'd document and get someone with authority to step up.
posted by Frowner at 8:39 AM on August 6, 2014 [18 favorites]

Where are you located? In the DC area (where I am) there's an org called "The Women's Center" that is geared toward supporting women, including in terms of professional development (and mental health, practical skills, etc etc etc). You might want to look for a similar org where you are, because it might be a (not sexist or objectifying!) place to double check things like professional presentation/grooming, and -- most importantly -- to get support in how to deal with being around objectifying sexists in a work environment without letting them get you down! I got the referral to the Women's Center from my school's disability office, but an advisor in student affaires or student health might also be a good resource, if you can't find a similar org on your own.

I also n-th what everyone has said about this guy being entirely inappropriate, talking to the professor and potentially dean about the issue, and trying hard not to take this one man being sexist and inappropriate to you to heart or beating yourself up like you've failed or embarrassed yourself somehow (you haven't!).
posted by rue72 at 8:39 AM on August 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would email the instructor so that there's a paper trail, and CC the ombudsperson. I'd also view this as an opportunity to nip this in the bud, with one of the awesome ramifications of it being that this judgey jerkface learns a Very Important Lesson about body/slut-shaming in the context of helping professions.

Part of surviving a career in the helping professions is setting clear and appropriate boundaries. While I agree with rmhsinc that you will need to develop a skillset to not internalize statements like this, it's as important that you begin practicing your psychic self-defense strategies and boundary-setting strategies.
posted by spunweb at 8:41 AM on August 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm the OP (sock puppet account). rmhsinc: I totally get what you're saying, but this is coursework during the summer in a very hot state. The dress norms of the program are pretty varied. I would not wear sundresses to work/practicum, but during the school year in classes people wear workout clothes/yoga pants/tank tops. It's very casual. I do understand the need for professionalism in dress in the workplace, though.

(I promise I won't threadsit, but I wanted to clarify that I'm within the norms of dress in the program. Even if I weren't, it'd still be a cruddy thing.)
posted by socktothepuppet at 8:42 AM on August 6, 2014 [29 favorites]

Personal appearance is a very sensitive issue

Which is exactly why it should be handled with more sensitivity than it was here.

Anonymous, it doesn't matter if you regularly wore string bikinis to class; this exercise was inappropriate, and especially so if it was in front of the rest of your peers. Truth be told, I can think of very few ways in which this exercise could have gone well and very many ways in which it could have made someone horribly uncomfortable. It sounds like it's got high potential for mean-spirited slam book nonsense. Talk to the instructor. Talk to the dean.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:43 AM on August 6, 2014 [10 favorites]

I would talk to the professor, to get their thoughts about what happened and what the exercise was supposed to be about. You might well end up going to an administrator, but in your shoes my first motivation would be to find out why an exercise like that was given in the first place. "Professor X, is that the sort of comment you foresaw people making and why would it be useful?" (Ugh, the way I've put it sounds too patronizing but that would be what I was trying to find out.)
posted by BibiRose at 8:52 AM on August 6, 2014

It is entirely possible to escalate something like this to the dean level, but more often than not there is a process that encourages resolution at a lower level, if possible. If you felt comfortable doing it, I would ask the professor what they hoped the process would be about, and then let him know another classmate used the process to make reference to parts of your body that are private and intimate, under the guise of being helpful. If the professor does not respond well or felt that it was appropriate for the student to do so, there are always formalized and documented ways at a school to take it to the next appropriate level. I would check your student handbook to see how they recommend handling grievances that come up in the classroom.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:01 AM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agree with what many people have said up thread but I would deliberately steer clear of using the phrase "slut shaming" when talking with anyone at your school about this. That phrase has a clearly-defined meaning for certain swathes of the internet (including MeFi), but not for society at-large. If you say those exact words, many people will look at you like you have three heads.
posted by whitewall at 9:03 AM on August 6, 2014 [24 favorites]

I think that talking to the instructor is the right approach, because it seems that your peer thought that he was working within the confines of the exercise. The instructor should better tailor the exercise to avoid this in the future.

Perhaps you could tell him that his slut-shaming is his own problem, not yours, and provide him resources for not being a sexist.

Being uncomfortable with a woman's clothing is not the same as slut-shaming. It's not even close.

Check out your school's sexual harassment policy

Turning what appears to be an honest blunder into something that could impact the guy's academic career strikes me as out of proportion to what actually happened.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:06 AM on August 6, 2014 [17 favorites]

If you don't know where to go, go to the ombudsman. Universities have them, and they can explain to you what your options are for responding, help you write emails to start a response, help you access resources available to you.

They can even help you decide to do nothing at all, or only anonymous things, if that's what you want. There's usually a department level ombuds person as well as a university level one.

In this case I probably wouldn't go to the ombuds office myself; I'm generally pretty direct and would say something to the dude at the next opportunity, such as "Dude, you do realize that I dress completely on par with my peers, and your comment was way out of line? You should get your own mind out of the gutter, for serious." But that might not be the right thing to do, and more importantly, it might not be the right thing to do *for you*.

The ombuds office can help you figure out what is right to do; and if you don't use them now, you may want to later, so it's worth knowing how to access them.
posted by nat at 9:13 AM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

That was a terrible exercise. Primary fault goes to the professor.

I had similar training and you use a SCENARIO. The exercise is not to go pick something at random about a peer. For example, the participant is given "terminate a person for cause: frequent error in work." Part of the value of the exercise is teaching people to stay on the target and not bring up extraneous issues. If you're terming for errors, then that's what you discuss. Don't confuse things by bringing up the extra long smoke breaks and using the company cell phone for personal calls.

FWIW, even if he had been given "terminate for cause: inappropriate attire" he was awful at it. When you give attire feedback its about how the attire is not in compliance with workplace standards. It's not "your outfit makes me uncomfortable."

I'd go to the ombudsman and discuss your options.
posted by 26.2 at 9:46 AM on August 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

Wow, holy shit. I was in a class where they did this. It's such a completely fucked idea, and literally ended in a physical altercation after the class between a couple students.

You need to go above the instructor. You don't want to give them an opportunity to get defensive, and try and turn this into a thing where they argue with you or try and explain why you're wrong about this being a shit situation.

I also think it should not be your problem to confront the guy who said this, for the same reasons and also because fuck making the person who was wronged in these types of situations rub the puppies nose in the shit, or clean up the mess. Why make this a stressful, fearful thing for you in which you're forced to confront him? That's needless and stupid. He misbehaved at school. The school should be pulling him aside to talk to him about how he's expected to behave there, and what he did wrong. It doesn't matter that this isn't k-12. The entire concept of the person who was sexually harassed having to confront their harasser is so fucked IMO.

It ended up working out after the situation i saw because it was escalated beyond that instructor. The administration basically responded somewhere between "Um... WHAT?" in the way you'd want them to and "Yea, none of this should have happened"

If somebody peed on you in class, you wouldn't be the one who had to confront them or mop the floor. That's basically how i feel about this, as far as acceptable behavior directly at you and in front of the entire class goes.

Having seen this type of exercise completely flame out in a class, i don't think the "open endedness" of it or whatever excuses what he said. There was the opportunity to be ok, and the window to be an ass and he chose that of his own free will. Anyone who goes "Well, what did you expect?" about it is also kind of an ass, honestly. The people like 26.2 pointing out that even if he was prompted to explain why your attire was inappropriate for the workplace, he did it in a horrible creepy shitty way that is not congruent with a "helping profession".

Also, i hate that i have to say it, but as a guy who has seen the backside of these conversations of many other men, whitewall has the right idea. You don't want to use that phrase.
posted by emptythought at 9:48 AM on August 6, 2014 [23 favorites]

With the info you've provided, it's really impossible to determine that the guy was slut-shaming you. Was his tone cheery and vindictive when he said it? Was he jeering and nodding at the others in the group as he said it? If not, it sounds like he clumsily honed in on the easiest thing for him to say for the purpose of the exercise.

Keep in mind too, [most] men never get the mentoring they need when it comes to feeling comfortable in their own skin around aesthetically attractive women. This doesn't change just because they go to grad school. FWIW, I smiled sadly at your story because I had an ex-boyfriend from grad school make a very similar comment to me early on in our relationship. There was some nastiness when we broke up about what an animal I was for valuing sex and the physical intimacy that comes with it over a marvelous intellectual life with him. I totally get that he saw his control over his emotions and sexuality as a success to be proud of; it made our values incompatible.

When it comes to saying something to this guy, if I were you and you normally like him otherwise, pull him aside and ask to clarify if his intention behind those comments were as slut-shaming as they sounded. Give him a heads up that when it comes to critiquing others' personal appearances, it's best done is a far more discreet manner than in front of the group. If he's a reasonably sensitive guy, he might have already intuited he sounded like quite an a**hole when he said that.

Do email the instructor (paper trail) to inform them of your experience with this exercise, and that in the future they need to have more specific parameters around what constitutes appropriate professional feedback.

And if you go to the dean or ombuds person, I wouldn't go with expectations that this one guy's attitude change. I would go with expectations that the dean will address this issue for all men as best they can. Tell the dean you want to see a male speaker give a public forum on this issue of respectful communication between male and female colleagues. This isn't just *your* problem -- it's all of ours, including your other female colleagues for fearing slut-shaming and your male colleagues for fearing reprisal for speaking their mind as they've probably been taught by the generations before them. IME it's important to remember that men don't get help from other men when it comes to learning to really be comfortable as equals with women. They don't have real conversations about this stuff; instead silence around the subject is sufficient to perpetuate the victimhood mentality that [most] men are always doomed to be helpless victims of the feelings they feel in their own bodies, and there's nothing anyone can ever do about it EVER.

If your guy grad buddy is keen, maybe he will even help you articulate what the disconnect is here (but I would make sure your own baggage is well checked beforehand, if you genuinely want to have a productive outcome here). You might even find yourself being an advocate for both men and women's rights to a healthy, respectful work environment.
posted by human ecologist at 9:50 AM on August 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am in a graduate program, and there is a woman in my program who dresses very provocatively and inappropriately to school. She wears a lot of yoga pants and tank tops. I've seen more of her body than I would like to see at work. And I guess I just feel the need to stress the "at work" part here - graduate school can feel like an extension of undergrad, where people wore... Well, how did you put it? "Workout clothes/yoga pants/tank tops. It's very casual." And yeah, I live in the South, and it is wicked hot down here, but that's no excuse. There are lots of professional clothes (linen pants, high-necked shells, etc.) that are cool and comfortable without being revealing.

This woman that I'm talking about is great: she's smart, and nice, and she's an asset to the program. But I do not need to see her assets while I'm there. Her tank tops frequently have large arm-holes and her pants are frequently so small that I can see the pattern of her underwear (if she's wearing it). This is just downright unprofessional at work, and you bet your bottom dollar that if I was in an exercise like this and she was my partner that I would say something about it, too, just like this guy did.

And it would not be a "cruddy thing to do." It would actually be kind and compassionate of me, because I'm telling you: She is not going to get very far dressed like that. It's a huge problem. It's unprofessional.

I do understand the need for professionalism in dress in the workplace, though.
Graduate school is a workplace. Don't wear workout clothes to work. No tank tops; no yoga pants. I don't care if everyone else is doing it. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. You want to be a professional in this helping profession? Dress like that, not like an undergraduate.

I do not mean to victim blame here, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that you are not dressing appropriately, particularly after reading your update about the type of clothes people in your program wear. I myself have worn see-through shirts (once a see-through dress), skirts that are too short, and all manner of weird things in to work, mostly because I am not a very conscious dresser: I just put on whatever is clean, and I'm poor (I'm a grad student!) so my clothes aren't very nice. When I started teaching, I invested in some very comfortable but professional clothing - all of it from J. Crew - and I always look polished and put-together and professional without being too warm in this Southern heat. It can be done.

In my master's program there was a woman that I will always remember for her impeccable style. She was always gorgeous and always looked so clean and nice in her J. Crew outfits. She wore work clothes to class, even when it was hot. No one else did. Guess who got the best job after graduation?
posted by sockermom at 10:04 AM on August 6, 2014 [14 favorites]

Are there any women in the class that you are close to? Could you ask one of them what their take on his comments were? For all we know, you wear skirts that barely cover your panties and your shirts could be mistaken for bikinis. If this is true, then yes, he should not have shamed you in front of the class and yes, the instructor should have had a better handle on a sensitive exercise but, you may want to take his crude comments as advice and start dressing more like an adult and less like someone in a music video. If, however, your clothing is always appropriate then he could be unstable and the university should be alerted.
He did not state his case in a professional manner, he stated it as a personal attack and I do hope that you write a note to the instructor pointing that out, because his grade should reflect that. Do not engage the student personally. Avoid him at all costs and, whatever you do, don't ever allow yourself to be alone with him. He has made it clear that he thinks of you in a overtly sexual way. Even if you do dress like you want to be in a music video- that sort of lust is not safe to be around.
posted by myselfasme at 10:18 AM on August 6, 2014

This is sexual harassment, full stop. "Your x or y is a sexual temptation" is an institution-friendly way of telling a woman that you want to have sex with her. A person who wasn't harassing you wouldn't bring it up, and they certainly wouldn't bring it up in such a professional environment in the way they did. Please don't allow it to stand. Talk to your advisor about it.
posted by theraflu at 10:19 AM on August 6, 2014 [12 favorites]

There's a lot of good advice on here, but I also want to emphasize one pragmatic thing to keep in mind when you're discussing this with deans etc. who might not be up to speed on issues like the policing of women's bodies: it does not matter how you were dressed, this was a wildly inappropriate thing for him to say.If you were wearing dramatically unacceptable clothing for your chosen profession and someone (it shouldn't be a guy and it should definitely not be a peer, of course) wanted to let you know out of concern for your professional future, the appropriate way to do that would have been to take you aside privately and clearly frame it that way. What this asshat said was about him and how he views women, and it was not for your benefit.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:33 AM on August 6, 2014 [26 favorites]

Sockermom, that is all useful advice for someone seeking input on professional dress, but what the OP was wearing is not the point. It's not even close to the point. The point is that this was a poorly thought out class exercise that left the OP hurt and humiliated and unable to respond. The complaint would still be valid, and much of this advice would still stand, if both the poster and her classmate were both of indeterminate gender and the "difficulty" in question were something like "your face is weird."
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:55 AM on August 6, 2014 [30 favorites]

Oh, I think you are wonderful! Don't feel badly!!


This was funny to me. At least until I felt bad for feeling so amused by this guy's cave-man-like opinion once I saw how upset it made you feel.

Do nothing. Well, I'd wear more mini skirts and thigh-high boots to class, but I'm snarky like that.

Alternatively, you could also attend class in a full burqa from now on.....

Both of those suggestions are ridiculous, right?

Well so is this jerk's opinion of your attire.

Do nothing. File it away under the heading if "asshole." Never set him up with any of your friends to date.

I would also avoid socializing with him, but that's not necessary for you. It's just how I'm structured internally.

You're just fine. Fuck him.
posted by jbenben at 10:58 AM on August 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I had made him uncomfortable
he was worried that my "everything" would show

Yeah whether or not the asker was wearing professionally-appropriate attire is 100% a red herring. This was allllll about the dude and theraflu has it exactly right that this "your revealing clothing makes me uncomfortable" bullshit is all about letting somebody know you're into them in a way that makes it their problem. It's gross as hell and everyone would benefit from somebody stepping in and telling this guy that this is not a thing he should be doing. Dean, ombudsman, professor, whoever.
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:04 AM on August 6, 2014 [17 favorites]

I 1000% agree it is clear the guy (willfully?) misinterpreted the spirit of the Instructor's directions to creep on the boundaries of the OP.

I know I said above, "Do nothing." I sorta forgot about the context of this being a grad program.

Yes, in writing alert the Instructor, the Dean, whoever is appropriate to alert.

Pervert weirdo needs a reality check. Also, sounds like he is a poor candidate for working with clients in need of professional services.

Good luck, OP.
posted by jbenben at 11:10 AM on August 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

Definitely on the teacher for this awful exercise. Report him.

If - as I suspect - your appearance is actually fine

Did you come to class completely nude? No. Then your appearance was definitely "fine," and you don't need anyone to confirm that for you.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:10 AM on August 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

The thing is sockermom, your standards are not the workplace standards. This guy's standards are not the workplace standards. Issues of attire, appearance, hygiene are addressed as compliance with workplace standards. Especially if you're doing a termination exercise.

This was not a conversation with coach or mentor. She did not ask for guidance, opinion or speculation. This was a hamfisted attempt to do a termination session.
posted by 26.2 at 11:15 AM on August 6, 2014 [11 favorites]

You're working on your degree in a "helping profession," as is the classmate who told you he objectifies you and is easily distracted.

Yes, you could raise your standards above those of your classmates, or, if you can get support to find personal resolution to this situation, you could find peers who support you and work with your distracted classmate and try to help him become a better person.

Others have outlined good options for working with the professor or working with those above him, and finding local support outside of the school, but if you are ever in a position where you feel comfortable talking to (not confronting) the easily distracted classmate, you can help him get prepared for his professional life. Undoubtedly, he will face far more distracting situations, and possibly do or say something that will jeopardize his work efforts. He needs to learn to respect the clothing choices of others, and find ways to overlook or ignore things that distract him. If you and your classmates can help him realize this, all the better for you.

This is about him and his reactions to other people in the world, but he made it about you. If you get to the point where you feel comfortable talking to him about this, you might be able to help him realize that.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:30 AM on August 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, since i didn't directly fire a missile at it above, it does not matter what you were wearing or whether it was "unprofessional". That is not up to him to decide or act on. He is not in a position to do this in a class. If he had an issue, he should have brought it up with the instructor. I would still go :\ if he had done that, and the instructor brought it up to you that you should be dressing more professionally while you begin to work into the mindset of your target job or whatever... but i would at least be able to respect that chain of events on some level as someone handling it like an adult, even if i disagreed with them even objecting. And that's mostly because in an adult, work environment that's how you handle that shit and everyone should be working that way already in grad school.*

This is seriously on the same level as middle school bra strap snapping. What you were wearing is completely irrelevant to the discussion, and if anyone you need to interact with to resolve this tries to loop it back around to that remind them that even if you were wearing a clown suit the point is that he did something unacceptable.

There is no possibility of "mitigating circumstances" here unless the person making the decisions is an ass. He is as 100% at-fault as if he rear ended you at a stop light(or really, if he rear ended you while road raging). Any discussion or helpful advice about your general attire is completely separate from the facts, of:

1. These kinds of comments and stupid harassment have happened to my friends who are in college/were with me, regardless of what they were wearing. Many times it's couched as "advice" or some legitimate objection like this, but is actually as said above just "you're making my weiner pointy and that's a you problem not a me problem".

2. This is an inappropriate regardless of what you were wearing, full stop. It would be inappropriate anywhere, but at school it's like double inappropriate and they need to do something about it.

I'm also 100% with jbenben that this is like, little kid level weaseling of instructions. It's like "Don't say ass, it's inappropriate" "I mean ass like a donkey mom!" kind of garbage. So yes, i mean he's acting defiant like an elementary school boy in grad school.

I know i doubled up here, but i went and made myself an espresso and contemplated it more and holy shit it just made me so mad, especially having seen this exact slow motion train wreck happen in a class in the past.

*Despite the fact that i, as a guy, was never ever questioned and taken 100% seriously wearing cutoffs and a ripped up muscle shirt with adidas to a professional level college course in which the instructor, and nearly all the class wore button up shirts and even ties, and the next tier down from that was like... polo shirts. Because apparently this shit 100% does not matter if you're a dude. double standards of "distracting" and "unprofessional" much? I also think this is a big hole in his already swiss cheese argument.
posted by emptythought at 11:38 AM on August 6, 2014 [17 favorites]

For what it's worth, a teacher in a religious high school near my hometown was fired from his job for telling female students similar things, for example, that their bare skin was a sexual temptation. Why? Because this kind of statement to someone is harassment, and, for a teacher or someone in a helping profession, an abuse of power as well. The only arguably appropriate action to take is to talk to a third party mediator, like HR or a supervisor. It is completely inappropriate to take it up with that person on one's own.
posted by theraflu at 11:39 AM on August 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

So, I sent the following email to the professor (with some modifications for anonymity's sake):

Dear (Professor):

I wanted to let you know about an upsetting interaction I had toward the end of class today. When (peer) and I were having our one-on-one, he told me that his difficulty with me was that he had found the way I dressed distracting and inappropriate. He then proceeded to tell me that while watching my video he had been concerned about my skirt riding up and that the way I sat showed too much cleavage.

The entire interaction made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, objectified, and sexualized. It made what had previously been a safe space very unsafe. I also feel as though he took advantage of the exercise - that is, that there wasn’t really time provided for me to respond.

Anyway, I wanted to let you know. I don’t think he meant anything malicious by it, but, at the same time, as therapists we have to be sensitive to and aware of issues of sexism and how our words affect our peers. It is not my responsibility if he finds my body distracting; that is completely on him. He is also not my supervisor; he is a peer, and I think his commenting on my clothing was incredibly out of line. I don’t really want to make this escalate any further as he will be in future classes with me (we are starting the program at the same time), but if there’s any way to let him know how wrong and inappropriate this was I’d really appreciate it. I have no desire for [peer] to be punished, but I think it’s important for him to understand how uncomfortable this was.


Thank you all for the help. I really appreciate it, and you've given me a ton of food for thought.
posted by socktothepuppet at 12:00 PM on August 6, 2014 [35 favorites]

This dude was not "just following instructions". Yes the professor was out of line for offering this exercise. However, your classmate said things that were wildly inappropriate in a personal setting let alone a classroom setting. I would file a complaint against professor and classmate. Classmate sexually harassed you, and the professor did nothing to stop it from happening.
posted by fireandthud at 12:23 PM on August 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

If the problem is one crappy student, then the email to the professor is correct. If the problem is a crappy professor who allowed this to happen, though, you need to be doing what a bunch of people suggested and talking to someone at the dean level.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:50 PM on August 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, this really needs to not turn into a general argument.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:58 PM on August 6, 2014

Good for you -- I came in to say that "cultural competency" is generally ethically required of therapists, and being distracted by female clients' clothing at the expense of being able to listen to and help with their issues is a rather large failure in that regard. I would continue to push that angle if you get any pushback.
posted by jaguar at 1:12 PM on August 6, 2014 [10 favorites]

he was worried that my "everything" would show

That is the creepiest way of referring to what one might see up a woman's skirt that I have heard in quite some time. That is such a powerful statement of what he thinks a woman's worth is.
posted by maryr at 2:40 PM on August 6, 2014 [37 favorites]

Honestly I would be inclined to take this further if the response from your professor is anything but abject apology. Professor should have jumped.in and shut that shut down immediately. Dude sexually harassed you, sure, but professor didn't do their job.
posted by smoke at 3:49 PM on August 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's a first step!

- In the future, don't minimize another's transgression against you by failing to report their exact words (he thought your "everything" would fall out.)

- report the facts, don't minimize or interpret the intent (that he meant nothing malicious by it.)

Just because previously, misogyny and sexism have been institutionalized in society, doesn't mean you have to "conform" to previously politically acceptable standards when putting a spotlight on it in this day and age.*

* Yes, he meant it "maliciously." Likely he's insecure and thinks you are doing better than him in the project/program/class/whatever.

That's why your attire was the subject of his critique instead of the quality of your work - he couldn't think of anything constructive - so he defaulted to putting you down.

Good for you on speaking up! Just letting you know in the future you don't have to be "politic" about this sort of thing, instead be straightforward. I'm sorry you had to waste even 30 seconds wondering if this guy was a out of line. He is out of line.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 4:04 PM on August 6, 2014 [11 favorites]

Ugh. That stinks. I'm sorry.

Another potential direction for feedback for your professor, or the director of training if your professor is not responsive: this outcome is a sign that the exercise needs to be reworked. What happened to you would be countertherapeutic if you were a client.
posted by MrBobinski at 7:06 PM on August 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am kind of appalled that people are telling you this was even a halfway appropriate thing to say to you. So much so that I read this Q overnight, stewed on it, and am now posting in the morning.

Here's the thing: I truly think the ONLY people who should discuss "appropriate" clothing with you is your direct professional supervisor should the need arise.

Perhaps I'm willing to say this guy thought he was adhering to the rules of the exercise, and in my most generous state of mind I could say "yeah, I guess that could be OK advice to give someone, to dress more professionally".

BUT the way he said it is what matters to me. He could have said "well, sometimes I thought you dressed kind of casually, which might make people take you less seriously". There are lots of ways to say your dress was questionable without saying "I COULD SEE YOUR (INSERT SEXUALIZED BODY PART"). That is the issue. Whether or not he intended it to be, the WAY he said it was really sexist and unprofessional, and is AT LEAST if not more inappropriate to tell a colleague than anything you were wearing in the first place.

If we can expect people to dress "professionally" for grad school, we can also expect them to ACT professionally for grad school, and I think most workplaces frown upon discussing your coworker's cleavage or "everything".
posted by nakedmolerats at 5:40 AM on August 7, 2014 [10 favorites]

Being uncomfortable with a woman's clothing is not the same as slut-shaming. It's not even close.

Yeah, I don't know what "slut-shaming" is supposed to mean in internet discourse, but I also doubt this guy's discomfort automatically constitutes that. I have often been uncomfortable if a guy sits directly across from me with his legs spread wide, wearing shorts or pants with very thin material that reveals the entire shape of his "package", or other such situations. No, I've never had occasion to tell a man about that discomfort, but if I did in a (seemingly) appropriate situation, would I be slut shaming? Women often reveal a lot of their bodies, a lot more than men do, maybe partly to take up power visually the way men do with space, and yeah it's the norm but so what. It doesn't mean that some people might be made uncomfortable about it, understandably.
posted by Blitz at 2:35 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

No, I've never had occasion to tell a man about that discomfort, but if I did in a (seemingly) appropriate situation, would I be slut shaming?

I think you hit on an important point there, Blitz. This event was in an academic setting -- which is in no way an appropriate situation to voice comments about a classmate's non-academic attributes.

By commenting only on OP's physical characteristics, the classmate is saying OP's body and style of dress was more important than OP's actual academic performance. It's reductive. And that's how we puddle-jump to slut-shaming: People assume that because a woman is dressed a certain way, she becomes less than all she is.
posted by mochapickle at 3:00 PM on August 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

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