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April 10, 2008 9:21 AM   Subscribe

How should I deal with an uncomfortable/inappropriate situation with an ex-advisor?

I am having a difficult time figuring out how to handle a situation with my former graduate school advisor. I genuinely like him as a person and would definitely call him a friend. Even though I no longer work with him, we still collaborate and see each other at conferences. While I was working with him I was aware that he had a crush on me, which was a little awkward since he is married and a grandfather, but since nothing really happened aside from some mortifying TMI on his part (stuff about his youth and his relationship with his wife, mostly), I let it slide. However, ever since I left graduate school, he's made what I think of as slightly bolder moves - telling me how beautiful I was at my defense dinner, asking me questions about fairly inappropriate but possibly innocuous subjects (i.e. my opinion of an adult film star who happens to be from my parents' native country), sending me Christmas presents, etc. Most recently he sent me, for my birthday, two items from my Amazon wishlist, one of which is basically a pornographic graphic novel. Granted, my wishlist is publicly available, but the fact that my former advisor bothered to look up my wishlist and chose something like that to give to me just gives me the total freaking willies. My boyfriend (who my ex-advisor definitely knows about) has suggested that maybe he just picked the most expensive item off the list, and I'm hoping that's true. And up to this point I've tried to remain as neutral as possible about the way he behaves towards me, but now I'm just starting to feel harassed. He sent me an e-mail asking if my present had arrived, and I wrote him a thank you e-mail which stated in plain terms that I appreciated the gesture but that if he chose the gift on any basis other than price, that it wasn't a very appropriate present and that it made me very uncomfortable. Now I'm not sure if that was the right decision, though I tried to be as neutral as possible when I wrote it.

so, questions:

1) Am I overreacting to this present? Is it in fact a totally innocuous gesture to (knowingly or unknowingly) send a former student porn and something that is so not a big deal? or is it actually really creepy, and did I do the right thing in telling him how uncomfortable the present made me?

2) What can I do to get OUT of this situation? I really enjoy working with him on a personal and professional level, and would prefer not to alienate him if possible (beyond my personal fondness for him, it would probably hurt me academically because I need his recommendation letter for future job searches). But I'm sick of feeling like I'm in some cheesy 50's comedy where the secretary has to keep dodging the boss's advances. plus feeling like I have to navigate the situation is making me resent him for putting me in this position. I don't want to completely cut off all contact with him, but I feel like by not being direct I might be inadvertently emboldening him, and I don't want things to escalate (though it's hard to imagine what could be worse than porn for my birthday). what's my best course of action in this situation?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total)
Is it in fact a totally innocuous gesture to (knowingly or unknowingly) send a former student porn and something that is so not a big deal? or is it actually really creepy, and did I do the right thing in telling him how uncomfortable the present made me?

posted by tiburon at 9:27 AM on April 10, 2008


(And it sounds to me like your email was perfect.)
posted by small_ruminant at 9:33 AM on April 10, 2008

Right now everything you've described is well within the realm of a possible misunderstanding of relatively innocent behavior, and your email sounds like it communicated your perception of the situation fairly clearly. So I think for right now there is nothing else to be done. If you are concerned that this might later escalate into really uncomfortable behavior or borderline harassment you might want to keep a careful record of the incidents that have made you uncomfortable; apart from this it seems like there is little else to do at the moment. You say you were "aware" of his crush on you earlier, but an outsider might be skeptical that anything untoward or really uncomfortable was happening between you without more concrete unpleasant incidents in your account; everything here reads as potentially but not necessarily creepy to me.

Perhaps you could draft (but not yet send, until something else happens to confirm your suspicions) a letter to the advisor, saying more or less firmly what you've said here about how uncomfortable this makes you (and about wishing to preserve the collegial relationship you have), but leaving open the possibility that you've misunderstood his actions: leaving the advisor this way out, if he chooses to take it, will be the key to keeping a friendly relationship rather than escalating into a hostile accusation-and-denial situation.
posted by RogerB at 9:42 AM on April 10, 2008

Nthing creepy. Your message to him was spot on. And in case he doesn't get the hint, you need to be even more clear in your next message to him: you value his friendship, but his romantic advances are not wanted, and would he please stop.
posted by LN at 9:42 AM on April 10, 2008

You are under-reacting. You need to tell him flat-out that you appreciate his friendship but anything beyond that is off-limits.
posted by adamrice at 9:43 AM on April 10, 2008

I think saying "that made me uncomfortable" is a totally appropriate way to both indicate that you think he was over the line but also give him a gracious way to quit being a creep from this point forward.

If there was any doubt that his affections are not returned, you have made that more clear. If, in the future, he persists in this sort of stuff, just stay on message "hey this line of discussion/inquiry makes me uncomfortable" If he persists, it's clear that he's pushing things and being inappropriate. While it may have been a grey area whether sending you a porny book from your wishlist was over the line, you've indicated the line and indicated which side of it you are on and that gives you the freedom to be more outspoken in the future if this continues to be a problem. That said, try to not feel beleaguered or harassed by him if he does come around and acts totally decent from this point forward. It's easy to overcorrect and then become prickly to even friendly gestures and it might be useful to yourself if you can think "I handled that, this situation is handled, we are collegial friends now" and believe that unless you get obvious messages to the contrary.

While this is not 100% your responsibility, staying totally on message "that makes me uncomfortable, please don't do that" in the future is really the way to go. Do not get into a meta-conversation with him about it if he wants to tease you about it. Do not send mixed messages (I'd refuse further gifts if I were you but if you are gift exchangers that might be a little over the top) and check yourself with others (like your boyfriend) to make sure if you're not sure if you're doing it and otherwise go on being you. I think your note was fine and I think it WAS direct. Keep in mind that collegial and friendly means you are under no obligation to further explain yourself. I may be being defensive here but sometimes in my life the next move on the part of a creep is "let's talk about why this makes you uncomfortable..." and really you do not need to do that. You are not in a relationship with this man other than a friendly work one. Make sure you are not being pushed into one, but I think you are doing fine.
posted by jessamyn at 9:45 AM on April 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

Okay, so he's crushing hard on you, and is actively trying to develop the "friendship" into something romantic. Even if he backs off all the inappropriate stuff, he'll still have feelings for you. You can't just ask somebody to not be attracted to you. And he couldn't flip that switch off if he wanted to. Doesn't work that way.

So it seems to me you have two choices:
1. Get your recommendation letter *now*, then cut him out of your life. (If I read the question, correctly, you're NO LONGER working with him, he's your FORMER advisor, etc.) You don't need to have a "talk"; just stop responding to e-mails & phone calls. Filter/block them if you have to. Or change your phone number and, whoopsie, "forget" to tell him. If you happen to run into him in real life, just be all "yeah, sorry, I've been busy.. my boyfriend and I have been traveling, and...", or
2. Talk with him, let him know his overtures make you feel uncomfortable. And keep enjoying the disengenuous friendship of an older man who secretly wants to fuck you and clearly signaled that intent.

Easy decision in my book, if a bit sad and professionally frustrating.
posted by LordSludge at 9:46 AM on April 10, 2008

Creepy. He's being seriously inappropriate, especially since he still has power over you (you need his recommendation). It sounds like your email was a good response and I agree you should be very clear and firm about the line between friend and pursuer.

It might also be good for your career in general to keep your easily-Googled online persona 100% professional and porn-free.
posted by PatoPata at 9:48 AM on April 10, 2008

The only way I could see this not being creepy is if you take away all the back story and the present came attached with something along the lines of "haha you had porn on your Amazon wishlist and I'm calling you out on it." If a friend had porn on their amazon wishlist I might find it pretty entertaining to do just that, but yeah this is creepy and to be honest your attempts to be "neutral" are probably encouraging him. I think you did the right thing, he'll hopefully respond by pretending it all never happened and cut the sexual harassment out in the future, hopefully...
posted by whoaali at 9:49 AM on April 10, 2008

Because you are still depending on your advisor for a grad student recommendation, you are clearly being sexually harassed. This is almost certainly against the rules at your University.

Hopefully you've made your lack of interest clear to your prof by now. At some point you'll have to ask him, "Can I still count on you for a strong letter of recommendation to [whatever]?"

It might not be a bad idea to let your Dean's office know about your discomfort with the current situation, so that around the time that you need that letter of recommendation, they'll have been aware of the issue. You should be aware, though, that there are many ways to write a bad letter of recommendation, some non-actionable; tread very lightly.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:56 AM on April 10, 2008

I hate to say it, but I've been there. Am there. Have no solution; I'm leading toward avoidance myself. Memail me if you'd like further details, I'd be happy to share strategies/lend a sympathetic ear.

I think all you can really do though is document, and make your wishes explicit. You may have to be even more blunt. And unfortunately the hope that he'll pretend it never happened is quite unlikely (in my limited experience).

Major things to remember:
1) You in no way caused this. You have made your wishes clear; it is not your fault that your exadvisor hasn't quit his definitely creepy actions.
2) Cultivate other letters. Obviously you'd still like to be able to use his; but you don't want to have to rely on it for the rest of your career. Also it's really important that you develop mentorship relationships that arent' ambiguous; it'll help you survive and give you confidence.
3) Document! Keep the creepy emails, but not somewhere you'll see them every day (set up a filter if you have to). Keep copies of the ones you've sent, too, particularly ones that express your desire for this behavior to stop.
4) The support of an outside person who cares about you is tremendously important. Feel free to rely on boyfriend/friends/etc. But it might be a good idea to keep your grumbling about the situation out of the work environment.
5) Consider talking to the university's ombudsman. (The department ombudsman isn't a bad idea if you trust the person). The ombudsman probably can't *do* anything unless you wanted to file a sexual harrassment case, which I'm guessing you don't, but they might be able to point you to local resources and/or give you further strategies.

One last thing: your first mission is to protect yourself (both professionally and emotionally), but realize that there might be other women coming through the program who have to deal with this in the future. The only way this shit will stop is if someone puts her foot down and says it's not ok.
posted by nat at 10:32 AM on April 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

The specific dynamics aside, if you don't want anyone in the world who might buy you a gift to buy you pornographies I would suggest you do not make public requests for anyone in the world to buy you pornographies. Honestly, if I saw someone being open enough to have their pornography requests wishlisted like that, I would assume they were open to receiving the gift of pornography from anyone. Being straight, if I was buying a gift for a male friend, so no sexual dynamics, and the dude was asking for porn from the world, I'd maybe buy him some porn.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:38 AM on April 10, 2008

Your gut feeling is right, as usual. Learn to never talk yourself out of trusting your intuition, that's why it's call a little nagging voice.

Get whatever letters you need as soon as possible via email or snailmail, not through phone or personal visit.

If he persists with the advances, tell him firmly that they are unwelcome and that you will contact the authorities at the school because it is turning into harassment. Tell him you would hate to see his career ruined with a formal complaint, but you will do what you have to do to protect yourself. Avoid contact with him.

Before long he will probably cool off on you and feel silly and embarrassed about the way he acted. He is probably just a lonesome old man who is feeling some regrets about missed opportunities in his younger days. Good luck, and I wish the best for you. Congrats on your graduate degree!!!
posted by Daddy-O at 11:33 AM on April 10, 2008

I suspect you don't need to be told this but...

If you continue in academia, you'll need unambiguous and positive support from your graduate mentor until you are tenured. The advice to "get the letter of recommendation now and cut off contact" seems inappropriate for this situation, as there are many instances where a confidential letter from your adviser is required, for many years to come (fellowships, grants, tenure, etc) and furthermore such a letter should be updated to say how awesome specific work that you've done after you left his mentorship is. A letter frozen in time from 5 years prior to a specific decision isn't going to be great. And having to explain why you aren't submitting a letter from your adviser also really sucks.

So --- the others are right: You don't deserve this sort of creepy behavior. It does happen sometimes; I've witnessed it myself in academia. If you want a career in academia, however, you must somehow both enforce the boundary and maintain a positive relationship.

Best of luck.
posted by u2604ab at 11:58 AM on April 10, 2008

In my experience, men in this position seem to keep their speech and actions just ambiguous enough so the woman will doubt herself ("Is he really being a creep? Am I over-reacting?") and keep letting him slide. Meanwhile, he gets to talk with a pretty girl about sex.

I empathize, and in my experience, you're not over-reacting. I had a teacher like that and I always gave him a pass even though I felt creeped out by the topics he'd bring up. Then one day I met another woman who had also worked with him in the same capacity as I, and we discovered that he had tried to take things much farther with her.

I think your email sounds perfect, and it may turn out that it was a great opportunity for you to draw a line with him that you can refer back to. From now on, if he brings up a sexual topic, you can remind him that you don't want to talk about sex with him, since you established that with your email.
posted by xo at 12:06 PM on April 10, 2008


If you have accurately described the situation, he is (in my opinion) inappropriately sexualizing your relationship. Because of the power dynamic, you need his goodwill. Since the academic system has given him huge power over you, it also puts the onus on him to be carefully, deliberately neutral.

Faculty members empowered to shape the lives of their students are told it's wrong to inject sexuality into relationships with those whose careers depend on their goodwill. Avoiding predatory behavior in the instructor-student relationship has been an topic of discussion in most U.S. colleges and universities for years.

Yes, you had porn on your wishlist. But he had an abiding, sustained responsibility to not sexualize your relationship by sending it to you, then panting after you for a reaction. He is no more in the clear than if he saw you'd posted an ad on a dating site and applied to be your paramour.
posted by sacre_bleu at 1:29 PM on April 10, 2008

At the very least, he's married, so if he makes a move you've always got "You're married!" in your corner. I think he's clearly working up to it now that (a) you're technically not under him, but (b) academically obligated to him anyway. Ugh.

By the way, if he's got a crush on you, he is not your friend.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:26 PM on April 10, 2008

Nthing that this guy is creepy, acting inappropriately, and needs to be called on it.

Still, you did put the porn on your Amazon wish list. Besides your boyfriend, who could have bought this for you and not creeped you out? Your mom? Your OBGYN? The UPS man?
posted by 4ster at 6:38 PM on April 10, 2008

Still, you did put the porn on your Amazon wish list. Besides your boyfriend, who could have bought this for you and not creeped you out? Your mom? Your OBGYN? The UPS man?

Oh come on, friends can get you sexually explicit gifts without it being creepy - it can be a joke, or a kind of a wink, or whatever, depending on the relationship. But that's when you're good friends with someone and there isn't sexual tension or weird power dynamics. Like how women get sex toys for each other at the bachelorette party...

Someone who you specifically would not want to have intimate conversations with - either because you don't know them well or because it's not appropriate for the way in which you know them (i.e., most family members, professional colleagues, casual acquaintances) - should not introduce the topic through a gift any more than they should introduce it through conversation. But you might very well talk about sex when you go out for a drink with your girlfriends.

I agree with the majority above that this guy is behaving inappropriately, and it sounds like you are responding in the best possible manner to an unfortunate circumstance. Are there other women in the department you could talk to? Are there other colleagues & members of your committee who can be counted on for academic support & reference? Can you sort of shift your network purposefully toward some less troublesome colleagues? Best of luck.
posted by mdn at 8:02 PM on April 10, 2008

Yrrr, anon... I had something like that 15 years ago when I was taking a class outside my immediate graduate program. If I had read the professor's book beforehand(an autobiographical novel in which he describes how he and a friend raped a young woman in their community) , I would have never signed up for the class. It didn't get quite as far as what you're describing, but I was uncomfortable with the pet names and his wanting me to be part of a forum which was meant for people of color on campus (I am white). I called a local hotline and the woman there recommended that I speak to the program associate in my department, who was able to help me drop the class.

Are there others in the field who would be willing to write letters for you?
posted by brujita at 11:09 PM on April 10, 2008

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