The year that soon comes to an end has seen discussions within various scientific disciplines about the problem of sexual harassment. In that sense, we are making progress. But what none of us anticipated was the way in which the US Presidential election would threaten that progress.
Few will be unaware that President-elect Donald Trump was recorded boasting about his ability to get away with what is, in effect, sexual assault on women. His behavior is not alleged, it is admitted. However, despite his admission, and despite losing the popular vote by a healthy margin, Trump won the majority of the Electoral College. So on January 20th next year, a self-confessed sexual predator will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America.
I can only imagine what Donald Trump’s election must mean for women, young and old, who have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. What message does it send when tens of millions of voters were apparently willing to overlook such behavior? At the very least, it means they concluded that making unwanted sexual advances was not a deal-breaker. It did not rank high enough in their decision-making to counter their intense distrust of conventional politicians. The fact that they also failed to vote for a female candidate - the first from a major political party - for the Presidency just serves to rub salt into the wound. I am not discounting that many who voted for Trump voted for political reasons, and I am not falling into the trap of disrespecting their right to make the choice they did. But, when all is said and done, just over a quarter of the people eligible to vote in the US knowingly gave their support to someone who admitted to demeaning and disrespecting women.
Coincidentally, not far from Trump Tower, and around the same time, we heard from another entitled male at the first night of the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Don Giovanni. The new production marked the return to the opera stage of Simon Keenlyside, a fine baritone who read Anthropology at Cambridge before switching to Zoology. He must surely be the only singer interviewed during the interval in a Metropolitan Opera broadcast to give a “shout-out” for the 150th anniversary of a university Zoology Department!
Set to the words of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s glorious music tells the tale of Don Juan, who in the opera goes by the name of Don Giovanni, sung masterfully by Simon Keenlyside. Don Giovanni, like Donald Trump, boasts of his sexual conquests. In a subplot Don Ottavio, who is engaged to Donna Anna, one of Don Giovanni’s conquests, and Donna Elvira, another victim of Don Giovanni’s seductive charm, expose Don Giovanni. He contrives to escape, but at the end of the opera Don Giovanni gets his comeuppance when he, literally, and in this production very dramatically, goes to hell.
Don Ottavio has two magnificent arias. In one of them, Dalla sua pace (literally “of her peace”), Don Ottavio conveys how he thinks he - or for that matter any decent human being - should respond when Don Giovanni disrespects Donna Anna. As he sings these heartfelt words from Da Ponte’s libretto -
On her peace of mind depends mine, too,
what pleases her gives life to me,
what grieves her wounds me to the heart.
If she sighs, I sigh with her;
her anger and sorry are mine,
and joy I cannot know unless she shares it.
Don Ottavio reminds us that someone else’s pain and indignity is our pain and indignity. Yet unless the pain and indignity of sexual harassment are more widely appreciated, entitled males will continue to plague women in science.
The task of combating this plague has been made more difficult by Donald Trump’s election. We should respond by redoubling our collective effort to combat sexual harassment. One way to do this is the equivalent of “raising better sons.” We can establish and encourage programs like CASHP’s ‘Men as Allies’ group, which helps to make sure all students and faculty are trained to be good bystanders, to make sure that no inappropriate comments or actions go unaddressed.
But, most of all, we must not let the insouciance demonstrated by Donald Trump become the norm. For the people affected, and for science, the cost of sexual harassment is simply too great for us to stand by and do nothing.
Special thanks to Eve Boyle