Betsy Stanko

In 1980 Betsy Stanko was one of the first people (with Ximena Bunster Burotto) to bring a sexual harassment case against a University. She has since campaigned and written extensively on sexual violence. Her book “Intimate Intrusions: Women’s Experience of Male Violence” (1985) remains a classic and a must-read for anyone wanting to understand targeted violence from men to women, much of which occurs in the context of intimacies and relationships.

I rarely talk about my young self.  During the surround sound of #metoo, I listened in a fascinated way of the debates about sexual harassment. What bothered me in the surround sound of #metoo was the lack of historical connection with the early feminist activism from the early to mid 1970s onward. For me it began with a women’s studies class in my undergraduate sociology study (around 1970).  I proudly remember walking up 5th Avenue in New York City for my first feminist march in 1971.  We didn’t have pussy hats then (I do love them), and besides, it was summer.

I landed my first university assistant professor appointment at Clark University, in the US, aged 26, after being awarded my PhD (in 1977).  I had never taught a university course before.  Clark University is a small university in Worcester, Massachusetts.  I worked in a university department of five people (3 men and 2 women) where there was an atmosphere that permitted the sexual harassment of students and colleagues.  Had there been a #metoo in those days I’m certain two of my colleagues would have been previously outed.  It wasn’t long, however,  before it happened.  In 1979, the department hired a dynamic anthropologist, Ximena Bunster Burotto, a Chilean exile, and within months, she had had enough of this sexualised atmosphere[1]

For me, Ximena wasn’t describing an unfamiliar form of power abuse.  I had managed sexual harassment on a number of jobs already – as a waitress (from the manager and sometimes from the clients), as a young woman researcher travelling New York State collecting data for my second research job, and as an assistant professor in that very department at Clark University.  Ximena was able to stand up to the sexual innuendo and propositions, where I dodged and tried to find a way of not getting struck by its backlash, which commonly comes when you decide not to play the sexualised games present in the work-place.  One usually learns about who holds the power of the game when you won’t play, or say no, or say no more.   The difference between flirting and sexual harassment can be felt through the punishment for not playing along, or when you think that leaving the game altogether is better for your mental health.  Sometimes you only learn that it wasn’t flirting when you get fired for not cooperating with the unspoken rules of the game.

Ximena endured the backlash I had been evading. For me, it was time to #metoo, but there was no Twitter to join.  In the early months of Ximena’s university complaint process, I gave statements to her lawyers supporting Ximena’s perspective, and learned (to my own surprise) that I too was being subjected to the same ‘hostile atmosphere’ that permeated the department.  Perhaps I was too good at the aforementioned dodging, and needed to stand ground to help change the unspoken rules.  I was willing to testify to the university grievance process not only on her behalf, but on mine too.  And for the countless number of women students who told me in person that ‘they too’ were objects of the professors’ harassing ways.  The hostility of the atmosphere in the university escalated over the four years it took to wind through the complaints process, both through the university – and the courts (there were two law suits) – and eventually to a settlement. I stood my ground, as did Ximena.  It often felt though as if the ground were engulfing me.  Newspapers, magazines, TV talk shows featured the case, and we were our own spokespeople.

Ximena taught me a different kind of strength, and I never forgot her courage.  After all, she lived through the murderous coup in Chile.  I remember sitting in the cinema with her next to me watching the moving Missing (where Jack Lemmon played a father searching for his son, who had been killed during the coup in Santiago).  It was clear to me that in another place and time we might have risked our lives to protest our treatment.  The days were emotionally draining, with the uncomfortable feeling of being continuously in the public gaze.   I did get phone calls in the middle of the night from anonymous men threatening me with sexual assault.  I even received phone calls from famous academics siding with the abuser threatening my academic career unless I backed down.  While these made me feel anxious, and worry about what I was doing to my professional journey, I felt compelled to carry on.  We knew what we had experienced – and what others had experienced – was wrong.

We last saw each other when Ximena came to visit me following the birth of my daughter in 1988.  And last year, surrounded by account of account of #metoo, I felt the return of PTSD (irritation, flashbacks, tearfulness) that I now remember as the daily reality of living through a high profile sexual harassment case in the 1970s/early 1980s[2].  The university complaints process, the law suit by Sid Peck for defamation of character (where Ximena, me and three others were sued for $23,710,000), and the Title IX law suit (Stanko V Clark 1981) (we put my name first to protect Ximena, who was being denied a US Green Card by the university as a punishment) had me breaking out in hives every day.  I was exhausted in the end, and moved to London for a much-earned university sabbatical.[3] While I returned to Clark in 1984 for a few years, I moved to London permanently in January 1990.  Ximena returned to Chile, and we wrote to each other regularly.  But somehow, with a few house moves, we lost touch. #metoo reminded me that I needed to find her again.

In February I visited Ximena in Santiago, Chile.  Now frail, her health was failing.  We spoke broken English and Spanish to try to catch up the 30 years since we saw each other.  It was a reunion full of emotion, and our bond was still strong.  We only had a few days before she died.  I spent time between visits in Santiago on walking tours (one a feminist walking tour and another a walking tour exploring the coup).  I visited the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, and 38 Londres (a house just blocks from the Presidential Palace where 98 people died and thousands were tortured by the Pinochet regime).  It was a moving experience and, as part of the truth and reconciliation process, a healing experience for many who lived with the violence of the regime day in and day out for a decade and a half. 

The sexual harassment case did not ruin our careers.  I studied and campaigned on sexual violence for the next forty years. Ximena was honoured by the University of Chile in 2008, recognised as a model ‘to be emulated by the new generations of students and academics’.[4]  When I left Santiago I left with sadness and with a sense of pride, and knowing that the visit meant so much to me, and to Ximena.  My life changed as a result of that sexual harassment experience.  As it turned out, neither of us have spoken much of that specific time to others, and on the rare occasions we have done so, we have done so without revealing the true emotional toll it took. Surviving sexual violence is an endurance test.

Resilience is managing as best you can.  It is learning to live with knowing that not everything is fair or controllable.  I also had to learn that to be strong as a woman you need to be willing to stand when you want to fall.  And sometimes you fall, but you will get up again.  And if you are lucky, there are those around you who will help soften the fall.  Allies are crucial in the fight against male power. Perhaps it also helps to be a bloody difficult woman.  Or is that an outcome of dealing with abuse and violence? For me it was helpful to learn the power of the word BASTA.  Thank you Ximena.

Betsy Stanko is an Emeritus Professor (Royal Holloway), a Visiting Professor at UCL, City University of London and Sheffield Hallam University, awarded an OBE for her services to policing in 2014 and bestowed an honorary doctorate in 2018 (Sheffield Hallam University).  She lives in Twickenham, England.

[1] See C. Enloe The Big Push: Exposing and Challenging the Persistence of Patriarchy 2017 who has written about this case.

[2] See C.N. Baker The Women’s Movement Against Sexual Harassment 2008

[3] Where I wrote Intimate Intrusions: Women’s Experience of Male Violence 1985

[4] See Universiad de Chile, Noticias, 2 September 2008.

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