Suck It Up, Buttercup

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

The 2014 Survey of Academic Field Experiences found that of 666 scientists surveyed, 70% of women had personally experienced sexual harassment when in the field as compared with 40% of men. Twenty-six percent of women experienced sexual assault compared with 6% of men. Meredith Hastings, a founder of the Earth Science Women’s Network, has heard people talk “about fieldwork as if it’s a free-for-all where bad behavior is expected—where it doesn’t even ‘count,’ as if Antarctica is Las Vegas. Literally every time I have gone into the field, I have heard that kind of comment.” Hastings was a co-principal investigator on a 2017 National Science Foundation grant to address sexual harassment in the field and on college campuses.

A 2016 report by the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General found a long-term pattern of sexual harassment of National Park Service employees working on the Colorado River. Nineteen employees complained of the conduct of three boatmen and seven supervisors. After the report was issued, AC Shilton interviewed three of the victims. One woman said that in April 2011 on a training trip, she was sexually harassed. “Boatman 1 asked if we could pull over at a spot where he thought he’d left some tent poles on a previous trip. He goes off to look for the poles, which he doesn’t find, and when he comes back he suggests we take a bath together. I said no, but he continued to get naked and be persistent about it. Yeah, people on the river go take a bath sometimes and get naked, but you do it in private. This was not walking up on someone accidentally taking a bath—he was putting it right in my face. He kept trying to get on the boat completely naked, penis exposed. I wouldn’t let him. I wanted to leave to meet up with the rest of the group, but he refused to put his clothes back on.”

When she reported the boatman’s conduct to her supervisor, he said, “There, it’s not sexual harassment until the guy whips out his penis and slaps you across the face with it. That answer was so emblematic of everyone’s response to what was happening on the river. They all thought it was a joke. They didn’t take it seriously.” The boatmen blamed the women, claiming that they were drunk or dressed inappropriately, or didn’t wear underwear.

My supervisor said that in the wilderness, “it’s not sexual harassment until the guy whips out his penis and slaps you across the face with it.

“It kind of took a couple of years before I really understood what was going on. Unfortunately, people in positions of authority bought into the victim-blaming and no one ever believed what the women said. It was always, ‘These boys are being victimized.’”She continued: “This wasn’t boys being boys, it was some real pathological stuff. I’m not the same person I was three years ago. I experienced some of the blackest days of my life watching what happened to the other women. How is there no justice and no accountability? How does this happen in one of the most special and protected places in the world?”

In 2016, Christine Lehnertz, a gay park ranger, was assigned as the river district superintendent to clean up the sexual harassment scandal. She met with the victims, vowed to end the harassment, reviewed more than one hundred sexual harassment grievances, and threatened to fire sexual predators. The victims’ morale soon lifted.

Two years later, the Inspector General opened an investigation on Lehnertz based on a senior official’s complaint that she had bullied the male leaders. She was exonerated four months later. A female ranger explained the animosity toward Lehnertz: “There are plenty of men in high positions in the park who hate her. She just wants them to do their jobs and stop fooling around. They don’t like being told to get their hands out of the cookie jar. If Chris was a man this never would have happened.”

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