Writer, educator, and lecturer Donna Freitas is one of the world’s foremost researchers on sex, relationships, and consent, especially among college students. Yet as she researched Title IX, wrote about consent, and traveled to more than 200 colleges to lecture about how colleges navigate sexual-assault and harassment claims, Freitas was holding her own horrifying experience close to her chest. In the 1990s, one of Freitas’s graduate-school professors—who was also a priest—stalked and harassed her, and her college’s administration did little to stop him.
It began innocently enough. The man Freitas refers to as “Father L” became one of her mentors. Like other professors Freitas encountered in her collegiate career, Father L encouraged her intellectual curiosity, helped guide her academic interests, and offered support as she navigated the bureaucracy of academia. However, Father L’s interest soon turned inappropriate and increasingly uncomfortable: He began calling Freitas excessively, writing her letters, and inviting her to events outside of school—including a private retreat in the mountains, a play, and other activities that she declined time and again. He tried to persuade Freitas to enroll in his classes, many of which were required in order for her to complete her graduate work; he even learned her schedule so he could wait for her outside of her classes. When Freitas’s mother was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, Father L took the opportunity to not only write her mother and promise to visit her family in Rhode Island, but also to use their private letters in his classes without Freitas’s (or her mother’s) consent.
Though Freitas recognized early on that he was both harassing and stalking her, it took a long time for her to tell anyone about it. Instead, when her classmates or her boyfriend asked about her relationship with Father L, she excused his obsessive behavior, saying he was just a professor and a priest interested in his promising student’s academic career. And when Freitas finally found the courage to report his behavior to the administration, after trying to stop him through unofficial channels, like telling a professor in her department and reading him a detailed letter of all the things she’d like for him to stop doing, she learned how difficult it is to persuade colleges— especially religious ones—to protect their students. In the recently published Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, Freitas recalls this time in herself with stark clarity, honesty, and a vulnerability that bleeds onto the page.
I talked with Freitas about what inspired her to lay bare her own experience, what feminists still don’t understand about consent, and why she still grapples with self-blame more than 20 years later.
Your September 2018 book, Consent on Campus: A Manifesto, encouraged students and colleges to adopt a different approach to teaching and understanding consent. Given your expertise, was it difficult to turn your lens on yourself for this one?
Yes, of course. It’s very intense to [turn the lens on myself], but it became required for me to do that. While I was writing Consent on Campus, it occurred to me that there was a big connection between what I was writing about and what happened to me 20-some-odd years ago. I know it sounds crazy that it took years of talking about this topic [for me to realize that] my work with sex on campus, consent, and Title IX were connected to what happened to me. But it had never entered my mind.
I realized I had more to say about the topic, but in a different space. So I opened a new document on my laptop while I was writing that other book, and I [typed] Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, the title that became this book. Then I wrote 25 separate sentences that became the first sentence of every chapter in the book. Writing a memoir has been an exploration of my trauma and how my brain hides things from me. When I was writing Consent on Campus, I began thinking about things that [women] aren’t allowed to talk about because they’re so complex. I had this really long advisor-student relationship where consent was incredibly complicated. That’s why I had to write the memoir; I had something else to add to this conversation, and the only way I could do that is through this personal story.
I imagine it’s difficult to unveil such an intimate and horrifying part of your life in a book that may be read by your colleagues, as well as by the person who harassed you. How did you get to a point where you were okay sharing such a personal story?
When my agent first sent this book out, we had meetings at different publishers who were interested. The question [they all] asked was [similar to] your question: “Aren’t you scared for people to read this book?” My answer just flew out of my mouth, I didn’t even think about it. I said, “No, I’m not afraid, because no one will ever be as hard on me as I’ve been on myself.” I think that’s true. I don’t think it’s possible for any reader to judge me as hard as I’ve judged myself.
A long time has passed. I started this memoir before #MeToo. I had been writing Consent on Campus [before] #MeToo, so I was immersed [in] this topic. When I opened that new document on my laptop and started writing those sentences, I didn’t know that I was going to write a memoir. I didn’t know if I would finish it. I just let myself dabble for a while, and then there came this point where I really started writing. It felt really good, like an exorcism. I hadn’t expected to [become a writer] when I went to grad school. But over the last 15 years, I’ve developed these literary skills, and it felt transformative to use them to turn this really ugly part of my life into a work of literature.
I have all these people I love in my life, and by the time I started writing a memoir, most of them knew that this strange thing had happened to me in graduate school. I would always [feel] so ashamed and jumbled when I would awkwardly bring it up out of the blue or try to explain the whole story to someone. It was so hard for me to talk about it, and I felt like this was going to be a secret I carried for the rest of my life. It was a relief that my friends and my loved ones read this book because they finally know this part of me I always thought would be unknowable.
Toward the end of the book, you write, “Soon, you are alone in it, you are alone with it, for years. So, the aftermath of what I went through is also lonely.” Do you still feel as if you endured this harassment alone?
No. It’s one thing to go through something, and it’s another thing to tell someone about it. Sure, there’s always a distance between your experience and how other people perceive it, no matter how good a job you do at telling it. But I feel less alone. That’s part of the reason why writing the book felt like such a relief. I’ve gotten a lot of letters from people about how reading my memoir helped them name something that they’d gone through or articulate it to other people in a way that they had never been able to.
People close to me have said things like, “I knew you went through this thing, but I had no idea how bad it was, how many layers there were to it, how long it went on, or all the different things that this person did to you.” Even though [being harassed and stalked] is an unfortunate part of my life, it has felt good to have other people talk to me about it. The burden has always been on me to tell this story because otherwise it remains a secret. Now it’s not mine to carry by myself anymore. It’s not my responsibility to tell it detail by detail to try to make people understand. That feels really good.
Throughout the book, you write about women being punished for daring to have fulfilling dating lives and satisfying relationships. You write, “I was proud of my attention-grabbing looks and outfits and confidence, and I was happy in my sexual prowess. I was stupid with power. I would be punished for it.” How does patriarchy punish women for being free?
What’s ironic is that I was in grad school studying the binaries that patriarchy creates in society, culture, and religion. I’m this gender-studies person, and I have all the skills you need to analyze [how] patriarchal ideas embed themselves in people’s lives without them even realizing it. You can be a person who analyzes all of these issues on an intellectual level and at the same time [is] swimming in them as a person. I [had] the ability to tell myself there’s nothing wrong with being sexually free, or feeling liberated, or having the audacity to dress in a certain way. But I still had these other voices in my head that came from the culture that we’re in. It’s the shame spiral: the voice in your head that makes you feel guilty about things even as you’re trying to liberate yourself from feeling guilty about [them]. It’s hard to get those voices out of your head. We all have to work hard to talk ourselves out of them even when intellectually we know that they’re problematic.
In the book, I wrote so much about feeling like I’m two people. I’m a gender-studies [scholar] who’s conducted national studies. I’ve talked at more than 200 colleges and universities about these issues. If a student came to me and told me the story that’s in the memoir, I would immediately say, “This is horrible! You have done nothing wrong. Let’s figure this out.” I would try to alleviate them of any blame they might feel for what they went through. I could do that for a student; I know what my reaction would be. It’s clear to me that what happened to me is very black and white. But it’s another thing to be able to believe that you don’t have any blame in a situation.
Part of what I wanted to do [with this] memoir was show how someone could have a PhD, teach gender studies for years, and still struggle with self-blame. That’s how messed up our culture still is. Sexual violence and harassment are systemic issues, and part of the reason they’re so insidious is because someone [who has] all the intellectual resources to analyze themself away from self-blame still might not be able to do it.
You ask a very painful question within the book: “Why didn’t feminism save me?” What do you wish more feminists understood about consent?
I feel like feminism is saving me all the time. I want to start by saying that. Feminism is such an important part of my life, my identity, and everything I do. But I also think there are these unrealistic expectations out there that are not nuanced enough. One of the reasons I kept silent for so long and that I have always felt such shame around everything is because I have always felt like I’m still a victim. I know I’m still a victim to this person; he cost me a lot. He’s still costing me in many ways. He changed my brain. How intense is it to really reckon with that? I am this person who has been speaking on this topic for almost 15 years, and it only just occurred to me a couple of years ago that my research was connected to what happened when I was a grad school. That’s mind- boggling. And I think there’s a way in which I am somehow expected to be able to say, “I’m not a victim anymore; I am a survivor,” and to cross this line of demarcation and not look back.
#MeToo is so important in so many ways. It’s part of what opened the door to my memoir being out there at all. But I also feel like there’s such a focus on being able to say, “Me too,” as though you’ve crossed [over] and are now on the survivor side. Hold your head up, and put your fist in the air. I admire people’s ability to do that, but there’s another [part] to that conversation. As I was saying before: I can have all the intellectual skills and resources to analyze what happened to me and give myself all the right answers and still have all these doubts. In some ways, that’s the conversation we need to have that we’re not having.
This is one of the things we’re not supposed to say in public anymore. I know intellectually and I absolutely believe that me wearing short skirts and high-heeled boots is not license [for] anyone to do what this man did to me. I 100 percent believe that. However, my knowing that and my believing that that is true doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t help me understand the reality that my doing that still got me this attention I didn’t want. What will I do with that? Whose fault is it? What does it mean that even though it’s not okay or fair, it still happened? I still got attention. I wanted a certain kind of attention, but instead I got a different kind of attention. What do I do with that as a young woman? I probably shouldn’t be saying these things because I really do believe we’re not supposed to articulate these things in public. But I want feminist discourse to be a space that’s forgiving enough for me to say that out loud to help me parse through it because it’s still in my brain. I’m afraid [while] I’m saying this to you.
The reality is that most of our interactions with people, especially around power dynamics, are very gray. There’s something that’s missing when we don’t consider the nuance of situations, which is another reason why I really appreciated this book. You even write, “Either way I look at it, I end up concluding that what happened is all my fault. Either I was too complacent for too long, or too participatory, or I am making a big deal out of nothing, and still, he was and has been innocent all along.” Now that you’re a few decades removed from the harassment, do you still struggle with self-blame?
I will struggle with self-blame for the rest of my life. A lot of us do, even if we don’t say it out loud. One of the things that has been really helpful about the memoir and people talking to me about it is just how outraged they are, how clear they are that something terrible happened. When they reflect it back to me, sometimes I’m like, “Really? So it was terrible, wasn’t it? I didn’t just make that up, did I?” What happened to me was so insidious. I could always explain away what he was doing, especially if I looked at everything individually, and I worked really hard to do that.
I have a friend who’s a psychologist who helped me figure out I had PTSD. After she read the memoir and we were talking about it, she said, “The worst thing that this person took from you was your ability to believe in your own perceptions of things.” That’s very true: I doubted everything, and there are [still] days when I ask myself, “Did I make a big deal over nothing?” I’ve had moments where I’ve picked up the memoir to read parts of it and said, “That’s messed up.” The book is a really handy resource that I look at and remind myself, “That is really crazy. That’s not your fault.”
We used to only talk about sexual assault as a person jumping out of the bushes with a knife. Of course, we all know that’s not how it usually happens, but it took us a very long time to have that conversation. Now we often talk about sexual harassment as if it’s always [about] your boss sidling up to you, putting his hand on your shoulder, and making some sort of ridiculous sexual remark—which of course happens, but that’s not always how it happens. It’s often much more subtle, and we don’t necessarily [talk] about what happens when it’s harder to identify.
We teach college students about consent as if it’s very black and white: “No means no. Yes means yes. Consent is never a given, and even if you’re hooking up with someone, you can always withdraw consent.” All that is true, but it’s very different when you’ve been seeking sexual intimacy with someone. You’ve been saying yes, and suddenly you’re saying no. You’re trying to make that shift and get your partner to make that shift, and suddenly it goes wrong. How in the world do you process that afterward? I think we try to give people the intellectual resources to understand that you withdrew consent, so whatever happens from that moment on is sexual assault, period. However, it’s a whole other thing to actually convince yourself that you had no part in what happened and that it was not your fault. I’m not sure we’re good at allowing people to process that part.
I know it’s unbecoming of me to say these things out loud and to write these things in the book. But the fact that I felt like I wasn’t allowed to articulate those things and also call myself a good feminist is part of why I’ve struggled for so long in silence. It’s just so complicated.
We’re having conversations now about consent and harassment in the workplace and between professors and students, but I don’t know that it changes the stakes for the vulnerable population.
You write, “For relationships [with a power differential] to remain consensual depends entirely on the more powerful party to maintain them this way—and this is the problem. The older, more professionally accomplished person holds the reins. There is no getting around this.” How do people in professional or romantic relationships that have a power differential constantly negotiate consent?
As a culture, we have to work to get people to a level of explicit self-awareness about power. We don’t necessarily become self-aware about our own behaviors, which is a huge part of the problem with patriarchy. It’s a problem of sexism and racism. We don’t even necessarily know that we have power. We’ve never thought about it. We live in a society that doesn’t require people to do that kind of reflection, so we’ve never given thought to how someone else might perceive us or defer to us because of the position we hold. We need to [think critically] about the power that we hold on all sorts of levels. That’s a pretty tall order, but [it’s] part of what’s required.
We need people in positions of power to really be aware of how vulnerable other people may be in relation to them, and what it means for us to say certain things to them, rather than it just being this throwaway thing where your boss makes some flippant remark to you or your professor throws some comment at you about what you look like without giving any thought to how that might change the relationship. It’s really hard, but I think about it all the time with my own students: What am I doing? How are they perceiving me? I don’t believe that being self-aware about our own power in relation to others who are more vulnerable to us has to cost us the kind of intimacy or mentoring relationships that I so cherished with many of my professors. I’m still close to so many of my professors that I had as an undergrad, and I cherish those relationships, and I don’t believe that becoming self-aware about how power differentials can affect relationships has to cost us those wonderful mentoring relationships.
You write that you often hesitated to outright tell your professor no: “My no came from inaction, from halfhearted excuses, from lies of indecision.” What did you fear most about telling him no?
I would say two things made me afraid: One, if I said no, he [could] sabotage me and my life. That was very prominent in my mind. Also, saying no in a very clear way to this person who had so much power over me would cause a fundamental shift in our relationship. That’s the thing [that] most prevented me from saying no, and is one of the most important things we have to [consider when we] talk about relationships with a power differential. Saying no to him the way I really wanted was trying to somehow see him like an annoying guy at a bar or some guy my age who was trying to ask me out. If there was a peer or some random person at a bar who was bothering me and being a jerk or not respecting my wishes, I would have all the confidence in the world to say, “Fuck off, asshole. Get away from me.” I would have no qualms saying that to a peer because I have confidence in myself and I have no fear [about] telling someone no. However, treating someone who has power over you, your future, and your career like [an irritating] guy who’s driving you crazy and asking you out felt impossible. To say no was also to make an accusation. Implicit within my no was an accusation of impropriety, and it just felt like this mountain I couldn’t climb. I didn’t know how to climb it.
We’re having conversations [now] about consent and harassment in the workplace and between professors and students, but I don’t know that it changes the stakes for the vulnerable population. We say, “You can say no to your boss,” or “If your professor is doing x, you can say, ‘No’ and ‘You can’t do that!’” We can tell someone to say that, but it’s a whole other thing to be a student [in the position of addressing] that professor like he’s an 18-year-old college boy who’s bothering them. How do you scale that mountain? I couldn’t do it. It took me forever to take that step.
Was writing this book cathartic for you in any way?
It’s just a relief not to be alone with it anymore. It’s strange to say that I feel really proud of this memoir, but I do. I feel proud of it as a work of literature, and I feel proud that I somehow developed these skills that would allow me to turn this thing into a work of literature. [Writing this book] helped me get my voice back, and that feels good. The idea that women could take their voices back from the men who stole them or wrote over them was one of the first things that made me [embrace] feminism. I feel like that’s what I did. In some ways, I asked that question: Why didn’t feminism save me? But I also feel like I learned from feminism how to claim my experience and get my voice back. I feel really proud of that.