Sunday, August 8, 2021

Three Beers and a Rape Myth

 A Story from the Engineering Research World

Some topics should remain off limits at professional events.  But when no one is looking and alcohol is flowing, conversations can easily spin out of control. The following is a typical story of how quickly a conversation can shift from professional business talk to topics that are not only inappropriate but trigger fear and anxiety for the women at the table.  

As a graduate student, when I had my first paper accepted to a technical conference, I was both excited and nervous.  Would I pull off the presentation smoothly?  Or would I choke and forget any number of technical details regarding the circuit I was presenting?  Or worse, would I become suddenly unable to utter a single articulate sentence and go down in flames of embarrassment? 

I pondered all these possibilities while over-preparing for the three-day, regional conference where I would be presenting my research paper. In between making slides and re-rehearsing, I would think about the upcoming trip with some excitement. I was looking forward to entering into the world of technical conferences, presenting my research, and learning far more from others in a short few days than I could reading on my own or working solely with my lab mates.  And, while I was keenly aware that my intellectual credibility was on the line with a tough audience at the upcoming conference, it never occurred to me that my physical safety might be called into question. 

On the first day of the conference, several of my fellow graduate students (all male) and I drove the two hundred some odd miles to the conference venue. Funding was in short supply and driving was the least expensive of our options.  After arriving safely and checking in to our hotel, we headed out to dinner. It was hot and humid, so I dispensed with business casual clothing and wore the coolest options I could find in my suitcase. Consistent with graduate student budgets, we all headed to an inexpensive bar and grill. I slid into the booth first and perused the menu with great interest, looking for the most calories for the fewest number of dollars. The food was what you expect at a bar and grill.  Filling, not particularly healthy, but well priced. I was still working on my first beer when the rest of the guys were on their second or third. They spent most of the meal talking technical. I listened to their conversation at first but after a while, my mind wandered, and I drifted toward observing the other diners for a change of pace.

When my mind came back to planet Earth, the topic of conversation had shifted drastically.   One of the guys who was on his third beer had started talking about rape (exactly how anyone could go from talking about circuits to talking about rape in a matter of minutes was beyond me).  In the next few minutes, he rambled on about the many things women did that invited rape.  Short skirts. Tight dresses.  Cleavage on display. Big smiles.  The list was pretty long. I wondered what kind of women did not qualify for rape according to Mr. Three Beers' ongoing description of the many things that women did to invite and deserve it. 

At first, I felt like a detached observer of the conversation. Then, I wrote it off as a function of the three beers I'd watch this guy drink. I expected the conversation to shift. I expected someone to step in and redirect it. But, as the guy went on and on, I started to squirm in my seat. I was trapped in the booth and would have had to draw attention to myself to get out of the situation and leave (never mind that I had no way back to the hotel but with these guys and the one car we shared). I became more and more aware of the short summer skirt and tank top I'd worn to deal with the heat and humidity. I'd left my phone in the room and pondered my options for getting back to the hotel some other way. I tried to keep my facial expressions calm and unperturbed. I tried to keep my anger in check. I stayed quiet. It seemed like the safest option.  

And when the dinner finally and mercifully ended and I was back at the hotel and out of the car, it took all of my self-control not to run back to my room. But of course, then there was the other issue: my faculty PhD advisor had required us to double up in rooms "for budgetary reasons." I was the only female in the group and deserved no special considerations so there I was... in the same room as one of the guys who listened to what Mr. Three Beers had to say without saying a single word. Great.  

Surprise, surprise: I didn't sleep much that night. The dinner conversation rolled around in my head as I tossed and turned. I had never heard of normalizing rape or rape mythos or rape culture before. It was my first exposure to a man who seemed to genuinely believe that women often brought rape upon themselves. While I had no doubt that Mr. Three Beers deserved some damage to his private parts for his position on the subject, I certainly wasn't going to do anything or say anything considering the precarious position that limited research funds had left me in.  So, on guard, I tried to rest and didn't sleep. Tried to focus on technical matters, but thought about Mr. Three Beers instead.  

The next day was my paper presentation.  You'll never guess how it went.

Have you had a similar experience to this blog (Three Beers and a Rape Myth) or would you like to share a story, concern, or experience that relates to what you have just read?  Click here to share (all responses are private and kept confidential). 


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