My Stanford Rape-Crisis-Coordinator Story

By Melissa Seaman

“We can’t offer you this job. Off the record, you are the most qualified person by far, but we can’t hire you for this role of the Rape Crisis Coordinator at Stanford. The truth is – no one expected you or anyone else to see the job listing we posted.” The administrator had pulled me into her office furtively to let me in on the secret. It was 1991, and I had just graduated Stanford University, and applied for the newly created job of Rape Crisis Program Coordinator.

She continued, “We had to post the job listing according to the rules of the grant that funds the program. But the job is not really available to you or anyone else. I’m so sorry. After we’ve interviewed you, according to the grant rules, some of us have argued that you should get this job. But we are not the ones with the power in this decision. The job was created by a grant written by another student, under the supervision of her mentor who is a powerful professor and doctor with the medical center. She will get the job. He is making sure of that. He is blocking our ability to hire you as the most qualified applicant. She has an interest, but no experience to speak of. I’m sorry we made you go through all of these interviews. It was never going to happen. I would have loved to have worked with you.”

I felt devastated. And I was scared for my beloved Stanford community. It wasn’t so much about me personally – it was a sign that at the top leadership level in the relevant department, sexual abuse was apparently not considered a serious issue.

It was Summer of 1991, and I had just graduated from Stanford University in Social Psychology. I had been volunteering for rape crisis hotlines, serving as a rape crisis advocate, created a rape prevention training for Stanford-in-Florence students, and even accompanying women who had just been raped to the hospital for their evidence-collecting exams. I was a community organizer, a retreat leader, and a natural counselor. Ending sexual abuse was my mission, and my passion. I believed (and still do) that this issue is an underlying plague on our culture as a whole.

So right after graduation, when I saw the job listing posted in the school paper, my whole body lit up with a deep recognition. This job seemed uniquely suited for me. This is what my life had been preparing me for!

I applied, simply knowing this was meant to be. I gleefully showed up for the multiple interviews, where I shared my skills and experience. By all accounts, I rocked the interviews. Everyone seemed pretty amazed at how well-suited I was for this job… until the last interview. A stern older guy in a suit glared at me, barking questions. He asked me if I was showing up for this job expecting to push some militant feminist agenda. He wanted to know if I thought that ALL rape victims were truly victims. He said he was a doctor. And he knew that not all rapes were really rapes. He tried to provoke me. I quoted him the statistics and stayed calm.

Now, my dad had been a Judge. And I grew up in his courtroom. I was not easily cowed by grumpy barking men in suits. And I knew I was being cross-examined. I held my own. I asked him if there was some reason he was attacking me, or if he had already decided I was wrong for this position. This rattled him, but he certainly did not soften. He dismissed me from his office, with my heart pounding and sick to my stomach. After so many glowing interviews, this guy was clearly out to get me.

More than feeling personally offended, I felt afraid for my university’s future. This was the guy at the top of the “Rape Crisis Response” team creation? Ew. All those kind, smart, committed administrators who had interviewed me previously? They were all controlled by this guy.

I was walking, dazed, down the hall of the offices. And that’s when the administrator who had been organizing the interviews took me aside and told me “off the record” why I had just been reamed by the doctor on my final interview. She apologized profusely. She knew he would put me through the ringer, and then likely dismiss me. He was the mentor of the other student who’d written the grant – the student who did not have my experience – the student who was already chosen to take the role of designing Stanford’s rape crisis system

I suppose there’s a moment for every young adult when they realize that they are somewhat powerless to effect change in a system that is rigged from the top with injustice. I also realize it is a sign of my extreme privilege that I wasn’t faced with this until I was 21 years old! And I know now that at the top levels of power in any organization, there are some bad eggs that prevent real progress, just as there are some inspired leaders who anchor real change. But to anyone but an insider, it sure is hard to tell the difference.

Now, with this recent rape story at Stanford in the news, I find myself considering that experience I had at Stanford way back in 1991 in a new light. I was so ready, prepared, and motivated to co-create a safer, more egalitarian and creative culture at my alma mater. I felt my whole life had prepared me for a job that was denied me. It would have been a tough job. It’s a very tough area of advocacy, as evidenced by our culture, and by my experience in the field. So honestly, some part of me was relieved that I would not have to hold the huge responsibility and long hours of that job. I mean – I had easier ways to make money and be creative.

But I did mourn deeply this injustice for what it meant for Stanford.

I’m not claiming that everything would be better for Stanford now if I had been hired then. But the decision to pass up the most qualified candidate for this position didn’t bode well, did it? I hope that that first student rape crisis coordinator did a great job. But I suspect with that doctor guy in charge, her hands were likely tied, even if she tried to be effective. How long did that go on? Is he still holding the reins?

I want to believe, despite the current news, that things are improving at my favorite university in the realm of sexual abuse awareness and kindness culture. But it’s hard to say. I don’t know what Stanford’s program is like now. There are tall blue-lit emergency phone towers everywhere on all campuses, but I don’t know how much they’ve helped. Have they ever even been used? I do know that all universities are plagued by this issue at deep levels.

Clearly, though, the arrogant elitist male-centered attitude I encountered in my little experience reflect the elitist male-preferential attitudes that I’m reading in how the current case was handled by the Judge and “system.” I don’t know what Stanford University’s own response was. But this whole event has reminded me of my own experience. I kept pretty quiet about my experience being turned down for that job. I love Stanford and don’t want to tarnish my alma mater in any way. The administrator had even warned me of complaining, saying that this doctor guy would never be sanctioned or reversed. But for the love of Stanford, and of the community it holds, I need to be honest about what I know. I hope that sharing my little story might shed further light into the dark places where the existing power structures are still holding a rape-producing culture in power.

©2016 Mellissa Seaman of FemWisdom

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