Ask Natalie by Natalie Bencivenga

Ask Natalie: Married professor wants to sleep with you? Grandson afraid of giving his beloved grandparents COVID-19?

DEAR NATALIE: One of my professors wants to sleep with me. I am a graduate student.  There has been a lot of upheaval in my department. The department head was fired over the summer. I had been getting advice from one of the professors who has been in the department a long time. I thought he was going to mentor me but now he has been making it clear he wants a different kind of relationship with me. I feel foolish that I didn’t realize this was going to happen. He is married to another professor so it’s extra awkward. I heard rumors about him being involved with other graduate students but didn’t believe it at first. I don’t want to ruin my reputation. I heard he might be moving full-time to another department next year. I thought I would get a break while we are on lockdown, but now I get texts from him. I guess he thinks they are flirty and sends offers for video meetings. Should I say something outright to him and others to indicate I am not not the kind of person who would sleep with a professor? Should I just avoid him and hope he moves to a different department, although it’s closely associated with ours? It won’t do any good to report him. It’s hard to prove and I don’t want to make any friction for my future. — NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL

DEAR NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL: This is a broken record that I wish we could smash into a million pieces. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people I have known in my life who have dealt with a similar situation, whether it be their boss, their professor or someone in their community who has power and leverage over them. That is the key word to all of this: Power. This is your classic power differential. You can do a few things to deal with this, it just depends on how confrontational you want to be. First of all, any texts and emails that he has sent you, save them and print them out as insurance. If they are “flirty” enough to warrant you feeling concerned, they are worth having just in case you need to produce them. I completely understand why you don’t want to confront him because you are worried that it could hurt you, but if you don’t say anything, this may continue to escalate, unfortunately. I would try to “gently” confront this. I absolutely hate giving you advice like this, by the way, because in my fantasy world, you could just straight out say “BACK OFF OR I’M TELLING YOUR WIFE AND THE DEAN.” We both know that the world doesn’t work that way because...well...patriarchy. If he has made it that clear that he wants a different type of relationship, I would just say, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to have this conversation because I am not interested in a relationship like that with you. You are my professor. Please respect my boundaries as a person and as a student.” If he doesn’t get the hint and continues to send inappropriate messages, or if he becomes aggressive or threatening in any way, I would take all of the correspondences that you have had with him and show someone that you trust in the department. I wish I could tell you if you do nothing that this will go away, but most likely, he will take any response from you as an invitation to keep trying. This is how predators work. He may try to wear you down, intimidate you or offer you help if you have a “relationship” with him. All of this is disgusting. I know you don’t want to make waves, and do what your gut tells you, but based on what you are telling me, this may not stop until he is forced to stop. So, try a soft approach first, but be prepared to get someone else involved that you feel will support you if you need to take it further up the food chain. You should never have to feel this way in an academic setting, or in any setting, for that matter. It isn’t fair that you have to put yourself out there to make it stop. I applaud your courage in writing to me. I applaud your resolve to stand up for yourself. I just hope years from now other people in your position do not have to deal with this because we decide as a society that this behavior is no longer acceptable or tolerated on any level.

DEAR NATALIE:  I spent a lot of time with my grandparents as a child. Now that I am a young adult, I sometimes go to their house to help with housework, and occasionally spend the night there. I've been at home for the past month due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I make sure to call them every few days. They have been taking the crisis seriously but they seem bored. Now my grandmother wants me to visit for a weekend. It has been two weeks since I have been in a store. However, I live with family members who go shopping frequently and occasionally go into their office or see friends. Although none of us are sick, I do not want to be near my grandparents--both in their 80s--for fear of spreading the virus to them. I've suggested I do some yard work for them and talk from a distance while outdoors, but they would still like me to spend a night or two. I assume they are getting lonely. How can I help my grandparents accept that I cannot visit them until the crisis subsides, especially since we do not know when that will be? — GOOD GRANDSON

DEAR GOOD GRANDSON: First, let me say that I think what you do for your grandparents is so loving. The visits, the help, and the support you give them is clearly not going unnoticed. They just miss you and I can see why. However, you are doing the right thing in social distancing from them right now. It is for their own protection and it shows your love for them. People can be asymptomatic and still spread the virus. Since there isn’t a lot of testing available, it is impossible to know if you have the virus unless you show symptoms and are given a test. I know it is really hard for them not to be with you. I really like the idea of you talking to them from the outdoors so that they can still see you and feel connected. I would stand your ground on this one, even though grandparents can be really good at guilt trips! I would also remind them that you are doing this because you care so much about their wellbeing. Explain to them as best you can the reasoning behind social distancing. Let them know that you can’t wait to spend the weekend together, but only when it is safe to do so. In the meantime, do they have a computer and access to the internet? Perhaps you can try to teach them how to Google Chat or Zoom? They may really enjoy that and feel more connected when they can see your face. I would continue going to help them with yard work and talk to them from a safe distance if that helps with their loneliness. I would also bring treats, like homemade cookies or flowers once in a while, too, so they know you are thinking of them. This is so hard on everyone, but what is worse is the idea of your loved one being sick and not being able to visit them in the hospital. We all have to find our strength and resilience deep inside of us right now. Your grandparents have lived through a lot. Remind them of that. Remind them of how you pull strength from them and how now you give them strength to make it through. This moment is temporary, but your love for each other is forever. 

Natalie's Networking Tip of the Week: Don’t put pressure on people to video chat during a work meeting. People are feeling the weight of this experience right now and may be depressed while social distancing. If they don’t want to put on “real” clothes or appear on camera during meetings, who cares? We all have to showcase a little more compassion for one another right now, and providing space for people to experience this in different ways may be just the thing to help them reduce their anxiety in these unprecedented times.

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