A historian wonders in print how revealing that he was raped as a teenager will affect his life and teaching

Historians in the News
tags: rape

When I was the same age as my current crop of first-year students, I was raped by a Roman Catholic priest who was also a serial sex offender. At the time and place the attack occurred, the rape of a man existed neither as a crime nor even — with the possible exception of offenses occurring in prisons — as a concept. It wasn’t surprising, then, that my efforts in the immediate aftermath to report what happened went nowhere, and that thereafter I was constrained to keep silent about an event that neither I nor anyone else possessed a vocabulary to describe.

In a curious manner, though, the episode seemed to follow me throughout my subsequent academic career. Around the time I was beginning my own undergraduate studies, my rapist was sent out of the country by his archdiocese, mainly for the purpose of allowing the complaints that were beginning to build around him to die down. While I was completing my freshman year, he returned from abroad and, almost immediately, orally and anally raped another young man. As I was submitting my Ph.D. dissertation, having by then emigrated to the United States, the police at home notified me that they were opening an investigation into his activities. But it wasn’t until the year I was granted tenure, more than two decades after the original assault, that he was finally convicted for some of his crimes, although not the one he perpetrated against me.

Other than the usual array of rape-related PTSD symptoms, which I believe I was successful in concealing from colleagues and students alike, my experience of trauma had little obvious impact on my life as a professor. While trigger warnings might perhaps be appropriate for students, I believed that their instructors ought to be made of sterner stuff. Specializing as I do in the history of Europe’s disastrous 20th century, it fell to me to teach — and occasionally to write — about sexual violence during the Holocaust, or the break-up of Yugoslavia, or the enormous wave of forced migrations that followed the Second World War. It seemed to me that I did not have a right to overlook or neglect these distressing topics simply because they possessed associations for me that others did not.

By dint of practice, I developed ways of discussing them that replicated the cool, analytically dispassionate tone I routinely brought to bear on other themes, or at least were close enough to pass muster. If the material I presented in the classroom was sometimes particularly difficult for me, any slight awkwardness I may have manifested was doubtless put down to the discomfort a male professor might be expected to display when discussing a topic that is generally considered to affect women and girls alone. ...

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