I'm a female student in some huge and popular university in my country.

I have a supervisor who is much older then me. He is a very respected person in our community.

We worked together a lot, it was fine. We communicated about personal issues as well, but nothing sex-related and/or inappropriate. No physical contact, hugs or even handshakes.

There was nothing special until the day we were celebrating something along with a lot of other teachers and students. I had drunk more then I should and stopped realizing what was happening. Then I found myself face to face with my supervisor and he started to harass me. I waited for a lucky moment and ran away.

Now we are ok with this and go on working together. This episode is ignored but not forgotten. I feel responsible for this but not guilty. I know that I'm not the first student he had close relationships with. And I know that he thought I would not mind it, so, now he is sorry. I know about two very alike situations with my friends in two other universities in my city.

Should I blame myself for this episode? I think that only for my careless and non-professional behaviour, not for the sexual issue.

Do you think I had to leave the university or communicate to the authorities or something?

How can you prevent yourself of having such a person as your supervisor? In my opinion, if he wasn't interested in me that way, I could drink even more and nothing would happen.

  • 7
    I'm not in any position to advise you, so I can't answer your question, but I want to say that this problem is more common in academia than you'd think - and I've been in your position before so I empathise. It is NOT your fault. And to clarify: have there been any further episodes? Are you comfortable working with him, or not (either of these is fine, but if you aren't comfortable, a change needs to be made)? Also, what do you mean by "I'm not the first student he had close relationships with"? Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 8:57
  • 5
    Hi @jango and welcome to Academia.SE! Questions asking directly for opinions on a personal case are generally closed as off-topic, and asking about "your" country is a bit too broad. However, your question is related to a common, or not-so-uncommon, situation in the academic world and might have a general interest. Could you try to reformulate your last question so that is less opinion based? Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 9:43
  • 3
    Your supervisor did something wrong. What, if anything, you do about it is a personal choice. Maybe you should talk to your university's counseling service about identifying your feelings/wishes. Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 10:12
  • 5
    Regarding your question at the end: Supervisors are humans. Your chance to avoid "such a person" is not very good. What you can influence is your behavior and relationship with "such a person". E.g., I would never drink so much that my judgment is impaired in the company of work colleagues, in particular senior colleagues. I'm not saying you are at fault for the sexual harassment (your supervisor is, although his judgment might have been impaired too, which doesn't make it better), but explaining how best to avoid such situations.
    – user9482
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 10:56
  • 3
    At least it does not sound like the most malicious of encounters, just bad luck and a alcohol-loosened inhibition. The right answer is in such situations by both: "I drank too much, let's stay out of each other's way until we are sober again." Failing that, the current state of things is as good as it could possibly be in such a situation (not great, but if you do feel you can continue working with the supervisor, at least workable). I wouldn't apportion much blame, people are human, but if you must blame, the supervisor gets one share, and getting unguarded with alcohol at work gets another. Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 12:55

2 Answers 2


First, I would recommend that you put away any feelings of guilt and responsibility, and instead begin planning to protect yourself. Unfortunately, it appears likely that your supervisor is a predator and abuser given several red flags in your story. In particular:

  • Your supervisor waiting until you were impaired by alcohol before making unwanted sexual advances. This is a massive red flag of abuse: safe and respectful people talk with prospective partners when they are sober.
  • Your supervisor appears to have sought an isolated environment in the midst of a group event where he could assault you and where you could run away without others noticing.
  • Your supervisor appears to be manipulating your interpretation of his sexual assault on you: you say things like "we are OK with this" (taking a collective view) and "I know that he thought" (taking his view) and "he is sorry" (how did you feel?) that indicate that your view of the situation is being strongly influenced by his view. To be blunt: it doesn't matter what he thought or felt; what matters is what you thought and felt when you were sexually assaulted. Making you feel responsible for his feelings is an abuse tactic.
  • It sounds as though your supervisor engages in grooming for abuse, by picking certain "favorite" students and violating professional boundaries with them (talking about personal issues). Some people just have minimal filter with everybody, but the picking favorites is a red flag: abusers often do this in order to identify people who will be good victims for their abuse, and then may wait quite patiently for an opportunity to switch into their preferred mode of abuse.
  • Your supervisor chose to make a sexual advance on their student, over whose life they have a huge amount of power and control, rather than waiting until you were no longer their student and could be more of a peer as a partner.

Now, it's possible that your supervisor is not a predator and abuser, but that's a lot of red flags, including an actual sexual assault. Furthermore, most abusers do not believe that they are abusers, and can often be very persuasive to others, including the victims that they ensnare.

So, what would I recommend that you do? Unfortunately, the student/advisor power dynamics make this a tricky situation to navigate without doing harm to yourself and your career. I would thus recommend that you start by protecting yourself and then find resources or otherwise get professional support to help decide how to proceed.

  1. Never drink or otherwise impair yourself when you may encounter your supervisor, even if there are other people present. He has isolated you for assault once, and may do it again.
  2. Find some good resources on abuse and familiarize yourself with their information and recommendations. One site that I would recommend as helpful is: http://www.abuseandrelationships.org/. Even though you are not in a sexual relationship with your advisor, a) your supervisor just attempted to start one, and b) you are in an important relationship due to the student/advisor connection.
  3. If you can, begin consulting with a professional therapist or counselor with a good reputation for helping victims of assault and abuse. Having a trustworthy and professional third party will be very valuable for helping you get a clear perspective on your situation and figuring out what is the right path for you, as well as helping deal with any emotional repercussions of your assault.

Once you've taken all of those other steps, you will need to decide which of several paths you want to take, ranging anywhere from filing formal charges against your supervisor to quietly changing supervisors to simply protecting yourself and carrying through to graduation. Unfortunately, all of the choices you make are likely to risk serious negative consequences to you, and only you (hopefully with aid from an experienced and supportive therapist or counselor) can decide which path and which risks are the best choice for your situation.

  • Wow. That's really such a useful information! Thank you very much.
    – jango
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 16:39
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    @jango a comment you made on your question--your advisor started assaulting you while you were asleep or passed out? That's another huge red flag.
    – mkennedy
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 19:53

Let me express how sorry and embarrassed I feel (as a male) that you have been put under such stress for no other reason than being a young female, which behaved exactly as some her male co-students would have done (socializing on a faculty party).

There are In my opinion 3 aspects of this: Professional/etiquette, Legal and emotional. I wont discuss about legal, since you were not specific on the country and specifics of the harassment, and since I feel that this is not the direction you want advice. I will skip emotional, because to judge what has happened I don't need to understand the emotions behind. For that I have to say it does not contribute if you (seem, pretend or believe) to like each other (in one direction or two) or not.

Let's gather the facts:

  • He is your supervisor - he has the objective power
  • He is an employee, he gets paid for his work, and you are a student. In some sense, his customer.
  • He is older, in an environment where he believes that it's acceptable to get sexual with students in the presence of other teacher and students (This tell me that something is wrong with the faculty ethics there) - he has control
  • It seems normal for him to have relationships with his female students, who are in a insecure emotional state of transition - if that is a habit, it is clear that he is experienced in abusing his position (This again tells me that something is wrong with the faculty ethics there)
  • I could imagine that something like this incident would have been a misinterpretation of him, but in that case, i would have expected an sincere apology towards you
  • It is clearly unacceptable from an etiquette viewpoint to skip hugging and other more personal forms of interaction in a social relationship and wait until the other person is drunk enough to touch him/her in a sexual way.

So these are the facts as I see them, and my summary is clear: He behaved unprofessional, irresponsible, and as it seems intentionally abusive, with a lack of professional and interpersonal ethics. While you being drunk may have allowed him to do what he did, the failure is on his side.

I reinterpret your questions to:

I have a supervisor, which seems to be intentionally abusive if he believes he can get away with it (and I assume that this may be true). Given the asymmetry of power, what is the way with the least further harm for my life to get away from there and avoid future harassment for me from such nonprofessional and abusive people.

  • I assume that he is not emotionally involved in this (given his history), so there are good chances that he at least does not take your "rejection" personally and has some hidden issue with you (and e.g. takes revenge when grading). So I don't expect his behavior to be a recurring thing (towards you). However, if you have the feeling that the grade of your work was affected by it (or he make strange remarks indicating that he expected different from you), you should evaluate further steps.

My first advice: Try to walk away from it as unharmed as possible, as a student in a university you will fight an uphill battle in such contexts. Clearly separate you own good (getting away with a decent grade and without being harassed any further - if he tries it, walk away directly and go to the faculty) from the good of the others (i.e. telling the responsible person at the University about this - possibly do this later, after getting away.). Don't let people tell you that "women are at fault because they would need to go after such persons stronger" - in such a situation it is not your responsibility to clean up other peoples mess.

The second advice (as much as i hate to give it to you in this context): The world is full of seemingly nice and close people (students, teachers, colleagues) who lie to you, and will exploit your weaknesses. Some people are psychopaths and these are very good liars. Getting drunk (since it weakens you temporarily) among people you don't know is not a good idea, so only get drunk with people you know well enough.

The third advice is: look for the publication record when selecting a supervisor. If you see a stable pattern (e.g. Master students which are still there as Postdocs) of coauthors around him/her on the articles it means usually that he/she does not cause people to run away for emotional, sexual or other (workload) abuse.

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