Alarms: Sexual Violence and Spiritual Freedom in the University – Part 1

Alarms: Sexual Violence and Spiritual Freedom in the University - Part 1

“Student Raped by U.C. Santa Cruz Professor,” I read in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.  

I pulled back from my computer screen. Moments before, my college friend Luke called to supply a long stream of curse words and a recommendation: read the Santa Cruz newspaper, which I hadn’t in years. Though the headline didn’t include that name, it didn’t have to: Hector Perla. I knew him from lecture and sat close to him in the front rows.

From the dozens of articles I skimmed, it seemed Hector and one of his students began their night at the same pizza place he brought me to—Woodstock. Hector then invited her and her friend for a trip to the Loma Prieta winery to celebrate their upcoming graduation. At the end of their outing, she became very drunk and woke up naked in bed the next day, knowing she’d been raped. She missed her graduation for a trip to the hospital, but he was there, a host for the ceremony.

Upon pursuing a case against the university, the girl was granted 1.15 million dollars as a settlement, one of the largest of its kind in American history. Her lawyer, Jon Kristensen, expressed outrage with UCSC’s nonchalant attitude towards sexual predation among its staff. UCSC was aware of allegations of Perla’s misconduct, but they looked aside.

“Enough is enough,” said Kristensen. “[U.C. Santa Cruz] let the wolf roam and only encouraged his ambitions. Like many other higher institutions, they looked the other way when it became aware [the professor] was hunting undergraduates.”

I’d become willing prey for predators like Perla. When him and I sat alone, my heart beat like a mouse roaming in the woods, knowing I was being watched. But, I’d come to like running. I also liked being caught, and knew there was something in the predator I wanted for myself. Having grown up in an emotionally toxic family, being prey felt familiar to the point of natural.

But, I’m not a victim. Victimhood permeates through the “#metoo” framework, where we hesitate to question the whole story for fear of invalidating an experience. Even without context, people argue in black and white terms that once a man crosses a line, he becomes the enemy. A dynamic between a man and a woman can evolve into harassment, but sometimes the end doesn’t illustrate the whole story. In my experience with Professor Perla, he took something from me, and I sought something from him.

My first intro course to LALS began Tuesday at 6 PM promptly after dance. Still in sweaty workout gear, I shifted in my seat. The professor was supposedly hot. Hector Perla received a little chili pepper next to his name on, students raving that he was “too funny,” “passionate,” and “cool”. The auditorium reached maximum capacity when a mustard stain on my top caught my eye, and I shamelessly tried to rub it out right as he entered the room.

Instead of walking head-down to the podium scrambling for notes like most professors, he greeted us with a vibrant smile which electrified the room. The students cheered, and I almost clapped but caught myself. He surveyed his audience and asked how many people from El Salvador there were, and they responded with whoops; Nicaragua followed, then Mexico, and then Guatemala. I half expected him to give America a verbal footnote. He did not, but he did look in my direction, and said nothing.

From then on, he conducted the course like a showman, rallying our frustrations with the world, tackling sensitive issues in a frank manner unlike my other humanities courses. Instead of diluting economic inequality with phrases like “economically disadvantaged,” he used “living in misery”. In two weeks’ time, I began raising my hand, and he called on me often. During one class, his friend spoke about his organization’s efforts to preserve indigenous languages and cultures in Chiapas, Mexico. Hector would pass out brochures after class.

Nerves seized me as the opportunity to speak with him came closer. At the lecture’s end, I met him at his podium, and he welcomed me with his signature smile. Behind us, his teacher’s assistant waited patiently in the front row, infinite scrolling on her phone. I told him I wanted a brochure. He looked at me for a moment, and the bright lights of the lecture hall illuminated his carved features, his smooth skin and dark stubble. Being close to him was exhilarating, his presence glamorous. My other professors boasted whitened warlock beards and bumbly yet charming dispositions. He floated into his lectures. He spoke with grace and ease. His grin spread across his face.

He asked me to “come work for him.” Stunned, I didn’t know what to say. He started talking about an archiving project for his book about the contra wars in Nicaragua. He had thousands of documents from the international efforts to stop them and kept the stack of brochures stowed under his arm while we spoke. I didn’t know what I wanted, especially as his assistant left the lecture hall with a sigh. Hector extended a dinner invitation, gave me his number, and promised to pick me up from campus on Wednesday evening at seven.

From the moment he uttered the words, “work for me,” my body didn’t stop shaking, my mind re-playing the moment when his breath ran hot on my neck as I entered his number into my phone. This increasingly severe infatuation might have worried me if it wasn’t so familiar. Like white men who exoticized ethnic women, I sexualized older men in obsessive ways, my imagination drenched in hormones and pent up childhood resentment towards an alcoholic father. My fixation stemmed from irrefutable emotional logic. I had a dad to find.

Even if I did find him, I’m not sure it would’ve been enough. I craved male attention like the ravenous “hungry ghost,” a figure from Buddhism which has a long, skinny neck and large stomach—it represents the futility of trying to fulfill ourselves with external things. For the first two years at U.C. Santa Cruz, I felt satisfied—until Hector. The ghost returned, my mind reeled. Hector could be hungry too, and maybe, after so many years of fantasies unfulfilled, I would have someone to dine with.

Pink lingered in the clouds. Waiting on a bench by the traffic circle, I checked my pocket mirror for stray mascara smudges. I wore a white shirt that showed my shoulders and dark leggings, and spent ten more minutes on my makeup than usual. Hector’s black Lexus pulled up, and he pushed the passenger door open. He wore his sunglasses, though I wondered how well he could see in the fading sunlight. Kanye’s Gold Digger blared on the stereo, and he bobbed his head as Kanye preached: “But she ain’t messin’ with no brokety-broke.” I wouldn’t let the subtext of a mid-life crisis foul the mood—I thanked him for the invitation, saying the dinner felt a bit like those celebrity meetups you win on the radio. Although expecting a laugh, he thanked me in a humble tone.

As we sat down at Woodstock Pizza after ordering a large pie, he didn’t mention the archiving project. When I did, he swerved, asserting he wanted to get to know who he was working with. He asked me about my parents and what they did.

“Nothing, actually.”

He smiled. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, they… don’t have jobs, if that’s what you mean. My mom is on disability. She has mental health problems. My dad is homeless.”

“Oh, and you’ve come this far and done so well? Good job. Seriously. And your mom must also be so proud to have a beautiful and intelligent daughter like yourself.”

My face flushed, I stuttered when I asked him about his story. As he narrated, this was the first time he didn’t look me in the eyes. He was born in El Salvador, and his parents fled to the U.S. due to gang violence. He couldn’t turn back from his past, and pioneered a career in academia to connect with younger people, disrupt their thinking, and inspire them to change the future. After four slices, we agreed that we were very full, but something sharp tore through my gut, a dormant craving now awoken.   

As we left, I couldn’t hear anything over the thumping in my heart, attraction and fearone pulling me forward, the other thing holding me back. Walking through the parking lot, Hector put his hand on my lower back, ushering me away from the cars pulling out. We got in, and he turned the radio off. The sun was gone. He barely spoke and looked straight ahead, calculating. He stopped the car at the traffic circle, telling me it was nice to get to know me and that he felt excited to know more. His body turned towards me, his eyes shadowed by the car lights. My face burned, my hands trembled. The thumping turned into panic.

Melanie. Get out of his car.

“Of course, bye–” I choked, hand on the door handle.

“Wait, are you okay?”

The question made me melt. Everything fell silent. “Yes, I’m sorry.”

“Before you go, can I have a hug?”

His dark eyes glinted, daring me to fall over the edge if I would be so brave. I leaned in, and he turned so that his chest pressed heavily against mine. As his hand slid off my back, he sighed in relief. We said nothing, and I left the car and he drove off, a plastic grin on my face.

The strong Santa Cruz winds blew off all the worries, the adrenaline settled and leftover goosebumps tickled my skin as I walked to my dorm. No thoughts crossed my mind as I fell on my bed, staring at the ceiling and right into Hector’s pitch black eyes. I was terrified by the sense of possibility. This was the kind of thing I lived for–clenching, panic, feverishly in lust with something, someone, I shouldn’t be. Why nots always replaced should nots in my world, so, Hector and I could brace this taboo together, I reasoned. Why should I care about the consequences where they are mine and his to bear?

It wasn’t until recently that I understood more profoundly the political undercurrents that ran through the murky waters of our flirtatious relationship, particularly with the #metoo dialogues. One thing that plagued me was Hector’s favoritism for those he felt sexually attracted to, something reflected in American society as a whole and neglected in the present discussions of sexual harassment.

Hector suffered from the omnipresent beauty bias as beautiful students swarmed around while students with a Spartan work ethic were left unnoticed, not too far from present day workplace dynamics.  The bias blinds us with real consequences, fermenting resentment on all sides because it’s a rigged game ruled by double standards. Knowing there were other candidates just as worthy, a man in power might feel the sexually attractive employee should “earn” her place in other waysthe way that separated her from the others. Perhaps this is where sexual harassment begins.

And despite our vastly different experiences, I could resonate with Hector’s need to use and reinforce his power.  Hector lived a tumultuous life in El Salvador and flirted with students and indulged his ego to feel in control. In college, I felt socially and personally powerless. As a woman, I’ve already learned to value myself as an object of a man’s attraction. On a more fundamental level relating to my family history, I struggled to appreciate my own personhood, valuing nothing in myself, letting other people name my selling price. I took whatever Hector would be willing to give.  

Part 2 will be posted next week, thank you for reading. 

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.