Topnews

'He seemed harmless' – Groomed student left broken

A university student who believes she was ‘groomed’ by her lecturer resulting in brutal sex is now struggling to make sense of what happened – while the lecturer is teaching at another university. She asks if institutional claims of privacy have become an excuse for secrecy that allows people like her former lecturer to continue on his merry way.

Linh* was an undergraduate student at a top New Zealand university when she first encountered Stefan*. He was her lecturer and Zoomed in to the first year class from his bedroom during the country’s first Covid lockdown.

Each session a toy panda would be arranged in a different pose on the bed behind him, sometimes holding a book like it was reading, sometimes lying down sleeping. Stefan had broad shoulders and wore black-rimmed glasses. Linh looked at him through the screen; he appeared nice, funny, relatable.

“He was quite humorous in the class. He seemed harmless,” she told Newsroom.

Linh, who has shoulder-length back hair and a youthful face, had moved to New Zealand from her home country three years earlier on a work visa, finding a job in a provincial town before deciding to pursue her passion for a subject in the sciences faculty and enrolling in a bachelors degree.

When lockdown ended and they finally resumed in-person classes, she would sometimes see her lecturer around campus. Stefan was shorter than she imagined. He would give her a wink as they passed each other, but not say hi. Uncertain she wondered was it just his way of greeting? Was it a cultural difference? Or something else? Inexperienced in the world of flirtation and romance, Linh, in her twenties, was a virgin and naïve. She came from a big city, but a conservative and authoritarian country.

She shrugged. “In my country we don’t talk about sex much at all. It’s a completely different attitude.”

The next semester Stefan, a senior lecturer in his mid-30s, took another of Linh’s classes. He was a superstar in his field from an esteemed international academic family who had travelled the globe studying and securing grants and awards for his work. He arrived to teach in Aotearoa a few years ago from a role at a top-ranking overseas university and before long secured a high-paying research fund followed by a prestigious Royal Society Te Apārangi fellowship, together totalling more than $1 million.

Royal Society Te Apārangi awards highly competitive research funds and fellowships on behalf of the government, funding that confers credibility for academics and helps them secure international jobs. At the time, the university published an article on how honoured it was that Stefan received the fellowship.

Linh dreamt of becoming an academic and lecturer herself. Her ambitions and hard work were rewarded when she won the prize for best first-year student at the end of the year.

Her future lay before her and she felt excited. Over the summer semester she ambitiously applied to join one of Stefan’s 400 level papers. Unusually for a second-year student, she was accepted.

Linh was buoyant with pride at this validation. “All the other students knew that I got his special permission to take the class.”

The walks

After Christmas she sent Stefan an email asking for reading suggestions so she could prepare. He sent her a list of materials and she duly began to work her way through them, sending him a friendly reply a few weeks later that one of the more difficult books he recommended was “a bit of a traumatising experience”.

Within days Stefan sent her a Dropbox link to his personal email and a note inviting her to discuss a project he had in mind for the two of them “…Thursday after class, if you want…”.

On their first walk, they strolled around a nearby field. It was to be a summer project, and came with thousands of dollars in financial aid; she couldn’t believe it. Then the conversation turned to more personal things. “He asked me about my family and I told him I didn’t think my father really loved me. I told him I don’t have any friends here, and he said ‘me neither’.”

Over the next few weeks they built up a rapport through back and forth emails. He was flattering and attentive. She sent him a poem about their shared science subject, Stefan sent her links to music he liked and began calling her by a nickname. He sent her one response that read, “I do think we should embrace contradiction and irrationality as we do in [their academic subject].”

A small flame of yearning grew within her for this worldly, intelligent man, a man who appeared to see her for what she was capable of, who had singled her out as a student deserving of special regard.

He showered her with attention and she soon grew distracted by an unfamiliar whirlwind of feelings. When she shared something private, he would share the same thing back, mirroring her experiences so she would feel understood. He even began to mirror her physical actions in class, watching her, running his fingers through his hair when she did. “I would move like this and then he would do the same. He gave me a lot of attention in class,” said Linh.

They took walks into town, and in the local public gardens. Having grown up in such a conservative family and culture Linh’s naivety made her feel confused. What’s happening between us? she asked. “He told me to live in the present and not to think about questions like that.”

Linh didn’t know much about Stefan outside of his work. His finger had no wedding ring and she had no reason to think he was partnered, adding that he showed a lot of interest in her personal life, blurring the lines, asking questions inappropriate in a student-teacher relationship. She told him she was a virgin. “I guess he tried to ask about me to really confess about myself. Like tell him more about myself than I normally tell other people.”

He began to touch her in a caring, non-sexual way and to give her compliments. “He would say that, oh, not everybody can do [their subject]. And I think you are really talented.”

Linh bathed in his flattery. “I lost my mind.”

She had been learning martial arts and one day Stefan asked her to practice her moves on him. He gave her life advice and talked about psychology. On another walk he wanted to know if she would come to his gym, but she was deeply confused about what was happening and declined.

“I asked him, ‘what’s going on?’ And he was like, I enjoy going out with you and it looks like you are enjoying it too. He said we can keep the professional separate from the rest. And then he just started asking me how are my courses and stuff, giving this very blurry answer.”

Then, one afternoon on a walk together he admitted he was in fact married. “He’s always kind of made it look like he’s single, so I didn’t know that he was married. I was pretty shocked. I didn’t question him though because I thought that maybe he thought we are just friends.”

But Stefan didn’t think that at all.

The cemetery

It was early autumn. Linh’s second year of university was going well but she was confused about her new friendship. Was there something there, or was she imagining it? He certainly devoted a lot of extra attention to Linh, and their conversations were very personal and intimate.

One day after class she gave him a book for his birthday. They began walking. Stefan had Linh’s assignment she had just finished tucked under his arm.

They began talking about marriage, and Stefan told Linh her ideas were romantic and idealistic. “He made me feel very confused about morals and marriage.”

She worried about her feelings for him. “I haven’t had many dating experiences and I said ‘I don’t know how it works’.” He put his arm around my shoulder and told me it starts with this, and he patted me on my head and then he said ‘do you want to kiss’? and then I kissed him.”

She was worried about his wife. “He told me, ‘don’t worry about the wife’. And he told me that he’s not lying to his wife. He said, ‘I told her that I go on walks with a student’ and ‘I think she’s scared of me leaving her.’”

He also told Linh, “We’re on the same that we’re going to keep this from the university.”

Linh wondered why Stefan might be interested in her, whether she was so important to him he would be willing to risk his marriage and career to spend time with her.

“You feel like you are really special because I know that he’s breaking all these rules so I feel like I must really mean something to this person, because I think the consequence for him is very huge.”

But the weight of confusion had lifted now she knew they were more than friends, so a few days later she invited him to meet up to listen to some music. She brought her portable speaker.

They walked towards a nearby cemetery. He began kissing as soon as they got there and within moments Stefan asked if she wanted to go to a hotel. “I guess I felt I trust him enough to go to the hotel room with him.”

The hotel

On the Uber ride into the city, Linh was lightheaded with nervousness. When they arrived, Stefan said he needed to go to the toilet, so she read a book she had brought with her.

What happened next was sudden and brutal.

Stefan returned from the bathroom and quickly removed his clothes. He had come prepared. With a flourish he pulled a plastic bag from his backpack filled with a bottle of massage oil, some lube and a comically large box of condoms. He took her clothes off and pushed her onto the bed.

“I remember I was sitting there and this man was already only in his underwear in front of me, really close.” She had a sudden flash of fear, but all she could get out was that she didn’t want to be pregnant. “He was all over me, like there all over me, and there was no protection. And I was just really…I just said, I don’t want to be pregnant.”

He rubbed the lube on himself and forced himself into Linh’s mouth, pulling her hair. She gagged and thought she would vomit. Stefan struggled and wouldn’t look at Linh at all.

Then, “he couldn’t get in and then just keep pushing it. It was like I don’t exist. He didn’t look at me, and he was mumbling the whole time, saying ‘such a good girl.’ I didn’t feel like I could move at all. I was just quiet.”

He was very rough and there was blood everywhere. Soon his mouth would become covered in her blood too. Linh said he pushed her around like she was a doll. When he came at last, he raised his arms in a body builder flex and shouted, “I am the champion!”

Linh went into a kind of shock. “I was just like…my arms were shaking and I was really cold. My body was numb.”

“He was not the same person that I knew, in that room.”

They lay on the bed and out of nowhere Stefan asked her what kind of guy she liked. “Then he asked me about my home country. And he said he’s not going to go to there because he think he’s going to get some communist wife.”

“And then also what was kind of weird is that he also started to tell me that he is not a womaniser when I didn’t even know what womaniser mean. And then he had to explain to me what womaniser is. He said that’s not him. He was like, I’m not a womaniser and I’m not doing this because of power.”

He told her he was only attracted to women physically, not so much their personality. Linh was confused, hurt, in pain and still bleeding, so she went to the bathroom.

“And then I realised there’s constantly blood. It’s like worse than the period. Then I wanted to go home and he was dressed and he’s ready to go.”

Before they left she watched Stefan as he tried unsuccessfully to cover the blood with a sheet. Linh felt distant, like she wasn’t in her own body. They parted ways in separate Ubers and she didn’t hear from Stefan for a couple of days, but she visited the university health centre because she was still bleeding. The doctor told her there was trauma and mild bruising to her vagina.

The second time

It was the mid-semester break, and Linh was grappling with the aftermath of her traumatic first sexual experience. Alone, away from friends and family in another country and with nothing to compare it to she wondered if this was just what sex was like? “I didn’t have people to talk to about what I been through. I didn’t know it’s not supposed to be like that.”

She was unsure what to do next. Stefan emailed her two days after the hotel encounter. “Thanks…for the music (and the dance),” he wrote. “One of these days we should go back to that cemetery and visit the rest of it. But let’s try not to get sidetracked this time.”

He suggested they meet the following Tuesday, that if Linh wanted to chat they could walk from campus to a nearby park “to prevent diversion”. She did want to talk, because she was worried about class starting back and didn’t know how to make everything feel normal again.

On the walk Stefan immediately began talking about sex. “Without me asking, he started telling me about the best sex he had, he gave me a whole speech about his preference for rough sex.”

He asked Linh about her sexual fantasies and shared with her how much he enjoyed sex with women from different countries – Japanese women, Russian women – and roleplaying.

“He said ‘some people like vanilla sex but I like it rough. So there’s bondage, choking, spanking, candling involved’. He told me sex to him has nothing to do with love and that to men it was all about the vaginas.”

He said a psychology student had taken him to a BDSM [bondage and discipline] club in the city, described the club to her and asked if she was interested. No, she said she wasn’t, and she wasn’t sure what she liked but she knew she didn’t like the way he had talked to her and treated her in the hotel.

He told her, “Yeah I guess I think more about my own pleasure,” and as they got to the park he said he felt sorry about what had happened last time, because he didn’t ask how she had felt or whether she felt pleasure or pain.

At the end of this discussion, he said “Let’s go practice. Sex is like [studying], it needs practice” and suggested they get another hotel room.

Now, when she looks back, Linh says she believes he manipulated her with his way of talking. “He exploited my naivety in sexual experiences and he’s good at phrasing it in a way I’m more familiar with, like [studying] and practising. I think I went along with the second time because of how horrible the first time was. Because I still have his class, I wanted to neutralise things for me and I thought maybe the second time would be better. I thought as long as I said no to the BDSM I would have power.”

But she didn’t have any power at all. During the second encounter he was rough again. He pulled her hair and slapped her. She recoiled, but it was too late. “I felt he still tried to control me. He made me feel that I did everything voluntarily. I just thought everything he does and says is the key to become successful [in my field]. He mixed the life advice with study advice, so it never occurred to me to fight against him or say no. Both times I thought I’m going for a walk but somehow they turned into being in hotel rooms. I realise this guy is not going to change, and he is trying to slowly massage me into doing those things with him.”

At least, she thought, it wasn’t quite as bad as the first time.

The aftermath

Classes resumed and Linh began to spiral. She started to distance herself from Stefan, but when he spoke to her after class he would tell her personal things, that he had dreamt of her with a Brazilian woman’s face, and make comments on her outfits and posture.

Before long Stefan emailed asking whether she would like to meet again. Linh told him “sidetracks” were no longer possible, but they could still be friends.

He replied: “Let us be friends and stay on track, Goddess of the Dawn.” Linh was relieved and wondered if she could put it all behind her. But as the semester wore on she found herself unmotivated and confused. She wrote to him again, admitting she was struggling with direction. He replied, “I think it might make sense for you to explore until you find your true calling.”

Deflated, her studying slipped behind and she had to ask Stefan for an extension, and another one the following month, which he granted with the proviso it would be the last one. “Once, I was struggling with an assignment and went to his office, he saw that I was worried about grades and told me grades are not so important, but reference letter is.”

Linh cast about looking for anything else to focus on, searching for answers to the way she was feeling. She tried an online personality test and also sent it to Stefan to see what he thought. Stefan replied from his personal email account with a link to a bipolar screening tool. “You should try this one,” he wrote.

After class one day she said he told her “‘You are the one who said I like you. You are the one who came onto me.’ He also said he thinks I am mental and think too much.”

During July, three months after the hotel incidents, she visited the health clinic eight times for her mental state. “After revisiting the incident I felt scared when I’m by myself in the night. That was the worst time since I had terrible nightmares and it made me scared to go to sleep, and then no sleep made the depression worse.”

She suffered from nausea and low appetite. The summer project she had so looked forward to now seemed impossible. She didn’t want to attend Stefan’s class anymore. “I was also very angry sometimes when I see some male classmates cause I feel like if I was a guy this would not have happened to me.”

Every so often she would grieve this mythical man, a man she thought Stefan had been, the one who listened to her fears and mirrored her feelings and experiences on those first walks, who was kind and caring and seemed to understand her so well. But he never existed.

“I was just getting very unusually down, feeling hopeless, not motivated to eat. I didn’t know what caused it. Until I think maybe it has to do with this incident? Before I thought his compartmentalisation helped him with his success, so I thought it was my weakness for not being able to separate the relationship from my study.”

She wasn’t sure what to do, so she emailed the university’s disputes resolution department, and for the first time Linh felt hope. “They heard it and they say, ‘this is really bad.’”

The investigation

If Linh had felt unmoored and lost, the clarity and purpose she discovered next was an electrical current. The people she spoke with at the disputes resolution department encouraged her to make a formal complaint. That wasn’t her intention when she approached them, “I just wanted to talk to someone; I guess I wanted people to know this.”

“They told me I didn’t do anything wrong, while I always felt it was my fault engaging with a married person and my lecturer.”

But with their support she wrote up a complaint and the pro-vice-chancellor of her department commissioned an investigation to be carried out by an external investigator, a barrister specialising in employment law. Linh signed the terms of reference document the university had created and she was told was mandatory in order to initiate the investigation, even though it expressly prohibited her sharing any information about it, including what would be investigated, with anyone except her advocate.

One of people from the disputes resolution department gave Linh a ‘safe to talk’ card with the number of sexual assault helpline, and when she called the woman on the other end explained to her what consent was. Linh said she realised she had not agreed to all the things that happened to her. “That’s why I felt completely powerless and had zero control of what was happening in the room. I did not feel I could stop it.”

The helpline woman informed Linh she could make a statement to the police. When Linh told the university she was thinking of doing this, it excluded her allegations about non-consensual sexual aspects in its investigation.

One of the first actions the university took was to suspend Stefan, putting him on leave until the investigation was concluded. Linh was relieved she didn’t have to see him around campus or in class during the second semester, but as the weeks turned into months she wondered how long it would take, and whether she would have to face Stefan again in the new year for her third year of study.

With the investigation ongoing and no outcome in sight – and fearful of having to share a classroom with Stefan again – Linh applied for an exchange to an Australian university and was accepted. She moved there in February this year.

“Because I was never given clarity on the outcome of the complaint, I went to Australia on an exchange programme for my third year to avoid a potential problem if he was not fired.”

In April, eight months after the investigation began, the pro vice chancellor sent Linh the final outcome. It substantiated six of the nine allegations, including that Stefan formed a personal, unprofessional relationship with a student, used his position of power and influence to instigate a sexual relationship with Linh, failed to disclose the relationship to the Head of School, and breached staff conduct policy.

The investigation said it could not uphold the claim that Stefan groomed Linh to enable the sexual relationship to develop because the investigator could not find a “suitable definition of ‘grooming’” for adults.

The investigation also did not uphold the two allegations of non-consensual sexual activity because they were outside the terms of reference the university had agreed upon.

The jilted lover

Linh had indeed procrastinated for months about whether or not to go to the police, but after some encouragement she eventually made a formal statement about what had happened.

When Linh left the interview room that day she met a woman detective constable from the adult sexual assault team, who Linh says informed her the next step would be to give Stefan an “educational talk” and that police would not be bringing charges.

Then she told Linh, “If I were him, I would’ve thought you were keen too.” Linh felt sick.

Later, in an email, the head of the adult sexual assault team admitted his colleague’s “choice of words were unhelpful”, but explained they were based around the objective test in relation to what the Crown must prove in court.

When it came to Stefan’s side of the story, he arrived with his lawyer, described in one online site as one of the women at the forefront of the #metoo movement in this country’s legal profession, who has taken on sexual harassment and bullying cases. She advised police Stefan wouldn’t be speaking. He didn’t say anything or answer any questions.

“That was a little bit upsetting to me…after I did all these interviews and talked about all of these details, he didn’t say a word.”

Linh was told she would be receiving a formal letter soon advising her the case would be closed.

The whole experience has left Linh shattered, and she is now unsure the direction her life will take.

Stefan meanwhile left to another university in Europe. What really upset Linh, when she finally found out, was not knowing whether his new employer had been advised of the investigation into its senior lecturer. “His new position has him in a student-facing role, which potentially puts female students at risk. Was [his new university in Europe] made aware of the reason for Stefan’s departure from [NZ university] before hiring him?” she asked in an email to the pro-vice-chancellor. He replied that he was unable to provide a “substantive response” to her query, and pointed to the university’s obligations under the Privacy Act towards its staff “including past staff members”.

Linh said: “I worry he targets foreign students like me because we are vulnerable.” 

Eventually Linh requested evidence from the police about her case and was emailed the police summary report. It included all notes entered in her file. One in particular stood out, from the head of the adult sexual assault team.

It read: “The complainant [Linh] has suggested that she was coerced into sexual activity due to the power imbalance given he was her lecturer. However she was an adult at the time, entered into the affair with eyes wide open and he had made no demands of what would happen if she didn’t engage with him. There is no evidence to suggest that the male party [Stefan] has sexually assaulted the complainant.”

The summary report went on to say: “All interaction was consensual but later regretted due to how he treated her and not left his wife.”

Linh was dumbfounded. She had been described as just a jilted lover.

——

Newsroom contacted the university he taught at before his time in NZ but received no response.

We also contacted the university in Europe where he is teaching currently and asked whether it was aware of the investigation and Stefan’s history in Aotearoa. A spokesperson said: “We are unable to share details, as all recruitment and application related information is confidential.”

Newsroom sent a number of questions to the NZ university where this occurred, including whether it had informed Stefan’s new place of work in Europe about the investigation and whether it had supplied a reference. The university responded: “As you will no doubt understand, for privacy reasons the university is not able to comment publicly on matters relating to its staff members, including former staff members, even when approached by the media to comment.

“Broadly the university takes allegations of inappropriate behaviour and/or misconduct by staff members very seriously, and we are committed to addressing concerns in accordance with our policies and procedures, our relevant legal obligations, and with the direct informed knowledge and consent of the individuals who are alleged to have experienced inappropriate behaviour.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of all parties involved. Newsroom is in possession of all documentation pertaining to the university and police evidence, reports and investigations.
 

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button