Brazilian scientists and students say enough is enough from a paleontologist well known for sexual harassment and bullying of students [Update Dec 6: UNIRIO students call for action, unity, and offer help to victims]

Leonardo Avilla/ UNIRIO
Leonardo Avilla is a paleontologist at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil (UNIRIO). He specializes in the evolution of mammal, and runs a lab at UNIRIO which has hosted a large number of students.

Late last month, I was approached by Brazilian colleagues who asked me to help expose his long history of sexual harassment, assault, bullying, and degrading of students going back nearly a decade. They provided me with painful and very detailed testimonies from nine students who had either worked closely with Avilla or stopped working with him as soon as his behavior became clear.

Given the detail and obvious credibility of these first hand accounts (no rumors or second hand accounts were included in the dossier) I published a Twitter thread stating that I was investigating the matter and inviting others to contact me. In response to that thread and a couple of others, I heard from two more victims of Avilla's alleged misconduct, for a 

total of eleven detailed accounts.

What immediately struck me was the similarity of the accounts, even though they occurred over a number of years and the events took place in various locations, including Avilla's home, his lab, and field sites in Brazil and elsewhere. Most of the survivors were women who had been sexually harassed in various ways, but there were also a few men who said they had been bullied by Avilla and humiliated by him. In one case, a male student told me that Avilla had made it a condition of his staying in the lab that he would send him a nude photo of his female partner. Avilla routinely insisted that his students play a "truth or dare" game with him in which they would share intimate details of their sex lives, or in some cases disrobe to display parts of their bodies. Avilla would also insist, as part of this game, that female students kiss each other.

Avilla also told many students that he had an "open marriage," and that his wife would not mind if they had sexual relations with him. In other cases, Avilla tried to organize sexual encounters involving more than one student. Some students, who were already well along in their studies and had nowhere else to go, gave in to these demands and suffered lasting shame and psychological harm as a result. A number of them left paleontology, a field that had been the dream of many.

In several cases, Avilla forcibly kissed female students he had gotten alone either in his house or other situations, or forced them to put their hands on his genitals. (He was always inviting students to his home, which at first they thought was a sign he wanted to help them, and sometimes carried out these assaults when his wife was in another part of the house), according to several accounts. He would also send sexual explicit photos to students as part of his efforts to entice them into sexual situations.

More than one female student who accepted Avilla's hospitality woke up in bed to find him touching their bodies and trying to remove their clothing.

To avoid identifying particular students, I am withholding most of the details at this time, until and unless the students decide they want to be named. But Avilla has already begun threatening victims and other witnesses with legal action, as well as more senior academics who are helping the students get justice. Remarkably, many of the students report that when they told others about their experiences, it turned out that Avilla's behavior has been known in the Brazilian paleontology community for many years.

This is a developing story and I expect to publish regular updates as appropriate. But I will end with the comment of one young female paleontologist who was not close enough to Avilla to be a victim herself, but knew of the agonies of a friend:

"I love paleontology, and we know that scientists generally follow this profession as if a dream. It saddens me how many dreams he has killed, how many incredible women Brazilian paleontology has lost."

Update Dec 6, 2021: Students call for action and offer solidarity for victims.

In a new Facebook post, students at UNIRIO, Avilla's university, publicly call for action and investigation of Avilla's misconduct. Here are rough Google translations of the texts, and please see the videos as well.

It's time to put a stop to violence and harassment in academia.
The DACM is in solidarity with the victims of harassment by the IBIO professor who is being denounced, and is available to act as a mediator between the victims and the institution, ensuring that the integrity of each one is respected.
If you were a victim, we need to hear from you. Look for us, or look for each one of us in particular. Breaking the silence is the chance to prevent this cycle of violence from persisting. We are at your disposal.

Undersigned link:

Undersigned by the Investigation of Harassment Complaints by IBIO - UNIRIO
After allegations of sexual and moral harassment against a professor at IBIO - UNIRIO, the Academic Directory Chico Mendes and the Academic Athletic Association Charles Darwin invite students and former students to collaborate with this petition, which calls for the urgent establishment of a Special Commission for Investigation of the Complaint and the immediate removal of the accused teacher until the conclusion of the inquiry.

Meanwhile Avilla has issued a response on Twitter, which includes implied legal and other threats. I stand by my reporting.:

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Anonymous said…
"Avilla also told many students that he had an "open marriage," and that his wife would not mind if they had sexual relations with him."

Seems to be a common pick up line among those harass-holes.
Anonymous said…
I hope he does sue. It seems he has left a trove of digital evidence behind. Let’s see that all come out, his financial resources depleted by legal action, and him disgraced and fired. It’s incredible that after so many incidents, he still has his job. Surely his university must have purposefully looked the other way when people complained. Much sympathy to his victims.
Michael Balter said…
Well, if he does sue, I hope we can count on everyone to form a defense committee and raise money! And we don't want vulnerable students put through more hell. I defended a defamation suit from Danielle Kurin in California for 13 months and it was not fun.
Anonymous said…
Nem no seu blog, tem a provas, isso que você chama de prova? depoimentos? Ávila não se formou na uni rio, faz um jornalismo direito, por isso que sua profissão e criticado no Brasil, não vai dar em nada você sabe ? né ? seu fuzue ,não vai mais para frente , por falta de provas.
Michael Balter said…
I think it remains to be seen whether the testimonies of several dozen victims of Avilla’s abuses will go anywhere or not. At the very least, his real character is known across Brazil and the paleo community, because when that many people come forward, there is very likely to be truth in it. All the rest is hot air from Avilla’s defenders and apologists.