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