Science writer Hannah Waters, who is a friend of mine, has a brave and important piece up at LadyBits about her experience being sexually harassed by an editor.
Hannah is speaking out now because earlier this week another writer, Monica Byrne, accused the same person, Bora Zivkovic, editor of Scientific American’s blog network, of harassment. As friends and colleagues rally to defend the accused and ridicule the accuser (boy, these stories play out so predictably, don’t they?) Hannah wrote her piece to “let Monica know that she is not crazy, as people on Twitter are saying, and that she is not alone.”
It’s a great piece. Hannah skillfully conveys why harassment that’s subtle enough that you can second-guess your own experience of it can be so damaging–particularly for young people harassed by their professional superiors. Too often, sexual harassment is dismissed–even by those who experience it–as not that big a deal because we ignore the very real powerful differentials between people. As Hannah notes, the “line between social flirting and deeply damaging interaction is delicate,” but the effects can be huge–and it’s the responsibility of those with power to toe it carefully.
What makes this so hard to talk about—my experience and Monica’s—is that it may not look like sexual harassment. There was no actual sex or inappropriate touching. Bora wasn’t vulgar toward me, nor did he even directly announce his interest. It was all reading between the lines, which made it easy for me to discount my own experience. Instead, I did my best to ignore my discomfort to avoid conflict, or otherwise convinced myself that I was reading too far into it. How vain! To imagine all men want to have sex with me!
No one should be made to feel this way, no less someone early in her or his career. The nagging self-doubt is enough to turn people away from doing the things they love. Monica wrote that she’s okay, “as science journalism isn’t my principal interest by far.” But imagine how many people have been driven away from their main goal because their experiences don’t align with traditional definitions of harassment. The focus then is not on getting over it; instead, there is the added stress of figuring out whether what you experienced was harassment at all. In that case, maybe that goal doesn’t seem worth the effort.
I’ve made it far enough now that I know my work is valuable on its own. And I’m writing today to let anyone else who has experienced sexual harassment—especially the type of harassment that can be mistaken for acceptable behavior—that you aren’t alone. Whoever did this to you is the one in the wrong. They are the one who did not examine their own power and the effect their “harmless flirting” could have on you.
It’s easy to say that now but, at my most insecure moments, I still come back to this: have I made it this far, not based on my work and worth, but on my value as a sexual object? When am I going to be found out?