Sexual Harassment in the Children’s Book Industry
Sometimes, it’s in the form of inappropriate comments.
An author wrote, “An editor who was considering my work commented very thoroughly on my body type as a possible personal advantage of working with me.” For her now, “it makes submissions feel like a minefield.”
For an author/illustrator, it was at a book party with a famous illustrator; “I introduce myself to him,” she writes, “and he makes a crack about my breasts.” After enough incidents like these she’s “completely stopped socializing in this business because each time it becomes another abuse story.”
Sometimes the comments are more pointed, like for the publicist who says her supervisor told her he had a crush on her and if he wasn’t married and twice her age he would ask her out. Or a writer’s conference attendee who says that a faculty member asked her if she was “kinky” at the opening mixer. Or the aspiring illustrator who won a mentorship contest, and at the end of her meeting with the mentor she said she had to go get a drink of water because she was hot. According to her, “he said ‘Yes, you are.’ And squeezed my arm. And raised his eyebrows in a suggestive way.”
These are the sort of events we’re told to brush off — they’re jokes, they’re flattering, no big deal. But when you believe you are a professional and someone informs you they see you as a sex object, it can shatter your sense of self and your sense of safety.
Sometimes, it’s inappropriate touching and groping: as in “a senior editor of a division I don’t work in being a tad too handsy;” or the author who says another author groped her while taking pictures at a conference; or an agent who says she was sitting in the backseat with a bestselling author during a conference, and as he pretended to be searching for his seatbelt, he fondled her.
Sometimes, it’s stories of women being invited to a networking opportunity only to get propositioned; or of male conference faculty and staff acting like all female paying attendees are potential and willing conquests; or of powerful men trying to ruin the reputations of women who won’t sleep with them.
And sometimes, the stories reveal serial predators unchecked by an industry that does not want to acknowledge such things could be possible of its men.
We work in children’s books, and we like to think we are different, somehow. We value “kindness.” The ranks of publishers are populated with women. And everyone is so nice, right?
But we aren’t different, and before we can do anything about sexual harassment, we need to face that reality. And the reality is that a culture of “kindness” can silence people who have been harassed, that women can be complicit in a culture of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and that the people who we work alongside, whose books we care about, who we like, can be sexual harassers.
Facing this reality is going to be ugly. But it is far uglier to pretend these problems aren’t here.
In December, I opened a survey about sexual harassment in children’s publishing, inspired by Kelly Jensen’s work on sexual harassment in libraries. I received almost 90 responses, as well as emails and DMs from people who didn’t want to fill out the survey because they felt too ashamed, or were still frightened of reprisal.
This is not intended to be some kind of lurid exposé of children’s publishing. The point of it isn’t to say that our industry is somehow special; the point is simply that we do have problems, that these problems affect people’s careers and mental health, and that we can and should take steps to solve these problems so more people do not get hurt.
Most of the survey responses I received were about men harassing women, and so that will be the focus of this particular essay, though not all responses here necessarily reflect that dynamic. (I used self-identifying remarks as well as context to determine gender.) But I hope as the current conversation continues issues of harassment of people in the LGBTQIAP community will come to light. Nor do I have specific examples of the way racial and gender discrimination intersect for women (and trans and gender non-conforming people) of color, but that too is a conversation that must be had.
(For the record, I had two responses that specifically mentioned women as harassers — one female author verbally harassing another, and one editor who propositioned a male writer at a conference. I am aware of anecdotes of straight white women acting entitled to the bodies of gay men and men of color, but these issues did not appear in the survey responses.)
I asked people to keep their responses anonymous and not to name names specifically — because I wanted the focus to be on the stories themselves, and because once names are involved people start defending the harassers and accusing the harassed, and in addition to the harm done to them and those who have yet to speak, it stops the conversation before it starts. I have eliminated some identifying details from the quotes. I also have redacted names of organizations and conferences in responses for the same reason.
I am not a journalist, just an author who cares deeply about this industry, the people in it, and the audience we serve. This is an anonymous survey, and there is no way for me to verify the stories; it is entirely possible that someone submitted a false entry in order to derail this project, as this is, after all, the internet. This is not about exposing or accusing people; speculating on the identities of the alleged harassers would be damaging to everyone involved, and will only feed derailing narratives. The responsibility for dealing with known harassers is on the institutions that have received complaints. The point of this survey is to paint a picture of sexual harassment in our industry so we can begin to address it.
The two biggest groups of respondents were creators (people who described themselves as authors/writers/illustrators) and conference attendees/staff. About a fifth of the respondents worked in publishing houses, while others were agents, booksellers, librarians, and one was a graduate student.
Responses reveal, in general, three loci for sexual harassment: in the workplace; at conferences and book festivals; and in the professional spaces where spheres of the industry intersect (author to bookseller, agent to author, etc, editor to agent, etc.) All three categories seem to require different solutions, so I will be discussing each separately. I am writing up some of the responses here, but this is just a representative sample.
What is Sexual Harassment?
Our cultural focus recently has been on horrific stories of sexual assault, so it is important to remember that sexual harassment isn’t just about assault, but about any unwelcome sexual overtures, physical or verbal. The law against sexual harassment in workplaces reads, in part:
It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
The law falls under employment law, and it exists not just to protect against sexual assault, which is a crime; sexual harassment has a broader umbrella and is considered a civil rights violation — because unwelcome sexual advances, verbal or physical, can affect a woman’s ability to work and can cause professional harm.
In her essay on the accusations of sexual harassment and bullying of women against public radio’s John Hockenberry, Suki Kim writes:
Both [bullying women and sexual aggression] can create what is defined in sexual harassment law as a ‘hostile work environment.’ And with the lurid details coming at us so fast and furious these days, it can be easy to forget that sexual harassment is a form of illegal workplace discrimination. The law against it is intended to allow women to do their jobs and pursue their professional goals with the same freedom as men.
In New York Magazine, Rebecca Traister cautions us against making category errors in our conversations about sexual harassment — that the non-physical, verbal come-ons, disparaging comments about women, objectifying comments are all sexual harassment too:
How to make clear that the trauma of the smaller trespasses — the boob grabs and unwanted kisses or come-ons from bosses — is not necessarily even about the sexualized act in question; so many of us learned to maneuver around handsy men without sustaining lasting emotional damage when we were 14. Rather, it’s about the cruel reminder that these are still the terms on which we are valued, by our colleagues, our bosses, sometimes our competitors, the men we tricked ourselves into thinking might see us as smart, formidable colleagues or rivals, not as the kinds of objects they can just grab and grope and degrade without consequence. It’s not that we’re horrified like some Victorian damsel; it’s that we’re horrified like a woman in 2017 who briefly believed she was equal to her male peers but has just been reminded that she is not, who has suddenly had her comparative powerlessness revealed to her.
It is implicit in the law that sexual harassment creates an environment hostile to women, and while the law itself only applies to employers with over 15 employers, the effect remains the same: Sexual harassment, whether verbal or physical, interferes with women’s careers.
And yet the majority of the stories I‘ve received in the survey do not fall under the protection of employment law, but they still take place in environments where we do our work of making books for young readers and putting these books in their hands, and the effect on the harassed is still the same — damage to their careers, and damage to their mental and physical health. (This is true for both physical and non-physical harassment.)
This puts greater onus on institutions — publishers, agencies, conference organizations — to take action.
Thank you so much to everyone who shared their stories.
Here are some of them.
In the Workplace:
Respondents tell stories of male bosses making inappropriate comments, including demeaning comments about women, telling blow job jokes to an office full of women. One editorial assistant says she had to spend three years with a boss who spoke in this manner like this, “just silently hating this guy,” before she was finally able to quit for another job in publishing.
Another editorial assistant reports that she was repeatedly asked out by the head of her department. “When I turned him down,” she writes, “he became terse with me at work, belittled me in meetings, tried to make others think I wasn’t good at my job — it was small stuff but added up to me feeling like crap. Took it for four months, then found a new job.”
An editorial director writes, “I was on the way to our weekly acquisition meeting at a major big 5 publisher, to present new titles. The finance director and production director followed me downstairs to the meeting sharing explicit comments about my ass and general fitness for sex. I then had to present potential acquisitions to them.” She did not report the incident, as “no one would listen to me.”
“I have a coworker who scopes out all of the new girls at work,” writes a publicist, “including the interns. He is in a slight position of power, and asks new girls out to lunch. He asks about their dating status right off the bat, and it is incredibly inappropriate. He reached out to me over FB messenger, and for nearly seven months I pretended I was still with my ex-boyfriend.” She did not report his behavior because it was “kind of an open secret.” She adds, “It’s made me think twice about reporting things because I find his behavior to be rather obvious — how hasn’t someone corrected it yet?”
One woman reports that she had an internship at a prestigious literary agency where for months she was groomed by the office manager, decades older than she. When she was offered a full-time position there, her co-workers took her out for drinks to celebrate. The office manager “insisted on buying me many drinks, even after I said I no longer wanted any, and put his hand on my leg beneath the table. When I moved my leg away he put his hand back on me. When I made motions to leave he made excuses to keep me there until eventually we were the only two people left at the bar. He kissed me. I pulled away. He asked what my problem was, and I could not find words to answer. I was horrified and in shock.”
She says she tried to leave the bar, but was new to the city and didn’t know what part of the city she was in or how to get to a subway station, so he offered to walk her to one. It was after midnight, so she agreed. But he led her to the steps of his brownstone instead. “He spent several minutes arguing, persuading, insulting, demeaning, flattering, and demanding that I go inside. I refused. … I was terrified. I perceived this person to be very powerful and influential and was afraid to anger him or turn him against me. I never felt comfortable in that job and as a result my work was poor and I left the company much sooner than I otherwise would have.” She adds, “I know for a fact this man did similar things and worse to other women who worked under him.”
An editor reports being screamed at and physically intimidated by a male co-worker; she says this was considered a “rite of passage” for women in the company. When she complained, “I was told he had been spoken to and if I wanted to pursue it I could meet with him alone in a closed room. Afterward I was further harassed, lied about, and eventually dismissed.” She is glad that issues of abuse and harassment are coming to light now; “I’ve seen a lot of young women editors flee from places (including at least 4 others from that company) to lower jobs (title or pay) just to escape.”
This is exactly what sexual harassment laws are supposed to protect against; but in these cases, as in so many others, it seems that it is the people who have been harassed whose professional goals are suffering, and the result is a talent drain for the industry. Writes one former editor, “Something that is not being called out yet is the loss of opportunity for the women who don’t play along.”
“Kidlit is filled with women,” writes another editor, “but a lot of the senior staff are still men…How many women have left the industry because of hostile work environments who could be running things today? We shouldn’t have to suffer to earn respect.”
But for that to happen the companies need to make the safety of women a priority. An editor reports that her boss was physically inappropriate with her. She writes that she discovered that this man had many complaints against him for “sexual and other abuses of power/ unreasonable behavior.” But, she adds, “HR said they were powerless to do anything because he was getting results.”
At Conferences and Book Festivals:
In the children’s book industry there are a number of organizations that sponsor conferences throughout the year that give developing writers and/or illustrators the opportunity to meet with and learn from established authors and illustrators as well as publishing professionals. Most of the responses in this category were about these kinds of conferences, though a few were at book festivals where authors meet the public.
An editor writes that at a writing conference she experienced “unwanted touching by older male conference attendees. Several men touched me to stop me in the halls without even speaking first, and one man touched my bare shoulder as I was leaving my lunch table, and then stood between me and the exit, blocking me up against my table, while he touched my shoulder again and asked questions and told me about his book. I tried to leave but he pointedly ignored my physical cues…It was invalidating and frightening to be backed up against a table by a much larger, older man at an event where I was an invited professional.”
“I discussed this issue with other female agents and editors,” she says, “and they said they had experienced similar issues that year and previous years….” She struggled with whether or not to report it, because “I felt somewhat silly reporting something so ‘minor’ as that and was worried I was overreacting.”
She suggests: “More supervision of the dynamic between conference attendees and industry professionals, an established harassment reporting protocol that is easy to find and follow, consequences for inappropriate behavior at events.”
The need for codes of conduct at conferences and book festivals came up again and again. One author who reports sexual aggression from a fellow writer at a book festival notes, “There was a huge push for SFF conventions, conferences and festivals to have codes of conducts, but I don’t see YA festivals using the same thing. We need public codes of conduct and the expectation and reality that all people at the festivals will be held to that code of conduct.”
This author is not the only one who reported sexual harassment from fellow speakers. Another writes that she spent a day on panels with a male author who was, in her words, “weirdly handsy and invasive of space.” At night some of the writers gathered at the bar, and when this woman got up to leave, the author asked for a hug and “since it was a group setting and he seemed to be well-liked (he’s a very, very popular bestselling author) it seemed less awkward just to hug him, even though I got a vibe from him I didn’t like. But I didn’t want to raise a fuss or seem anti social, he’s big deal, there were so many people around, maybe he’s just a really friendly guy, etc etc. So I hugged him. And as I hugged him, he reached up and fondled both my breasts.”
She did not report the incident. “He’s a very, very successful author and I’m not, and I didn’t think anyone would care or believe me. I worried it sounded made-up, like I would just be trying to get attention or attack a powerful man for the sake of it.”
That woman is a published author appearing on panels, and she still did not feel comfortable reporting the assault to anyone due to the stature of the author. For aspiring writer/illustrators at conferences those dynamics are intensified exponentially. The troubling dynamic between powerful, popular male authors/illustrators aggressively looking initiate sexual encounters with female conference attendees came up again and again in responses. One writers’ conference attendee describes male faculty who are “notorious for sleeping with attendees.” She says:
…People need to realize they are in positions of power. It isn’t just faculty, editors, agents. At conferences, people who are published writers/illustrators are held in esteem by those who are not, too. I don’t think it should have to be said because we’re all adults, but people on faculty should not attempt to have romantic encounters with attendees.
There is nothing wrong with sex between consenting adults, but there are power dynamics at play here. The most common trend in these responses were of male faculty/staff at writing conferences harassing attendees. And for some of these men, it seems to be a culture.
“I’ve been harassed by NYT bestseller males,” said one frequent writing conference attendee. “This is not a one man problem but I got the feeling he/they thought they were entitled to harass female authors because of their publishing status.”
Another writes that when she was new to the industry and at a conference she was introduced to someone on the organization’s board. “I handed the person my business card that had a sticker on it to promote my upcoming book. This person then took the sticker and stuck it on my chest while looking right into my eyes.”
Another writer says, “During an award ceremony during a conference in Los Angeles, I thought how lucky I was to sit next to a huge bestseller in the children’s industry. Our entire table enjoyed dinner together and near the end he expressed how he’d be interested in reading my work and give feedback. As a newer writer, this was a dream and we exchanged cards. After that, I started to receive messages from him about how beautiful my social media pictures were and that we should get together sometime. He then proceeded to tell me that his wife was fine with it, as she dates other people too. When I told him I was married and declined, he then got upset and pretended to never have met me.”
For this writer, “He made me never want to go back to Los Angeles. This happened years ago, and he made me feel like an object, not a professional.”
This is one of the effects of this kind of harassment; we live in a society centered around powerful men, and thus when a powerful man sees you for who you are you feel validated — and then they pull the rug out from under you. He sees you as an object, thus you feel like an object. He treats you as fungible, thus you feel fungible. And ashamed for ever thinking you were something else in the first place.
[T]his is a basic and familiar pattern: a powerful man sees you, a woman who is young and who thinks she might be talented, a person who conveniently exists in a female body, and he understands that he can tie your potential to your female body, and threaten the latter, and you will never be quite as sure of the former again.
Another woman reports that during a conference a mentor with a leadership position in the parent organization became more and more physical with her, and she did not report it because, “I felt like I would sound stupid and whiny if I said that a [mentor] who I thought was genuinely interested in my career started touching my arms and back.”
This sort of harassment leaves the recipients feeling foolish for ever thinking someone might be interested in their abilities.
In the introduction, I mentioned a woman who tells a story of winning a mentorship contest with a mentor who closed the meeting with a sexually suggestive comment. She said, “I’d see him at conferences and he’d make ‘eyes’ at me. I began to wonder. If I’d won because he wanted to have sex. It really devalued the enjoyment I’d have gotten from the win.”
She did not report it at the time, but says, “I think I should have said something. I think people in power positions should have training on how not to abuse that power. Not to use these gatherings as opportunities to ‘hook up’.”
Just as workplace harassment affects opportunities for women, so does harassment at conferences for aspiring children’s book creators. An illustrator says of the man she reports harassed her, “He hosted out of town gatherings for illustrators to chat etc. He’d have industry professionals come to them also. People like agents, even publishers. People who could advance my career. But, because of his constant flirting and sexual innuendo, I didn’t attend one event. I feel like I missed valuable opportunities to connect with other mentees and professionals.”
It is often the promise of these opportunities that entrap women in the first place. One woman tells a story of an encounter with an author who is, in her words, “now a powerful, charismatic, popular writer — well known in kidlit and many hold him in high esteem, never guessing what he really is — the sneakiest kind of sexual predator. He preys on married women who want to be published.”
She says she met him online and they started corresponding, and he invited her to be his guest at a writers’ conference:
He led me to believe I was talented and very special. He seemed to take an interest in my writing, and we became more and more intimate over technology. He couldn’t wait to meet in person, so he could introduce me to editors and agents and ultimately be alone with me. I couldn’t wait to be around his energy! It was a great conference. But, thank god, I was able to extricate myself from a physical relationship before getting really screwed over emotionally. We agreed we’d be ‘just friends’.
Their correspondence faded, she continues, and the next year when she went to the conference, the author was “weird and standoffish:”
His group of people acted weird to me. One told me get the hell away from them…I didn’t know it at the time but he spread lies about me to every author, agent and editor who was around him at that 2nd conference. He told people I was a crazy stalker. He told people I had threatened him. He tried to get me thrown out of the conference. In reality, he had moved on to another female author (and actually several) and did not want me to compare stories with them.
Since the #metoo thing, I have been finding out over the past few months that he has done this same thing to more than 2 dozen other women over the past 10 years. These women share a similar story with me. Some left marriages for this guy. Some tried to commit suicide. His tricks are covert sexual innuendo, casual seduction, games, promises to leave his wife! and then he moves on to a new woman leaving others devastated and left wondering…
She did report it, and she says the incident was ‘handled,’ and that she cannot say more. But she is still confronted with seeing his name and his books everywhere, and every time she does “I feel sick and cheated.” As for her, she quit the organization and does not write anymore.
Another illustrator told a story of an encounter with someone high up in a conference organization that she calls Mr. X. During her first conference, Mr. X offered to review her portfolio at the bar. “My creep-o-meter was up,” she writes, “but he was in an authority position, and I badly wanted to improve my craft, so I accepted. And while he did review my portfolio and that was helpful, he also asked me questions about my personal life, going as far as to suggest I had married the wrong man, and that I should come visit him at his studio.”
Later, she tried to avoid him:
I’d heard that someone had overheard Mr. X saying to another man, ‘If you don’t get laid at this conference, there is something wrong with you.’” He creeped out one of her friends so badly by being aggressive on social media that she has refused to come to the conference since.
She writes that at a later conference, Mr. X chatted her up on the way down to the hotel bar.
I thought, “Okay, I’m older now. Maybe this weird semi-come-on stuff is over, and maybe he can just treat me like a human being now.” So I tried having a normal conversation. And within a minute, he told me that I’ d been in the running for a mentee position for a couple of years now, that he’d been trying to tell me at the last conference but that I’d been avoiding him. And what could I say? I told him that I was really excited to hear that, and I wondered what was holding my work back from winning the award. He didn’t answer, just had a smile on his face, and then sat next to me at the bar. Uninvited….
I now know I’m NOT the only person he’s made uncomfortable. And I’m worried that someone else who maybe isn’t as wary of creepers might actually go for his lines, might think that maybe if they’re nicer to him, then they’ll get an in for an award. Like a casting couch sort of situation. I don’t know. But I emailed a male friend of mine who had won the portfolio showcase, telling him about what Mr. X had said to me about getting close to getting a Mentorship, and he said, “Not to be rude, but Mr. X is pretty well-known for using his clout to get lady action.” Which confirms my suspicion that this was just a line.
With the support and encouragement of friends, she decided to report him.
After all, this has been going on probably since before I even joined [the organization] and nothing has been done about it. Has it been intentionally overlooked, or had NO ONE ever reported Mr. X. on his questionable behavior?”
In my survey, she added that after she reported him he was put on probation for a year (couldn’t attend the organization’s events), and had to attend a sexual harassment class. After that he was back, but recently, Mr. X resigned from the organization. As for the illustrator, “There are a LOT of what ifs involved with my not having attended conferences for nearly 3 years.”
Most of the rest of the stories came from moments of intersection between industry groups — for instance, the young agent who writes, “I was asked to go to a party and meet editors that could help further my career at a conference in a suite. When I got there the man that invited me said I was the only one that came. The others were late and I was doing so well showing I can be on time. I had a glass of wine and he made advances and I had to leave. He told me I’d never work with his house. I’ve never been able to sell a book there. I don’t know if it’s coincidence or not.”
For those who work for companies big enough to be covered by employment law, harassment by those they do business with (whether agents, editors, or authors) is actually covered by that law and is an issue for their ownHR — but respondents reported a great pressure not to report these incidents in order to preserve a broader working relationship.
And some aren’t covered at all.
“My first literary agent was incredibly sexually inappropriate with me,” an author writes. “When we finally met in person at a conference, he repeatedly sexually harassed me, made comments about my breasts and told me inappropriate sexual anecdotes. Asked to be invited into my hotel room, so he could give me writing feedback. I was terrified, even after I fired him, that he would try to destroy my career.” She did not report him because she was (and is still) afraid of career repercussions.
The bulk of the stories in this category mirror the same issue that came up again and again in conferences — powerful male authors or illustrators out on tour harassing booksellers and librarians, or fellow authors.
One author reports unwelcome touching and sexual come-ons from the illustrator of her book when they were doing joint events. Some of this, she says, occurred in his car in front of his young child. For her, this made doing those events miserable but “I had to smile and play nice while choking on my bile.” She told her agent and her editor, and asked that she never be paired with him again or have to do events with him again. “But this happened two years ago and I have hardly written a thing since, though I have had some other heavy life issues that have contributed. However, this experience completely turned me off to my own book because any success it had would be shared with him. It certainly has had a negative effect on my career. I’m so angry.”
Sometimes authors struck up email correspondence that turned flirtatious or sexual, and in many cases these advances were difficult to shut down. One bookseller writes of an author flirting with her during an event, then emailing her afterwards. “I misinterpreted his e-mail as being just friendly. After a week or two of e-mailing, he asked me if I would come to see him if he was able to get his publisher to send him to the area again. He wanted to hold my hand, and once he said this I quickly ended the conversation and stopped communicating with him. He is married with children.”
But it wasn’t over — the bookseller says she saw him again at a conference for independent booksellers. “Which he took as an opportunity to write to me again and send me short stories, and he would continue to write to me during big book conferences until I told him one of his stories was shit. He never contacted me again after that. I learned later on that he tends to do this to booksellers and librarians, and cozies up to them. I feel fortunate that I never actually went to go meet him, but I also feel incredibly guilty for not saying anything. How many women has he done this to now that he has a larger platform and he is even more beloved?”
“A very well-known, married male author tried to get me to have sex with him,” wrote one librarian. “He was extremely persistent, even after I said no repeatedly. He said he was shocked because no one had ever said no to him before.”
“I am a librarian who hired a male author to do an author visit at my library,” says another, “and also, attended a conference where the same author was in attendance. He later contacted me through social media and email and asked to talk to me while he masturbated over the phone. He also asked for pictures.” She is an aspiring author, and is concerned that reporting the behavior would have consequences for her.
For booksellers and librarians, so many of them female, the very nature of their job makes them vulnerable to predatory men. Says one bookseller who reports that she was groped by an author/illustrator on tour, “I do think my responsibilities during author events — primarily, to make a good impression on the author on behalf of my store and to play the role of hostess involve power dynamics that might make harassers take advantage of a situation.”
“I want to be able to talk about this openly,” says another bookseller, “tell people that it isn’t your fault when someone thinks that you want them. I also think these authors need to be brought out of the dark, and that publishing houses need to stop shielding their authors and stop giving them contracts. His publisher has received several complaints about his behavior and from what I hear, they haven’t done anything about it. He’s still touring. He’s still out there, and there are leagues of women who don’t know what is about to hit them.”
The hardest thing about reading these responses wasn’t the stories themselves — though they are very difficult to read — it was the way so many of the women were beating up on themselves: for the fact that this happened to them at all, for not doing something to stop it, for the way they acted and reacted, for the way they still feel. Sexual harassment and abuse turn us all into our own internet comments section, and society has taught us to gaslight ourselves.
As Jia Tolentino writes, “Even the slightest brushes I’ve had with men who bait-and-switched their interest in my work and my body have left me feeling that I am, as [alleged Harvey Weinstein victim Asia] Argento felt she was, a fucking fool.”
That is one reason many people didn’t report their harassment; they were ashamed of themselves, and they told themselves they were overreacting. People were also scared that there would be career consequences and reprisal, that no one would believe them or care, that if they accused a beloved male creator they would be dismissed and demonized by an entire industry. It is traumatic enough to be sexually harassed.
As one respondent said, “To accuse a man who is loved for beautiful, innocent things… I’d have been blamed for whatever happened, past, present, future.”
Many respondents believed that they would always lose a battle of “my word against his,” especially as the harassers tended to be popular, powerful. Said the author who reports she was groped during a hug, “It turned out that this author has a history of harassment and assault, which makes me feel even more complicated about not speaking up at the time. BUT at the same time I’ve told this story to other women authors who have proceeded to defend him because he’s ‘just so nice’ and was ‘going through a rough time in his marriage.’ And that reminds me why I didn’t raise hell at the time…I can’t even get other women to see why it was serious and disgusting.”
Many women who did not report the harassment are beating up on themselves for it, but the fact that they didn’t feel able to report that harassment is an indictment of our society and our industry and not them.
And for those that did, there are very few cases in these responses where reporting harassment had any real consequences for the harasser. (The story of Mr. X’s removal from his organization after #metoo is a rare exception.)
Says an editor, “I heard a story about a female author harassed by her male agent … and when the author told the female head of agency about it, the head of agency asked her not to sue them and promised to assign her to another agent, but DID NOT FIRE THE MALE AGENT OR STOP HIS BEHAVIOR, and as far as this author knows, he faced no repercussions other than no longer getting to have her as a client.”
One bookseller reports being groped by an author she refers to as “Male Person” during an event at her store: “I called Male Person’s publicist the next day. She thanked me for telling her. A few days later I received a strange email from Male Person that implied his publicist had spoken to her superior, who had a conversation with Male Person’s agent, but did not address anything I had said directly. It felt intimidating, so I didn’t respond.”
She is not the only person who reported harassment and had more communication from the harasser inflicted upon her in return. Asking someone to apologize is, perhaps, good policy when someone accidentally steps on someone’s foot. But in the case of sexual harassment it is asking the harassed to be re-traumatized, not to mention it’s essentially slapping a band-aid on the plague and calling it cured.
And speaking of putting a band-aid on the plague, a female author tells this story:
Another author cornered me at a book festival where he was a mainstay, year after year. He started by interrupting me whenever I tried to speak to tell me I was pretty and then escalated. He told me that it wasn’t ‘safe’ to be so pretty and kept repeating that theme. “It’s not safe to be that pretty. You can’t just walk around here looking like that. It’s not safe.” Then he escalated again and told me that he’d asked the ‘Author Make a Wish Foundation’ for a night alone in bed with me, and they’d granted his request. Through all of this, I was frozen. Being told I wasn’t safe made me feel unsafe. Other male authors witnessed it and laughed awkwardly along. When I finally made my escape, I was shaking. The harasser thanked me for being ‘a good sport.’
Other authors had seen this behavior and been warned about it. The festival organizers developed a new policy to discourage harassment and provide an avenue for reporting future incidents. They spoke to the perpetrator, but still invited him back the next year.
Let me repeat that: They spoke to the perpetrator, but still invited him back the next year.
First off, as we have seen in the stories of the last few months, sexual harassers and abusers tend to be repeat offenders. The responses were filled with stories of people who were harassed by someone and then discovered that this person has done the same thing to many other people.
Writes an author, “At a dinner for the authors appearing at a conference, a male author followed me upstairs when I went to leave my coat in the bedroom with the rest of the coats. He trapped me between the bed and the window, standing in my way and blocking my exit. He hit on me, said that he was a big fan. And isn’t it great that we can do whatever we want when our spouses are at home. He didn’t say anything overtly sexual. He was just suggestive and physically imposing. When a friend came looking for me, he was like, hey, you could join us. Again, he didn’t explicitly say anything sexual. It was all suggestive…..We didn’t report the incident. He was the big draw and we didn’t think that anything would happen if we did.
“After telling other authors about the man who trapped me, it turns out that I’m not the first one he’s done this kind of thing to. Surprise, surprise. He’s a huge missing stair in YA.”
A slap on the wrist isn’t going to do anything. And if we invite a known harasser back to a conference or festival or send them out on tour again, we are creating a space for more people to be harassed and abused.
“Don’t protect these men, though it may cost a publishing house money,” says the author who reported that she was groped while a photo was being taken. “After mentioning the incident to a close friend, I learned that this male author has done this exact thing many times.”
“Stop holding men on such a pedestal in this industry,” echoes another. “Also, too many secrets with people ‘in the know’ being aware and the rest of the people not knowing about the history of who is safe to be around and who is not.” Organizations that run conferences need, “a policy about harassment, a protocol that members know about, and need to stop inviting these people to events. If people are being warned to stay away from certain speakers at events, why are these speakers still being invited?”
Secondly, what does it say to those who have been harassed when their harasser is back the next year? What are they supposed to do? We are putting the onus on them to either “get over it” or opt out. Again and again in this survey, I found women who left jobs, avoided conferences, avoided networking opportunities, stopped writing, stopped illustrating, either because they couldn’t bear seeing their harasser again, or because they were afraid something like that could happen again. Sexual harassment of all types has long-term psychological consequences, including PTSD. Yet the harassers are welcomed back, then the harassed shut out.
How many careers have been derailed while we looked the other way?
So, What Do We Do?
For harassment within companies, one former agency assistant writes, “For editors and assistant editors: UNIONIZE. More robust HR processes for naming and removing abusers. More structural support for victims.”
Adds a publicist, “Tell men that it isn’t okay to use their publishing houses as a dating pool. I’m here to work.”
But what about the other spaces? The places employment law doesn’t cover?
As many respondents said, conferences ought to strengthen their harassment policies and reporting procedures. Those who have been harassed need to know their rights and what to do. As one woman wrote, “Maybe event organizers need to make it clear that they have a zero tolerance policy on harassment and assault? And maybe authors all need to be aware of their rights or even just what to do in the face of harassment and assault. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t just yell at him or push him off, but it was like my brain froze. All I could think of was getting away and not making him mad.”
I checked on the website of various conference organizations, and while every organization I looked at had an anti-harassment policy they tended to be quite thin, with reporting procedures that might feel unsafe for attendees, and it seems many attendees don’t know they even exist. For an example of a thorough policy and procedure, see that of WisCon. Organizations looking to develop more effective anti-harassment policies might start with the resources at Geek Feminism.
As for those other spaces:
“I think there needs to be a clear form of legal protection for employees not under the umbrella of the big houses (& whether separate or together, clear protection for those employees under the umbrella as well). We need organizations like AAR, ABA (or new organizations) to function as modern-day unions and enforce HR policies and standards in places where combatting harassment is left in the hands of the individual employer. Think of functioning organizations like the Bar Association or even one of the Hollywood guilds — while not perfect, there are clear procedures and standards there for discrediting and disbarring those who are sexual predators, etc.”
But that’s not all. We need to upend the way we think about sexual harassment.
“I believe in reform,” writes the illustrator who reports being asked if she was kinky by a conference faculty member, “and I believe that, when called out, people can change. But we have to find a way to allow for that reform to take place in a manner that does not infringe on the safety of others. Private reprimands and private conversations prioritize the rights of those who harass over the rights of those who are harassed.”
We have a hard time as a society centering those who have been harassed and assaulted, as we see in the conversation surrounding #metoo. (Unless, of course, it’s criticizing the harassed for their actions and reactions.) In her essay “Due Process is Needed for Sexual Harassment Accusations, But For Whom,” Ijeoma Oluo writes:
But now, with only a small handful of high-profile men finally facing some repercussions after years of abuse, there is already an effort to slow down. Is this becoming a witch hunt? Is this becoming a sex panic? Are innocent men at risk of being wrongly accused? …The men who are now “scared to even talk to women” lest they be accused of sexual harassment. And the women…the women are forgotten completely.
…How often are we manipulated into prioritizing the abuser over the abused?
In an opinion at The Daily Beast, journalist Madhulika Sikka writes:
Stop lamenting the “loss of talent” of the men who have been removed. If we examine the lost opportunities of so many women as a result of the structural obstacles to their growth, advancement, and power, that work could fill up all our time.
Now is the moment to focus on the colossal damage inflicted upon talented women whose paths have been derailed, whose careers took a turn because of the toxic masculinity prevalent in so many of our media entities. It’s a time to mourn for those women who were denied opportunities in one of the most influential industries in our culture. Those women with smart, creative and different ideas that would have enhanced and enriched our national conversations. The industry and the audience is poorer for it.
In our industry, this seems particularly difficult. As an editor writes, “We need more frank conversations about why we, an industry dominated by straight white women, value the voices/opinions/words of men more than those of other females (especially women of color, and the voices of non-binary, disabled, and other marginalized writers). We need more conversation and exposure across the board about our culture of toxic masculinity and misogyny. Naming the problem is an early step in stopping it.”
Again: sexual harassment is a form of workplace discrimination. In our industry the “workplace” takes many forms — certainly in the offices of the publishers and agencies themselves, but also at conferences, and also in the spaces where spheres intersect. In order to do our jobs and pursue our professional goals — whether it is as an agent, librarian, writer, publicist, editor — we need the same access to these workspaces that men have. And that is going to require a lot of work, and some fundamental restructuring of the way we operate.
We, as an industry, need to change our thinking about harassment. We need to stop centering the people who harass and abuse others. Oluo writes that she hopes “that we can all work together to be more aware of how we are being manipulated and distracted and misrepresented and shamed into believing that we do not deserve to be centered in conversations on our oppression.” In another New York Magazine essay, Rebecca Traister notes that our conversation about sexual assault and harassment is framed by the very people who gain from that diminishing and gaslighting.
We need to put the harassed first. This involves having clear policies and codes of conduct for conferences. It involves better HR practices for companies. It involves easy and safe mechanisms for reporting. It involves protections from and consequences for harassment in publishing contracts. And it involves keeping spaces welcoming for people who have been harassed and safe for all marginalized people.
And it involves transparency. An illustrator writes:
I think that we need to become more open about harassment — if people have been suspended, if people have been asked to take classes in sexual harassment, whatever — we need to be open about it. Look: this is a health and safety issue. If a company fires a manager because he told an employee to forget about the hardhat and then that employee got hurt, everyone would know about it. Sexual harassment is no different. And if we know that such-and-such editor or author or whomever was suspended for a period of time — or banned, even — for sexual harassment, then people who have been harassed will feel safer about coming forward. It is very hard to believe that you will be heard and that your harasser will face consequences when those consequences are hushed up and kept secret. Consequences need to be visible. Otherwise, the industry gives the appearance of enabling and empowering harassers.
Another writer agrees, “Harassment policies by organizations need to be explicitly stated and the consequences of such actions must be made clear too. It would also be nice if organizations made public statements whenever an incident does occur and action is taken. They don’t even have to name names but this would at least show people that this type of behavior does happen and will not be tolerated. Right now it feels like everything is so secretive and I feel like this only protects future predators.”
As for the harassers themselves, publishers, agencies, and conferences ought to take responsibility for keeping our larger workspace safe.
One author recommends, “Zero tolerance with an immediate stop by publishers or refusal by publishers to cease publishing the offenders’ work or by including sexual harassment prohibition as an immediate contract termination clause.”
An editor echoes. “Zero tolerance. There needs to be a top-down prioritization of people’s safety and basic humanity over the prioritization of profit.”
It means zero tolerance, yes. And it also means taking the time to understand why it is unsafe for people to report now. “I have female coworkers who tend to downplay things,” wrote a publicist. “‘He didn’t mean it like that.’ or ‘He’s never done that to me.’ Generally, employees, male and female, could use sexual harassment training and an understanding that women need to be believed not dismissed when reporting. Just because it didn’t happen to YOU doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
That goes for the industry as a whole, too.
If we put people’s safety and basic humanity first, then we can do that work. We can move past a culture that teaches us to diminish sexual harassment and gaslight and further isolate the harassed.
What would it look like if we, in children’s publishing, decided we had zero tolerance for sexual harassment? What would it look like if we looked at all of our institutions and spheres and made combatting sexual harassment a priority in them?
If we put caring for the harassed before anything else, these two ideas will naturally follow. If we put caring for the harassed first, we will make more spaces to hear their stories, we will take time to listen and understand, and we will look harder at intersectionality and at what in our culture has kept LGBTQIAP voices largely silent in this conversation.
If we put the harassed first, when someone wrings their hands about the effects on harassers’ careers, or derails with the specter of slippery slopes, or talks about how nice the harasser has been to them, or turns the conversation to when we can allow harassers back into our spheres, we will say:
No. We’re not going to center the harassers now. Our time and energy needs to be spent taking care of the people who have been harassed, and doing everything we can to make sure there aren’t more.
It’s not a solution. But it’s a start.
[This post has been edited to remove some information at the request of a respondent.]