Apollo and daphne by Francesco Trevisani

The Insidious Power of Not-Quite-Harassment

There wasn’t any touching or overt sex talk. But it was still harassment—just harder to talk about

Sexual harassment often goes unreported because of fear: fear of retribution, fear of losing friends, fear of professional backlash, fear that no one will believe you. When someone we know is accused, it’s far easier to defend them out of disbelief that they “could ever do something like that” than to believe the claims of a stranger. Yet we say to ourselves that if we were victimized, or if we saw someone else who was, we would be the ones to speak out. We would stand up, be bold, demand respect and take down the world’s harassers one by one.

But then it happens to you. And you don’t know what to do.

On Monday, writer Monica Byrne accused Bora Zivkovic, editor of Scientific American’s blog network and a leader in the online science writing world, of sexual harassment. She claimed that over a coffee meeting arranged to discuss her interest in science journalism, Bora had talked extensively about sex, even detailing a near-affair he had with another younger writer. Monica wrote that she was made extremely uncomfortable but suffered in silence; after all, he was someone who could promote her work and make her a known writer. She decided to endure it for the benefit of his patronage.

Afterward, he followed up with a Facebook message, thanking her for the coffee date and writing that he had “no idea how the convo veered into sex, but heck, why not.” This crossed her line; he was the one who had veered it that way, with no input. “I tried to listen politely and nod when he paused, but otherwise not engage or encourage him,” Monica wrote. “He seemed not to notice how uncomfortable I was.”

At the time of posting a year ago, Monica didn’t call Bora out by name. But she updated her blog post this week with his identity after recent unprofessionalism on Scientific American’s part, seemingly linked to unrealized sexism and racism. Bora didn’t deny what happened.

The reaction on Twitter was one of disbelief and anger from his network of science bloggers and friends. “Science blogosphere, I am tweetless… I can’t even retweet what has left me so stunned.” “Enraged children with a persecution complex are out on a witch hunt, it’ll blow over eventually…” “My closest friend is @boraz. I know him better than almost everyone. I would give my life for him. Thought you should know that.”

At first, I was paralyzed. But when I saw the “protect the herd” mentality among my friends, with some doubting that this behavior even qualified as sexual harassment, I had to speak up. I couldn’t leave Monica ridiculed and alone. Bora has been a friend and mentor for years. He recruited me to blog for Scientific American. And yet, even if she hadn’t named him, I would have recognized him from his behavior because I have gone through it too.

When I first met Bora at a Philadelphia pub in June 2010, I was new to the scene; hardly anyone read my blog. He was enormously enthusiastic and supportive of my efforts to blog about science and, soon thereafter, he began to share my posts. Suddenly, I was getting readers, making friends, and connecting to a community. It was wonderful, and I felt I owed it to him.

I saw him at various events and he began flirting a little. It didn’t ring any alarm bells; he is flirtatious by nature. But sometimes talk would veer into more uncomfortable territory, but only vaguely uncomfortable, which made it hard to call out. He would talk about how he gets to hang out with so many smart, beautiful women for his job (as if we should be flattered), make offhand comments about his own sex life, and occasionally tell me that he loved me. Once, while the two of us were outside Ninth Ward in New York City at a science tweetup, he bought a flower for his wife, who was inside. The seller gave him an extra for free, which he gave to me, joking that I was his “concubine.” I didn’t even know how to respond, awkwardly laughing it off, but fled the scene without goodbyes soon after. “I just want to call him out when he makes any kind of offhand comment,” I wrote to my best friend later. “But what I could lose by doing so is too great, so it’s really just degrading.”

The most significant event happened early in October 2010 after a science blogger gathering at a bar in the Financial District. Bora and I were walking in the same direction and chatting, a bit tipsy, when he asked me if I would walk him back to his hotel. I lost my breath for a second. I froze and stuttered, “No, I have to go.”

After a hug goodbye that lasted a second too long, we split ways, my head spinning. Did I imagine that? Was he trying to sleep with me? And then: Am I actually any good at writing, or was he just supporting me because he was sexually interested in me?

I doubted myself, my value to a community in which I had found a home, my worth as a writer. I came home crying to my roommate, so unsure of what this meant for my future, whether all my seeming accomplishments were no more than a ruse.

I’ve carried those thoughts with me ever since.

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?

I don’t think Bora intended to make me feel this way. In fact, if he knew I were carrying this with me, I’m sure he’d be horrified. But it’s our actions that matter, not our intentions. He did make me feel that way. His actions degraded my self-worth.

I’m not here to dig a grave for Bora. That’s not up to me. It’s up to each person his actions have affected to decide whether or not to forgive him. I am here to let Monica know that she is not crazy, as people on Twitter are saying, and that she is not alone.

I’m also here because these things happen far too frequently and no one talks about them. That’s because it’s really hard. The line between social flirting and deeply damaging interaction is delicate and varies from person to person. Especially when there are levels of professional stature and power involved, the stakes are high. So people, emotionally impaired by sexual harassment that they aren’t even sure is real, have nowhere to turn.

Some people will say that Monica and I are being too sensitive or emotional. In a culture that gaslights women into shrugging off everyday harassment, we should just “man up” and not take it so seriously. But it’s just as easy to remind the Boras of the world to control their actions. That words matter. That small hints matter. Everyone in power needs to remember this: how such a small action can impact those below you. And it’s up to those with power to control those impulses, just in case.