How harassment has made me a bad ally
On Wednesday, I finally returned home from ScienceOnline Oceans after a week in Miami. I wanted to write about the conference—about my experience onstage for The Story Collider, the late mornings in the Deep Sea News suite, all of the wonderful, thought-provoking sessions, catching up with old friends and meeting new faces. But the truth is, I didn’t get to truly immerse myself in the conference. I found myself constantly distracted, first with Scientific American’s misjudgment in pulling Danielle Lee’s post, and most recently, of course, with the sexual harassment controversy swirling around SciAm’s blog editor, Bora, who has been a mentor of mine since my first years of blogging.
It was instantly clear that hundreds of people were shocked and stunned, even to the point of silence. Others very eloquently expressed their initial mixed reactions. Kate Clancy fumbled her way through her feelings. Seth Mnookin beautifully dissected his own conflicting viewpoints, and why he was not quick to respond outwardly.
I, like Seth and others, was relatively silent on social media at first, and have remained quiet so far. I’ve retweeted a few tweets, but by and large, have kept myself out of the conversation. But unlike so many in the science blogging community, my emotions aren’t mixed. I wasn’t angry or hurt or sickened. I don’t know how else to say this, so I’m just going to be blunt: my reaction was completely cold. I wasn’t surprised in the least. What shocks me more than anything else is that, apparently, so few in the community saw it in him.
I have been attending ScienceOnline since 2010. Bora has been an important figure in my writing career—he welcomed me into the science blogging community as a co-blogger at ScienceBlogs, hired me to write for SciAm, and was nothing but supportive when I decided to move on and blog for Discover. He has fought for me and supported me, just as he has for so many bloggers out there. He has truly been my Blogfather, and I respect him as a mentor and colleague.
But, even in my very first year, I heard rumors. Hushed whispers behind closed doors about Bora having a thing for ‘young blondes’ (when, of course, I fit that description), or about a supposed affair, or how he surrounds himself with cute talent. Hannah’s story wasn’t news to me, as I had heard all of the details, from the rose to the invitation, in bits and pieces through the SciO rumor mill. I am a little dumbfounded at how surprised the community is by all of this—how so many people missed what seemed to me at the time to be common knowledge.
Some now describe Bora as creepy, but as far as I am concerned, that side of him has been there all along. From day one he seemed a bit awkward, a little too touchy-feely. I’ve always gotten a bit of a vibe, but as I have learned to do through years of being a woman, I ignored it, just like I ignored the hearsay. At the time that’s all I had—gossip, rumors, and stories that weren’t mine to tell.
My dispassionate response, both then and to the current revelations, was instinctual, and that bothers me. I don’t think I’ve ever realized just how callous and numb the constancy of sexual harassment has made me. It honestly never would have occurred to me to speak out as Monica and Hannah and Kathleen have.
Not that, in this particular case, I have anything to add. I don’t think Bora has ever come on to me. I’ve tried to remember back to the beginning of our relationship, and I can’t recall anything specific. That might be because, given the rumors, I unconsciously kept him at a professional distance—or maybe I’m just not his type. But I wonder if I would have noted or registered it even if he had, or if, instead, I would have automatically brushed aside any attempts and steered clear. To me, unwelcome advances are so routine that I’ve developed an uncomfortably thick skin. There is a stiff level of scar tissue where such harassment and sexism would normally wound, built slowly through years of small cuts and deep gashes. Now, it takes a high level of discomfort to truly trigger my emotional response; I can’t decide what this says about me.
What it does reveal is just how common this kind of shit is for women; how constantly we are sexualized, objectified and maligned. And though I have built up a tough wall to protect myself against it all, even my jaded, callous shell can be broken on occasion.
I distinctly remember the last time I was really uncomfortable, when something so humiliating happened that it pierced through my near-impenetrable barrier. It was at a lab function a few months ago, where about a dozen of my labmates and I were out at a bar drinking with one of the co-PIs of our lab. Everyone was a couple beers in, having a great time, when a woman—a complete stranger—walked up to the group. “Is that your husband?” she asked me, pointing to my co-PI. Everyone laughed. “No,” I said, laughing as well. The idea was absurd and hilarious. “Is that your husband, then?” she asked, pointing to another labmate. Again, laughter ensued. “No, she’s not married,” my labmates explained. “Really?” the woman asked, incredulous. Something about her reaction, her demeanor, triggered my instinctual warning system. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, even before she said: “That is hard to believe, because you have the most incredible tits I’ve ever seen.”
It’s hard to describe how that statement landed in my brain. It was as if the crowded bar went silent and the air dropped ten degrees. Around me, everyone was still laughing and having a good time, but instantly the joke wasn’t funny anymore. I felt exposed and uncomfortable. I wanted to run, but I froze instead. Then, she went one step further. “Can I feel them?”
I know what I should have said. I know how I should have reacted. But in that moment all I could hear was the amused shock of everyone around me, the round of snorts and giggles at her brazen question. These are my labmates, people I see every day, people whose opinions matter to me. We were all having fun, joking around. I didn’t want to make a scene. I didn’t want to ruin the party. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. So, I didn’t. Instead, I let a complete stranger grope me in front of a dozen or so of my coworkers. Afterwards, I wanted to curl into a ball and cry. But I held back the tears, lifted my chin, smiled, and laughed about it with everyone else.
As for the people there that night, I don’t think any of them have a clue how I really reacted. Unless they read this post, they will continue to think it was a silly, funny story from a night of lab debauchery. Remember that time that woman asked to grab Christie’s tits? Yeah, that was hilarious!
In retrospect, I’m not sure what bothers me more—the fact that this woman felt it was ok to ask a complete stranger if she could cop a feel, or that she (I’m fairly sure) intended to ask my supposed husband if it was ok instead, as if my opinion on the matter of my own breasts was secondary to some man’s. If I hadn’t been with coworkers, I probably would have brushed off the entire interaction, told her to fuck off or simply ignored her in the first place. She isn’t the first stranger to ask—in public—if she can feel my breasts, and I’m fairly certain she won’t be the last. But I was with a group of people that I value professionally, and to be degraded like that in front of them made sick to my stomach.
This is just one example. Like Kathleen, I have dozens. Harassment at conferences (other than ScienceOnline, just for the record) and in nightclubs, committed by complete strangers and by close friends. I have been yelled at by men (and women) for being too flirtatious and for being a prude. I have been hit on, squeezed, kissed, rubbed, smelled, touched, caressed, licked, and grabbed by men that were directly told I wasn’t interested. The cost of saying no has been at its best embarrassed retreat, often insult, and at its worst, injury. At some point, I just stopped reacting to most of it. I became numb to the off-color comments about my looks, insinuations of sex, and the unwanted advances. I have become numb to the Boras of the world, including Bora himself.
Should I have said something years ago, when I first heard the rumors about Bora? Did I implicitly allow such behavior to continue, to expand, to evolve? How might things be different now, if I had whispered in the right ear, confronted the right person, or supported the right victim? Why didn’t I?
But, of course, I know why. In part, it was because the stories I heard of inappropriate behavior weren’t my stories. I didn’t have accusations to make, and I wasn’t going to spread gossip and ruin the name of what seemed like a good man, a man who mentored and nurtured my career. Furthermore, I wasn’t going to risk my own professional reputation over rumors. I wasn’t going to let hearsay shape my opinion of a man that I worked with, admired, and respected, and without whom, I would not be the writer I am today.
I have a feeling there are quite a few of people in the science blogging community who kept quiet like I did, not because they were being coerced or mistreated, but because they couldn’t separate rumor from fact, and they didn’t want to be the one spreading false information.
But also, my inaction was because even now, when I read through the stories pouring out on twitter and all of the raw emotions that go with them, part of me shuts down. Though I am quick to anger when it comes to institutional sexism or outright injustice, I find it hard to respond to personal stories of harassment because I have too many of my own that I cannot process. To truly feel the humiliation of them all would crush me, so I’ve learned to be numb, callous, and cold.
It’s not a reaction I am proud of. I, as a woman who experiences this shit every day, need to do better. I have to be a better ally. We all do.