This happened.Posted: October 9, 2012
UPDATE, 10/14/13: The man is Bora Zivkovic, Blogs Editor for Scientific American. There’s no reason for me anymore not to name him publicly, which I’d long wanted to do anyway. Reading about this incident is what reminded me (independent of whether or not he had anything to do with that post’s original deletion, which I don’t know).
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to handle this issue in a way that’ll both serve other women and, at the same time, honor my own needs. I decided to post without naming names for two reasons: (1) to report an incident of sexual harassment publicly, on principle, to demonstrate what it looks like, how it causes harm, and how even a woman as “aware” as I am didn’t recognize it and tried to excuse it at first; and (2) to ask whether anyone has experienced something similar with a man who fits the below description, and if so, to get in touch with me, in case you’d like me to report it to his superiors along with my own account.
A month ago I met with a prominent science editor and blogger. He’d friended me on Facebook, and given his high profile, I was delighted, thinking he was interested in my writing. I sent him a link to my latest piece in the Independent Weekly and invited him to coffee. We met at a cafe in Chapel Hill, where I gave him another clip, this one about science and playwriting.
From the beginning, it was a difficult interaction on my end. Thinking this was a business meeting, I tried to tell him about my background and interests, but he seemed mainly interested in telling me about himself, and my input was mostly reduced to reactive responses like “wow” and “that’s so cool” and “that’s so neat.” I managed to mention that I used to write a column for The MIT Tech called “I Did It For Science,” where I did weird activities like getting my tarot read, visiting a strip club on a Tuesday afternoon, and doing MRIs for the neuroscience department. He began describing his own experience of going to a strip club. Then he described himself as “a very sexual person.” Then he told me about his wife’s sexual and mental health history. Then he began telling me about his dissatisfaction with his current sex life with his wife. Then he reminded me that he was “a very sexual person.” Then he told me, in an awful lot of detail, about how he almost had an affair with a younger woman he’d been seeing at conferences—how they’d met, how it escalated, how “close they’d come.”
None of these topics were invited by me. I tried to listen politely and nod when he paused, but otherwise not engage or encourage him. He seemed not to notice how uncomfortable I was. I was trying to mitigate the situation as it was unfolding—which I later read is a common immediate response to trauma, trying to minimize it or pretend it didn’t happen. In my head, I told myself that I could still write for him, as long as I didn’t meet with him in person ever again. At the end of the meeting, I hugged him, which may seem bizarre; but earlier he’d identified himself as a “hugging person” and so do I, generally, and I was still in shock and trying to smooth over the incident.
Later that day, I received a casual message from him on Facebook, saying that it’d been “great” to meet me and that he had “no idea how the convo veered into sex, but heck, why not.” This made me furious. The conversation had gone that way because he’d very deliberately led it there, and kept it there, despite my non-response. Still on autopilot, I sent him some of my old clips, still thinking I should pretend nothing was wrong and salvage the working relationship. But over the course of the next week, after talking to friends, I realized how upset the incident had made me. So instead of pitching him, I wrote him the following letter:
Hi [ ],
I hope you’re well! I see that you’re on a plane to New York, and I hope you have a good time there.
Since meeting, I’ve felt a lot of reluctance about pitching to you, and I wanted to let you know why. I felt very uncomfortable during our meeting last week. The talk veered towards sex because you led it there—first describing yourself as a “very sexual person,” and then going on to describe your wife’s sexual history (which I can’t imagine she’d want me to know), the state of your present sex life, and the near-affair you had with a younger woman. I thought all of these topics were incredibly inappropriate to discuss with someone you’d just met, especially one who was interested in working together in a professional capacity and had initiated the meeting as such. Why didn’t I say anything in the moment? Because I wanted to write for [redacted], and you held power insofar as whether or not that would happen (and still do). I was particularly upset that, despite other indications that you’re aware of the difficulties women face in terms of harassment, that you didn’t seem to be aware that your behavior towards me was part of that same problem. So I’m letting you know.
Thank you for reading.
I waited four days and received no reply. So I sent another message:
Hi [ ],
I know you’ve been at a conference this week, but I’d appreciate it if you could at least indicate that you intend to respond to this.
Seven days after that, I received a note of apology. I didn’t ask his permission to post it, so I’ll just paraphrase: he said he’d been very busy recently, but that he was very sorry, and that he’d been in the midst of a “personal crisis” at the time, which was now “happily resolved.”
I did appreciate the note, to some degree. Especially the clear admission that he did something wrong.
But, surprise, this is far from the first time I’ve been on the receiving end of sexual harassment from an older man in a position of power, and in my experience, offenders are often serial offenders. Apparently abject apologies, and claims that “you’re the only one,” “these are special circumstances” or “this is the only time this has happened,” have often proven hollow after further investigation. Recently there’ve been blowups in the spec lit community, the atheist community, and now the theatre community over behavior like this. In many cases, it seems clear that the harasser in question is a known serial harasser, long tolerated by his community because of his status or reputation.
In this case, I honestly don’t know whether this was an isolated incident or not. I’ve decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, which is why I’m not naming him publicly at this time; but as I said before, I would like to hear from anyone who’s experienced something similar to what I’ve described above with someone who fits the above description: a high-profile science blogger and editor. I did report the incident to his superiors, turning over the above text and all relevant communication, and they were wonderfully responsive and supportive. They’re taking steps to ensure his behavior doesn’t continue.
Career-wise, I’m all right, as science journalism isn’t my principal interest by far. But I thought it was important to speak up for those for whom it is. And for all women who might have been put in this position by this guy—or ever are, by any guy. This is what sexual harassment looks like. If it happens to you, and you’re in a position to speak up, speak up. The more we speak up, the stronger we get.
As for the incident itself, I’m not interested in discussing the topic beyond this post. This is my account. It’s enough. As for the court of public opinion, if responses to this post run along the lines of questioning my character, integrity, motives, history, body, looks, or making blacklist threats or death threats or rape threats, well, have fun. I won’t be reading or responding, because I have a truly wonderful life to get back to. Truth hath a quiet breast.
Thanks for reading.