No, this doesn't mean you need to avoid your female colleagues like the plague
October 18, 2013
Bora Zivkovic has been a skeevy, predatory harasser of women. He was accused in online public and confessed. Subsequent revelations from other women who were similarly preyed upon follow a similar narrative. So even if Bora’s original confession admitted only to one incident, well, nobody believes that and nor should anyone.
I have been, and will likely remain, relatively muted on this topic. There are a number of reasons. When the original story broke I was immediately struck by the way that providing the full narrative of Bora’s predation strategy dragged in an innocent party, i.e., his wife. I was very uncomfortable with that, although in the subsequent days, I have to acknowledge that showing the consistency of the approach is of value. This is a sustained pattern of behavior that is at least habitual if not exquisitely planned. Second, I’m naive. It was in recent years that I was fully hit with the pervasiveness of harassment in the profession of science. I happened to be meeting a friend at a conference and it was just after she’d been harassed at a prior event that day. I failed her miserably in my disbelief. So I listen. Thirdly, this is not about me and my reactions and, when you have one of the more robust commentariats going, there’s a chance of pulling the discussion here, instead of where it properly belongs.
Being muted, however, runs the risk of being seen as hesitant to call this harassing behavior out for what it is, or hesitant to call out the perpetrator because it is Bora. See first sentence.
This post is going to present two ideas that are in opposition and I am seeking help in reconciling them.
First, go read “Two Stories” by Kathleen Raven. It is important in the first instance because it details the sheer persistence with which Bora pursued his victims. The reprinted emails from Bora to Kathleen are likewise important because they illustrate both the sustained grooming behavior and the rationalization process by which the predator justifies himself to himself.
The detail in these stories, even if it makes us uncomfortable for third parties (spouses, etc), is important. It dismantles any lingering suspicion on the part of those favorably disposed toward Bora that these are “cray-cray” (as one Twitter waghole put it) accusations. It dismantles any thought that a friendly, hugging kind of swell dude is being pilloried by overly sensitive harridans or being ambushed by disgruntled authors who legitimately failed to win his backing for their work.
MarkCC nailed down the threshold for objection part in his post.
But what about cases where you didn’t mean anything sexual, like when you complimented your coworker on her outfit, and she accused you of harassing her?
This scenario is, largely, a fraud.
Lots of people legitimately worry about it, because they’ve heard so much about this in the media, in politics, in news. The thing is, the reason that you hear all of this is because of people who are deliberately promoting it as part of a socio-political agenda. People who want to excuse or normalize this kind of behavior want to create the illusion of blurred lines.
Rep. Anthony Wiener, Mayor Bob Filner……President Bill Clinton. Democrats. Politically supportive of women, women’s rights and equality. Good Guys. And total predatory harassers. With extended histories of predation upon multiple women using disgustingly repetitive hunting strategies. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
So men? If you hesitate to call a spade a spade because you are afraid that that one time you mis-hugged and accidently touched her ass, or boob-elbowed her in the coffee line, is going to put you on the hot seat? It isn’t. That’s another thing these stories (also see the #ripplesofdoubt and storify of same) tell us. Women are INCREDIBLY hesitant to over-interpret. I hate to use the word tolerant but that’s what it is. Highly tolerant even of the preliminary and full-throated behavior of a confirmed sexual predator or serial harasser. So no, there is no reason for well intentioned men to pull back from their female colleagues in the professional setting.
This hesitation is undoubtedly a ripple effect. I think we should try, in our professional contexts, to be as aware of this as we are of not-offending. The risks are not as high as we might think for a minor faux pas to become an accusation of impropriety.
….each and every act that makes a woman uncomfortable needs to be seen as serious. Everyone needs to recognize that it is NEVER about the perpetrator’s intent but rather about the victim’s perceptions. And yeah. I know. There IS such a thing as an oversensitive person. There IS such a thing as a nutter gold digger out to unfairly take advantage of a nothing situation. There ARE mindblowingly awkward mis-hearings of another person. But these are vanishingly rare. And hardly enough evidence to base your entire professional stance around.
This is ALSO the story that is emerging from the personal accounts of interactions with Bora. The minor events that made the woman uncomfortable. Sure, the woman may not have put it all together until later or until after the sustained pattern had been established. But you’ll notice that the “little thing” made. them. feel. uncomfortable.
1) Men don’t need to draw back from women because this is not about normal interactions. And 2) Even one uncomfortable interaction is a problem.
I don’t know how to resolve these with one remaining part of the puzzle.
It is unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate) that I was recently smarting off on Twitter about my policy of no-hugging-the-Monkey in the context of onlinegroup-based meetups at scientific meetings. I am by no means a “hugger” or “demonstrative” or “friendly” or any of those other descriptions the grab-asss harassers usually start with in their self-defense. So it is easy for me to say “just act normal” in a professional setting.
I credit, hesitatingly, that there may actually be men who are indeed non-harassers and are physically demonstrative and can do it in a way that creeps out nobody. For this type of person, I have no advice on how to navigate because it just isn’t me. I have no understanding of their “normal” interactions.
But someone like me doesn’t get off scott-free in this discussion either.
There are ripple effects of being stand-offish too.
Indeed it is because my no-hugging policy comes more from a place of my take on respectable professional behavior than it does from any personal dislike of being touched. (and I know people have these issues, they should be respected too, and not dismissed as neurotic). This means that inevitably there ARE people in my professional life/interactions who are within my huggosphere. It would be slightly weird NOT to hug them when I see them.
A big part off the “ripples” discussion with respect to Bora had to do with his relatively influential place within the online-communication marketplace. He had the power to enlarge a writer’s audience, profile and indeed to determine who obtained paying gigs directly. He would have had tremendous power to spike someone’s professional ventures as well.
While I don’t feel like I have any particular standing in online communication, I have to acknowledge that more than one blogger has indicated that his/her traffic really took off following a mention from me on my blog. That makes me a (minor) gateway. Obviously, I choose what to promote based on what grabs my interest and I don’t necessarily promote every blog that I run across. Which means that, even in my very minor way, when I attend online-based meetups there is some possibility that there are burgeoning writers and/or bloggers that want to talk to me, get to know me. Maybe I will twig on their blog and promote it?
This makes me concerned about my relative friendliness at such meetings. It makes me concerned that I should not blow off some attractive young woman in preference for talking to some young man. Or in preference for talking to “my crowd” of older, staid and generally happily married people. It reminds me not to let my little problem with meeting badge placement hurry my conversations to an end.
I remind you that these self-same concerns are not limited to my blog hobby either.
These scenarios play out in my professional life as well, since most scientific meetings have their social side.
This is what I am thinking about this week.
I am grateful to all who have courageously shared their harassment stories in public. I am grateful for those of you who have offered concerns about ripple effects…these are perhaps even the most valuable actionable concerns for the majority of the community.
I leave you, men, with the consideration that it is not important that you post-mortem your own behavior to box score your good/bad behavior. It is most important that you become more aware of the potential implications. Awareness has a way of making things better.
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