I’m about to expound on something that’s not my business. I probably should keep my mouth shut. But --- after three days of following this story, I’ve gone from being baffled to being pissed off. So. Rant time!
For several years I’ve followed a lively group of science writers online. I do so in part because they create interesting “content,” but also because as writers, they’ve been the most aggressive about using online media to provide content and, more important, about creating a community of writers, all of them interested in exploring the potential of digital communication. The process of community-building interests me; thus my effort to stay apprised of this particular group’s evolution.
Many times in the past several years, sci writers have tackled issues of sexism and gender. That’s hardly surprising. Sexism is part of the human experience, as is harassment in general, and digital media makes it absurdly easy for scumbags to harass, harangue, and otherwise plague others.
But in recent days, the science writing community’s discussion of sexism, harassment, etc. has taken an unexpected and, in my mind, frightening turn. Here’s where I need to provide some detail. Bear with me.
Last week, a female scientist declined a request to provide free content for an online science blog. The person who make the request took exception to her decline and asked her if she was an “urban whore.”
Ick, right? (To say nothing of appallingly stupid. I'd love to know who hired that dumbass.)
No surprise, that episode generated considerable rumination, reflection, dismay, etc. among science writers.
But then the chatter morphed into an extraordinarily ugly episode of outing.
First one young woman, then another, and today yet another, revealed that she’d been “harassed” by a prominent science blogger, a guy who is credited with leading the charge to forge respectability for science blogging and science writing in the digital age.
[FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve had email contact with this man, who I’ll call Guy X. He asked me to write an essay for a magazine with which he’s connected. I’ve never met him in person.]
Each of these women reported that their harassment by Guy X came during various science-writing gatherings/conventions.
Each reported that they were uncomfortable with the conversations they had with this guy.
Each said their encounters with him included hugs that lasted a few seconds too long.
(I should mention here that Guy X is famous for his hugs, bestowed on male and female alike.) Each said that their conversations with him included talk about sex, marriage, etc.
Two of them said nothing because they feared his influence would ruin their careers. He was, they explained, in a position to “do something” for them. The third continued to accept emails from him well after she’d told him that she wasn’t comfortable with the way he interacted with her.
The response from the larger science-writing community has been sadly predictable: Men and women lining up to support these women and condemn Guy X. Lining up to support a call for, in effect, banning this guy from the community, or at least any leadership/organizing role.
I’m sitting here scratching my head, and for two reasons.
First, based on the science writers’ criteria, turns out that I’m both a harasser and a victim of harassment.
Case in point: I just returned from GABF, during which I was hugged many times, often for many seconds at at time, and by both men and women. I also initiated hugs of both men and women. I was party to and contributor to many conversations that included talk of sex, marriage, etc.
(One of which, I might add, made me uncomfortable, so I said “I don’t want to hear about that.”) (That moment had a comical ending. The comment that made me uncomfortable sounded like a report of someone sleeping with someone to whom he wasn’t married. [I don’t want to hear about ANYONE’S sex life. Mine own is enough, thank you very much.] Turned out that the person who made the comment didn’t mean that. We all laughed when we realized that we’d all arrived at an identical misinterpretation of a grammatically sloppy comment.) (Yes, alcohol was involved.).
So based on the science writers’ interpretation of “harassment,” hey!, I’m both victim and perpetrator. I hugged. I was hugged in return. I was kissed. I returned kisses. I joked about sex, marriage, etc., and listened to others do the same. Who knew?
The second reason for my head scratching is that smart people --- the science writers --- are playing the victim card when they should be learning valuable life lessons. If ever there was a “teachable moment,” this is one.
I oughta know, because I’ve been there and done that. So here’s a tale of one of my own teachable moments.
The fall that I turned 33, I enrolled in graduate school and there I stayed for the next seven years. (That’s how long it takes to get a PhD). I knew nothing about grad school (because I knew almost no one with a college degree, let alone a PhD), so I learned on the job, as it were.
In my case, I placed myself in the hands of a bunch of sadistic pricks. Guys with big egos who liked nothing more than dissing their colleagues and making grad students miserable. My dissertation director was one such asshole. He loved breaking people, reducing them to mental mush, and otherwise making them feel like shit.
As I soon learned, this was the norm for academia in general and grad school in particular because, well, academia ain’t no different than the rest of the world: Pricks, assholes, and jerks abound.
But I was used to dealing with jerks. By the time I started grad school, for example, I’d spent 15-plus years working various jobs (waitress, construction worker, cab driver, etc.) where I was bossed by a slew of pricks, sadistic and otherwise, as well as assholes and jerks, both male and female. (Construction work. Now THERE was a situation rife with "harassment." Oy. Every day I worked with as many as two hundred men and zero women. You don't even want to know what they subjected me to.)
So my attitude was: “Been there, done that. Deal with it.”
Which is precisely my point: As a graduate student, where a LOT of people had control over my future, I learned how to manage the situation. I developed a strategy for making sure that none of the Pricks in Charge gained so much clout over my brain that I would give up, quit, or otherwise fail to accomplish my goals.
It wasn’t easy. When I say I had to learn how to manage the situation, I mean just that: This was a learning experience. Over my seven years, I adopted multiple strategies for dealing with the guy. When one failed, I’d try another.
Seven years passed and I got my degree --- with, I might add, a ridiculous amount of drama and stress toward the end when, true to form, the PIC attempted to prevent me from earning my degree.
My point is this: I LEARNED from the experience, and what I learned has returned rewards many times since then.
That’s how it goes when you LEARN to manage and navigate life, right? You LEARN valuable skills.
So back to these women who are now tearfully (I gather) reporting their encounters with Guy X.
My response is: Get the fuck over yourself, kiddos. Get. Over. Yourselves.
During late night conversation when (I’m assuming) alcohol was involved, you didn’t like the way the conversation was going? Why didn’t you either a) say “I’m not comfortable. Let’s talk about something else”; or b) get up and walk away from the table?
You didn’t like the tone of Guy X’s emails? Why the fuck didn’t you block him?
The women argue that they kept quiet because Guy X was in a position to “do something for them.”
News flash: Every person you meet ever is in a position to “do something” for you. All those people I hugged and was hugged by recently? They can all do something for me. and I can do something for them.
The women kept quiet because they feared he would retaliate in some way.
Never mind that there was and is apparently no concrete evidence he’d ever done anything remotely like that. (Although there are now online rumors to that effect. Rumors. Innuendo. No proof.)
Never mind that by all accounts he was a generous man who worked long hours to foster the science writing community and to welcome new writers to it.
Never mind that --- well, never mind.
It’s worth noting that in these three cases, Guy X did not employ any of the women and had little to no sway over their careers. The women believed he did --- but they had zero evidence that he’d ever used his fondness for sexually-related conversation to damage anyone’s career.
These women had no evidence that the guy would do them harm.
Moreover, they were apparently so focused on their own careers that they didn’t bother to let other women know about Guy X.
Now that's creepy. If those women believed Guy X was a menace, why the fuck didn’t they say something then instead of waiting two or three years and then outing him? Why didn’t they walk away when the conversation got weird? Why didn’t they tell their other female friends “don’t go to the bar with this guy after the convention sessions”?
This ain’t 1963, folks. It’s not. Things have changed.
These days, women can say no. They can say shut up. They can refuse to engage with jerks and creeps. Women no longer need be victims. That is and was the whole fucking point of the women’s movement.
I’m not saying that we now live in a perfect world where no one ever “harasses” anyone else.
I am saying that if today’s young women are too scared of their own shadows to say “stop,” and would rather lay the victim card on the table, well --- what the heck have the last thirty, forty years been about?
Put bluntly, and this will be blunt: These women are playing the poor-me card for all it’s worth. Guy X strikes me as slightly creepy, sure. So what? The world is chock full of slightly creepy people, strange people, cruel people, evil people, and entirely too many assholes, pricks, and bitches.
But what infuriates me is that these women regard what happened to them as “harassment.” They weren’t being harassed. Ask some 13-year-old, openly gay kid about harassment. Ask a “special needs” kid in a regular high school about harassment. Ask a political activist living in a dictatorship about harassment.
Ladies (is that a term of harassment?): Three pieces of advice.
Grow up. Get over yourselves. Live and learn.