Hannah Waters has been where Monica Byrne found herself.
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.
And she goes on to tell the story. Comparatively mild; flirtating and sexual talk rather than groping or plying with wine; but not therefore harmless.
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.
That’s one reason it’s not harmless. Guess what happens when the flirting and sexual talk start?
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.
That’s what happens. And it’s corrosive; it’s terrible. Remember what Claire Ramsey commented on Not again yesterday:
Something on these lines happened to me in my senior year of college in 1972. I thought “my professor thinks I’m smart.” And he thought “What’s in those pants?” I was crushed, confused, ashamed, and plunged into a state of absolutely no confidence. Embarrassed and mortified that I was so stupid and naive. And that goddamn state lasted fifteen fucking years.
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.
Not crazy, not alone.