Not Very Good Excuses For Sexual Harassment

So my friend Monica Byrne was sexually harassed by an (unnamed) high-profile blogger and science editor.  I could summarize it for you, but instead I’ll just take a big chunk of words from her post, which you really should read in full here:

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.

Now, the critical bit here is that Monica obviously thought this was a professional opportunity, while the blogger-in-question obviously thought it was a hot date.  There are doubtlessly some people who will go, “Well, that’s an honest mistake that anyone could make,” but really, it isn’t.  As someone who blogs reasonably prominently himself,  and often about intensely sexual matters, I can tell you that I meet a lot of new online friends for coffee at places, and I view none of them as hot dates unless the person specifically tells me it is in advance. (Which – and I’ll vouch for Monica personally here – she most certainly did not, either explicitly or through implication.)

So what we have here is a guy meeting up with fellow writers he met on his blog, and assuming that they’re all bangable until told otherwise.  That’s a problem, approaching a pattern.

There will also doubtlessly be people who will say, “Well, why didn’t she just get up and leave?  That’s what she should have done.  She even hugged the guy!”  And I agree, in a perfect world, that in fact the best reaction on the spot would have been to coldly say, “I’m finding this very unprofessional, can we stop talking about this?” and handle the situation right there.

But – and this is an important but – assuming that people should all handle unexpected shocks in a perfect, scripted manner is in itself fostering sexual harassment.

I remember getting gypped out of five pounds in England – and you may take issues with the word “gypped,” but I was in fact bamboozled out of a fiver by what I was later told was a gypsy.  I was fresh off the plane, still amazed by the fact that I was in another country, and as we viewed the London Eye in amazement, a woman came up to me to welcome me wholeheartedly to her country, slapping a flower on me, offering to welcome me around, speaking so fast I didn’t have much of a chance to think or speak – plus, in this new place, I wasn’t quite sure what to say.  And I don’t remember quite how things went, but she wound up talking me into donating a five-pound note for some useless set of poppies for, and I quote, “war veterans.”

The shameful thing is that I’ve also fallen for a similar line of patter in the Cayman Islands.  It’s a quite common thing to do to fresh-off-the-boat tourists, and it works because people feel too flummoxed by this friendly, fast-talking person to say “No, that’s too much money.”

I know perfectly well what I should have done.  I should have said, “These poppies aren’t worth that much, and I don’t want them anyway.”  But baffled – I don’t even remember what I was thinking – I got jarred off course by what I’d normally do.

So when someone you admire, someone who you think may offer you some writing work or at least a friendly discussion on writing, starts telling you in-depth about their affairs, it throws you off-balance.  This isn’t how things are supposed to go.  And you keep trying to be polite, to steer the course back on track without being so rude as to alienate this person, since you’re not thinking, “Oh, this guy’s scum, fire the cannons,” you’re thinking, “What am I doing wrong that I’m encouraging this?  What’s wrong with me?” And to expect a perfect reaction to a jarring and discomforting situation on the spot is to side with the harasser.  Because the emphasis is not on “That guy should not be doing that,” but rather “How stupid you were for being thrown off-balance by a completely unexpected event!  You should endlessly be on your guard against too-friendly people in foreign lands!”

Which, yes, you probably should be, which is why that line of advice sticks so much.  But putting the emphasis on the victim helps harassers to gain social cover – they’re not scummy, they’re just an environmental hazard, like hurricanes! You can’t expect them to act any different. Except you can, and should, and berating someone for a non-perfect reaction to this fails to take into account that people who do this often plan to take people by surprise, springing unreasonable requests and counting on folks to trust to their good nature.

So yes, there’s that.

But what I find deeply shaming for me personally is how I reacted when I first saw this guy’s response – for I was part of a group Monica asked for advice, and when I saw his excuse, I went, “Oh, poor guy.  He’s been having personal issues, no wonder he went off the beam.  These kinds of things are hard on people.”

Then I went: Wait a minute.  That’s exactly what any harasser would say.

That’s the problem with lying in general: maybe this is a one-off issue, a man deeply wounded by marital strife or something, and he had one deeply embarrassing evening before getting back on the train.  But it’s the exact same thing a serial harasser would make up to get out of trouble, the kind of excuse designed to evoke pity and cause people to walk away believing it was an isolated incident.

And I had bought it.

Is there a way to tell what this particular dude is like without corroborating evidence?  No.  So we have to put these things out in public, to see whether others have had the same problem. Which involves Monica putting herself, rather bravely, in the line of fire.  (And even if it was a one-off incident, again, I’m a polyamorous and reasonably slutty dude who meets up with a wide variety of women from the Internet, and I don’t try to lead them into lines of sexual exposure.  I know how seduction works.  You try to get people to mirror your behaviors.  When you mention affairs that explicitly, and later unabashedly, you’re trying to get your target to reveal some hot affair she had in an attempt to make affairs seem like a Not So Bad Thing To Do.  If it was sporadic, it’s the sort of thing that seems to have a firm grasp on the mechanisms of having affairs.)

So yeah.  Monica went through that, and I’m sorry she did.  And I feel shamed that for a moment, I was ready to let this guy just go.

To be fair, the guy seems to have known he was out of line, which is a credit we should extent however reluctantly.  Many don’t.  Many see women as just a sort of global bank to be drawn upon for sex, and feel no shame whatsoever in using them that way.  Even if it’s just a fear of social harm, we have here a man who at least acknowledges that Bad Things Were Done.  And credit should definitely be given to his superiors, who seemed to take it seriously.

I don’t think I have much more to say than that.

7 Comments

  1. catfood
    Oct 11, 2012

    I can tell you that I meet a lot of new online friends for coffee at places, and I view none of them as hot dates unless the person specifically tells me it is in advance.

    This reminds me of a time a casual business acquaintance, whom I hadn’t heard from for a year or so, invited me to dinner out of the blue. I thought this was pretty cool, because I kind of liked this acquaintance, but I totally didn’t want to be That Guy. There wasn’t any obvious professional reason for the invitation, so I honestly wasn’t sure what was going on.

    So after I found said acquaintance at the restaurant and we exchanged the perfunctory hug, I looked across the table and said directly, “Hey, is this a date?” She looked slightly taken aback and replied “Um, no.” I said “Okay, I just wasn’t sure. That’s cool. So tell me about last year.”

    It wasn’t brought up again, and it was only awkward for a second as far as I can tell. I’m glad that I got the “date” thing off the table immediately.

  2. E.T.
    Oct 15, 2012

    Hey, I love your columns, but you might want to know that “gypped” is considered a racial slur by a lot of people. You use it in the first sentence of the 5th full paragraph of your essay. Since you seem interested in mitigating overall hurt, I thought I might point it out.

  3. Miranda
    Oct 16, 2012

    “But – and this is an important but – assuming that people should all handle unexpected shocks in a perfect, scripted manner is in itself fostering sexual harassment.”

    Oh man, yes. Also, the same people who will say things like, “why did you let him talk to you like that? You should have told him off and left!” are the same people who will say later things like, “why did you reply to him like that? You should have been nicer, no wonder he got so mad.”

    All this ever does is shame people, and make ’em less inclined to talk about their experiences with harassment.

  4. Kiko
    Nov 1, 2012

    My visceral reaction was that it doesn’t really matter whether it was serial or a one off. I mean, I know it does matter in the sense that he needs to be stopped from harassing more women, but in the Monica’s situation, it doesn’t really. It was scummy behavior regardless of whether it had happened before or would happen again, and it was scummy even if he only did it because he was “emotionally distressed” or whatever. And yeah, probably a lie, but even if it wasn’t, it’s not an excuse. Not making people feel uncomfortable/unsafe is always a prerequisite for being a decent human being.

  5. John Kirk
    Nov 15, 2012

    Regarding the poppies for war veterans, are you familiar with the British Legion? I don’t know whether this exists in the USA in the same way, but they’re a registered charity and they sell poppies each November for Remembrance Sunday. That said, there’s no fixed price, it’s just a case of “donate whatever you’re willing to give”.

  6. emma
    Jun 26, 2014

    There is a problem with the harasser’s excuse for his behavior- Who discusses their personal problems with a complete stranger?? Definitely not a normal person who understands the social conventions of the society he is living in.

    Also, it is common for married men to use “My wife doesn’t have sex with me anymore” to convince other women to having an affair with him. Of course, that wasn’t even supposed to happen given that Kathryn expected a business meeting.

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