This is not a post I want to write.

I think sexual harassment is bad. I think other kinds of harassment, especially those that work by way of power imbalances, are bad. That's a position I stand by, and I hope I still would even if I had not been sexually harassed myself, and even if I didn't count among my friends an alarming number of people who had been sexually harassed.

We'll never know about the truth of that counterfactual claim, though, given that I have been sexually harassed (in more than one professional field), and that the number of people I know who have themselves been sexually harassed seems only to increase.

I know what it is like not to be able to share details of my own experience for fear of the professional repercussions it could have for me. When the person who harasses you has enough power that he could literally destroy any chance of a career for you in your chosen field -- when it's clear that your professional community values that person a lot and that it hasn't even gotten a chance to know you, let alone to value you -- choosing to go public looks an awful lot like choosing to burn your own career.

So mostly, you don't.

Maybe, eventually, once you find people within the community you feel like you can trust, people who've given indications that they value you, you share some of the details. Probably you wait for some sort of sign that these are people who, at least in principle, agree that harassment is bad. And probably, as you're naming your experience, you avoid naming the perpetrator, just in case there's a longstanding professional relationship that you didn't know about.

Because even people who are against harassment in principle can be damned loyal to their friends.

But often by the time you're ready to share some details with someone, you've so internalized the apologia that comes out when people do tell that you aren't even sure if you can call what happened to you "harassment". You wonder if, objectively, what happened to you can really be as big a deal as it feels like it is to you -- if the fact that it feels like a big deal to you, one that you can't just shake off, means that something is wrong with you.

Some days, when you start to notice how much harassment there is, how many of your peers (and mentors) have been harassed, and how little that seems to faze your community, you maybe even start to wonder if harassment is just the price of admission to the community, if shaking it off is the kind of skill people in the community need to cultivate to survive.

The landscape we bump up against every day discourages us from making a fuss.

It encourages us to use the most equivocal language available to describe our experience, if we talk about it at all.

It reminds us that we're weak if we can't shake it off, that we will be blamed for not finding some way to prevent what happened to us even though someone else did it to us.

It underlines that push come to shove, people are going to side with someone with more social capital, even if that person did something that the people siding with him are against in theory -- and that people are going to trust their own gut feeling that the person who harmed you is a good guy over the most careful and accurate recitation of the facts, even over what they see with their own eyes.

Not speaking up is the most rational move in most circumstances. Jennifer L. Berdahl, a Professor of Organizational Behavior, notes that

It's individually adaptive to go along with or try and act like members of the majority group when one is outnumbered. There are even rewards for criticizing others for not doing the same. But this individually adaptive behavior perpetuates the status quo.

So, if people aren't brave enough, or fed up enough, or whatever, to risk the individual harm that comes with speaking up, we are likely to be stuck with how things are right now. And some days, how things are right now is indescribably shitty.

The proximate cause for my writing this post is that writer and playwright Monica Byrne described her own experience of being harassed and named an influential member of the online science community, Bora Zivkovic, as her harasser. In a statement on his personal blog, Bora confirms the facts of Ms. Byrne's account, describes the measures put in place at Scientific American to address the professional harms to Ms. Byrne, and offers an apology.

I have known Bora for years. I have respected his professional judgment. I have deep affection for him and for his wife. I count him as a friend. He has never harassed me.

But that doesn't mean that I am going to offer apologia for his bad behavior. It doesn't mean I'm going to preemptively disbelieve Ms. Byrne's account, not just of what happened but also of how it affected her.

People make mistakes, even people who are our friends. People who do great things for a community can also do great harm to individual members of that community -- and, by extension, to the very webs of trust within that community that they worked hard to build.

I'm not going to stop being Bora's friend, but I'm not going to try to minimize or excuse his behavior, either.

I'm going to keep caring for him, but part of that will involve me continuing to hold him to a high standard -- because I know he can be that good, and I'm prepared to do what I can to help him do that.

I'm not going to cut Bora off as irredeemable, but I'm not going to center his redemption over mitigating the harms caused by his bad behavior. I'm not going to prioritize telling the world about his redemption, since I understand redemption as a quiet, personal, daily effort to live the standard one endorses.

I'm not going to argue that anyone else should forgive Bora or trust Bora. That's a personal matter, and I'm not equipped to make that call for anyone else but myself.

I am going to argue that, within our communities, we should look very hard at the power gradients that enable bad behavior that doesn't seem like bad behavior to the people committing it. We should interrogate the factors that make it dangerous for targets of bad behavior to speak up. We should recognize our tendency to focus on intent and ignore actual effects. We should notice when we get sucked into the familiar narrative of apologia and cut that out.

We should hold each other to high standards and then get serious about helping each other reach those standards. We should keep tinkering with our culture to making being better to each other (and to ourselves) easier, not harder.

Being good can be hard, which is one of the reasons we need friends.

I stand with others who have been harassed. And I hope, as a loving and honest friend with high expectations, I can help bring about a world with fewer harassers in it.

30 responses so far

  • amy charles says:

    oh, making mistakes. Oddly enough, just posted to fb about it:

    On making mistakes

    So there's been talk bubbling all day about sexual harassment in sci writing, but I want to come to this business that keeps popping up, not just in this context but plenty others, about "making a mistake".

    Here's "making a mistake": My neighbor's mail got put in my mailbox; assuming it was for me, I opened the envelope. Oops! Mistake. Or another: I hit return before I meant to while posting to facebook: clumsy me. Oops! Mistake. I thought I'd grabbed the size small; phooey, it's a medium, I'll have to go back to the store. Mistake. Or: I thought your sentence meant X, when actually it meant Y. I mistook your meaning. Or: I studied a subject that looked promising jobwise, but turned out to be a dead end -- boy, I made a mistake. There's a reason why we put the word "innocent" in front of "mistake".

    If I abuse my child, that's not a mistake. That's a horror and an absence of, or lapse in, moral sense.

    If I steal: almost certainly not a mistake. I knew that stuff wasn't mine and I took it anyway.

    If I harass an employee: not a mistake. The words and actions are intentional and wrong, and I've harmed someone in a morally reprehensible way.

    If I contribute to making work extra-difficult for a group of people who've already been struggling for ages to make headway, just because it pleases me in the, this is not a "mistake".

    When one has done something wrong and serious, the thing to do is not to trivialize it in a face-saving manner, but to acquire empathy, recognize both the harm and the intent, admit to them, knock it the fuck off, and make the other party whole. The language also matters. And I think I am all out of scold for a while.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    This is a sad episode for many reasons, and in saying that I am not equally prioritizing all sadness. Certainly I can imagine how Monica felt during any of that- the anger, frustration, likely increasing rage and emotional suffering, and sheer disbelief (or perhaps all too resigned belief), and I think I can imagine the feeling of betrayal others must feel to know someone that has done something that we know to be wrong. Without subordinating more important things here, I would like to say that I am sorry that Janet had to write this post at all, but I respect that she did, and I deeply value her contributions.

  • Jay says:

    Dr. Stemwedel,

    Monica first publicized this a year ago, without naming Bora.
    As you know, she has since republished this, with Bora's name.

    A lot of people think it is fine and just and proper for Monica to have named Bora but I wonder what the ethics of that actually are in a world of google, and in a world of laws, "not men".

    What was the value of the republication while naming Bora?
    How would that have changed without the name?

    Are we ethically bound to consider the proportionality of naming Bora for a year old event in which Bora and SciAM had apologized with the new present and future harm to Bora and his family?

    What was the difference between Monica's new publication of this and what we commonly hear as "revenge porn"?

    I hopeful that this age of Internet name and shame will be seen in 10 - 15 years as often unhelpful, abusive, rude, manipulative, one-sided, unfair and something that should be done as a last resort.

    • Isabel says:

      "What was the difference between Monica's new publication of this and what we commonly hear as "revenge porn"?"

      The question should be What similarity could anyone possibly see between those two unrelated things?

      And I agree with others- this is not a "mistake"!

      Janet, it sounds like you are protecting your friend.

      imo Bora's apology was weak, and really should we automatically excuse this type of behavior because the guy says he was going through a personal crisis? Like any guy could slip and start behaving this way under stress- Is that what you are saying? Or are you saying he might not have known this was wrong? After being friends with you, Isis, Zuska and promoting your blog posts etc for all these years??

    • John-H says:

      Seriously you are comparing this to revenge porn what is wrong with you. How about the fact that the victims of revenge porn did nothing wrong, Bora on the other hand sexually harassed someone. Bora sexually harassed someone and she wrote a blog post describing it, in revenge porn someone ends a relationship and they are punished for it by having sexual images and videos posted on the internet without their consent. Bora may face harm to his career, harm to his relationships and he has had a few blog posts written about him because he sexually harassed Monica Byrne. A victim of revenge porn could face trauma from this abuse, harm to their career, harm to their relationships, sexual harassment and possible physical harm if their name and location are revealed for breaking up with someone. I hope this helps you asshole.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Privilege: reading this and having to consciously exercise imagination.

  • bsci says:

    I do not know Bora personally, so I don't have to deal with those emotions. Still, the part where it seems Bora has lost his ability to remain in his current professional role is when he specifically wrote that this was a one time mistake and then a steady stream of other women who has similar experiences with Bora started coming forward. You recently wrote a post on apologies. A key step is acknowledging the extent of the problem. Despite having the chance to make such an acknowledgement, Bora has not done so. How many women have to come forward saying he abused a professional power role before you think he need to leave that position of power?

  • Isabel says:

    No one acts this way once, and we all know that on some level. No normal, non-asshole-ish guy has a bad day and accidentally tells someone he just met about his wife's sexual history. And rambles on about sex for a long time to a younger, less powerful person who is clearly not interested. These things do not happen out of the blue, never to happen again. We all know this, even if some of us are not ready to admit it yet.

    • StormLord says:

      You sound like a false rape accuser.

      • DrugMonkey says:

        What does a mountain troll sound like SL?

      • Isabel says:

        Sounds like you've done this yourself, "Storm Lord"? Totally innocently bent some poor young woman's ear for hours telling her all about your sexual problems with your wife, your wife's sexual history, and what a sexual person you are, etc etc. Just because you don't have great social skills, and for some mysterious reason you just felt like opening up at that particular moment?

        Yeah, could happen to anyone:)

        And I was correct it turned out (of course).

  • […] context, in the event that you want or need it, read my last post, and Hannah's, and Kathleen's, and Erin's. (If you want a dash of irony with your context, read […]

  • Kevin Solway says:

    "Harassment" is often the wrong word. If a person is propositioned inappropriately then they were propositioned inappropriately. They weren't "harassed".

  • Mona Albano says:

    If someone is propositioned at a night club, it's propositioned. If propositioned again by the same person or out of the blue by anyone, it's inappropriately propositioned. If they were propositioned or led into sexual talk in a business meeting, it's harassment. Or do you wear your bathing suit to dinner because it's appropriate garb for a swimming pool?

  • […] Another Sexual Harassment Case in Science: The Deafening Silence That Surrounds It Condones It This is Not a Post I Want to Write Silence and Friendship Let Me Fix That For You The Insidious Power of Not-Quite-Harassment Mixed Up […]

  • Helen Huntingdon says:

    This post is the first thing I've seen on this particular matter, and other than Monica Byrne's account of what happened, the only thing.

    I tried to go on and read the follow-on post, but I can't just yet; I'm reeling in shock. Why would Janet Stemwedel, of all people, minimize and grossly mischaracterize this as a "mistake"?

    Why would you do this? This whole post, where you keep saying you're not going to do this and that, not going to minimize, not going to excuse, but then do just that?

    Ethics is supposed to mean something when you speak. Not the opposite.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:


      This post was written when I was being actively deceived about the nature and extent of the offense. Clearly, not a mistake, but an abuse.

      I'm letting it stand as a reminder (to myself as much as anyone else) of how easy it is to slide into minimization. It's what our culture (and the individuals in it) encourage us to do, at every turn. And even those of us who should know better make that slide.

      I'm going to do my best not to anymore.

      • Helen Huntingdon says:


        No, you were NOT being deceived about the nature of the offense -- it's right there in Monica Byrne's account, which you linked to in this post.

        You. Were. Not. "Being deceived" -- and this further minimizing and dishonesty on your part is absolutely shameful.

        • Janet D. Stemwedel says:


          Monica Byrne's post was not my only source of information -- it's just that I put too much trust in the (multiple) other sources of information I had. I was wrong to do so.

          I recognize that you feel this is dishonest on my part. I'm trying hard to do better.

          • Isabel says:

            Really? So someone else who you trust(ed) was actively lying and covering up for Bora? And you are covering up for them-what assurance do we have that they are not covering up for others? You should be calling them out.
            And now your new posts suggests you know more guys who are worried about bad behavior. About getting caught that is. Is this all in the science blogging "community"? Not that I expect an answer- this is clearly special information only those in the know are privy to. Why do you continue to cover up for these people?

          • Janet D. Stemwedel says:


            I wouldn't characterize it as lies so much as bad information. (That is, someone was lying upstream.) The only one who lied directly to me, as far as I can tell, is Bora. I don't know what the point would be of outing people who trusted the wrong people upstream.

            And the other post is not about speaking privately to men about harassment or assault! The harmful acts men seem to be most worried about being called out for (at least in the context I had in mind) are videos and jokes whose "humor" goes awry, or speech acts defending those (cf. Jamie Vernon's post).

          • Helen Huntingdon says:


            This gets more offensive every time you comment.

            So now part of your minimizing your choice to post the festering pile of minimizing and excusing a grim case of sexual harassment that makes up the original post is that you and your buddies closed ranks to tell each other whatever you wanted to hear?

            And that's supposed to explain somehow? To us outsiders who weren't privy, so we should pipe down because we're supposed to understand that the special people were talking and that of course overrides everything?

  • Helen Huntingdon says:


    I really want to believe that. I want to believe Janet Stemwedel, a voice I have respected and relied on, can still be that. That she may have screwed up, but it is not ongoing. That's the narrative I want.

    I recognize I may not get it.

    What would be minimally honest on your part is to be honest about your part in this. You were not "being deceived" when you wrote this post about the "nature" of the offense. That is an outright lie. You had been undeceived, but you didn't like it, so you went looking for an alternative narrative that would still let you have something that you want, probably some voice in your life that you value and wish you could keep the same as before.

    That's how this kind of menace propagates.

    You got the truth, but you actively chose other narratives -- and still are with this incredibly dishonest "I was deceived" line.

    It is not an inhuman error. It is one I think we all make. But your claim to be trying hard to do better does not wash when you call what you were doing other than it was. You were not "being deceived". You were actively choosing the narrative you preferred when confronted with truth that you did not like.

    Call it what it is.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:


      Respectfully, you are not privy to the other information that was given to me. A *tiny* bit of epistemic humility might be in order.

      Nonetheless, I was wrong. I was wrong to trust that other information. As a result of having trusted it, there are a number of people (not just Bora) who I can no longer safely trust -- so I won't.

      I understand that my trusting those other sources initially means that others may no longer trust me. I regret that, but I recognize that this may be the way people have to go in the wake of my being so badly mistaken -- WRONG -- here.

      I will try to earn back that trust, but I will let others decide whether I deserve it, since it is their trust to give.

  • Helen Huntingdon says:

    Do you / have you read online WOC feminists of late?

    Because you're repeating chapter and verse the lines that white feminists used to uphold and excuse their collusion with Hugo Schwyzer to secure him 20 years of victims and target specific WOC feminists, "mistakes", "fooled", "deceived", "Super-Seecrit privy communications you peons don't know about", and all.

    You didn't choose who to believe in a power vacuum. There was no "mistake" where all the "sources" came from some unweighted ether and the soundest judgment could not discern the patterns.

    When faced with a choice between the bigoted, predator-enabling narrative and what was really happening, you chose bigoted, predator-enabling narrative because it served you for whatever reason.

    This is the heart of how bigotry and abuse propagate.

    It is also the heart of science -- we are all fundamentally wired to choose narratives that work for us against the evidence of our eyes, but the process of science is the process of forcing our brains to see and speak the truth no matter what cherished narratives it destroys.

    If you're not willing to name this process in yourself when you act it out in public, how can anything you say on science or ethics not thus be undermined?

  • Isabel says:

    "And the other post is not about speaking privately to men about harassment or assault! The harmful acts men seem to be most worried about being called out for (at least in the context I had in mind) are videos and jokes whose "humor" goes awry, or speech acts defending those (cf. Jamie Vernon's post)."

    First of all that post (JV's) was nauseatingly overwrought. Enough with "community" and "trust" - irrelevant words in this situation and words used about 400 times each in his post -how about "respect" and "professionalism" instead?

    " We must hold anyone who commits these acts fully accountable. Hanson exercised poor judgment, but he is neither guilty of discrimination nor harassment. If anyone can claim perfect judgment, let he or she be the one to judge Hanson."

    See what he did there? He declared Hanson Not Guilty, and then noted that only those with perfect judgement can judge Hanson - which HE just did. Not Guilty.

    I love how he ends with "the guy has no faults at all! Absolutely none!!!!"

    And the reaction to PH Lane's suggestion? We can't joke about violence? People really thought "dressing up like Curie and beating the snot out of him" sounds like a real threat of violence? When voiced against someone who has just animated an extended scene of violence against women as a joke, violence against Curie in particular, and gotten it broadcast on PBS. Women can only object "nicely" to this stupid insult.

    There is something wrong with people. There is a total failure of perspective here.

    I am totally re-traumatized by these incidents bringing up a lifetime of harassment, and now traumatized anew by the whiny self-absorbed "allies" and weak and ineffectual females who just want to coddle men. The focus is now on the poor allies who are nice guys who have zero faults who just fuck up sometimes and make rapey movies about woman scientists.

    At this point I am beginning to suspect that maybe the evo-psych people are right. Women's hormones compel them to treat men like uncivilized children, and we will never move beyond this for biological reasons. Because I sure as hell don't see any other solution here.

  • Isabel says:

    " weak and ineffectual females who just want to coddle men..who have zero faults who just fuck up sometimes and make rapey movies about woman scientists. "

    As I have mentioned before, my previous career (animation) that I finally gave up on perfectly exemplified this sick (or biologically normal and healthy if you are into evo-psych) pattern. The typical crew was led by a female producer and male director, usually playing out the roles of Super Mom and Bad Boy. Check out the credits when you watch animation with your kids. These roles were considered powerful advances for women, or something. Going down the hierarchy line: line producers/production coordinators=female, animators=male. clean-up artists=female, assistant animators=male.

    The women who took those organizational roles seemed to enjoy them, to even revel in them, and they also seemed a lot more comfortable coddling creative men. The creative women like me who wanted to direct were mostly SOL. In over a decade I never observed any male Super Dads coddling creative Bad Girls, though I knew one reverse pair. In that case, which was low budget Sesame Street stuff, the female director was older than the male producer and she did most of the organizing stuff as well.

    And it hasn't changed much either. A dozen Pixar movies, 12 male protagonists in a row, 12 male directors and even parents don't seem to mind too much. Number 13 was originally given to a woman, but they sent in a male to co-direct. John Lasseter was recently quoted as saying "because the software and technology is getting easier to use women will surely be making their way down the pipeline soon!!!" as if this was the problem all along and instead of gagging everyone cheers.

    THIS is what is so traumatizing - the almost complete lack of progress compounded by the almost complete lack of recognition that there has been no progress. We have had two decades of HR anti-harrassment programs, and we have all these super-fantastic allies now who have absolutely zero faults, but it's all the shit happening.