About The Bora Controversy: If There's Anything That Makes Women Unequal To Men, It's The Need To Be Treated Like Fragile Pieces Of China
Laura Helmuth explains the controversy at Slate -- using what I consider loaded language, filled with assumption (that something was "harassment," simply because that's what the person who experienced it decided to deem it):
A writer named Monica Byrne wrote on her blog about being harassed by one of the most influential people in the science blogging world, Bora Zivkovic. He founded an extremely popular conference for science bloggers, established science blog networks at various publications, and now (at least as I write) runs the well-respected collection of blogs at Scientific American. His nickname is the Blogfather. One common route into a science writing career in the past several years has been through Zivkovic: He routinely publishes young writers and promotes their stories with his large social media audience. Zivkovic has always been extremely solicitous of young journalists, generous with his time, charming, enthusiastic, gregarious. A Twitter meme popped up at science blogging conferences: #IHuggedBora.
Zivkovic has a lot of friends, and after Byrne's story went public, many of them expressed support for him, and others questioned Byrne's decision to name him.
Zivkovic admitted to the incident, apologized, and said it was not "behavior that I have engaged in before or since."
Only apparently it was. Another science writer, Hannah Waters, then described similar experiences:I saw him at various events and he began flirting a little. It didn't ring any alarm bells; he is flirtatious by nature. But sometimes talk would veer into more uncomfortable territory, but only vaguely uncomfortable, which made it hard to call out. He would talk about how he gets to hang out with so many smart, beautiful women for his job (as if we should be flattered), make offhand comments about his own sex life, and occasionally tell me that he loved me. Once, while the two of us were outside Ninth Ward in New York City at a science tweetup, he bought a flower for his wife, who was inside. The seller gave him an extra for free, which he gave to me, joking that I was his "concubine." I didn't even know how to respond, awkwardly laughing it off, but fled the scene without goodbyes soon after. "I just want to call him out when he makes any kind of offhand comment," I wrote to my best friend later. "But what I could lose by doing so is too great, so it's really just degrading."
Waters and Byrne were careful to be precise and not exaggerate what happened to them, which is that they felt very uncomfortable when their conversations with one of the most powerful people in their profession turned sexual. They weren't raped or groped, and they suffered no obvious career setbacks by failing to take Zivkovic up on what they perceived as the implicit request for sex. But they felt lousy and confused. Here's what I found most distressing in Waters' post: "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 told Waters directly and repeat here that she and Byrne are talented writers who are not faking it. But of course they wonder about how their career trajectories will be perceived, and I'm sure many other people who have gotten a break or a boost from Zivkovic have the same nagging worries.
Lots of people get a leg up from somebody -- because they were in the right place at the right time, because they asked, because they went to the same school, because they're Jewish or because they're a WASP, because they're black, Chinese, or not a man.
I actually had been in the dark about this Bora furor because of a big deadline. A friend in science emailed me about it, wanting to know my thoughts, and here's what I emailed him back:
From what I just read, this is ridiculous bullshit.
Kingsley Browne is so good on this stuff -- terrif book, "Biology at Work," about what sexual harassment really is. It is coercive behavior -- fuck me or you lose your job -- or it is repeated behavior that turns a workplace hostile.
This wasn't a workplace, even if she was looking to do some work. She isn't employed by him.
He didn't say, "Fuck me or you don't get the job. He didn't even imply it. He just had some stuff on his mind and unloaded. It happened to be sexual. It happened to make her uncomfortable.
If you are out to lunch and somebody gets into an uncomfortable topic, if you want to play in the real world and not in the kitchen, well, grow a fucking pair, girlfriend, and tell him the line of conversation makes you unfuckingcomfortable!
Apparently, she eventually said she was uncomfortable -- via email:Since meeting, I've felt a lot of reluctance about pitching to you, and I wanted to let you know why. I felt very uncomfortable during our meeting last week. The talk veered towards sex because you led it there--first describing yourself as a "very sexual person," and then going on to describe your wife's sexual history (which I can't imagine she'd want me to know), the state of your present sex life, and the near-affair you had with a younger woman. I thought all of these topics were incredibly inappropriate to discuss with someone you'd just met, especially one who was interested in working together in a professional capacity and had initiated the meeting as such.
Sometimes, in life, people will make you uncomfortable: By talking about religion, sex, their politics, or something else. If you can't stand the conversation, the adult thing to do is to say something about it. Not just sit there.
If there's anything that makes women unequal to men, it's the need to be treated like pieces of china.
I'm nobody's wounded duck and I don't need laws or social opprobrium to protect me against conversation.
I HAVE A BIG MOUTH AND I AM MORE THAN READY TO USE IT. (That said, I don't mind people talking about sex, and if I'm not interested in sex with them and they are with me, I'll let them know. If they don't then hold a steak knife to my throat and try to fuck me, we're good.)
PS It is a violation of Bora's privacy that she blogged their private lunch conversation simply over being offended by a conversation that veered off into sex, and why? Because she was too fragile a lily to speak up and say "Let's change the subject."
Science writer Seth Mnookin, whose writing and thinking I generally have great respect for, is wrong:
We can't say, on the one hand, that we want to be a community where women are treated equitably and fairly and then on the other hand say that those among us who do not treat women equitably and fairly get a one-time free pass.
Say a man was denigrating the religious to an academic he met with. This is done a lot in academia. Say that person was religious -- or just offended. Do they just sit there and suck it up or ask him to change the subject?
Treating women equally means expecting them to buck up and act like adults and speak their piece when they want something to stop.
And again, what went on does not rise to the legal definition of sexual harassment, but now, some women have elevated any talk of sex, jokes about sex, or compliments about a woman's new boots to sexual harassment.
Oh, and what Bora is is probably European -- not all squeamish about sex, and he probably expects (wrongly, obviously) that American women will act like female adults and not defenseless elementary school girls.
And finally, I'm guessing that there are many others who feel as I do but who can only, at best, privately email Bora their support, because of the witch-hunt that academia so easily becomes when somebody doesn't toe the PC line.