This article, written by Jim C. Hines, is from the July 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
In 2013, a big-name editor at a major sf/f publishing house lost his job after multiple reported incidents of sexual harassment. Among the reports and stories shared around this time was an author who reported that after she signed with this publisher, other writers had quietly warned her about this editor.
She’d signed with them in 2002.
In other words, this editor’s harassment wasn’t a one-time thing. It wasn’t an isolated incident. It was an ongoing problem for more than a decade.
Unfortunately, this isn’t unusual. A 2018 study in the U.S. found that, “Nationwide, 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.”
Social media and other online platforms have opened new channels for harassment. A 2022 White House report notes that, “85% of women and girls globally have experienced some form of online harassment and abuse,” and in the U.S., “one in three women under the age of 35—and over half of LGBTQI+ individuals—report experiencing sexual harassment and stalking online.”
If this is such a widespread problem, why hasn’t more been done to stop it? How could that editor get away with it for so many years?
I’ve worked in and written about sexual violence and harassment prevention and education since the ‘90s. I quickly learned that most harassers have had a lot of practice. In the case of the aforementioned editor, 10-plus years is a long time to get good at something—and to learn how to get away with it.
Common tactics include
- Plausible deniability: It’s always a misunderstanding. An accident. A miscommunication. It was all in fun, and you’re overreacting. He’s just socially awkward.
- The goal is to make the targets second-guess themselves, and to keep bystanders or third parties neutral.
- Selective targeting: It’s funny how people who claim they’re just “socially awkward” never harass people with more power. It’s always an editor harassing a new author. An established author taking advantage of unpublished writers. An agent targeting a first-time novelist.
- In other words, it’s not awkwardness. It’s a deliberate choice to victimize people who are less likely to speak up or fight back.
- Toeing the line: Particularly online, harassers know exactly how far they can go without getting reported or banned. (But if you respond and say the wrong word, they’ll get you thrown in Facebook jail or the equivalent.)
- The goal is power and control over the target, to make them feel helpless to do anything.
- Cultivating character witnesses: How many times have we seen someone outed as a harasser only to have people pour out of the woodwork to say how nice that person is, or that they’ve never seen any evidence of bad behavior? This isn’t an accident. Harassers deliberately cultivate that image.
- The goal is, once again, to create doubt when and if their harassment comes out.
- Anonymity: As authors and other publishing professionals, we’re at a disadvantage online. Our identity is there for everyone to see. Whereas it’s easy for harassers to create throwaway accounts to target us.
- Anonymity is another tactic for avoiding consequences. Even if the harasser gets banned, it’s easy for them to create a new fake account.
It doesn’t help that society has strong victim-blaming tendencies. Too often when someone talks about being harassed, the first question is, “Why didn’t you fight back/scream/kick their ass?” instead of keeping the responsibility on the harassers.
Let’s be clear: harassment is not the fault or responsibility of the victim, no matter what you did or didn’t do.
Years ago at a convention in Kentucky, I was on an elevator with a group that included a loud, obnoxious, very drunk woman. Her friend kept giving me apologetic looks, and I did my best to ignore the rambling. Then as I was stepping off the elevator, the drunk grabbed my ass.
I remember an initial moment of shock. Next came second-guessing whether that had really happened—maybe someone just bumped into me? In the seconds it took me to process, the elevator had closed. I was left feeling pissed off with nothing I could do about it.
That shock is very normal, and very human. We like to fantasize about how we’d take down the jerks, but real life rarely works that way. We freeze. We second-guess. We worry about our safety.
And there’s social pressure to let things slide. “Just ignore it,” like my teachers used to say. Women in particular are socialized to be quiet and accept a certain amount of objectification and harassment. If you’re Black, raising your voice in the wrong crowd can get you labeled “angry” and “dangerous.”
So what do we do? How do we reduce harassment? How do we protect ourselves in our professional spaces and the world?
It’s common to second-guess what a target of harassment should or shouldn’t have done. Why don’t we ask about the people who hear the sexist joke or the inappropriate comment and say nothing?
Bystander intervention is a powerful and effective tool. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking the harasser in the eye and saying, “Dude, not cool.” If you see someone who looks trapped and uncomfortable in a conversation, check in and ask if they’re all right. Or—since they might not feel safe—offer them an escape. “Do you have a second to show me where registration is?”
Harassment isn’t limited by gender, race, orientation, or any other factor. But statistically, harassers are more likely to be men, and the targets are more likely to be women. That makes it especially important for us as men to speak against harassment, both in general and when we see it happening. A man might ignore or brush off a protest from a woman, but could be more responsive if called out by another guy.
Victims of harassment
There’s no one right way to respond, and every situation is different. Your first priority is your safety. Once you’re safe, you’ll have to decide what steps to take.
Remember, it’s not your fault, and you’re not alone. No “misunderstanding” or “mixed messages” gives anyone the right to harass you, and as mentioned before, this is unfortunately very common. The person who harassed you has probably done the same to many others.
Some options include:
- Document – It can be helpful to write down what happened. Note when and where and who was involved. If you decide to report, this can be helpful as a reference. It can also help you through the initial shock.
- Talk to a friend – Find someone you trust and talk about what happened. There’s a tendency to minimize and blame ourselves. A friend can help to reality-check and remind you this wasn’t your fault, and it wasn’t okay. They can also provide support for whatever else you choose to do.
- Decide whether to report – This is your choice, and it’s not always easy. Some organizations and groups take reports of harassment very seriously. Others, not so much. One convention I know banned a harasser for life. Another shared an unredacted copy of the complaint with the alleged harasser. (Dear Conventions: Don’t do this. Just don’t.) How to report will depend on where the harassment took place.
- Was the harasser a publishing professional? Most publishers and agencies want to know if their staff are behaving inappropriately. Check their website and contact them to ask who you should direct complaints to.
- Were you at a convention or conference? Many events have a harassment policy with a guide for reporting. If not, talk to staff and ask how to proceed.
- Did it happen online? See if the platform has a mechanism for reporting harassment. This can be hit or miss in terms of effectiveness. At the very least, take a screenshot and make liberal use of the block button.
- Should you make a police report? In my experience, the police may not act without a direct threat of violence. In most cases of sexual harassment, I’ve seen people get better responses from reporting to event organizers or employers. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a stalkery fan or you feel that your safety is at risk, contacting the authorities may be the way to go.
All of us
It’s important to continue the conversation. The #MeToo hashtag didn’t magically end harassment. The more of us who understand and pay attention to the problem, the more likely there will be bystanders to intervene. The more that organizations recognize harassment as a serious issue, the more likely they are to put policies in place for reporting and prevention.
It’s a widespread, ongoing problem, but it’s one we can and should fight. Together.
Jim C. Hines has worked as a volunteer sexual assault counselor and as the outreach coordinator for a domestic violence shelter. He’s also the author of the Magic ex Libris series, the Princess series of fairy tale retellings, the humorous Goblin Quest trilogy, and the Fable Legends tie-in Blood of Heroes. He won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. His latest novel is Terminal Peace, book three in the humorous science fiction Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse trilogy. Jim currently lives in mid-Michigan with his family.