Sexual Harassment, Consequences, and our Culture

I posted back in 2018 about my experience with Myke Cole at an agency dinner at the World Fantasy Convention back in 2009.  Here’s a link to that, for those just catching up.

As I’ve watched events unfold over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about what, if anything, I want to add to what I’ve already said.  The conclusion I’ve come to is that in 2018 I was speaking from a place of personal pain, working on personal healing.  I stand by what I said in that post, in that the personal apology I received from Myke was enough for me to forgive him and move on.  I haven’t felt the weight of emotion surrounding this incident in the years since.  I have no personal issue with Myke any longer. 

But I’ve also realized that I do have more to say now, because I don’t want anyone to assume from my earlier post that I don’t support the other victims, or the consequences Myke is facing now.  My personal reactions are my own.  No one else is obligated or likely to have the same personal reactions, as their circumstances are each unique.  I think it’s absolutely appropriate for Myke to receive consequences for things that have subsequently come to light.  My lack of problem with Myke doesn’t absolve him of anything he has ever done.  There should be consequences for the way he has behaved and the people he has hurt. 

I’ve also been thinking a lot about something else I said back in 2018.  I argued at the time with my agency that it would be hypocritical for them to drop Myke based solely on what happened to me because the entire incident was witnessed by Joshua Bilmes, the head of the agency, who said and did nothing, and therefore it would be hypocritical of them to make a scapegoat of Myke.

I still believe this in part.  I think it would have been deeply hypocritical for them to scapegoat Myke without admitting their part in it.  Now, though, seeing more clearly around my own personal pain and recovery, and having a greater understanding of the ways that systemic sexism functions and persists, I believe what I said was incomplete.

What I should have asked for in 2018 was that both Myke and the agency be expected to answer for their actions.  I love JABberwocky.  I am proud to be a JABberwocky client.  I have been universally treated with respect by all of the agency’s employees to the best of my recollection.

Except that time.  I don’t think in 2018 I was ready to deal with just how much the culture surrounding the harasser supports and permits the harassment to continue uninterrupted.  To me, this is no longer about Myke.  It’s about the culture and the system that invites and supports abusers and harassers.  It’s about a culture that needs to change, including but not limited to the culture at my own agency.

I have reached out to my agent and asked, as I wish I had back in 2018, that they admit publicly to the cultural problems within the agency that contributed to Myke’s behavior going unnoticed and unchecked.  Holding Myke accountable was an important step, but only a first step.  I’ve asked that they hold themselves accountable as well. 

If the cultural problem were limited to my agency, I would end the post there.  But unfortunately, given the vast array of circumstances within the publishing industry in which women have been inappropriately treated, the problem is obviously spread far and wide.  It’s not enough for my agency to own up for their part in the cultural problem.  We all need to take a long look at the ways in which we contribute to the culture.  Expelling harassers from conventions, canceling their contracts, and dropping their representation are all good and necessary steps.  But until we have a culture that rejects rather than protects these behaviors, there will always be another harasser stepping up to take their place.  Personal consequences are good and right, but they only hurt the perpetrator, and do nothing to protect the current and future victims. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about a phenomenon I’ve observed, in which harassment can happen in a room full of people, and the observers don’t even realize it’s happened until after the fact (if they ever realize it happened at all).  It feels as if some of us are in one parallel dimension while the others inhabit another.  In one dimension, everything is fine.  In the other, things are terribly wrong, and no one in the “fine” dimension can see it.  It’s the stuff of nightmares, really, but it’s reality for those of us who find ourselves on the end of treatment that seems to be invisible even to those who are witnessing it. 

Until all members of our community can see harassment for the hurtful behavior it is and step in to intervene at the moment it’s happening, nothing is going to change.  More victims will be hurt.  More perpetrators will be punished.  But the problem is cultural, and if the culture doesn’t change, the result will remain the same.

To me, that change has to start with truth.  Until people who have observed harassment and done nothing can look back, see what they have done wrong, admit to it, and make a plan to behave differently in the future, nothing will change. 

Everyone in the culture needs to look at themselves and see what they are doing that ignores the pain of victims.  If you witness an interaction that makes you uncomfortable, you can say so at the time.  If you are wrong about what’s happening and feel stupid, that pain will be temporary compared to the potential pain of a victim who is left wondering for years if she imagined what happened.  If you witnessed inappropriate treatment but failed to speak, you can go to both the victim and perpetrator and call it out as soon as you realize that failing.  If you failed at it years ago, you can still do this.  It’s never too late to do the right thing, even if it’s always better to have done it at the right time.

The victim may tell you everything’s fine.  In fact, they probably will, even if it isn’t true.  This is the human brain’s desperate attempt to make things be okay when they are obviously not.  You never know who will look back at moment differently because someone saw the pain they were in, the pain they couldn’t even admit to themselves existed in that moment.  In 2009, there was one person who saw what happened to me.  He approached me after the fact and said, “I’m sorry about that asshole at dinner.”  I told him it was fine, even though it wasn’t.  That has meant everything to me since, though, because I knew it wasn’t in my head.  Someone saw.  Someone said something.  Other people should have and didn’t.  We’re all learning and growing, and we all need to step up and change.

I want to address one more sentiment that I’ve seen floating around on Twitter, the idea that these accusations stem from a mob mentality.  “Who is going to hold these women accountable?” they ask.  “How do we know they aren’t doing it for attention?”

For the purposes of this post, I am going to treat these like serious questions.  I can tell you from extensive personal experience that no one wants this kind of attention.  I don’t want it.  I never did.

But, in answer to the first question: I am the one who holds me accountable.  What happened wasn’t my fault.  I didn’t ask to be in that situation.  I don’t owe any individual my time, my energy, the days of my life I’ve spent drafting these posts and dealing with the emotional fallout. 

But I am a member of this culture, and I am responsible for the footprint my actions (or lack of action) have on the people and culture around me.  I hold myself accountable, and so I speak anyway, even though the internet is forever, even though on some random Thursday morning I can be trying to play Animal Crossing with my eight year old and discover that all this is back, and I have a responsibility to try to use my influence again to make things better.

We all have an influence on the culture around us.  This is my accounting for my own influence.  This is the way I’m trying to change. 

Please join me in taking an honest stock of your own influence, your own mistakes, your own failings.  Be honest about the way that you’ve hurt people, even if by your silence.  Especially by your silence.  Make specific plans to change. 

There will always be serial abusers.  We can’t count on them to take responsibility for their actions.  We need to take responsibility for our own culture, and stop protecting them, even with our silence.

Only then will things begin to change.