No, this doesn't mean you need to avoid your female colleagues like the plague

Oct 18 2013 Published by under Academics, Anger, AntiFeminist Asshole

Bora Zivkovic has been a skeevy, predatory harasser of women. He was accused in online public and confessed. Subsequent revelations from other women who were similarly preyed upon follow a similar narrative. So even if Bora's original confession admitted only to one incident, well, nobody believes that and nor should anyone.

I have been, and will likely remain, relatively muted on this topic. There are a number of reasons. When the original story broke I was immediately struck by the way that providing the full narrative of Bora's predation strategy dragged in an innocent party, i.e., his wife. I was very uncomfortable with that, although in the subsequent days, I have to acknowledge that showing the consistency of the approach is of value. This is a sustained pattern of behavior that is at least habitual if not exquisitely planned. Second, I'm naive. It was in recent years that I was fully hit with the pervasiveness of harassment in the profession of science. I happened to be meeting a friend at a conference and it was just after she'd been harassed at a prior event that day. I failed her miserably in my disbelief. So I listen. Thirdly, this is not about me and my reactions and, when you have one of the more robust commentariats going, there's a chance of pulling the discussion here, instead of where it properly belongs.

Being muted, however, runs the risk of being seen as hesitant to call this harassing behavior out for what it is, or hesitant to call out the perpetrator because it is Bora. See first sentence.

This post is going to present two ideas that are in opposition and I am seeking help in reconciling them.

First, go read "Two Stories" by Kathleen Raven. It is important in the first instance because it details the sheer persistence with which Bora pursued his victims. The reprinted emails from Bora to Kathleen are likewise important because they illustrate both the sustained grooming behavior and the rationalization process by which the predator justifies himself to himself.

The detail in these stories, even if it makes us uncomfortable for third parties (spouses, etc), is important. It dismantles any lingering suspicion on the part of those favorably disposed toward Bora that these are "cray-cray" (as one Twitter waghole put it) accusations. It dismantles any thought that a friendly, hugging kind of swell dude is being pilloried by overly sensitive harridans or being ambushed by disgruntled authors who legitimately failed to win his backing for their work.

MarkCC nailed down the threshold for objection part in his post.

But what about cases where you didn't mean anything sexual, like when you complimented your coworker on her outfit, and she accused you of harassing her?

This scenario is, largely, a fraud.

Lots of people legitimately worry about it, because they've heard so much about this in the media, in politics, in news. The thing is, the reason that you hear all of this is because of people who are deliberately promoting it as part of a socio-political agenda. People who want to excuse or normalize this kind of behavior want to create the illusion of blurred lines.

Rep. Anthony Wiener, Mayor Bob Filner......President Bill Clinton. Democrats. Politically supportive of women, women's rights and equality. Good Guys. And total predatory harassers. With extended histories of predation upon multiple women using disgustingly repetitive hunting strategies. Sounds familiar doesn't it?

So men? If you hesitate to call a spade a spade because you are afraid that that one time you mis-hugged and accidently touched her ass, or boob-elbowed her in the coffee line, is going to put you on the hot seat? It isn't. That's another thing these stories (also see the #ripplesofdoubt and storify of same) tell us. Women are INCREDIBLY hesitant to over-interpret. I hate to use the word tolerant but that's what it is. Highly tolerant even of the preliminary and full-throated behavior of a confirmed sexual predator or serial harasser. So no, there is no reason for well intentioned men to pull back from their female colleagues in the professional setting.

This hesitation is undoubtedly a ripple effect. I think we should try, in our professional contexts, to be as aware of this as we are of not-offending. The risks are not as high as we might think for a minor faux pas to become an accusation of impropriety.

HOWEVER,

....each and every act that makes a woman uncomfortable needs to be seen as serious. Everyone needs to recognize that it is NEVER about the perpetrator's intent but rather about the victim's perceptions. And yeah. I know. There IS such a thing as an oversensitive person. There IS such a thing as a nutter gold digger out to unfairly take advantage of a nothing situation. There ARE mindblowingly awkward mis-hearings of another person. But these are vanishingly rare. And hardly enough evidence to base your entire professional stance around.

This is ALSO the story that is emerging from the personal accounts of interactions with Bora. The minor events that made the woman uncomfortable. Sure, the woman may not have put it all together until later or until after the sustained pattern had been established. But you'll notice that the "little thing" made. them. feel. uncomfortable.

So.....

1) Men don't need to draw back from women because this is not about normal interactions. And 2) Even one uncomfortable interaction is a problem.

I don't know how to resolve these with one remaining part of the puzzle.

It is unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate) that I was recently smarting off on Twitter about my policy of no-hugging-the-Monkey in the context of onlinegroup-based meetups at scientific meetings. I am by no means a "hugger" or "demonstrative" or "friendly" or any of those other descriptions the grab-asss harassers usually start with in their self-defense. So it is easy for me to say "just act normal" in a professional setting.

I credit, hesitatingly, that there may actually be men who are indeed non-harassers and are physically demonstrative and can do it in a way that creeps out nobody. For this type of person, I have no advice on how to navigate because it just isn't me. I have no understanding of their "normal" interactions.

But someone like me doesn't get off scott-free in this discussion either.

There are ripple effects of being stand-offish too.

Indeed it is because my no-hugging policy comes more from a place of my take on respectable professional behavior than it does from any personal dislike of being touched. (and I know people have these issues, they should be respected too, and not dismissed as neurotic). This means that inevitably there ARE people in my professional life/interactions who are within my huggosphere. It would be slightly weird NOT to hug them when I see them.

A big part off the "ripples" discussion with respect to Bora had to do with his relatively influential place within the online-communication marketplace. He had the power to enlarge a writer's audience, profile and indeed to determine who obtained paying gigs directly. He would have had tremendous power to spike someone's professional ventures as well.

While I don't feel like I have any particular standing in online communication, I have to acknowledge that more than one blogger has indicated that his/her traffic really took off following a mention from me on my blog. That makes me a (minor) gateway. Obviously, I choose what to promote based on what grabs my interest and I don't necessarily promote every blog that I run across. Which means that, even in my very minor way, when I attend online-based meetups there is some possibility that there are burgeoning writers and/or bloggers that want to talk to me, get to know me. Maybe I will twig on their blog and promote it?

This makes me concerned about my relative friendliness at such meetings. It makes me concerned that I should not blow off some attractive young woman in preference for talking to some young man. Or in preference for talking to "my crowd" of older, staid and generally happily married people. It reminds me not to let my little problem with meeting badge placement hurry my conversations to an end.

I remind you that these self-same concerns are not limited to my blog hobby either.

These scenarios play out in my professional life as well, since most scientific meetings have their social side.

This is what I am thinking about this week.

I am grateful to all who have courageously shared their harassment stories in public. I am grateful for those of you who have offered concerns about ripple effects...these are perhaps even the most valuable actionable concerns for the majority of the community.

I leave you, men, with the consideration that it is not important that you post-mortem your own behavior to box score your good/bad behavior. It is most important that you become more aware of the potential implications. Awareness has a way of making things better.

h/t Janet Stemwedel, Karen James.

Related from Prof-like Substance

40 responses so far

  • Dirk Hanson says:

    I was raised in the Midwest, where my Daddy taught me that the good old-fashioned American handshake is always appropriate, with anyone, anywhere. Beyond that, you need an invitation....

  • Thanks for this. Lots to think about.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Dirk- some of us operate with a lot of foreign colleagues where the appropriate professional greeting might freak a midwesterner right the hell out. this speaks to my last point that it is not sufficient just to withdraw entirely. this can have implications too.

  • jipkin says:

    I thought over the "Would I be scared of treating women nicely" argument in my head too, wondering if there was any truth to it. But Bora knew what he was doing and was way over the line. Way way over. There's no conceivable universe in which I can imagine myself being that far over the line. I don't hug except for my good friends, I don't talk about my sex life with someone I just met in person for coffee, hell I don't talk about my sex life with ANYONE, I don't compliment women (or men, for that matter) on their bodies, I don't compliment their clothing (I wouldn't know where to start if I wanted to), I don't compliment their hair, I don't do that stuff. And I think most guys are the same way. Was any dude except Bora doing this shit?

    I sincerely hope and expect there won't be problems with most men acting weird because of this. Nikita et al. over at Seth Mnookin's place kept bringing up these weird cases "OMG what if I can't hug anyone anymore???" "Can we not compliment their appearance??" and I just don't see these hypothetical borderline cases as a widespread problem when I reflect on the interactions I've seen between men and women in science (although perhaps I haven't been looking hard enough?).

    The real men to worry about are the predators still out there, I suppose. And, thankfully, the silver lining of this whole scandal is that the whole community is on guard for that kind of behavior. Hopefully it can be minimized because of that.

  • Isabel says:

    "1) Men don't need to draw back from women because this is not about normal interactions. And 2) Even one uncomfortable interaction is a problem. "

    well stated, and I think this is fine as is.

    If hugging becomes a problem, then something is going on in category 2. I don't even think hugging was a problem with Bora.

    Can we please talk about the part that was the problem? The skeevy stuff?

  • drugmonkey says:

    I don't think anyone is in disagreement that the skeevy stuff is skeevy, Isabel. It is important, but not a particularly deep topic of discussion.

  • drugmonkey says:

    jipkin- i think one possible problem with walling off the way-out-of-bounds skeevy harassment and predation from the spectrum of interpersonal interaction is that it keeps us from nipping stuff in the bud. It keeps us from fixing the small stuff. And sometimes the small stuff is also important.

  • Brooke says:

    A simple rule to follow in general is to ASK before touching. Unless the person is someone very close, whom you would normally hug in greeting, just ask before grabbing them.

    Also, the vast majority of women know when a guy is giving a legitimate, non-creepy compliment and when he's being a creep. "Nice outfit," "Don't you look all dressed-up today," "I like your haircut," etc...these are totally legit. "Your ass looks great in those jeans," "Nice rack," or any suggestive comment made as a woman is bending over for something are all creepy.

    So to recap: compliments=not creepy. Commenting on ass/tits=creepy. Touching without permission=creepy.

    And, because this seems to come up online a lot: no, asking out a female co-worker or colleague is NOT harassment. If she says no and you keep bringing it up, then it becomes harassment.

    How is this difficult?

  • Fe says:

    Mr. DM,

    and how do you propose that people deal with those not so physical microagressions involved

    -in which people walk in public halls of such places of high density acumen, with no 'hugs' involved or acknowledgement of your chosen outfit of the day or not relation whatsoever in terms of employer-employee or even coworkers-

    but rather an innocent but strong bump on your body? and more than once. It happens too, you know. So, among other things, I thought that maybe people got the evolution theory wrong, or that maybe there the truth is different, because it actually happens by repeated strong forces pounding on, like they lack vision. Literally.

    There is only onte road out of that maize: physical violence in response to communicate more efficiently. But you would need evidence of the triggering event-like the big bang- to have a fair 'opportunity' at what are you are set out to accomplish, legally.

    So maybe rather sharp scales would need to grow on you, or your non provocative outfit. But rationality gives you a further cue, both parties loose, so people resort to other means. And maybe that is indicative of outsmarting the fake predators. It is necessary to get along because of many important reasons, so the environmental pollution goes beyond the proposed theories. It involves human issues too.

    My symbol name could be translated literally,

  • jipkin says:

    DM - perhaps I'm thinking about these issues more splitty versus lumpy then. If I understand what you're saying, you're saying that it's not enough to say "I don't do THAT" and forget about it - we should also be cognizant of little things that we do and what impact those can have. Even if that impact is never going to be sexual harassment, but could conceivably, generate a ripple of doubt (in your example about not wanting to blow off a young female blogger who might want see you as a gateway).

    I agree with that completely.

  • drugmonkey says:

    it's not enough to say "I don't do THAT" and forget about it

    Exactly.

  • Isabel says:

    "It keeps us from fixing the small stuff. And sometimes the small stuff is also important."

    Can you give an example, one that is not an early warning sign that a sociopath is starting to operate? What small things do you want to fix? The problem with cases like Bora, is women are excusing some really bad stuff. Everything Kathleen Raven details, especially the emails, is really gross. Why were these actions ever ambiguous to her?

    It seems we DO need to have detailed discussions of the skeevy stuff.

    "So to recap: compliments=not creepy. Commenting on ass/tits=creepy."
    Really? So clear cut?

    "Touching without permission=creepy."

    Obviously subjective. Not really common for human animals to be so averse to, so understandable that lots of cultures are pretty touch-feely and a lot of people innocently forget about this sensitivity. I'm guilty of that myself. I think asking to give a hug is a little odd, so I just try to avoid doing it (seems a lot more people in the sciences than the arts or the general population have an aversion to being touched). it is hardly "creepy", unless you are being more specific ( a middle aged guy who constantly hugs attractive young women as opposed to people in general okay that's creepy).

  • theshortearedowl says:

    I just wanted to contribute: I have guy friends who are natural huggers, and it doesn't come off as creepy BECAUSE IT'S NOT. If women are getting creeped out by you hugging, then it's because you are being creepy about it. End of.

    Incidentally, if you can't tell? You're probably being creepy, and women are being too polite to tell you. Stop it.

    (And DM - this was a great post from someone in the privilege seat. Thanks.)

  • Anon says:

    Most of this is well thought out, save:

    "Women are INCREDIBLY hesitant to over-interpret"

    Women en masse? Based on what? How do you pull these generalisations out of the air and state them as fact? Facts with CAPITALS at that.

    You later say that sure, some people are trigger happy, contradicting the blanket statement.

  • drugmonkey says:

    did you have an actual point in this commentary, Anon debate champeen?

  • Grumble says:

    I don't compliment anyone on their looks, at any time, male or female, except for close personal friends and relations.

    I don't touch anyone in a work setting, except for hand shakes, and even then I'm very sensitive to the fact that in some cultures, women don't shake hands with men.

    I don't think people have the right to be "physically expressive" with other people in a work environment, even if it's mutually consensual. Which it often isn't.

  • Busy says:

    Grumble writes: I don't think people have the right to be "physically expressive" with other people in a work environment, even if it's mutually consensual.

    Wow. There are countries which people greet with a kiss on the cheek. According to your puritan rules they do not have the right to do so, even though it is mutually consensual. Talk about misguided.

    theshortearedowl: If women are getting creeped out by you hugging, then it's because you are being creepy about it. End of.

    This. Our creep-o-meters are finely tuned. Trust your judgement. If it felt creep twice, you bet it was (the first time might have been just different cultural expectations).

  • Anon says:

    Ah the old feigning ignorance. Well if you missed the three question marks, the point was highlighting your arbitrary generalisation, smugly stated with EMPHASIS, despite being exactly what (presumably) you'd stand against in any other context than when someone points it out in your own sermon. As I say, the post on the whole is fine, it's a shame you don't see fit to address this minor criticism, or even provide any counter argument but hey, maybe it's a faultless piece and I (as a male) am of course NOT AT ALL hesitant to over-interpret :)

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You win Anon. Pat yourself on the back and go away proud.

  • Dave Fernig says:

    Great post.
    As regards how to act, there is some excellent advice from Pliny 2000 years ago "When in rome do as the Romans do, when elsewhere do as they do".
    Generally "distance" is always maintained until you know people. So while true that in some countries you greet through a means others might consider intimate, such as a kiss on the cheek, or men holding hands as they walk and talk, this is only true for, and expected of, people of that culture or their foreign friends who have been accepted into that culture.

    A meeting is not a social situation in this sense and given the mix of cultures present, the more demonstrative greetings are toned down out of respect for others. The only exception is a national meeting in such a culture - but then foreigners are generally greeted by a handshake and out of respect, exempt from local custom.

    So it really is quite simple and, as DM says, unless you are ulterior motives, there cannot be discomfort. As for the question who to talk to that DM raises, I think this is also simple. Attending a meeting is a privilege. The resource consumed by attending is precious (whoever is paying) and so is time. Result: talk to those who have the most interesting posters or who have given the most interesting talk. Not the most newsworthy, the most scientifically and/or technically interesting.

  • JB says:

    The topic of sexual harassment will always be divided by the men/women part of their experience. I do agree with DM about the negative effect of overinterpretation. Many women are seeking attention, and they would probably do anything to get it. BUT the same goes for the potentional sexual harasser. He often does it in order to satisfy his ego, not his libido. And you have to keep that on mind.

    You don´t need to be Edward Snowden to gather enough strong evidence. On the contrary, you can make him do a mistake, forcing him to disclosure his attitude in front of other colleagues can be a good strategy to calm him down.

    I do not think that it would necessarily lead to the end of his career or anything. Just a little humiliation by sharing some of your points of view with more people about sexual harassment.

    On the bottom line, I think that the current state of things has to do a lot with the competitive environment we are living in.

  • Fe says:

    I appreciate the DM and others posts on this and the general support on the issue.

    But the harrassing behavior goes beyond sexual and race and 'gender', so it would be good to find the root cause of it, as in any other science analysis, if that is what you are after.

    I perceive harrasment as a misundrestanding and misapplication of concepts leading to a fixed adapted strategy for achieving immediate gains, which are processed as long term cumulative gains resulting in a big final achievement for posterity. A 'grandiose' concept of self.

  • Jimbo says:

    Funny how your column is all about "no need to avoid women at work for fear of awkwardness or false accusations" but any male of normal common sense who reads your column and all the comments would have to notice that it sure would be safer to minimize informal social contacts with women in the workplace --and also that it would generally be a lot more relaxing for everybody just to have a bunch of guys around the lab.

  • Grumble says:

    "Wow. There are countries which people greet with a kiss on the cheek. According to your puritan rules they do not have the right to do so, even though it is mutually consensual. "

    No, you are misinterpreting what I wrote. They should just avoid it in countries where kissing as a greeting (especially in a professional setting) is not part of the custom. That includes the United States.

    When in Rome ...

  • Grumble says:

    " but any male of normal common sense who reads your column and all the comments would have to notice that it sure would be safer to minimize informal social contacts with women in the workplace "

    That is ridiculous. I have lots of social contacts with women, professional and otherwise. I just don't touch them, or make comments about their appearance in a professional setting. There are many other men of "normal common sense" who treat women in the workplace in exactly the same way I do: like colleagues.

  • Isabel says:

    "But the harrassing behavior goes beyond sexual and race and 'gender', so it would be good to find the root cause of it, as in any other science analysis, if that is what you are after... A 'grandiose' concept of self."

    Yes, you are right, it's a good time to look at the whys. Why it plays out more often with males as perpetrators is probably both because of the power structure of the patriarchy, and maybe there are more male sociopaths. I am not sure we know that for sure though. Female sociopaths seem to be in vogue lately. I have come to the conclusion that a small percentage of people, both male and female, have serious personality disorders (sociopathy, narcissism, etc) that cause most social conflicts. And the percentages grow as you move up the ladder, as such people seek out power. There may be a spectrum of behavior, but I think we can still identify a small percentage of people doing most of the damage. Part of the problem is the remaining people deny the existence of these types, and instead interpret their behaviors from their own perspective.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Life is not "safe" Jimbo. Deal.

  • Jimbo says:

    DrugMonkey and Grumble, if you say we cheerfully destroy people's careers for alleged behavior that does not cross the relatively high threshold of true sexual harassment nor lend itself to outside verification, then you are doing several things. First, you are giving very risk averse men a strong incentive to simply avoid women in the workplace when they get a choice, which some will do in ways very disadvantageous to women (eg not hiring them). Second, you are granting enormous opportunities to unscrupulous and bad-intentioned women who now can easily wreak havoc on men who have disappointed or jilted or otherwise displeased them. (Do you not believe that such women exist in numbers large enough to be worth thinking about? If you don't, why don't you explain your reasoning and how you arrive at your extremely low estimates. I have no idea how uncommon this is, but I have heard of two cases like this in academia, which is not a lot, but which implies the rates are not so tiny as to be of no concern.)

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    Poor Jimbo. Life is sooo hard when all these women cluttering up your He-Man Woman-Haters Lab clearly wanna get on your jock, and then when you say "No, I avoid women in the workplace because my tiny brain cannot conceive of a method through which I could interact with a woman professionally without skeeving her," they file sexual harassment claims out of jealousy, rage, and sexual frustration. Yep. That's how it always goes down.

    Anyway, on the topic of the OP, its pattern completion, dude. Maybe its even CA1 mediated! I'm inclined to write off one incident. I'm inclined to write off two, but get that feeling, and avoid. Once a guy has gotten weird at me many times, though, its a pattern. But if he only does it to me once or twice, and does it to my friend a couple times, and does it to half the females he interacts with twice, its not until we pool our stories that the pattern of predation becomes clear.

    At minimum, motherfucker can't see women as real colleagues. (Hi Jimbo!) That's not necessarily a fireable offense, but it makes someone a real poor fit for any position of management, talent recruitment, or public relations. All of which apply in this case.

  • gingerest says:

    "we cheerfully destroy people's careers for alleged behavior that does not cross the relatively high threshold of true sexual harassment nor lend itself to outside verification"

    GodDAMN. I have had it up past my eyebrows with the notion that the actual and extremely common misery of being harassed, the self-doubt, the self-hatred, the danger to one's career, is somehow less important than the possibility that a hypothetical man could be wrongly, nay, maliciously accused by a hypothetical woman who stands somehow to gain, or worse still, who seeks revenge or enjoys destruction for its own sake.

    I would be thrilled if you stayed the ever-living fuck away from me in the workplace, Jimbo, because your professed inability to distinguish between innocuous interaction and sexual harassment, in the absence of an externally codified, ad hoc, verifiable list of forbidden behaviors makes you scary as hell. You are more dangerous to my safety and career than picric acid and plutonium combined, and I think if anyone, anywhere, is likely to hurt someone out of a sick need for revenge, it's probably a guy who responds to real-life real-time stories of sexual harassment with fantasies about career-destroying Furies.

  • embertine says:

    a lot more relaxing for everybody just to have a bunch of guys

    By "everybody", do you mean, "men who are people" as opposed to "women who are not people"?

    I'm guessing the women who work years to get through college only to have their applications repeatedly turned down so that you can "have a bunch of guys" as your colleagues probably don't find that particularly relaxing. Perhaps they don't count.

  • dsks says:

    It's true. A man just isn't safe in the workplace anymore. Personally, I stay in my office all day with the door locked and try not to answer the phone; even if my wife calls (can I really trust her? She is, after all, ONE OF THEM!!!????!).

    If I have to leave for any reason, I always put my hands in my BACK pockets (has to be the back pockets, otherwise THEY might sue you for covert public masturbation. It happens, folks. Probably. Somewhere. No details as such, but you can't rule out the POSSIBILITY!!!????!!!).

    This is no no laughing matter. For any fellas who are interested, I've started an organisation called Shh! (for Sexual Harassment Harassment). Should have it's 501(c) status shortly, I'll keep ya'll informed my innocent man-buddies.

    Until then, be strong, fellas.

    Be strong.

  • Grumble says:

    " you are giving very risk averse men a strong incentive to simply avoid women in the workplace "

    No, *I* am not giving anybody anything.

    Men (and women) who are that risk-averse don't get anywhere in life anyway, so who cares whom they avoid or don't avoid.

  • hipparchia says:

    @dsks: lol! made my day.

    social advice for the truly risk-adverse:

    1. don't comment on people's personal appearance.

    2. don't touch people.

    3. don't talk about sex, politics or religion.

    most of the rest of us juggle (sometimes effortlessly, though not always) a mix of judgment, tolerance, forgiveness, apology and learning from our mistakes.

  • hipparchia says:

    "This post is going to present two ideas that are in opposition and I am seeking help in reconciling them."

    forgive me for being denser than a box of rocks, but i'm not really sure which two ideas you think are in opposition. i'm a relic of the "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" school of feminism, though, so i'll be happy to offer an opinion.

  • […] recent incidents of sexual harassment in the sciences — namely their public disclosure, the responses, and the outcomes of these events — affirm the importance of this work.  If you are […]

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  • kristie says:

    Bora is a disgrace.

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