I've been having an interesting conversation with two men via email about trolls, what to ignore, and what (I believe) is far more dangerous and forces women to stand up and call "bull": sexual harassment.
I chose years ago
not to do any more television or media publicity partly because I didn't feel
comfortable 'opening up' my life that way to all and sundry. If you appear on
television in peoples' living rooms, they tend to make a 'personal' connection -
and whilst mostly this is positive in nature, there are always some weirdos,
overwhelmingly men, who sent strange emails. Some were rants, others about their
sexual fantasies. Even close male friends thought I was exaggerating until I
forwarded a selection of these emails: men sending naked photos of themselves,
men telling me they masturbate to my photo, and emails of that ilk. I still
receive the odd one, and one or two of these emails I briefly posted on this
blog in an effort to shame them (it didn't work; they took it as encouragement),
but most I choose to ignore.
I know that Mary Beard made these trolls
into a 'cause celebre' by writing about them - eg here. I understand why she wrote about
them, and that popular academics need to engage about everything and anything in
the media to get coverage and stay in the public eye. Her first piece was not
about a man that posed any threat to her other than denting her ego by childishly criticizing her looks. Yes, death
threats and rape threats should be reported, but the first rule of common sense
is not to Google oneself, and the second is not to be surprised if not everyone
eulogises you in a warm and fuzzy way or thinks your looks are on a par with Aphrodite.
I find it strange that Mary Beard
seemed to get more upset by a "troll" that criticised her looks than when
discussing rape, but we all choose our priorities.
I block "trolls" on
Twitter, email and so forth, and unless they make threats, just ignore them.
I do not define "trolls" as people whose views I disagree with. I do
however tend to ignore extremists, and just I wouldn't bother to debate
theology with that extremist Mormon sect that believes in dozens of wives,
ideally young ones, and I don't bother to discuss cultural property issues with
the extremists at the ACCG who think all cultural property should be freely
available to them because they think it would be better off in their living
rooms than at the archaeological sites they were looted from. I don't bother to
read the web sites of such groups, and don't waste my time arguing with them.
If they repeatedly contact me they are trolls, but if they leave me alone as far
as I'm concerned they're welcome to shout into the vacuum of the internet.
There is a bit difference between
trolls who are strangers and harass people, and harassment in real life.
Sometimes I get very frustrated when I hear some of the bullshit lies
people I know 'in real life' spread, and sometimes I get so frustrated I do a
blog post about it. One of the men I've been discussing this with said that if I
didn't blog about it, he wouldn't know about it, and that's a good point. My
problem is that although good friends don't believe it, I'm always shocked how much
complete and utter crap casual friends and acquaintances will unless one denies it, and I find that
what I hear repeated to me tends to be the tip of the iceberg. And I also find
once one publicly shames someone by blogging about their lies and harassment,
they generally are shamed into stopping.
Gossip and lies are part of
life, and some women will always bitch and lie, just as some men will also
develop fantasies about relationships that exist only in their heads.
worries me when those fantasies cross over into my 'real' life, and when they
involve people in my field, and that those people begin undermining my work
because of their frustrations over their sexual fantasies.
Then it becomes
Sexual harassment is alive and well, and I feel that
the only way women can 'deal' with it by standing up to the men harassing them,
by complaining about them to their institution and by calling 'bull' on those
Like rape, sexual harassment is about power. Obviously rape is far
worse, but sexual harassment can be, and is designed to be, extremely upsetting
When I was at university, I was sexually harassed. I wrote a piece about it in the Guardian in 2004, here, and whilst some people can over-react and can be 'politically correct' over harmless issues, I've since found that if anything it has become worse as I get older.
At university I complained and was told to "just ignore it" and that if I filed a complaint -
the man in charge of talking to me about "my" issues was trying to be
sympathetic but realistic - the likelihood was that no action would be taken
against the man, but that I'd ruin my reputation and make myself unemployable. I
didn't file the complaint. He didn't stop harassing me. The next time he reached
out to grope my breasts, I didn't file a complaint. I kneed him very hard in the
balls. Obviously those were different days, and I wouldn't recommend physical
violence, but ... if a man tried to grope me against my wishes today, I suspect
I'd be less tolerant and go straight for self-defense.
That was a long
time ago, when I was young and naïve. These days I would have hoped we had moved
on, and that sexual harassment of young academics was treated differently. (I
won't say harassment of young women, because I know of a male curator at the
British Museum who was not only sexually harassed, but whose harassment was
ignored because he's a man).
I also naively thought that now that I'm 40
and middle aged, I wouldn't have to deal with sexual harassment. Unfortunately I
do. And what doesn't help is that I am now expected to be 'mature' enough to
deal with it in an 'adult' way - ie ignore it.
At the start of the year
I discovered that a male academic had been telling my colleagues that I only
disagreed with his research because I was bitter because either: a) we had had an
affair that he had ended and I was bitter, or b) that I had wanted to have an
affair, he had turned me down, and I was bitter. Yes, there seemed to be two
versions, and as with so many lies spread behind the victim's back, by the time
the victim (me) hears about it the damage is done. I can neither prove that I
didn't sleep with him, nor prove that the idea of sleeping with him never even
crossed my mind.
I disagree with his academic research because his theories are
complete crap based on a very dubious reading of 'facts" that support them and
the complete disregard of facts that contradict his theories. He bullies people into
'agreeing' with him. When I refused to be cowed into accepting his views, he
spread lies and sexual slurs about me.
The lies he spread were pure and
simple sexual harassment. They didn't have the physical element of groping, but
their aim was the same: to belittle me, make me feel 'dirty' and to 'use' sexual
slurs against me.
If he told these lies about me to colleagues that were
old friends of mine, God knows what he told colleagues that were not my friends.
Worse, some friends had assumed he wouldn't tell them bold lies about me, so
assumed his claims must be true. I hit the roof. I was able to explain to
friends that his claims were lies and sexual harassment, but I couldn't do the
same to every single other person who might have heard them so I decided to
publicly call 'bull' on him and try to both defend myself and turn the tables on
I also felt that if he harassed me, a 40 year old woman and a
'peer' (well, actually technically his superior in academic rank) then what the
hell was he doing to his students. So I complained to his head of department.
Yes, dear readers, the women amongst you will not be surprised to hear
that nobody in any official capacity felt the need to take any action against
him, in effect officially sanctioning that it is perfectly fine with them for
him to sexually harass anyone he likes. I hope he doesn't escalate now, because
I consider what he did bad enough.
Maybe I should 'rise above' sexual
harassment and ignore it. Maybe I could if it were an isolated incident, and I
could simply put behind me.
But it was not.
From the stories that have
been getting back to me, two other men have been making similar vile attacks,
similarly bringing in some fantasy sexual relationship with me that existed in
their heads not reality, and similarly using those ridiculous slurs to undermine
I've been told I shouldn't take it so personally. That
I shouldn't blog about such personal things. And so forth.
women will understand why I've hit the roof, and why I plan to fight back and
embarrass the hell out of any man that tries to sexually harass me.
From now on I plan to have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment,
and reserved the right to name and shame anyone that tries to make me a victim
of this particularly nefarious form of bullying. If sexual harassment is about
power, then I should have the power to fight back.
Yes, maybe some men
think I should buck up, but others I talked to have been horrified.
Maybe this is too personal, but I'm a middle aged woman who's quite
secure in herself. I managed to deal this summer with: a young loved one dying
suddenly, a friend being diagnosed with advanced terminal cancer, a loved one
being treated for bad but operable cancer, and a close relative about to die. Maybe I'm not dealing with yet more sexual harassment as well as I
should, so apologies to those who think I should just take it on the chin and
On Saturday night I barely slept because I was so upset and
angry about it, on Sunday night I was so stressed I managed maximum half an hour. On Monday the doctor gave
me a prescription, and I slept. Then I hit the roof. Yesterday morning I ended
up crying. Today I cried some more.
Death and illness are inevitable and we need to deal with them;
sexual harassment should not be. It is designed to be extremely upsetting, and
it is. It makes women feel dirty and that is why so many of us don't fight back.
I find the whole current public discussion about whether or not Muslim
women in British universities should be allowed to be fully veiled puzzling in
some aspects, but I understand why some women are arguing that it prevents
sexualisation and harassment of women. I would rather we worked instead on
actually stamping out sexual harassment in universities by doing something about
it, by punishing misogynistic males that harass women rather than merely paying
lip service to the idea of doing so.
I'm also going to be honest by giving you
an example of how sexual harassment has affected me.
I've used a variety
of excuses for not writing another 'popular' history book, even though I have
several half-written ones on my hard drive that publishers have expressed
interest in. I've said that I don't like dealing with the nonsense that involves
doing the publicity for one, or the reactions from people to being in the
newspapers. I don't really like that I became the story not my book, but most
journalists were complete professionals, and I accept that part of selling a
book selling it through the media.
My problem is that it is almost impossible to sell a book without the book chain Waterstones,
and this is where the sexual harassment problem comes in.
For several years a man that organised book events at Waterstones was harassing
many of the female authors that either 'did' the book events or attended them.
Some harassment was verbal, a little physical, and a lot by email and through
the Waterstones Facebook Group. We were invited to orgies, we were emailed his
sexual fantasies, sometimes featuring us, sometimes not. A polite request to
stop earned a tirade about insulting him as an erotic author, and the emails
sent from various addresses did not stop. A firm request to stop brought forth a
whole host of threats, including not having having our books sold in
Waterstones. I know that he acted on this, and cancelled copies of my book
customers had ordered.
It isn't by any means the main reason I was treated for PTSD, but how traumatized I felt by the way this employee of Waterstones was making me feel is
one of the major reasons I decided to speak to my GP about it, and the final trauma that made me seek treatment for PTSD. Whilst in treatment for PTSD I had to
repeatedly ask this man to stop sexually harassing me, and to stop emailing me from new
accounts. I complained to Waterstones management, but no-one bothered to 'get back' to me.
complained again and again to Waterstones, and they finally admitted verbally that several other women authors
had made similar claims. I asked if they'd fired him, and I was told that
because he was a recovering alcoholic who attended Alcoholics Anonymous,
Waterstones decided instead to put him on paid leave to 'deal' with his problems.
So, Waterstones is fine with sexual harassment, but former alcoholics need to be given all the help and support they need. Waterstones never, to the best of my knowledge, bothered to get back to any of us about the sexual harassment and
threats I and other women I know were subjected to by their employee on an
almost daily basis for close to a year. Waterstones clearly thinks sexual
harassment is a trivial issue, and I find the way the management dealt with it
almost more insulting than the original harassment.
So that, in short is mostly why I have not published any more 'popular history books'
Maybe some people will feel that I am being melodramatic and overly
personal, but I felt that it was important to show how sexual harassment affects
women, and the best way I could do so was by explaining how it has affected me.
Sexual harassment should not be ignored, and it will not 'go
away' if we do. The only way to fight it, is to fight back, and the first step in doing so is by speaking publicly about it.