Some thoughts on harassment and being a good ally

By Christie Wilcox | October 18, 2013 1:06 pm

The science blogging community has been rocked by an intense sexual harassment scandal involving, of all people in the world, the blogfather, Bora. I know a lot of my friends are experiencing a multitude of emotions, from anger to confusion, even remorse. I can’t speak for them, but I can explain why I have stayed fairly quiet about the issue.

I’ve posted my thoughts over on Medium, as a part of The Power of Harassment. Since Medium doesn’t allow comments, feel free to respond to my post here, if you wish.


  • Matt Baen

    I don’t deserve to be called an ally at all. I suck.

    When I was a grad student a professor in my department had overlapping affairs with two female grad students he was also ‘mentoring’, and was compulsively flirty and skeevey. (Aside: He had a failing marriage that he whined to one of them about.) Several of us, men and women alike, knew and nobody told a superior (who surely knew already) nor even confronted him.

    To provide some flavor of the culture, not one but two professor-grad student marriages came out of this small department within a span of a few years in the 90s. (In both cases, these were not advisor-advisee, but still, c’mon.)

    Finally, when he was up for tenure at another university, a female grad student (who is awesome) who had rejected his propositioning told the committee about his behavior. The committee had already known that his flirting made female students uncomfortable. He ended up at a less prestigious school.

    • Marscrumbs

      Were these affairs consensual? if so why is it anybody else’s business?

  • Tiffany Stecker

    great piece on this topic. Although I wasn’t intimately involved in the science blogging/SciOnline community, I can’t say I was completely surprised at the news either. I think the tight community aspect of science blogging and Science Online, the fact that some of the most respected people are also incredibly accessible to new writers (Twitter plays a big role in this too), make the boundaries less strict than in a typical boss/mentor/employee relationship in which the power differential is much clearer. I think Bora took advantage of this lack of clarity, and it’s why few people questioned things like his frequent hugging (friends can hug, right?)

    I have had coffee with Bora and interacted with him at science events/tweetups. I have written on SciAm’s guest blog a couple of times when he was looking to boost the agriculture/food content. I can say with confidence that he never acted inappropriately towards me. However, I have been in workplaces where rumors have circulated about bosses — what-happened-at-the-company’s-Christmas-party-type stories. I did not see these events, and they were not confirmed by the “victim” itself. And, as illustrated in Hannah Walters’s account, much of the message is read between the lines. It’s a good thing this happened in a community of journalists, where we try to seek out as much information as possible, and even a bit nosy. Let’s use those observations for good and to call out those who do harm.

  • Aspiring Ally

    Thank you for your thoughtful, courageous, and, if I may say so, important post on Medium (Scar Tissue: How harassment has made me a bad ally). I continue to be shamed by the behavior of my fellow men, but, as with you, I’m not surprised. I’d like to say a few things here about us y-chromosome carriers that may at first sound defensive (and, I guess, maybe they are in part) but that I intend will support the larger goal of mutual understanding and, especially, appropriate interactions among the genders.

    First, some background. I’m a middle-aged, white male. I want to remain as anonymous as possible in this post because the personal nature of what I have to say could be badly misused in my professional life. As part of that professional life — which comprises and expresses my passion, in which I have an advanced degree, and which I have worked hard to build over decades — I work closely with a lot of folks who don’t look like me. It is my job and my privilege to try to understand the worlds of people with radically different experiences from my own. I’m told I am reasonably successful at that, but I’m really not the one who gets to say. I bring it up because I want to show that I take this topic seriously and have some background in it.

    So, you’re not surprised by the behavior of these two male members of the science profession. You confess even to being jaded (my word, not yours) about it. I think you are entirely justified in your experience. This is what we (men) do. We’re wired this way. In just the same way that humans are “wired” to be xenophobic, which manifests as racism, men are built to see women as sexual objects (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll leave out non-heterosexual objectification, but the argument applies there, too). Of course, as with xenophobia and other traits — pro- or anti-social — that have a significant genetic contribution, there are individual differences and experience has an indispensable role, but my point here is that this is a default setting for most of us.

    Accepting this assertion by no means excuses the behavior, any more than accepting evolutionary pressure to be xenophobic excuses racism. Rather, I make the point because want to convey the entrenchment of the problem. I am not immune to it myself; even in an anonymous blog comment, I won’t detail all the sexualized, even misogynistic mayhem that goes on in my head. It is nearly relentless, triggered by the presence in my line of sight of nearly any sexually developed female. It’s really noisy in here. And, although I have never been accused of harassment, nor am I aware that I was thought to be harassing but not confronted about it, I have more than once over the course of my life said and done inappropriate things to women. (Not every man is like this. As far as I’ve been able to tell, many men’s heads are quieter, but their behavior also tends to be better.)

    A second piece of this is cultural. Having been born before what was then called the Women’s Liberation movement, in my early childhood I learned that women were precious, delicate commodities that it was men’s responsibility to protect (see the etymology of the word “husband”). To both of my parents’ credit, once the culture began to shift, they both enthusiastically strove to adopt the new ideal of equal rights, both abstractly and in our day-to-day family life. But, as a result of this, I, along with the rest of my generation of men and those since, have had to try to figure out what being a man means in this new world of gender equality. I daresay we’re making (slow) progress, but, given we (men) are/were of the privileged class, it’s difficult for us to see what we’re like to deal with from the point of view of someone who doesn’t share that privilege.

    The way out of this is for us guys to hear more about what we look like to women, especially those who are our colleagues. Most of us have no clue what a “boundary violation” is, let alone how many times an hour we commit them. We don’t understand what we’re doing: when we sexualize women, we sexualize ourselves, and in those moments we’re pretty much literally thinking with our testicles. However, when our attention can be drawn to our inappropriate behavior in a way that engages our executive functions, that reminds us of our professional relationships and roles, it has a better chance of being a learning moment for us. Your post is a perfect example of that kind of opportunity.

    I want to underscore that I’m clear this is on us (men). Hardwired or not, our behavior is our responsibility; confused or otherwise, it’s still our job to discover with you, our partners in this cultural transformation, what a society looks like in which all genders share mutual and equal respect. We’ve got a ways to go, but I’m optimistic that we can achieve it. Our best chance is through the kind of self-examination and open sharing you have done with your post. My intent in sharing this is to reciprocate the gift you gave in your post: to let you know what it’s like to be us, so that we can learn from and support each other. I hope that you hear what I’ve said in that spirit and that it may be of some use to that end.

  • Craig Castaneda

    My honest reaction, and I know this is going to seem insensitive and a bad ally, is that your silence was the right answer with Bora. In your reaction, you didn’t point to a single instance of Bora being skeevy, even if you were his “type”. Rumors about, and as someone who got picked on, they’re damaging if people believe them if they’re untrue.

    It’s not some terrible thing to believe in a person in the face of unsubstantiated evidence when your direct experience is contrary.

    That said, you may have overreacted a bit to the woman who came onto you with colleagues. “No thank you” is a fine reaction to someone who compliments your rack. You don’t have to submit to groping, and unless people are encouraging you to do something you don’t want to do, the outrage and embarrassment is misplaced.

    Maybe this is solely a guy’s perspective, and if offensive, I apologize, but there needs to exist a level of understanding when it comes to sexuality, that miscommunications occur, and that yes, people are going to try to do what they think is reasonable and fun. Please understand, I’m not trying to blame you, just remember that it’s perfectly reasonable to say no.

    If you don’t, and try your best not to give an outward notice to your discomfort, there’s nothing they can do to identify the situation, much less address it. She did ask permission, that’s the first step in consent culture, if it was more than just a fun grope, maybe she’d have time to follow up and make sure things were still okay. If there was a significant other, I have a feeling she would have asked both of you, not asked him for you. Thinking she wouldn’t have without evidence is not fair to her.

    I don’t think you’re a prude, but I realize you have been put in situations where you were not respected, and maybe that has made you sensitive to the subject in ways I cannot associate with. I won’t apologize for every one that had a penis on behalf of my gender, but I will say I empathize, and that you deserved better.

    You do not need to feel humiliated, and you have done nothing wrong. If you know the girls who have come forward personally, do them a favor and give them your support now. Coming forward is a hard step.

    That said, you’re one of my favorite science writers. Keep up the good work.

  • Leslie Bianchi

    “She isn’t the first stranger to ask—in public—if she can feel my breasts, and I’m fairly certain she won’t be the last.”

    This blows my mind. That’s really F’d Up. I’d like to meet the guy that could say the same thing happened to him regarding his testicles.

    Regarding speaking out: It seems like the right thing to not spread rumors, but I think of that football coach molesting boys and all the people who overlooked that because of the other values he had as a person. Same thing happens when men hit women. Friends of the abuser often stick up for him or write it off as if it is no big deal. Silence is as big a mistake as jumping to conclusions and accusations.

    As for sexual harassment: I’d like to meet the woman who has never met a man who doesn’t here “no” well. It’s as if they don’t think you mean it. Or that they can convince you to change your mind. Sometimes I think it is a matter of being so egotistical that they think women can’t really mean it. Other times I see it as tunnel-focus.

    In this case, you have a very smart man who knows what he is doing, knows that it is wrong, and still does it. Those stories painted one hell of a profile of a serial harasser which is more than just creepy.

    • chomps

      The “men don’t hear no well” phenomenon is partly a function of women who play “hard to get”; women who sometimes really do mean “NO” and other times, really do want a man to chase them. Even women don’t believe no always means no. Watch any romantic movie ever. The man always has to convince the woman that she really does want him, which she already knows, but she is playing hard to get. Which itself is a function of a girl not wanting to be “easy”. There is so much more down the rabbit hole of our rape culture than even those who protest against it realize. The day I realized the above was the day I really started fearing for my daughter.

    • Craig Castaneda

      Actually, Leslie, something along those lines happened to me just a few months ago. It was a person I barely new and he made an offer within a few sentences of talking to me. I said no, and no doubt, the offer did make me uncomfortable. I’m not attracted to men, and while I do try my very best to be LGBT ally, it was just a little too forward and off putting, and to be honest I froze like a dear in the headlights a little bit. I squeaked out a no, but I was uncomfortable.

      Here’s the kicker: He backed off, said sorry, and that was the end of it.

      Let me give you another piece of info, you won’t hear men talking about it. Those with homophobia will respond to requests like that with anger, those who try to be reasonable will try and talk it out, and of course those that are okay with it will be okay with it.

      Amongst those that do NOT have their wishes respected, who can’t form words like I’d been unable to or who do and are forced into something. For men in this situation, talking about this is even more discouraged, and there are many who view the idea of men as always “wanting it” and can never be raped, especially if the accuser is of the opposite gender.

      What Bora did is right in the gray area of inappropriate, the kind of talk that is definitely okay with friends and in certain situations, the kind of talk that is definitely NOT okay with people you might have possible authority over or share a workplace with.

      With a more libertine attitude, conversations regarding sex are appropriate in this setting or with someone you’re helping not because you want to abuse your authority to sleep with them, but because you find them attractive and are finding their company light and fun. The kind of conversation you might have trying to pick up someone at a bar, that would be appropriate in such a situation. Maybe with an informal setting his view of the line was a little blurry.

      The problem really came from the idea that they were talking about him investing in her career, and had an ability to promote her, and that’s where the rules got broken. Business and conversations about sex really don’t belong together.

      The fact is, there’s a culture where this type of conversation is appropriate, there is a time and a place and people who are more than fine with being approached directly. Not everyone is, however, and especially in a business setting, it’s important to keep that in place so as not to offend anyone. Not being comfortable with this doesn’t make them a prude, anymore than being comfortable with it makes them a harasser.

  • Shecky R

    Christie, I think there are a lot of reasons for not speaking up too much or too fast. Everything may be just as it appears, but there may also be details/nuances that make things more complicated. Maybe one day Bora will write what was going through his mind while conducting this behavior… I doubt it will say, ‘I thought I could serially harass women for sex because of my power over them’… there will be a lot of other variables/factors involved; it’s just easier for most people to process if we reduce it to the former.
    One aspect I haven’t seen brought up (perhaps I’ve missed it) is that Bora was born, raised, and lived most of his life in East Europe, and Europe in general has a more libertine, less Puritanical, less repressed attitude about sex than America continues to have. Europe’s “attitude” and milieu may be good or bad, but it’s what Bora came out of, and I can’t help think it plays a role in all of this. That’s NOT TO OFFER AN EXCUSE FOR HIS BEHAVIOR, but just to say that all context ought be considered before we paint horns and a pitchfork on a colleague. There’s a lot of other “context” that might be pertinent as well, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

    If you scratch below the surface of almost anyone’s life you find things, that looked at in isolation, might disgrace that individual. I don’t know that I’ll ever have enough information, details, and understanding to feel comfortable making absolute judgments in this case. And lacking full understanding my sympathies go out equally to everyone, to the victims certainly, but to Bora and his family/friends as well. This is just such a sad situation all the way around. Everyone hopes some lasting good comes out of it… but frankly, this problem is so age-old, I don’t know. For the moment, all the discussion feels therapeutic, but a year from now will anything really have changed?

    • chomps

      You are, in fact, excusing his behavior. How long has he lived here to recognize what is acceptable and what is not? As the Supreme Court has stated, ignorance of the law is not a valid defense. Don’t you think there are enough sickos getting away with horrible harassment because they are essentially untouchable? Can you imagine how much tar-and-feathering of Ms. Byrne would be going on right now if Bora wasn’t corroborating her story? People like YOU are the reason nothing will have changed in a year, because you’d rather pretend (as humans in general, but Americans in particular love to) that people are either all good or all bad, and this guy is someone whose work you like so of course you’ll excuse his behavior, just so you don’t have to deal with the nuances of “good vs. evil”.

  • Evolution Happens

    Thanks for writing this post. As a recent PhD in science, I know the feeling of pressure to prove myself in order to establish a career. It’s tough and competitive. But as a white male in this society, I also try to be ever cognizant of the privileged situation I was born into. I didn’t ask for these inherent privileges. I’m not proud or glad that I have these privileges. But I can’t deny that they exist, and I’m grateful when the injustice of these privileges that our society has created is brought to light.

    But simply being aware, and simply choosing not participate in the discrimination or harassment of those without these privileges isn’t enough. I think it’s important for those largely immune to sexism and racial discrimination to be reminded that they are largely responsible for making things better. We shouldn’t just be sitting on the sidelines. Victims of such harassment shouldn’t be the only ones talking about it, and the events unfolding in the science blogging world over the past week or so make that fact evident.

    I’d like to say that I would have come to your defense if I was one of your colleagues at that bar, but I can’t say for certain that I would have in that context. It feels shameful to say that, but it’s the truth. I’m sure it was easier for everyone involved to just laugh it off, but doing the right thing is rarely the same as doing the easy thing. Even though you feel bad for shrugging it off externally at the time it happened, and for generally building up that thick defensive skin, it still takes a lot of courage for you to say something now. And reading your account of being harassed (along with all the others I’ve seen this week) has given me a wakeup call. It gives me hope that I’ll be more in tune to recognizing such situations in my own circles in the future, and that I’ll have the courage to say something about it if I do. Ideally I’d rather not be exposed to these situations at all, but in reality it’s probably happening right in front of my face more often than I realize.

    Keep up the good work you’re doing for the scientific community, and keep speaking up about this kind of injustice when necessary – you’re helping other victims of course, but you’re also helping those who erroneously think it doesn’t involve them.

  • allenm

    First and foremost, as I have seen time and time again in the workplace, do not play where you get paid.

    Workplace romance is a disaster in America, simply because of the way it is perceived by everyone above and below.

    of the biggest modern issues with women in the workplace is the poison
    that comes with any workplace interaction, and sex. Drinking with your
    coworkers automatically places you into the position of “one of the
    boys”, which is exactly what you are not. Trying to pretend otherwise
    is simply foolish. As for the woman who approached you in a sexual
    manner, that was a source of stimulation to every one of your
    heterosexual male companions, and you should have immediately realized
    it would change the dynamic between you and your coworkers.

    I realize due to the hyperrational scientist brain you fail to see the “normal male attitude” is what happens in these situations. The above male commenters have tried to put it in nicer terms, but men are pigs, and drinking lowers any intellectual barriers to their behavior.

    Now, Bora is a similar problem, compounded with a Europig attitude, and a really smart obsessive scientist edge. That edge is wonderful in
    accomplishing research, but is horrible in dealing with most women. In short, while scientists prize intelligence and obsession, most women are
    scared by it- especially when it is turned on them as an object. And quite frankly, growing up and obsessing over knowledge does not usually leave much time for learning how to patiently and slowly interact with women. Now, in compensation, some of these men end up targeting women in the workplace, and that ends up making the mistake I have shown above, because it shows a serious lack of judgement in our society.

  • Nicolas B.

    “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

    Oh yes, some moderation ! Above all, some tepid.

    Happily you said “feel free to respond to my post here, if you wish”.

    Censorhip always degrades the one who commits it.

  • BobWood

    Is it harassment to say the author of these science articles is hot?

  • Nicolas B.

    Nice censorship down here.


Science Sushi

Real Science. Served Raw.

About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.


See More


@NerdyChristie on Twitter

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!