About a month ago, the science writing community found out that one of its leaders was sexually harassing his younger female colleagues. The young women, especially those looking for networks and jobs, took to the internet and named him in front of his own community. The internet got its shorts in an uproar which eventually focused on the ubiquity of sexual suggestions and behaviors coming from male professionals, especially senior ones, to women professionals, especially junior ones. Some of the male professionals were surprised, none of the women were – as I said, ubiquitous.
I didn’t have anything to contribute because any such shenanigans aimed in my direction have come not from people in power over me – editors, say, or agents — but from sources, from scientists I’m interviewing. So they’re inconsequential to smack down and fundamentally ridiculous besides. The one exception, an editor, makes me think this problem is less hormonal, less social, and mostly moral.
One of the funniest shenanigans that happened to me came from an astronomer who interrupted my questions about the Space Telescope Science Institute by asking if I’d like to have a three-way with him and his wife. “She’s down with it,” he said. “We have an open marriage.” I don’t remember what I said – I hope it wasn’t, “Can I get back to you on that?” But later when a mutual friend, also an astronomer and actually my source’s boss, said casually, “You know, he’s a weird guy,” I said, “Let me tell you exactly how weird.”
I like this story because I inadvertently did something that the sexually-harassed science writers did on purpose: I named the guy to his own community. During the internet uproar, I “liked” and “favorited” right and left, because professional sexual harassment’s time has come and gone, because it has got to stop and openness is its best cure, because fresh air and sunshine kill mold.
My funniest story: I had an appointment to meet a scientist in a hotel lobby, then we’d go to my room to do the interview.* But the scientist wasn’t in the lobby. I didn’t have his cell number, he’d left no message at the hotel desk, I waited, I finally went back to my room. I opened the door with the hotel pass, and there he was, he was standing there in my room. First I was confused, then I was appalled, then I said, “How did you get in?” He smirked and said, “I have my ways.” I reflected that since he used a walker, in a pinch I could probably bowl him over; so I collected my wits, settled him into a chair at a table, put the mike in front of him, and began the interview which went normally from there on, except for when he asked, on mike, if I knew how pretty my eyes were. When I think about it now, I suspect he was mostly trying to impress me with the tricks he’d learned from working with the intelligence community. He was so dumb.
One story, though, wasn’t funny at all. It came from a person I couldn’t ignore, who was not a source but an editor, not a man but a woman, and it was not sexual in any way. I’m a freelancer, meaning I need to establish relationships with institutions and editors. The editor of one of my regular magazines liked to edit with the writer in her office so that, she said, she could talk through any problems. I thought it was a bad use of time but it got us on a friendly footing and I always want editors on a friendly footing. Time went on, we’d have coffee and talk not shoptalk but personal talk; she was lonely, she had problems with depression. She began inviting me and my husband to parties, then to dinner, and we invited her back. Then she wanted us to have dinner every week, on a certain day, always, a regular date. I didn’t like her personally all that much, so I slid out of it. Then she asked, “Do you like me, me as a person? or do you just want me to assign you stories?”
Well, hell. I like you well enough but basically, I just want you to assign me stories. I didn’t say that because I thought I’d sound as though I’d been using her. I’d read Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals in college, and some of it stuck: treat people not as means to an end, but as ends in themselves. Don’t use them.
Later, however, I thought that the job of editors is to use writers to get stories, and the job of writers is to use editor to publish stories. Kant’s rule needs — and for all I know, has — a rider that says professionally, ok, use other people to get jobs done that you both want done. But personally, don’t use other people only to offset your loneliness and depression – she didn’t like me all that much either – and to fulfill your private necessities.
And I think this is the immorality of sexual harassment. Some idiot gets preoccupied with his private necessities, mixes up the personal and the professional, and forgets that other people aren’t there as a means to his own end. Moral idiocy explains the feeling I’ve always had when being hit on, that the person is talking to himself, not me; that he’s seeing only his needs in a mirror. He forgets that people have their own intentions and motivations and desires, that they are their very own selves, that they are to be respected as their own ends in themselves. This moral idiot, Kant would hate him.
*I obviously need to explain interviewing in a hotel room: every great once in a while, I interview out-of-town scientists who are retired or who work for the government and can’t do non-work-related interviews in their offices; these are the same people who want to do phone interviews on weekends from their home phones. A hotel room is quiet and makes a good recording studio; I’m a gracious hostess, the scientists are gracious guests, it’s not a problem. Normally.
Photos: satyr by keybuk; Immanuel Kant, Wikimedia