Regarding #teamharpy and sexual harassment

In the fall of 2011, I was at my second conference as a professional (read: paid) librarian. I had a small presence on Twitter which is where my sexual harasser knew me from and cited as he approached me.

What did he do?

In front of hundreds of other librarians, he cornered me and loomed into my physical space. I’m a petite person and he put his hand on the wall above my shoulder to box me in. I did not know what to do. Of course, I knew about this aggressive behavior trait which is straight out of an 80s movie, so I knew he was trying to intimidate me. I was also unsure what to do as it was the first time that someone had done this to me. So I stood frozen and wild-eyed as I waited for my colleague to finish her business and come find me. I reported his behavior immediately to several of my female colleagues.

Same conference later on:
I was being introduced to several big name librarians by a mentor of mine at a small-ish gathering. While following my mentor like a duckling, I ended up in a conversation with an author that I admired. The same guy from earlier butted into the conversation. He was minding his Qs at this point, so I politely conversed with him and the author. Eventually the author moved on and my mentor had gone to talk to a friend.

Now he made his move. He reached over and began running his fingers up and down my arm. And like many victims of sexual harassment before me, I didn’t know what to do. This was a year or so before I would learn about Codes of Conducts (COC) and two years before ALA would adopt a COC to report harassment. I did pull away from him but he stepped forward and continued the behavior all the while keeping up the chit chat.

At this point, my mentor and a big name female librarian caught my eye, saw the behavior, and immediately stepped in, pulling me out of the situation and to safety. Sure, I was in a room with dozens of other librarians, but my aggressor thought it was totally appropriate to touch me. He felt empowered to do so. It did not matter that there were dozens of witnesses. He felt that he had a right to my body and to lay his hands on me. I had never met him before the prior incident and I do not believe I had even spoken to him on Twitter before either, so he was a virtual stranger to me.

Who is my sexual harasser?

Thanks to the experience of #teamharpy, I’m reluctant to name him publicly. He is also very famous within the profession. Three years ago, I was fresh out of library school and this was my very first in-person interaction with ANY male librarian that I did not work with directly.

Since then, I try to avoid him like the plague when I see him at conferences. He has kept his hands and his comments away from me, but will sometimes try to sit as close to me as possible in a room full of empty seats. When I realize he’s in the same conference room as me, I latch onto other librarians and use them as physical barriers so he cannot sit right next to me.

Who have I told?

Immediately after every time my sexual harasser has tried to be close to me, I have reported him to other librarians that I trust so there is a verbal record of sorts. At the conferences where his continued behavior occurs, there was no COC in place. But then again, I, like many other victims before, ask myself — what proof do I have? In the worst incident where he touched me, others physically intervened. But he continues to be famous and I’m just a small fish in libraryland.

Who do I tell?

I’m sure that I’m not the first nor the last of his victims. But who do I tell? Where is a safe place for me financially and professionally to report him? Do I tell conference organizers? Since he’s famous, I’m sure he’s friends with them and it’ll come back to harm me in some way. I hope to have decades to work in this field while my sexual harasser is much older and could simply retire. If I named him publicly, it’d likely be me to suffer the judgment of people who do not believe victims of sexual harassment. Their judgment may cost me dearly in terms of professional opportunities. I have a family to support and while I fervently hope my harasser has not done something worse to another woman in the past three years, I do not feel safe in naming him.

Edit: I’m okay

I wanted to add that thank you all for your support and kind words. I’m doing okay. I hardly ever have to see this person, so this is not something that I have to be reminded of very often. I’m also very fortunate that I had witnesses who actively intervened. Not all victims of sexual harassment are as lucky.

I wrote this post because people online are demanding that victims stand up and expose themselves as having been made to feel vulnerable. I don’t like to think of myself as a victim — especially when no long-term injuries were done to me — but it’s important to stand forth and acknowledge that even “small” transgressions like stroking someone’s arm is sexual harassment.

29 Comments

  1. What I flash back to are the conversations that happened when ALA’s COC came out last year. Several people were insistent that the COC should not apply if an incident happened outside the immediate conference area. Of course, how do you define the conference area? The worst moment of mine happened at an after hours function consisting of only librarians and their spouses.

  2. Amanda, I’m really sorry to hear this story. Not surprised, but depressed all the same. It’s brave of you to share this publicly and is likely to help move the conversation forward about how to do with these issues in libraryland.

  3. What you experienced is illegal, unprofessional, unethical, and wrong. Period. I don’t care if he was a big-name librarian or some guybrarian fresh out of library school. We as a profession, and as a professional association, need to end the tolerance for this type of behavior immediately.

    If this occurred at an ALA-sponsored conference (Annual, Midwinter, PLA, ACRL, etc.) I would suggest that you contact Mary Ghikas (Senior Associate Executive Director for Member Programs and Services at ALA) at mghikas@ala.org or 800-545-2433 ext. 2518. Mary is the contact for violations of the ALA Code of Conduct, and was instrumental in its formation and development at the ALA staff level. Mary is committed to making ALA conferences a “safe space” for all, and needs people like yourself to come forward and let her know of the experiences you have had at ALA conferences.

  4. Thank you for speaking up about your experience. I think this problem in our profession is much greater than most of your male colleagues had realized, and we need people like you to shake us out of our complacency. 

  5. Thank you for sharing this story publicly. No one should have to spend every conference looking over her shoulder like this. Your story illustrates how important it is that we have strong codes of conduct at conference and how important it is that we talk about these issues

  6. Like Stephen, I’m not surprised, which is part of what makes this all so awful. My first inkling that conferences were meat markets, back when I was a baby librarian, was when one of the ultra-big-name guys put a picture of his grown daughter in a bustier in his slide deck, just for kicks and giggles. Since then, several more incidents have caused me to just keep as wide a distance from him as possible (though he has never touched me or said anything inappropriate directly to me).

    When this guy is challenged, which is rare, he throws huge fits online and off and somehow makes it everyone else’s fault that we’re upset with him. 

    I wish we could go to conferences without being put into contact with people who consider women to be playthings. I wish those people weren’t so often in the upper echelons of our profession. I wish there weren’t such social pressure to not make a big deal about these “little” things, to get over ourselves and realize that it was a compliment, or all in good fun.

  7. Thank you for posting this, and for reminding the library community that these incidents are not isolated, are not infrequent, and are not “no big deal.” One of the things I fear most about the aftermath of #teamharpy is the chilling effect, and I’ve seen it happening even in the days since they opened public discussion of their case. Posts like this are essential to preventing that chilling effect from taking hold.

  8. I’m sorry this happened, and also surprised – I am naive and lucky not to have experienced or witnessed any of this. 

    That said, I *absolutely* believe you and am supportive of your coming forward, and of others who are in similar situations.

    Thanks for writing this.

  9. Thanks for posting this. The suggestion to contact Mary Ghikas (full disclosure: a first-rate person and an old friend) seems like a good one, although that doesn’t help if it wasn’t ALA.

    I do wish that some folks who opposed ALA’s CoC because, you know, “nothing like that ever happens here” were aware of stories like this. You’re not alone (unfortunately). (Also, can I second Iris’ final paragraph in particular?)

  10. As others have said, actions like those described in your post and in the comments are extremely unprofessional and should never be tolerated. Having said that, I’ve been unfortunately oblivious to such behavior in the past, and will now be working hard to spot bad behavior and call it out when I see it. 

  11. How awful. And creepy. I’m sorry this happened to you, and even sorrier that we have come to a place where we feel unsafe naming the culprits.

    I must admit, I think I’m old enough now that I feel empowered to stop behavior like this, whereas when I was younger, I would have most likely reacted exactly like you did. You shouldn’t have to deal with this nonsense.

    I would advocate for those of us who witness this behavior to step in and say something. We’re programmed to be nice, not make waves, not hurt people’s feelings. As a result, we tend to let behavior like this slide because we’re afraid of making a scene.

    Let’s make scenes, people. I, for one, would be glad to assist in telling one of these idiots their behavior is NOT. OKAY.

  12. One resource on what to do when this happens is Martha Langelan’s book “Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers.” I have taught anti-harassment techniques (and women’s self-defense) and now as a consultant I’m working to get associations to adopt and effectively enforce good anti-harassment policies at their events. The ALA’s policy does not guarantee confidentiality for the complainant, which pretty much guarantees no one (neither target nor witness) will report incidents.

  13. Until the discussion about the COC came up, I really had no idea that this is an issue in our profession. I thought we were better than that, but I guess there are sleazeballs everywhere. Anyway, I do thank you for coming forward with your story and I encourage you to follow Matthew Ciszek’s advice. Report him. It might not matter in the short term. If one person reports him, yeah, maybe they look at it as a “he said, she said” kind of thing, but in the long term, if they keep getting reports about the same person, they’re going to have to look into it.

    That’s kind of an important thing that Team Harpy did, whether what they did was libelous or not. They called him out and all of a sudden, other people came forward. If he didn’t before, he has to know people think he’s a creep now, and, as long as he’s not a psychopath, he’s probably going to change his behavior.

  14. By no means do I want to come across as anywhere near blaming the victim, because that is not at all my intent. What happened and continues to happen with this guy is wrong and disgusting. No one should feel this uncomfortable and NO ONE should think that they have the right to act the way he has been acting.

    But I also seriously wish we would all stop putting any of these folks, men, women, GLBT, straight, etc etc on any sort of pedestal of big-time librarian. He/she is a human being just like you and me. Easier said than done, of course, but getting away from the rockstar librarian/very famous mentality would be a good first step in helping to eliminate a small part of the (perceived) power imbalance. We are all important, which is far and away beyond the value of being famous.

  15. I’m sickened and sad that there are still men in this day and age who behave in this way. Can you believe, there was a time that I honestly thought most of that was left behind with older generations? Sure, it’s gotten less OK, but that just means it’s increasingly hidden from view, which doesn’t necessarily help things. I’m sorry you don’t feel like you can name the person, but I understand why you don’t. This is one of those awful situations. If it happens again, I hope that there will be strong — and confidential — anti-harassment policies in place that allow you to act.

  16. I keep coming back to this and trying to think of something useful and smart to say, and I just get angry all over again every single time. I am so angry that you had to deal with this and I’m so angry that it happens and I’m angry that we can’t as a profession, as humanity, figure out a way to make it stop.

  17. Amanda, I’m so sorry this has been your early experience with ALA.  The behavior you describe is not acceptable from anyone regardless of gender, status, ranking or anything else.  We simply do not treat each other that way.  Matthew gave you good contact information for Mary Ghikas.  She can help you. You also have friends who have experienced this with you and were able to rescue you.  They can help you tell your story.  It doesn’t matter how famous someone is; they cannot behave this way.  In my 25 years with ALA, I have found that the enormous majority of Librarians are warm, welcoming and sharing people who have made my life better through my association with them.  I’m sure you will find the same thing and please don’t let one horrible person ruin your enjoyment of everyone else.

    I also agree with Roy and Mary Beth, we should all be more aware of this type of behavior and stop it when we see it.  We are a decent group of people and it falls to all of us speak up when it happens.  

  18. I’m truly sorry this happened to you. And I agree: he was wrong. What did he say when you told him to stop?

  19. I haven’t been directly harassed as a librarian, although there have certainly been times I was isolated and alone in a library at late hours, & distinctly uncomfortable with male attention.

    I suspect part of the problem is that the law defines sexual harassment quite formally (repeated attempts in an institutional/power-laden setting), while we colloquially define it as any unwanted and persistent attention, especially when the guy ignores interventions telling him to stop. 

    Amanda’s experiences bring to mind my early workplace experiences, with a man who tried to corner, sweet-talk, hug, kiss, and caress. I simply went rigid and smiled, then wore baggy clothes to work–because that was the way I had been trained, culturally, to respond. Deflecting attention instead of saying no. I suspect women fear violence or slander if they say no and a man takes offense; merely deferring and avoiding the man, while always remaining surrounded by other women, is often a ‘safer’ action for the individual, even if it makes things harder for being a woman as a whole. (See: patriarchal bargain). 

    It would be wonderful if we could demonstrate to young women that they’d have the full support of other librarians if they take strong verbal action against persistent & unwanted attention. It would also be great if guys could take time to see the differences between a) engagement/flirtation, and b) defensive smiles/backing away. There is a difference, and it’s visible if you attend to it. Women do this for their own personal and job safety, and we need to support both men and women in not being harassed at conferences.

  20. I am so sorry this happened to you. I don’t know that to do except to let you know that if there is anything I can do or say,let me know. I second Laura’s comment, this is outrageous and sickening.

  21. I think the worst part about the whole issue is how incredibly confusing and demeaning it is to be approached and/or pursued in an inappropriate manner at a professional event. We’ve all likely had that “late night at a bar” experience of being hit on by the creepy guy while our friends are off doing other things, but I would assume that we all walk into library conferences with the idea that we’re there to learn and grow as professionals and network with our colleagues. Getting cornered and having to debate the number of appropriate responses in the middle of a conference hall full of our peers is not something that should happen. 

  22. Amanda, I am so sorry. At two recent state library association conferences, I realized that a male colleague who used to harass me has now turned his attentions to the young librarians for whose safety I, as their supervisor, am responsible. There were several times that I stepped in to deflect his efforts, and that I received frantic texts, stopped what I was doing, and crossed the venue to ‘rescue’ the others. I remember walking out of sessions when I registered his presence in the room- we’re being deprived of professional opportunities on top of being violated. None of us should be put in this situation, ever. Thank you for speaking out. Now that the problem has been forced into the light, we can take action to stop it.

  23. Thank you for sharing.  I say let’s match unprofessionaLISm with unprofessionalism and call out assoles!  Out loud, on the spot and online too.  I promise to yell it out when I see it and hashtag it when I read it.  If we all had a little less polite tolerance for these assholes they may not always feel so entitled.  But I doubt it; because assholes are just assholes.

  24. It is a shame that harassers are often well-placed and famous to book! I am really sorry you went through this. I am a very strong personality and would certainly NOT wait for someone to rescue me, I would react, no matter the consequences! Such a person deserves to be slapped publicly, yes, I mean that. He would not dare, next time. May you be healed in mind and spirit. It is so disgusting.

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