Abuse doesn’t exist in a bubble or a vacuum; real people are abusers and survivors—sometimes both at the same time.
BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Being a person in the workplace is hard. There are all sorts of things to navigate and mitigate, like healthcare, work hours, and pay rate, for starters. It’s even harder to navigate the scary and dangerous world of sexual harassment and assault, however. These issues are the giant elephant in the room that no one wants to actually talk about—and HR departments, leaders, and supervisors still don’t know how to form policies that protect people. If anything, companies and communities often sweep complaints and charges under the rug out of fear and indecision.
Coming forward about abuse takes an incredible amount of bravery and comfort—which are often not possible in many situations. Many employees or professionals don’t feel comfortable coming forward because of archaic, and often nonexistent, policies; it can be easier for someone to eventually quit and work in silence than to ruffle feathers at an office, classroom, or other professional endeavor—in fear of push back and disbelief.
Push back is real. Unless an employee or participant already works in a safe and comfortable environment where they have known allies, it can feel impossible to come forward about something painful, humiliating, and so common that it can be hard to diagnose in the first place because the actions can be subtle and start slowly. Abusers can be extremely charming, manipulating their victims into believing their actions aren’t harmful—or into believing that they can’t do anything stop it, and possibly that they even deserve it. The behavior has become so normalized, many of us don’t even register when abuse is happening.
It should go without saying that abuse in any workplace or professional environment is a power play, and people in any position of authority can abuse that power easily and without question from others. The onus is often put on the victim to report crimes rather than prevent them from happening in the first place by providing clear training, guidelines, and protocol—which is the first step to fostering a safe, comfortable space.
Gwen Werner, a writer and editor, reflected on her own experience working at a coffee shop in a bookstore, saying how her manager assaulted her and threatened her not to tell, explaining, “My district manager raped me and tried to give me money to shut me up. I didn't report the rape because I was sure I'd done something wrong, and that I'd gotten myself into the situation and that I hadn't done enough during the rape to stop it.”
She went on to explain how she felt silenced because there wasn’t an easy way for her to report the incident, saying, “The day after he raped me, I had to work an eight-hour shift with him. Then he went back to Florida and I quit shortly after that. I don't even remember his name, and even when I did know it, I didn't know a last name, so reporting it after the fact wasn't really a possibility. He was in his late thirties, and I was nineteen.
My best friend at the time demanded that he buy me Plan B, but I'm not sure if she realized it was not consensual. I'm not sure if anyone knew. I told my partner after we started dating, but I haven't talked much about it. I still think I might have some responsibility for what happened.”
Meanwhile, Dana Munsch, a librarian, explained how public service jobs could be complicated, especially when part of the job is providing customer service. Where is the line drawn? How bad is “bad enough” to report inappropriate behavior? When she worked at small businesses, in particular, she pointed out that “there was nobody even at work to tell if [even] I wanted to. I was one of three full-time employees. The other two were my boss and his wife. Who was I going to say something to?” In Munsch’s case, her employers were her abusers, so how could she report abuses to the very people mistreating her?
This is a common occurrence for many who work for small businesses that don’t have HR departments—or are part of creative communities that aren’t protected or governed by any one institution or group. When there is no objective third party and your bosses and/or colleagues are the people harassing you, what is there left to do, other than let chaos rein? What happens in professional communities, like art and writing, where there aren’t clear boundaries or HR departments to regulate behavior and keep people safe? Because actually dealing with harassment isn’t just a matter of ethics, but of humanity. Choosing to turn a blind eye is dehumanizing and complicit. It sends the message that experiencing abuse is permissible—and that abusers don’t have to face the consequences of their actions or change their behavior.
In the U.S., 43 percent of employees work in organizations with 50 or fewer people—meaning many people can find themselves in tricky situations. At a smaller company, staff members often feel like they are in a “family” because the proximity is so small. There’s a danger to “feeling like family,” however, in that closeness can result in misunderstandings and inappropriate conversations that might seem OK around friends—but not around professional colleagues.
This is not to say colleagues cannot be friends (and it’s a common occurrence considering our work makes up so much of our lives, creative or not), but the lines do blur; even when your friends are colleagues, roles become more complicated. At a smaller company without a formal HR department, it’s more likely that workplace behavior could be excused and unreported, since it’s hard for staff not to have a more objective third party to mediate.
Similarly, graduate programs are rife with abuses for this reason; the line of consent seems to become blurry when the students are older and seem “able to consent,” even though consent is already muddied when there is a power dynamic at play, like a student and professor relationship, where jobs, graduation, and recommendations are pending—and at stake. Just recently, Avital Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at New York University, was accused of sexually harassing a former student, Nimrod Reitman, now a visiting fellow at Harvard. There are countless other stories like this, whether in the writing or academic world or acting or music (Harvey Weinstein, Junot Diaz, Tao Lin, Kevin Spacey, etc). Anne Finch wrote extensively about her experiences in the literature community, now published at VIDA, where a writer told her in front of a group of people, “Great! Then we can all take turns fucking you.” Instances like this are why VIDA created a #SaferLit movement to raise awareness among editors and writers.
The literary community mimics this as a smaller microcosm of the larger structural problems like misogyny, racism, and sexual abuse; being an artist doesn’t mean someone “knows better” because they happen to be part of a progressive community. Like working at a small business, there aren’t always clear-cut rules between an editor and writer; how can a truly consensual relationship occur, if, for instance, an editor harasses or abuses a writer in a professional setting? Writing, and art of any kind, sets an intimate tone—and many writers and editors are friends, but there is still a line between abuse and intimacy, between unwanted, inappropriate behavior and a healthy friendship.
Several people, for instance, have accused poet Joseph Massey of online harassment, physical assault, and emotional abuse. The accusations came online and through an anonymous letter explaining Massey’s behavior that was sent in January to the presses and literary organizations that worked with Massey. In March, Massey withdrew his forthcoming book with Wesleyan University Press from publication and The Outline published a long article about what happened. This kind of story isn’t uncommon. It happens all the time, but it’s hard to report and come forward when everyone in a community knows each other.
Abuse doesn’t exist in a bubble or a vacuum; real people are abusers and survivors—sometimes both at the same time. While there are definitely gray areas in any situation, overly intellectualizing abuse is dangerous in its own way, as it can create a narrative of excuses—and allows toxic behaviors to perpetuate because we normalize them. For survivors, it can be even more complicated, since survivors often desensitize behaviors and can find themselves placating or accepting bad behavior, either out of fear, or out of a general acceptance of how abusers can manipulate and operate. I know I have fallen prey to manipulators, out of fear, but also out of a pessimism—as if I don’t deserve better or can’t do anything to stop this behavior. Sometimes, I just accepted it because I didn’t know what else to do. Sometimes I felt like I was the crazy one; this is just how people are, how people interact. I was wrong—but even realizing this doesn’t make handling these situations, especially as the victim, any easier—especially when people don’t believe you or blame you. There is no rule book for these situations—especially as so many of them are contextual.
While I was in graduate school myself, I had a professor who routinely asked about my sex life and would comment on my body. I wasn’t the only one either. At the time, I didn’t know what to do, so I never reported it or even told any of my cohorts, because it just seemed par for the course. It also seemed like something so many men had already done to me, so I was just tired of fighting, tired of it happening—and tired of feeling crazy. Part of me felt like I was doing something wrong. I was somehow inviting this attention, as if my very state of being was at fault. I would dodge the comments and try not to pay attention to them, because I was scared of what would happen if I spoke up for myself.
When it’s a smaller community, it’s especially hard not to feel as if you have to hide your experience and trauma and stay silent in order to keep the peace—in order to feel as if you aren’t “causing trouble,” because the onus and anger often falls on the victims, rather than the perpetrators to begin with. Calling out the victim, whether for being truthful or “seeking attention,” is always easier than calling out the perpetrator, especially if the perpetrator wields any power, big or small.
E Kristin Anderson, a writer and editor, experienced excessive and severe harassment from a male writer who wrote poems about real women in the literary community in dangerous, scary ways. The poems, which were compiled into a self-published book on Amazon, featured a speaker who rapes, tortures, and kills the female poets in them. The book was taken off Amazon and other self-publishing platforms for targeted harassment and threats of violence, according to Anderson, but later republished without real names. Anderson explained how emotionally jarring and traumatizing his behavior was, especially in such a small community:
“I still feel violated. I will never forget the line ‘you should be raped with a butcher knife’ in a poem he wrote about me. I will never forget the dozens of other ways he violates women who I call my friends and loved ones. And I will never forget the people who stood up for him and call him misunderstood or mentally ill/an addict so we should forgive him. It was honestly worse than the poems, the gaslighting.”
One woman, Katherine*, was sexually assaulted in her MFA program by an older male writer—only to describe how she became unsupported by her peers and program: “I told a woman in my program pretty soon after (possibly the next day?), and her reaction was that either I had to tell our program director or do nothing and get over it. I was also very shaken up and was describing the mechanics of what had happened (which included no consent and physical force) but was not yet using the word 'rape' to describe it. It seemed like she either wanted me to identify the experience as a rape immediately and deal with it in this strange way that she had decided was correct, or decide that it was just bad sex. And get over it.”
Telling her program supervisor didn’t seem like an option either. Katherine went on to say, “I should have been more aware of my options, like [knowing] there were other people who I could inform if I wanted to report it. And logically, I was aware of that. But emotionally I just kept thinking about telling our program director this story, and [how] I didn't really like or trust our program director. I didn't think I could have that conversation.”
Katherine tried to speak with her rapist about what happened, only to be told it was “just rough sex” and that she was “inexperienced.” While Katherine eventually told more of her classmates, and asked for him not to be invited to parties, some didn’t respect this request and/or asked for his side of the story. She went on to explain that “they wanted to play detective with my life, or ask me follow-up questions, like they were performing some fake investigation into the matter. I was not okay with that, and if anyone tried to talk to me about his side of the story, I basically told them to stop talking.”
Adjunct professors face similar issues, especially with the lack of support adjuncts generally have within their institutions, as they aren’t considered “regular staff.” Michaela Florio, an adjunct, recalled how her boss at the college she previously taught at started showering her with gifts, like a massage gift certificate, and told her to watch the film, Secretary (which is know for its sexual themes). She said that he also would text her things like “hey beautiful,” and mentioned how he said she “changed my schedule to ‘get my attention,’” after suffering a knee injury. He would also “stalk the women he didn’t like on campus [and] look up their schedules. [He] would call me into his office and ask if I liked my job, and [say] how I didn’t seem grateful to him [as] he was the one who got me my full-time position.” As of now, Florio went to HR after watching the movie as she “had no idea the implications.” So far, HR hasn’t taken any action and Florio left the college because of this incident.
What these stories, which are countless and happen to many, indicate is the fact that our culture doesn’t have a place for a discussion around sexual harassment and assault, let alone what really constitutes as safe and consensual sexual encounters—and healthy boundaries. Having protocols and discussions around boundaries and inappropriate behaviors should be part of a company’s culture and handbook as much as time off is. There are some organizations, like VIDA, that are fighting to raise awareness and provide a safe space for people to come forward with their experiences in order to help others. However, these efforts need to be commonplace.
Since artistic communities and small businesses do not have HR to deal with and prevent sexual harassment, it does mean everyone in the community has to work to create a safe space—no one can be a bystander. In general, even with a support system like an HR department, the silence of a bystander can do tremendous damage, because silence can be can act of complicity; even one person voicing support makes a world of difference for a victim. While choosing not to be a bystander does put pressure and emotional labor on someone, the more a progressive precedent is set, the better smaller communities will be.
Community leaders, whether staff, editors, or publishers, can set a healthy precedent and consciousness of the factors that lead to a toxic and inappropriate culture structured by misogyny, homophobia, racism, and power hierarchies. Taking a clear approach, like VIDA, builds and develops clear policies and road maps for what to do, since real world problems need actual solutions, not intellectual arguments. Creating these frameworks inevitably fosters a safe space for people to live, work, and make art. Without a framework, however, these professional spaces become the Wild West when it comes to behavior—and that’s simply not OK. We can do better.
*Name changed to respect the privacy of the person.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014),The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (Operating System, 2017), Sexting Ghosts (Unknown Press, 2018), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes Poetry and the managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, BUST, Spork Press, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente