This essay is part of a larger conversation about harassment. We’ve invited different voices to join this and work towards unpacking the problem and finding solutions. You can find the rest of the essays on this index page).
This essay contains descriptions of sexual assault.
Twenty years ago, in a rundown farmhouse in the middle of Nowhere, New England, a friend of a friend led me into a dingy bedroom with mismatched checkered curtains and raped me. People partied not ten feet away, oblivious to what was happening on the other side of that thin wall—or, if not oblivious, not caring because I was too drunk to push my no, so I didn’t really mean it, did I? We were all having fun, weren’t we?
I didn’t physically fight him off because I couldn’t, so that meant I didn’t actually object, right?
The inebriation that allows for that problematic mindset, which saw my “friends” blame me for my own assault and led to my rapist never seeing a consequence, has also offered an odd form of catharsis. The sex act forced upon me exists behind an opaque curtain. The rape itself is lost while other details remain. The aforementioned curtains, for example, that covered the windows for privacy but not for aesthetic. I stared at them while he used me, my body his sleeve, my mind elsewhere.
“Why wouldn’t you just get a matching pair?” I remember thinking, because it was easier to focus on that than the fact that I’d lost agency over the only thing in this life I could truly call my own.
I remember, too, the smell of the room. It was cigarette smoke and something else—oil, maybe, like lantern oil, which is one of those odd details that doesn’t really manifest until you sit down to write about it, but I remember a sour, greasy stench perfuming the air. I remember, too, a broken spring in the mattress poking me in my leg whenever I was jostled a certain way.
Those circumstantial bits form a half picture. It’s a puzzle that has all the edges filled in but there’s a gaping hole at the center. I go from lots of vodka, to him grabbing me and kissing me and me pulling away, to the curtains, to crawling out of a strange bed on my hands and knees and fumbling around in the dark to find my jeans. His floor was cluttered. He had a lot of work boots and I raked my knuckles against the metal bedframe, scraping them. I never did find my underwear, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I got away from the party, from him, from the checkered curtains and acrid stench.
I stumbled outside. I was in a strange place I didn’t know, in deep Massachusetts country where the cows outnumbered people and pasture acreage was far more common than houses. I followed a fence, one hand gliding over the bumpy railing, the other clutching the top of my pants together so they wouldn’t fall because my motor skills were too impeded to let me work zippers and buttons.
An hour later I drove myself home, sobbing, covered in hickeys I never wanted. I hit a tow truck driver on the highway because I couldn’t see through my tears. He was angry at first, this grizzled old man with a white beard and a navy blue baseball hat, but when he took a good look at me and really saw me, he knew. Instead of calling the cops, which he should have done because my blood alcohol was too high and I’d just rammed in the front grate of my Chrysler on the winch of his truck, he hitched my vehicle to his and brought me home. He asked me a few times if I was alright—the only thing he ever said to me. I couldn’t answer him.
I don’t remember his name but you know that cliché about not all heroes wearing capes. Hats off to you, tow truck driver man. You might not be with us anymore, but you were a godsend to me that day.
So why, you may ask, do I outline an incredibly personal experience here, in a way I’ve never talked about before, in front of a live studio audience?
Existing as a rape survivor is not always a Herculean feat for me. Mental health crises come and go, and thanks to a decade of cognitive therapy and medication, it’s been far more go than come. Thinking about my victimization is not a thing I do on the daily. Until recently. As #MeToo surges to the forefront of our vocabularies, as a light is shined on rape culture and the toxic behaviors leading to its normalization, healed scabs are picked open, not by obsessive thought spirals—which are an old, ugly habit I’ve contended with before—but by a daily barrage of discourse that takes me back to checkered curtains and grease smell.
What’s good for the world is not good for Hillary. I know about this problem. I experienced it in one of its vilest forms. These conversations are not for me. I understand that others need the reinforcement that yes, you, too, are part of an overarching problem that pollutes our society. Every institution is saturated with behaviors that don’t respect boundaries, that prioritize some voices over others and see many of us living in fear of recourse personally and professionally. “No more,” #MeToo, says, and I respect that, albeit from afar. I’ve been careful to keep my exposure to the conversations limited to those times when I’m in a good enough place mentally and emotionally to engage. Hashtags are muted, articles are often not read until “a good day.”
Unfortunately, lately, the call is coming from inside the house and I can’t look away. Publishing is a business like any other, which means it’s under intense scrutiny for toxic behaviors regarding sexual harassment and sex-based crimes. After Anne Ursu posted a Medium article with anonymous accounts of sexual harassment in kidlit, a School Library Journal article took it one step further, and lo, did the anonymous comments come pouring in naming names not only of abusers in YA, but in SFF, too, which just so happen to be my two primary genres.
Two of the people eventually named in publishing’s moment of #MeToo reckoning?
Friends of mine.
This is devastating for anyone, but for people with my background and panic/anxiety/PTSD diagnoses, it’s even worse. Trust is so difficult to give, and once it’s trod upon, particularly in a situation where I know the crimes are of a sexual nature, that’s it. It’s over. I took you in under the assumption you would never. And then you did. I cannot look at you through any other lens than as a survivor who now must focus my energies on your victims instead of you. And there are a lot of people who I can’t focus on right now. I believe victims. As a person who wasn’t believed, I will always believe victims. Victims gain nothing coming forward other than the condemnation of people who insist, “He could never.” Victims are slut-shamed. Victims are questioned about their clothing choices and consumption of alcohol. They’re put under an invasive, snide, awful microscope, where the question of “why didn’t you protect yourself better” is heard much louder than the “why did you victimize someone” aimed at the attackers.
Each situation that’s come to light is different—the circumstances of the harassment are different. The scale of the offenses are different. The reactions of the accused are also different. Some have fully denied the accusations. Some have slandered their accusers immediately. Some have offered milquetoast, conditional apologies. Some have thrown themselves on the proverbial swords, owned their misdeeds, and committed to doing better.
It’s a lot to process.
It’s also a black and white issue for me.
As a victim of a sex crime, I believe victims. I prioritize them. You, author, did that thing and I will never, ever lose sight that you are capable of exploiting your personal power over vulnerable people for some type of sexual gain. That is the bottom line. I may not buy your books. I may not push your work. I may not choose to engage you in conversation.
Yes, I recognize we are not necessarily dealing with sexual assault itself, but we are dealing with the paradigm that leads to its normalization and the fallout that makes coming forward and reporting these crimes so difficult. The rhetoric used to silence harassment victims is quite literally the same rhetoric used to discredit rape victims, and why we have so much unreported, unprosecuted sex crime.
So what do I do, as a survivor existing in publishing? For that matter, what do other victims do? One in six cis women in America has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape according to RAINN. One out of every ten rape victims are cis males. Those numbers slant much, much higher for trans and nonbinary folks—RAINN’S last reports had them at one in five people. Effectively twenty percent of the people in any room have been the victim of a sex based crime.
And we’re in the arts. In many cases, we’re creating and writing as a way to heal. And every time someone is outed as a harasser, as an unsafe person, we have to exist knowing a harasser is polluting the very small petri dish that is publishing. We have to function in a professional capacity despite the pall cast over the industry.
There aren’t any easy answers, to be honest. All I can discuss is my own plan of action, which is recognizing that this is going to be a process and to be gentle with myself as I navigate these waters. Harassers are going to be on panels with me. They might be at a barcon rubbing elbows with people who have the privilege of not being triggered by them. They might share a byline with me in an anthology. I accept these things, but I also accept that I am not powerless—that I have the right to set boundaries.
I may choose not be on that panel because a harasser is present. I may express consternation to con chairs that this person is given a voice over other people who haven’t exploited personal power for sexual gain. I may offer warnings to other people sharing victim space about this person’s behavior. I may decline invitations to anthologies with explicit reasons for why I’m declining. Do I want all harassers tarred and feathered? No. But I do want safety. I will insist on safety. The gravity of the claims against a person will dictate the vehemence with which I demand safety, not just for myself, but for anyone who’s shared my experience.
Victims over attackers. Every time.
If you boil all of this essay down to its guts, what I want to get across most of all, is that there are people affected by the #MeToo movement who aren’t being considered in the discourse. Who are directly impacted by harassers in a way that’s hard to articulate without shifting the focus off of that specific attacker’s specific victims. Sex crimes are ugly. Their fallout is ugly. People who have been victimized are often impacted by these discussions in ways non-victims really can’t fathom. Attackers create fear and trepidation not just for the people they directly hurt, but for those who’ve experienced similar sex crimes.
And there are a lot of those people, particularly in the arts. The arts are a haven for those in pain.
My weeks of self-care have made one thing abundantly clear as it pertains to #MeToo and publishing: if it’s a choice between me or a harasser, I’m picking myself and people like me every time. I don’t go to work for flashbacks of checkered drapes and grease, and if that’s what a harasser’s presence offers me, I impolitely decline. The effect harassers have on their victims is undeniable. The effect they have on other people’s victims, who are navigating trauma, is also undeniable.
#MeToo covers one aspect of the sexual harassment conversation.
Here’s to the ripple effects we’re not discussing.