I was far too young when I was first sexually harassed and the most recent occasion happened far too recently. I’ve been flashed, touched, stroked, propositioned, coerced, kissed, groped and, perhaps most complicatedly of all, ‘complimented’ in ways that are meant to objectify, demean, threaten, insult or all of the above. It has happened in nightclubs and bars, on that shortcut home in the dark that you know you shouldn’t take, on public transport and in crowds and, yes, at work and work-based social occasions. The men have been strangers, acquaintances, friends, bosses and colleagues. There are names that grace The Bookseller’s pages as stars and captains of industry. And no one should underestimate the regularity of unwanted advances, coercive situations and presumptions about availability that publicists face all too often on an author tour.
I am also one of the lucky ones - nothing really bad has happened to me. In fact most of the stories across the industry aren’t really all that bad. We aren’t judged on our looks and bodies like actors, models and singers are. Our industry is predominantly female. Everyone is very nice. I don’t believe we have a Weinstein to unmask. There are a few horror stories of a handful of powerful, predatory men who make advances on younger woman. These stories are handed around between women like currency, not for titillation but for safety – that one’s not safe in cabs, make sure you don’t get cornered by this one at the end of the night, so-and-so is all right when he’s sober but drunk he’s really very handsy. These stories used to be whispered, shared whilst making morning tea, refreshing make-up in the loos before launch parties or when working out how to get home at the end of a night. Now, thank God, we’re saying them out in the open and we’re saying it’s not OK.
I remember a very senior woman taking me aside late at night when I was young and warning me about a very, very senior man because she was clearly worried what he might do after she went home. He didn’t bother me that night, but he did on another occasion, years later, standing in the middle of a bookshop, first warm glass of white wine of the evening in hand, his other one touching, stroking where it shouldn’t, and me too terrified of being the woman making a fuss to tell him to remove it at once.
I feel sadness and shame to think of my nodding in opprobrium at gossip that some of the most senior women in the industry only got there because they ‘slept their way to the top’ and how I in turn gossiped about assistants who rumour had it were sleeping with their bosses. If these stories are true, I don’t believe it was a path they voluntarily walked along but when faced with what might happen if they didn’t they made a choice. I’m glad I’ve never had to face that choice.
So just because we have no Weinstein doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at what we do have and do everything we can to make sure that this stops, now. That wherever we can take personal responsibility we should. Men, if you know a colleague doesn’t always behave properly why don’t you talk to them? (This applies to those women who feel they can too but it often isn’t easy). Senior management, have you empowered HR to take this seriously?
And for anyone who’s wondering, no, this isn’t about flirting. Flirting is mutual and fun for both sides, harassment isn’t. There shouldn’t be many people working in publishing who lack the empathy to understand the difference between the two.
Finally, we also have to think about how our industry affects culture and society. There is much talk about the way women are treated in film and television and how it normalises this treatment in society. Each book we publish may have less impact than a Weinstein funded film but they still have impact. The amount of ‘girls’ who’ve been mistreated in our bestselling books, the fictional blood, tears, subjugation and violence we’ve profited from, the lack of equality, of agency, of power we’ve perpetuated. What we do has a cultural impact too and we need to think about what we want that impact from here on to be.
To complete an anonymous survey on experiences of harassment in the book industry, click here.
The survey closes at 12 noon on Monday 6th November and findings will be published online and in The Bookseller.