We Need To Talk About Sexual Harassment ...

I've been having an interesting conversation with two men via email about trolls, what to ignore, and what (I believe) is far more dangerous and forces women to stand up and call "bull": sexual harassment.

I chose years ago not to do any more television or media publicity partly because I didn't feel comfortable 'opening up' my life that way to all and sundry. If you appear on television in peoples' living rooms, they tend to make a 'personal' connection - and whilst mostly this is positive in nature, there are always some weirdos, overwhelmingly men, who sent strange emails. Some were rants, others about their sexual fantasies.  Even close male friends thought I was exaggerating until I forwarded a selection of these emails: men sending naked photos of themselves, men telling me they masturbate to my photo, and emails of that ilk. I still receive the odd one, and one or two of these emails I briefly posted on this blog in an effort to shame them (it didn't work; they took it as encouragement), but most I choose to ignore.

I know that Mary Beard made these trolls into a 'cause celebre' by writing about them - eg here. I understand why she wrote about them, and that popular academics need to engage about everything and anything in the media to get coverage and stay in the public eye. Her first piece was not about a man that posed any threat to her other than denting her ego by childishly criticizing her looks. Yes, death threats and rape threats should be reported, but the first rule of common sense is not to Google oneself, and the second is not to be surprised if not everyone eulogises you in a warm and fuzzy way or thinks your looks are on a par with Aphrodite.

I find it strange that Mary Beard seemed to get more upset by a "troll" that criticised her looks than when discussing rape, but we all choose our priorities.

I block "trolls" on Twitter, email and so forth, and unless they make threats, just ignore them.

I do not define "trolls" as people whose views I disagree with. I do however tend to ignore extremists, and just I wouldn't bother to debate theology with that extremist Mormon sect that believes in dozens of wives, ideally young ones, and I don't bother to discuss cultural property issues with the extremists at the ACCG who think all cultural property should be freely available to them because they think it would be better off in their living rooms than at the archaeological sites they were looted from. I don't bother to read the web sites of such groups, and don't waste my time arguing with them. If they repeatedly contact me they are trolls, but if they leave me alone as far as I'm concerned they're welcome to shout into the vacuum of the internet.

There is a bit difference between trolls who are strangers and harass people, and harassment in real life.

Sometimes I get very frustrated when I hear some of the bullshit lies people I know 'in real life' spread, and sometimes I get so frustrated I do a blog post about it. One of the men I've been discussing this with said that if I didn't blog about it, he wouldn't know about it, and that's a good point. My problem is that although good friends don't believe it, I'm always shocked how much complete and utter crap casual friends and acquaintances will unless one denies it, and I find that what I hear repeated to me tends to be the tip of the iceberg. And I also find once one publicly shames someone by blogging about their lies and harassment, they generally are shamed into stopping.

Gossip and lies are part of life, and some women will always bitch and lie, just as some men will also develop fantasies about relationships that exist only in their heads.

It worries me when those fantasies cross over into my 'real' life, and when they involve people in my field, and that those people begin undermining my work because of their frustrations over their sexual fantasies.

Then it becomes sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is alive and well, and I feel that the only way women can 'deal' with it by standing up to the men harassing them, by complaining about them to their institution and by calling 'bull' on those men.

Like rape, sexual harassment is about power. Obviously rape is far worse, but sexual harassment can be, and is designed to be, extremely upsetting for women.

When I was at university, I was sexually harassed. I wrote a piece about it in the Guardian in 2004, here, and whilst some people can over-react and can be 'politically correct' over harmless issues, I've since found that if anything it has become worse as I get older.

At university I complained and was told to "just ignore it" and that if I filed a complaint - the man in charge of talking to me about "my" issues was trying to be sympathetic but realistic - the likelihood was that no action would be taken against the man, but that I'd ruin my reputation and make myself unemployable. I didn't file the complaint. He didn't stop harassing me. The next time he reached out to grope my breasts, I didn't file a complaint. I kneed him very hard in the balls. Obviously those were different days, and I wouldn't recommend physical violence, but ... if a man tried to grope me against my wishes today, I suspect I'd be less tolerant and go straight for self-defense.

That was a long time ago, when I was young and naïve. These days I would have hoped we had moved on, and that sexual harassment of young academics was treated differently. (I won't say harassment of young women, because I know of a male curator at the British Museum who was not only sexually harassed, but whose harassment was ignored because he's a man).

I also naively thought that now that I'm 40 and middle aged, I wouldn't have to deal with sexual harassment. Unfortunately I do. And what doesn't help is that I am now expected to be 'mature' enough to deal with it in an 'adult' way - ie ignore it.

At the start of the year I discovered that a male academic had been telling my colleagues that I only disagreed with his research because I was bitter because either: a) we had had an affair that he had ended and I was bitter, or b) that I had wanted to have an affair, he had turned me down, and I was bitter. Yes, there seemed to be two versions, and as with so many lies spread behind the victim's back, by the time the victim (me) hears about it the damage is done. I can neither prove that I didn't sleep with him, nor prove that the idea of sleeping with him never even crossed my mind.

I disagree with his academic research because his theories are complete crap based on a very dubious reading of 'facts" that support them and the complete disregard of facts that contradict his theories. He bullies people into 'agreeing' with him. When I refused to be cowed into accepting his views, he spread lies and sexual slurs about me.

The lies he spread were pure and simple sexual harassment. They didn't have the physical element of groping, but their aim was the same: to belittle me, make me feel 'dirty' and to 'use' sexual slurs against me.

If he told these lies about me to colleagues that were old friends of mine, God knows what he told colleagues that were not my friends. Worse, some friends had assumed he wouldn't tell them bold lies about me, so assumed his claims must be true. I hit the roof. I was able to explain to friends that his claims were lies and sexual harassment, but I couldn't do the same to every single other person who might have heard them so I decided to publicly call 'bull' on him and try to both defend myself and turn the tables on him.

I also felt that if he harassed me, a 40 year old woman and a 'peer' (well, actually technically his superior in academic rank) then what the hell was he doing to his students. So I complained to his head of department.

Yes, dear readers, the women amongst you will not be surprised to hear that nobody in any official capacity felt the need to take any action against him, in effect officially sanctioning that it is perfectly fine with them for him to sexually harass anyone he likes. I hope he doesn't escalate now, because I consider what he did bad enough.

Maybe I should 'rise above' sexual harassment and ignore it. Maybe I could if it were an isolated incident, and I could simply put behind me.

But it was not.

From the stories that have been getting back to me, two other men have been making similar vile attacks, similarly bringing in some fantasy sexual relationship with me that existed in their heads not reality, and similarly using those ridiculous slurs to undermine me professionally.

I've been told I shouldn't take it so personally. That I shouldn't blog about such personal things. And so forth.

I suspect women will understand why I've hit the roof, and why I plan to fight back and embarrass the hell out of any man that tries to sexually harass me.

From now on I plan to have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment, and reserved the right to name and shame anyone that tries to make me a victim of this particularly nefarious form of bullying. If sexual harassment is about power, then I should have the power to fight back.

Yes, maybe some men think I should buck up, but others I talked to have been horrified.

Maybe this is too personal, but I'm a middle aged woman who's quite secure in herself. I managed to deal this summer with: a young loved one dying suddenly, a friend being diagnosed with advanced terminal cancer, a loved one being treated for bad but operable cancer, and a close relative about to die. Maybe I'm not dealing with yet more sexual harassment as well as I should, so apologies to those who think I should just take it on the chin and move on.

On Saturday night I barely slept because I was so upset and angry about it, on Sunday night I was so stressed I managed maximum half an hour. On Monday the doctor gave me a prescription, and I slept. Then I hit the roof.  Yesterday morning I ended up crying. Today I cried some more.

Death and illness are inevitable and we need to deal with them; sexual harassment should not be. It is designed to be extremely upsetting, and it is. It makes women feel dirty and that is why so many of us don't fight back.

I find the whole current public discussion about whether or not Muslim women in British universities should be allowed to be fully veiled puzzling in some aspects, but I understand why some women are arguing that it prevents sexualisation and harassment of women. I would rather we worked instead on actually stamping out sexual harassment in universities by doing something about it, by punishing misogynistic males that harass women rather than merely paying lip service to the idea of doing so.

I'm also going to be honest by giving you an example of how sexual harassment has affected me.

I've used a variety of excuses for not writing another 'popular' history book, even though I have several half-written ones on my hard drive that publishers have expressed interest in. I've said that I don't like dealing with the nonsense that involves doing the publicity for one, or the reactions from people to being in the newspapers. I don't really like that I became the story not my book, but most journalists were complete professionals, and I accept that part of selling a book selling it through the media.

My problem is that it is almost impossible to sell a book without the book chain Waterstones, and this is where the sexual harassment problem comes in.

For several years a man that organised book events at Waterstones was harassing many of the female authors that either 'did' the book events or attended them. Some harassment was verbal, a little physical, and a lot by email and through the Waterstones Facebook Group. We were invited to orgies, we were emailed his sexual fantasies, sometimes featuring us, sometimes not. A polite request to stop earned a tirade about insulting him as an erotic author, and the emails sent from various addresses did not stop. A firm request to stop brought forth a whole host of threats, including not having having our books sold in Waterstones. I know that he acted on this, and cancelled copies of my book customers had ordered.

It isn't by any means the main reason I was treated for PTSD, but how traumatized I felt by the way this employee of Waterstones was making me feel is one of the major reasons I decided to speak to my GP about it, and the final trauma that made me seek treatment for PTSD. Whilst in treatment for PTSD I had to repeatedly ask this man to stop sexually harassing me, and to stop emailing me from new accounts. I complained to Waterstones management, but no-one bothered to 'get back' to me.

I complained again and again to Waterstones, and they finally admitted verbally that several other women authors had made similar claims. I asked if they'd fired him, and I was told that because he was a recovering alcoholic who attended Alcoholics Anonymous, Waterstones decided instead to put him on paid leave to 'deal' with his problems.

So, Waterstones is fine with sexual harassment, but former alcoholics need to be given all the help and support they need. Waterstones never, to the best of my knowledge, bothered to get back to any of us about the sexual harassment and threats I and other women I know were subjected to by their employee on an almost daily basis for close to a year. Waterstones clearly thinks sexual harassment is a trivial issue, and I find the way the management dealt with it almost more insulting than the original harassment.

So that, in short is mostly why I have not published any more 'popular history books' ...

Maybe some people will feel that I am being melodramatic and overly personal, but I felt that it was important to show how sexual harassment affects women, and the best way I could do so was by explaining how it has affected me.

Sexual harassment should not be ignored, and it will not 'go away' if we do. The only way to fight it, is to fight back, and the first step in doing so is by speaking publicly about it.


  1. Dorothy.. I follow your blog. I do think this is a bit sad. To say that I object to trolls principally to stay in the public eye is actually bonkers. I don't give much of a toss about comments re my "looks" (though I do think that AA Gill operates with double standards when he says that I look like the back end of a bus, when "craggy" blokes are .. well "craggy"). My object is to do with the really aggressive stuff, which I would hope we would all see as off limits. If I make a tv programme that someone doesn't like, if I express a view on immigration that is not standard, then disagreement is fine (and right). I think it is off limits (to say the least, or may be simply stupid) to involve my vagina (shape, size smell in that discussion). And what people might want to DO to my vagina (you can imagine the verbs) is yet more off limits. To say that objecting is publicity seeking is not simply bonkers, it is insulting .

  2. Mary, actually I SPECIFICALLY said that I understood why you wrote about about a whole host of issues as that is what is expected nowadays. I really don't care if you write about anything, and I defended you when you were attacked by Gill, and when you were attacked for writing about shoes.

    But yes, that particular article involved you Googling yourself, and thank you for making everything about you once again.

    Oh, and I guess I missed the email in support you wrote when some tosser was threatening to rape me via the Liverpool Classics List.

  3. Thanks Dorothy.. but when you have had the kind of threats I've had (rape, murder, threats to rape my decapitated head(, you do google yourself every now and then, you would be mad not to find out what is being said. . Is it all about myself? I hope not. I am 58 and reasonably resilient. Others getting that kind of stuff are younger and almost inevitably less so. I think I have a responsibility to show a red card. When people say (as some have, but not, I think you) that I am doing this only to get twitter followers, I want to weep. Why the f*** would I? I want to write my book.

  4. 1) That article was long before the Twitter threats

    2) Still waiting for a copy of your support email over MY rape threats (see above)

    3) Sorry, I guess after I was raped (by more than one man) I took up kick-boxing. Obviously I can see now that I was wrong do that, and obviously I should have followed your brilliant example and Googled myself instead.

  5. ans PS. I cant reply on Twitter because you've blocked me (I think). But I really dont think that sexual harrassment is unimportant in uni's. I think it is complicated, but v important -- here as elsewhere. I only object to the idea that all this is some PR campaign for my benefit. Frankly I want to be getting back to the library not dealing with trolls, but there is some kind of obligation to respond. And it would be a very rum way to get publicity (loads of rubbish about one's smelly vagina, pics of labia superimposed over one's face.. yes, honestly!)

  6. 1) You're still not answering my points

    2) I have gone out of my way to be supportive in the past, for example Gill's public attack, the attack in The Telegraph about your shoes

    3) Yes, I do block trolls on Twitter, and the way you reacted at this first mild criticim here making everything about you puts you in the category of people I find it hard to repect.

    4) I have never mentionned your vagina, and have no interest in it or any comparisons anyone makes to it. But, your yes, the way you keep making some nonsense written by some sad man in an obscure corner of the internet so very important and even all-important, is possibly the most telling thing I have ever read by you. And frankly, the way you keep making everything about you makes you sound like a bit of a cunt.


  7. hang on.. I thought I replied at some length before, Sorry if it didnt get through. Let me repeat I never said you mentioned my vagina.. and I could never have imagined that you did. But there is a question (and a disputed one) of how you best respond to foul abuse .. by ignoring or naming and shaming. And it is foul,. it isnt AA gill style stuff about hair, it;s about stinking vaginas again and again.. so a bit sad you take up the cunt word. But hell.. we are on the same same side here

    "I have never mentionned your vagina, and have no interest in it or any comparisons anyone makes to it. But, your yes, the way you keep making some nonsense written by some sad man in an obscure corner of the internet so very important and even all-important, is possibly the most telling thing I have ever read by you. And frankly, the way you keep making everything about you makes you sound like a bit of a cunt."

  8. Please stop now, this is not a good conversation for either of you.

  9. I thought that engagement was a democratic process.. agreement or not. Oh well .. off to bed. I would love to know what my crime was .. apart from being a victim.of some horrible vile misogyny that noone would put up with, I am sure Dorothy has similar stories of this to put into the pot. Wer are surely on the same side.

  10. I think on the questions some have left unanswered is what is 'foul abuse.' We have seen the rise of the chattering class where one can easily hide behind a virtual wall and cast insults towards their favorite object.

    I admit, this is a form of abuse, albeit not one so foul as some might would like us to believe. These are childish insults, devaluing humanity — not of the insultee, but of the insultor. As an author I do my best not to engage those who seek only to insult. That means I do not read the comments to the article I post on various venues and I do not make a habit of googling myself. I've learned people have the right to say what they will about me.

    What they will — does not include threats or force or otherwise.

    However, there is harassment. This is towards the devaluing of the humanity of the object. This is a rather rough word, but this is part of harassment - that the other person becomes an object, not to mock or ridicule, but to have in some sick and twisted way. If we examine the forms mentioned herein and in the liked to article from January, we find one that is aggressive and another passive. We find a great divide between the two.

    In insults, one must go and look to see what is said about them and then choose to allow it to bother them. If one is harassed, this is done usually face to face or at the very least, in a close physical proximity. Further, there is often times an the inability to escape, or to seek protective remedy, from harassment.

    I'm not sure how this reality is so obscure to some who would devalue aggressive harassment, even to the point of unwanted and forced physical contact, to the behavior of the childish and ignorant?

  11. Mary you yourself were not engaging, but lecturing from on high,and you are still not engaging over either the topic of the blog post or subsequent points.

    Criticism is the flip side to praise, and I find it confusing that you feel everyone in the media should adore you unquestioningly.

    I accept that that trolling incident upset you and so you wrote about it, but ....

    we're trying to discuss sexual harassment in the workplace, not every example of harassment ever. So for example I choose to ignore the trolling from your follower Twitter people.

    You're clearly only willing to talk about yourself and not discuss the serious issues I raised.

    YOU have however made it crystal clear to me through your comments that sexual harassment is still not taken seriously at Cambridge.

    I would prefer it if you stuck to Twitter or your own blog in future, as plenty of people have indicated that they do not want to post comments here because they are concerned about responding here. And being harassed again on Twitter.

    I also will be deleting any future comments from anyone that are off topic.


I do not moderate comments, but I remove spam, overt self-promotion ("read [link] my much better post on this") and what I consider hate speech (racism, homophobia etc).

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