Author Bonnie Nadzam spent years not talking publicly about the sexual harassment and assault she experienced in graduate school.
As is common among survivors of sexual abuse, Nadzam felt shame and regret that kept her quiet. What’s more, the men she reports harassed her were well-known authors and her professors — men with significant influence over her career as a writer.
Talking openly about her experiences, though, is exactly what Nadzam chose to do in a recent essay published online.
In it, Nadzam not only details the specifics of her experiences with harassment and assault by two separate men at two separate universities in two separate degree programs, she also makes clear her reason for sharing her story now, which has nothing to do with forgiveness or revenge. Instead, it has to do with shedding a light on something so often kept in the dark:
“These are men who abused and disrespected me, who took advantage of their positions to exploit me, in institutions of higher learning where their gender and power let them control the narrative … and where they were allowed to respond to my own resistance with dismissiveness. I wish to feel free to share my experience in the hopes that it will protect someone else from having to be debased through the same exploitative humiliations. And perhaps most of all, I’m sharing because some of you have similar stories eating you alive.”
As Nadzam quickly learned, she was right.
Nadzam’s story is not an isolated incident in the literary world. Far from it.
Just weeks after Nadzam’s essay was published, a follow-up post appeared in which 11 other women, also writers, discussed similar instances of sexual harassment they either witnessed or experienced firsthand.
Writer and critic Roxane Gay shared that Nadzam’s essay reminded her of “all the stories I’ve heard about men in the literary community over the years … who proposition women at book parties and readings and conferences, who offer ‘mentorship’ by way of seduction, who commit a range of sexual assaults and who are rarely named publicly because everyone is, understandably, too scared of the repercussions to their careers and their personal lives and their peace of mind.”
Poet Erin Coughlin Hollowell commented on the pervasiveness of the issue: “If you gather a handful of women together and one of them speaks of abuse at the hands of mentor, boss, or partner, it is like opening a tap. The stories come out slowly at first but with an increasing pressure that floods the room. Most women have at least one of these stories.”
And author Porochista Khakpour echoed Nadzam’s sentiment that stories like this need to be brought out of hiding: “As hard as it is, we need to share these stories and we need to put them out there. If not for ourselves, for the women who inherit all this from us.”
Beyond the public responses from these other writers, Nadzam received an outpouring of messages and emails from women who had similar experiences.
Nadzam says what struck her most about these responses was “the repeated description of each person’s physical experience while reaching out.” The women wrote of shaking hands and pounding hearts, even when writing about abuse that happened years and years ago, showing the lasting and detrimental effects sexual harassment and assault can have.
Of course, it’s not just the literary industry where this happens.
According to a 2015 study by Cosmopolitan, 1 in 3 women have been sexually harassed at work. And instances of sexual harassment and assault happen in a variety of industries.
In October 2016, actress Rose McGowan shared on Twitter her experience being raped by a powerful Hollywood executive. And earlier this year, Susan J. Fowler wrote a blog post detailing her multiple experiences with sexual harassment during the year she worked as an engineer at Uber — a move that’s helping to expose the darkest side of a pervasive sexist culture affecting women in STEM fields.
Sadly, it makes sense that these incidents are occurring in workplaces and institutions of higher education where power structures are so keenly defined.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault are about power. Students are beholden to instructors and mentors for guidance and education. Employees depend on supervisors and managers for performance reviews and raises.
These power dynamics automatically put one person in a more disadvantageous position and allows exploitation to, at times, go unchecked. We see examples of it from celebrities, politicians, and even the current president of the United States.
But women can challenge that power dynamic by refusing to remain silent. Just like Nadzam did.
A victim’s silence is one of the greatest powers a perpetrator can have. But the more vocal survivors of harassment and assault become, the more that power dynamic shifts, which is why women like Nadzam and so many others — women brave enough to make their stories known — are so very important.
As Nadzam said in her original essay:
“What I really want to say is that all of these things happened to me, that none of it was okay, that I didn’t deserve any of it, and that I have nothing to be ashamed of. … We know that men, especially those in positions of power, try to hurt, tame and control what they fear, and cannot or will not try to understand. … If ever there was a time to disregard those who won’t believe our stories, now is the time to speak very plainly about the behavior of those men who assume we’ll be swept away by their poetry, or politics, before we understand what’s happened.”