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Trigger Warning: This post includes discussions and descriptions of sexual harassment and assault, as well as descriptions of the mental state of someone suffering abuse.

On Halloween day of 2011, I wrote a blog post detailing the years of harassment I had experienced at the hands of fellow librarians. I did not include every incident. I did not talk about harassment that happened to me outside of the library world. And I did not name names. This post gained a lot of traction and I was pleased that it helped contribute in some small way to the conversations that ultimately resulted in the Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA Conferences.

In my 2011 post, I talked in vague terms about the emotional toll that such behavior has had on me. Re-reading that post nearly three years later I am struck by my fighter attitude. I hear a tone of “I can power through this bullshit idiotic behavior and all you harassers, you aren’t going to win.” The anger covers up the deeper emotions of fear, depression, self-doubt, and anxiety.

Team Harpy and the continuing aftermath

Some months ago, the story of Team Harpy began (#teamharpy). You can read more on the Team Harpy website, but the brief version is that after two librarians called out (online) the negative behavior of another librarian at conferences, he decided to sue them for $1.25 million in a defamation lawsuit. I agreed to run their legal defense fund, the astounding response to which has humbled me, helped them, and restored in me a bit of faith in humanity.

Several days ago I started drafting a post talking more directly about my own experiences with harassment, to refute the claims of a few loud voices who are claiming that women complaining about harassment in the library world are just making things up to hurt the men in question, but also to address the many fence-sitters who may be swayed by these loud yet ill-informed voices.

But writing this post was really hard. My stomach hurt, my heart hurt…it was extremely difficult to do.

Much of the conversation about #teamharpy has disturbed me, particularly the people questioning people who speak up, or don’t speak up, about sexual harassment. The conversation on Twitter has stayed reasonably civil but the conversations went south quickly on reddit and the ALA Think Tank (which I have now joined and left twice because of cruel, uncivil conversations like this–and I am not rejoining). I then read Amanda Goodman’s post Wednesday morning about her own case of harassment at library conferences, and why she chose not to name names. She inspired me to try my best to write this post once more.

Laundry and Skeletons

This is about my laundry and my skeletons, neither dirty nor closeted.

When I was 14 years old I was sexually assaulted by a fellow student. I did manage to hurt him back, but not enough. Nothing would have been enough. I returned to my parents’ home, took the longest and hottest shower of my life, and did my best to pretend that everything was normal. What I remember is feeling numb–inexplicably numb–for weeks. I did not report the incident to the police, nor did I even tell my parents until I was in my 30s. I felt (probably wrongly) that my parents would blame me, that I should have known better than to be alone with this boy in his family’s home. I felt that the police would say it was not a crime and I would be putting myself through a lot of trauma with no positive end result. Even at 14 I knew the paltry success rates of assault and rape cases. Like many victims, I wanted to forget it ever happened, not that I ever could. Specifics from that assault still trigger severe reactions in me to this day.

When I was 16 years old I was repeatedly sexually harassed, including inappropriate touching, by the owner of the car dealership where I worked. I did not report the many incidents to the police or my parents because I did not want to lose my job, which I needed to pay for college. And who could I have reported it to at work? The general manager (his son) or the office manager (his daughter)?

When I was 17 years old I was sexually harassed by the senior class photographer, including inappropriate touching and solicitation. I reported the incident to the manager of the photo studio, and she and I together attempted to report the incident to the police–where the police officer refused to take our report (“It’s just your two ladies’ word against his.”). I told my parents. We contacted corporate headquarters and were bought off with a fancy photo package.

When I was in college and graduate school I experienced a number of physically inappropriate men at parties, bars, etc. I would not say any of it rose to the level of assault but a few times it was close. Harassment in college and graduate school seems to be par for the course, unfortunately.

The first time I was harassed as a librarian, at the age of 25, it was by another woman, my supervisor, over a series of months, with comments about my body, inappropriate touching, suggestions for how I could dress sexier, etc. I reported her to the Library Director and asked for help. I was transferred to another supervisor and my harasser stayed in her position for years until she retired.

A couple of years later, I was out at a fundraising event for the library presenting to a group of privileged wealthy males. I was with two colleagues, including a supervisor (not mine) and the Library Director. A man who I later learned was the husband of one of our Library Commissioners made numerous loud comments to his buddies about my body and what he wanted to do to it sexually as I was reaching up to set up the projection screen. I felt physically ill, but turned around and glared at them anyway, at which point they all laughed at me.  I walked out of the room and immediately sought the assistance of the supervisor on site, and together we went to the Library Director for help. I said I was uncomfortable and wanted to leave. I was told I had to stay and finish the presentation. The next day the Library Director apologized that she’d handled it poorly and then she actually did the right thing and directly called this guy out on his behavior. He tried to send me flowers, which I told him to shove up his ass.

It was about this point in my career that I started to be a public figure of sorts, at least within the small ecosystem that is the library world. And then all of the incidents I listed in the 2011 blog post occurred, from 2004 through 2011. Men harassed me at conferences, at home, and at work. I fell into a protective, reactive stance and was always on alert. I started to not want to speak publicly. I started to avoid social events at conferences. I was withdrawing to protect myself. I reported the worst offenders to conference organizers, supervisors, event liaisons, and law enforcement…whoever seemed appropriate given the situation. I only know of a couple of cases where what I would consider to be adequate consequences were meted out. Most of the time no action was taken.

Since then I’ve experienced far less harassment at library conferences, perhaps because I spoke up.  I’d like to think so. But the harassment has not stopped completely.

More incidents have happened connected to my day job as a Library Director lately. Being featured in the local paper a few times and being visible at public meetings paints a much bigger target on me. I’ve experienced a few incidents of inappropriate touching, harassment, and assault–none of which were at work (but all of which were related to work). The most upsetting incident was an assault. A couple of years ago a young man followed me out of our branch library while I was taking a walk on my break, and in an isolated area tried to physically force himself on me repeatedly, placing his hands on me and kissing me, as he claimed we were meant for each other and proposed to me. Thankfully I fought hard, pinning his groin under my stiletto heel and managing to make him give me his ID so I could get his name and address and pursue protective measures.

The change in my personal response to harassment over the last twenty years is remarkable to me, a confidence and intolerance gained through age and, unfortunately, experience.

Assault and Harassment are Real

Sexual assault and harassment happen. You would be delusional to think it doesn’t, or that all of these people in all of these places are making up stories just for kicks about ill-advised and illegal behavior. 1 out of 6 American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (source: RAINN). 60% of assaults are not reported to the police and 97% of rapists never spend a day in jail (source: RAINN). Numerous surveys show that approximately 1 out of 4 women have been sexually harassed in the workplace along with 1 out of 10 men, and the majority of them never report it (source: ABC News/Washington Post).

If you haven’t experienced assault or harassment, or have not seen it happen to someone you love, you have zero idea of the long-term impact these events have. So please, for the love of all things good, stop talking out of your ass about your ill-informed opinions on how victims should respond and how following proper channels will always result in a just outcome.

I am still not naming names, as you’ve likely noticed. You have every right to ask why. I am choosing to not name names for two reasons. First, in the cases where I reported the behavior, I consider my due diligence done even if I did not get the outcome I wanted. Second, naming names in a forum like this can cause legal problems for myself (as evidenced by the Team Harpy case and countless cases before that one), and problems for those I name, even those who were just witnesses and the institutions where these incidents took place. I wish that wasn’t the case and I look forward to a day when victims aren’t afraid of the unfair consequences of speaking truth.

What I’ve Learned

When I think back to being a new librarian I was easily swayed by the librarians I perceived to be famous. Men and women who got to speak at conferences were, to me, gods and goddesses. I was scared to approach them until I did one day and found out that we’re all just people–you can have a conversation with a librarian about library stuff and be pretty much guaranteed they will be friendly, open, and generous most of the time. It’s who we are.

My recommendations to new librarians entering the field is to not let fame sway you (which really, let’s be honest, is more like “micro-fame” within our tiny sphere of the world). Just because someone speaks at a conference does not mean they have immunity regarding their behavior. Just because someone has a blog or a well-read Twitter account does not mean they are any smarter than you are, any better than you are, or any more protected than you are. If you are approached inappropriately by someone who you perceive to be in a position of power, fight back verbally, and physically if you absolutely must. Ask for help from those around you. Get witnesses. And tell someone. Above all, please tell someone.

The Lasting Impact of Assault and Harassment

I do not look smart and strong in the incidents I write about here. I look vulnerable, naive, and perhaps even a little stupid. I don’t particularly like exposing that side of myself to the greater world, but if it serves the purpose of raising awareness and sensitivity then I’m willing to do it. I can look back and think about how young I was, and that I did the best I could under the circumstances–but a big part of me thinks I should have done more each and every time.

These incidents of sexual harassment and assault happened to me. They are my laundry and my skeletons. I own them and they own me. But they are not me, are not who I am. Like each individual, I am a complex creation of heredity and experience. No one thing led me to where I am today. But I never forget about these incidents. Decades later, the memory of feeling helpless, not in control of my own space and body, makes me want to fight like hell whenever I can to prevent this from happening to others.

Assault and harassment change you for life. We’ve had enough lives changed in this way. It’s time for it to stop, and it’s time for us to support those who do speak up – in whatever form they chose to speak up.

“Laundry and Skeletons: The Reality of Sexual Assault and Harassment”

  1. Daniel Ransom Says:

    Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your experiences, which I am sure were very difficult to revisit and publicize. In my opinion — for what’s it’s worth — you don’t come across as vulnerable, naive, or stupid in any of the incidents, even those in which you might choose to respond differently to today. You were and are smart and strong.

  2. Kristi Says:

    I completely agree with Daniel – you were not stupid or naive or vulnerable in any of those situations. Unfortunately you were faced with others who were abhorrent. Thank you for your bravery and strength to share your stories.

  3. Danielle Plumer Says:

    I really admire what you’re doing by talking about this. It’s hard, and there is often no upside to going public with this sort of thing, even without naming names. I hope that all of us, of whatever gender, find the type of support we need to fight this kind of shit and to ensure that people twenty years younger than we are never have to learn the hard way that being “good girls and boys” only empowers our harassers.

  4. Ellen Forsyth Says:

    Thank you for speaking out about this. It has obviously been a very tough thing to do, but by you speaking out, you will help encourage others to speak out about similar treatment. It also shows the importance of workplace reporting being taken seriously.

  5. Joe Janes Says:

    I thought I couldn’t admire you any more. I was wrong.

  6. Laura Shea-Clark Says:

    I admire your courage & appreciate your willingness to share this. As with many things, I wish those who have no personal experience with something would not make uninformed, unhelpful comments.

  7. Rachel Vacek Says:

    Thank you for having the courage to speak openly about this. You’ve been one of the strongest women I’ve ever known and I’ve always admired you. Thanks for fighting for those unable to do so.

  8. J Says:

    Sharing personal stories like these tend to leave one feeling a bit exposed and can bring up all sorts of feelings. Sharing my own story about some verbal sexual harassment by a security guard in a previous library system honestly makes me squirm with embarrassment. But it is good to tell our stories and let people know that they aren’t alone.

  9. Lara McLaughlin Says:

    Thank you for your story, your courage, and your strength. I hope to meet you in person one day and communicate my gratitude for your speaking out.

  10. Paul Signorelli Says:

    Strong, honest, meaningful writing that makes a difference by transforming our commuity–as usual. I remain grateful for all you’re doing to keep us focused and engaged.

  11. Jade Justice Says:

    Wow. You are so brave to let the library world know what has happened to you. You ARE strong, powerful and I look up to YOU for putting this up for the world to see. Thank you.

  12. Daniel Cornwall Says:

    Thank you for sharing your stories, for fighting back and for reporting even when it seemed unlikely to produce results. It’s my hope that as more stories come out, the more people will finally understand.

  13. Thom Ball Says:

    The only way this stops is if it’s called out loud and clear – once again, you so impress me with your courage and fortitude. I am so often disgusted, embarrassed and appalled by the behavior and violent criminality of men towards women, much of which is never brought to light. My wife had been raped twice before we knew each other and I can assure everyone that what you say is true, it never goes away, it changes you forever. The only solace I can offer is that we have raised our three boys to respect the rights, physical sanctity and emotional health of all women and in particular those they work with. I have acted on reports of harassment several times in my career as a manager and it breaks my heart to see the impact on the women affected. So, speaking from the management perspective, please call if out – I recognize it’s a difficult, frightening prospect and I’m sorry that you have to subject yourself to the fear of retaliation, but it is a crucial first step in making it stop. Bless you, Sarah.

  14. Joe Lucia Says:

    Let me add my voice to those thanking you for this brave, honest and very balanced reflection on behavior that must be relentlessly exposed and anathematized. I know a number of women in our profession who’ve been harassed in the workplace, most egregiously by individuals who seem immune to consequences because of their positions of relative power. One of the saddest and most challenging dimensions of these matters is the feebleness of institutional responses. I have seen women in enforcement roles back away from effective responses because the perpetrator was seen to be protected by upper administration.

  15. Tina Hertel Says:

    As always, you state things with honesty, rawness, and great perspective. We are all naive, vulnerable, and stupid at times, as well as trusting and eager to learn from those we consider so wise, which is one of the many sexual harassment and assault take place much too often and make it hard for us to reconcile. Thank you for speaking out in a way that can encourage change and empower others to speak out as well.

  16. Holly Williams Says:

    Thank you, Sarah. Thank you.

  17. John Pecoraro Says:

    I wish I had the power to apologize on behalf of all the stupid, inconsiderate, even evil acts perpetrated by my fellow males. At least I can thank you for keeping this issue alive, and being open and honest about what all men should be ashamed of.

  18. Alan Levine (@cogdog) Says:

    As a rainbow chasing unicorn riding optimist I am finding it harder and harder to believe in the goodness will prevail idea given such painful stories. As a white male in the tech field, I am (now embarassingly) privileged to not suffer what you have. Its repugnant and unacceptable and I struggle with what I can do.

    What you have experienced multiple times are foreign to me, and I don’t associate much at all with men who act this way. I’d like to think I would call out and intervene if I saw this in play.

    The unfairness sites heavy with each brave story. And just writing “brave” feels like a cheap understatement of the stakes for you. Thanks for sharing Team Harpy, am on my way to donate.

  19. Why I support #teamharpy | The Nascent Librarian Says:

    […] Sarah Houghton, who’s handling the aforementioned legal defense fund, provides an FAQ and her own experiences with sexual assault and harassment […]

  20. Brandon Westerman Says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, and for your words of wisdom for those who do not feel the strength to be able to stand up for themselves.
    Revealing what you feel is naivety and vulnerability to help others is a greater strength than many choose to have. There is no bravery without fear, after all.

    As a male in the library world and tech world, I feel it is my (our?) duty to be aware of these situations and crises, to acknowledge the abuse rather than ignore it. My own privilege keeps me safe from having these experiences. This safety is a privilege that no one should be able to take for granted. This story was hard to read, and I wish greatly for the day where the truth is something that can be spoken without fear of reprisal. Whether or not the backpack of privilege is visible or not, it still exists.

    I believe goodness can prevail, with this sort of honesty and bravery in the world. Thank you for being a beacon in showing us that these constructs may be dismantled. Chains of abuse may be broken, though we seem to reforge them constantly, which there is no excuse for.

    If we build our world, which we have, we can change it. I will continue to check myself and be aware of uncomfortable truths the best that I can, though I wish there were more actions evident to halt such abuse.

    How do we truly stand up to tyranny and abuse?

  21. #TeamHarpy | Légothèque Says:

    […] a aussi publié sur son blog une liste des différents harcèlements qu’elle a subi dans son adolescence et depuis qu’elle […]

  22. Bringing Awareness to “Girl Watching” and Sexual Harassment – stevensonablog Says:

    […] Houghton, Sarah. (2014, October 3). Laundry and Skeletons: The Reality of Sexual Assault and Harassment. Retrieved 24 June 2017, from… […]

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