Author Stacey May Fowles has established herself as a trenchant observer of the sexual mores of Canadian publishing. Last week, in her column with Masthead.com, Fowles offered her take on the Davidar scandal, arguing that publishing breeds a workplace environment that is “uniquely permissive.” In a follow-up piece posted online at The Walrus (where she works as the magazine’s circulation manager), Fowles goes even further, detailing several instances of harassment she experienced first-hand while working in an industry that she describes as “complex and dangerously flawed.”
Fowles’ piece, a response to Russell Smith’s Globe and Mail column about sexual politics in the perilous trade, is a scathing account of an industry that not only tacitly tolerates instances of harassment but seems to consider it part of the job. From The Walrus:
What Smith missed in his column is that for some of those publishing hotties, sexuality is a tool used in pursuit of respect ” and there is a deep sadness that sets in with the realization that so few really care about your manuscript or your theories or what you studied at university, but instead are deeply interested in how well you entertain.
There is also the subsequent shame that you participated at all. That you fell for and dressed up for the momentary pleasure that attention brings. Kissing your idols in elevators makes for a great martini-induced anecdote, but it also brings on a realization that this publishing culture, despite the fact that it is overwhelmingly populated by women, is still defined and governed by men. This is the lie of the patriarchy ” that even though our workplaces are staffed by women, our books authored by women, our bylines, titles, and accolades given to women, we still function under old rule.
You may ask why not just slap the ass-grabbing offender in the face at the party populated by everyone you work with or for? I think that question is asked and answered. Publishing is world of relationships, of bridges built and never deliberately burned. Because it’s unclear who works for who, if an author gets a little filthy during cocktail hour, he tends to fall more in the category of pervert than abuser of power. God forbid someone accuses you, the receiver of unwanted advances, of being difficult to work with. Under the threat of you’ll never work in this town again, we learn to live with it, become amused by it, enjoy it as cliché and archetypal. We even get a little elitist thrill that we are more enlightened than most because we think we understand it.
But as I grow older and perhaps more jaded the lie wears thin. I have long-since learned the eye-rolling, strategic avoiding, and placating that gets you through the shift. What else is the solution when the only coping mechanisms seem to be laugh off the lechery or to leave the industry for good (like one anonymous blogger did)? Or, in Russell Smith’s exceptional case, to write a Globe and Mail column about refusing to participate, however impossible it may seem. Because I have more perspective now, I wonder if I am not complicit because I write fervently about sex and sexuality, because I speak the language of innuendo, because I roll eyes and fail to slap faces. Am I not still nurturing an environment that is difficult for women ten years my junior who are just starting out?