Karen James

Staff Scientist at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory

What I Learned From #ripplesofdoubt


Warning: This piece includes discussion of sexual harassment.

Over the course of a few days in mid-October, it emerged that Bora Zivkovic (@BoraZ on Twitter), a trusted and beloved leader of the ScienceOnline community and the blog editor at Scientific American, had sexually harassed at least three women. The science blogosphere and Twitterverse erupted. Expressions of shock, anger, and sadness flowed forth onto the Internet at a rate that left even the most seasoned Twitterers—myself included—feeling overwhelmed.

But there were other expressions, too. Quiet and few at first, women began tweeting about how these revelations of sexual harassment were affecting them. For some, the incident triggered painful memories of their own experiences of harassment; for others, it prompted unsettling questions.

At first, the questions on Twitter were rhetorical. “How many freelancers felt intimidated by @BoraZ but didn't know where to turn?” asked Roxy Drew (@redrawnoxen), or are “now doubting their value as science writers?” added Mama Joules (@MamaJoules). “How many women [were] not mentored because they weren't attractive to him?” asked @pschiendelman. And how many, added David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs), are left “wondering if that’s why didn’t get [a] blog gig?”

Then Allie Wilkinson (@loveofscience) made the rhetorical real by bravely answering Dobbs’ question. “You can count at least one,” she tweeted. Self-doubt was no longer just a potential ripple effect of this news of sexual harassment. It was really happening, to real people.

At least one. How many more? We didn’t have to wait long for the answer: a lot more. Hundreds more. Thousands.

At the time of writing, there have been over 4,000 tweets with the hashtag #ripplesofdoubt, which I established shortly after the exchange with Wilkinson. My intention was to create a space where women and men could share and discuss the doubts, emotional distress, and roadblocks they’ve experienced as a result of being sexually harassed, or of simply trying to make their way in a world where harassment is still far too common.

Though I haven’t been able to read all 4,000 tweets, I’ve looked over enough to notice some recurring themes. I’ve seen writers doubt their own talent (Did I get the career opportunity because he found me attractive?) and their physical attractiveness (Did I not get it because he didn’t?). I’ve seen researchers who say they’re afraid to speak out, and ones who feel guilt for not having spoken out. I’ve seen women who have lost self-confidence, both in work and in life, and who have come to regret career and life decisions made under the influence of that doubt. Some of these Twitter testimonials referred to the recent events involving Zivkovic, but most were related to other instances of sexual harassment.

Those who haven’t personally experienced harassment, or the doubt that follows, expressed shock and empathy. For some, the shock came from the realization—supported by the sheer number of tweets—of just how common harassment still is. (I count myself among those surprised by this.) For others, it came from learning that young and old alike had stories to tell, many of them disturbingly fresh.

Fortunately, and surprisingly, very few trolls—those malevolent derailers of many an internet discussion about sexism—appeared. One of the few who did show up, in fact, soon desisted and even emailed me later to express his regret. "I wanted to apologize for my inappropriate tweets today and thank you," he wrote. "It turned into something pretty amazing and honestly moved my thinking on the subject."

The Twitter discussion also inspired over a dozen blog posts detailing incidents of sexual harassment and the long-lasting ripples of doubt they engendered. "When I tell it as a story I make it into something funny, because that’s all I can do,” wrote Kate AG (@RadioKate). "The truth of it, though, was that it made me feel deeply uncomfortable on so many levels, and once again left me questioning my own worth as a person, as good company, as anything other than a stupid shell."

"Because someone witnessed a man in power attempt to grab my boobs," wrote Pamela Gay (@starstryder), "I have been warned that I need to worry about my career being actively destroyed by others."

"After that, whenever I saw a closed office door, I wondered what was going on inside. I realized that this would never, ever stop, and I decided to get my Ph.D. and get out." wrote Claudia (@ct_la). "Maybe I would be heading my own lab or department by now, had I not said 'Enough!'"

These posts are marked by their clarity, honesty, and integrity, and are all the more devastating for it. I’ve also received dozens of anonymous contributions through direct messages and email, many from people who happened upon a Storify feed I created, which chronicles the origin of the hashtag and the first few hours of its use.

Fielding these took an emotional toll. For a couple of days my email inbox was a catalog of injustice and pain. Some correspondents wrote not only about their own ripples of doubt, but also about the shocking incidents of sexual harassment that triggered those doubts in the first place. Some didn’t want their contributions published, even anonymously; they just wanted to tell someone. As far as I know, I’m the only person who knows their stories.

When one woman told me she'd had suicidal thoughts, I realized that I had taken on a kind of responsibility. “Curator” is the best word I can think of to describe that role. This realization kept me awake at night, and I found myself internalizing my own stories and doubts in the service of others. I spent my evenings updating the Storify feed, re-tweeting new #ripplesofdoubt tweets as they appeared, and sending messages of support. It was exhausting, both physically and emotionally, but I never really considered tuning out; people were relying on me.

Another kind of toll was exacted, too, in the form of criticism. As the number of #ripplesofdoubt tweets increased, some people expressed what seemed to me to be a valid concern: Could the hashtag cause harm by triggering destructive thinking and preventing victims of harassment from resiliently moving on? This is not my area of expertise; I don’t pretend to have answers.

What I do have is an outpouring of gratitude. Women and men alike have emailed and tweeted about how they have drawn support and solidarity from #ripplesofdoubt. A second hashtag—#ripplesofhope—emerged to highlight signs of progress and create a place to express and celebrate the benefits of the simple act of talking publicly about sexual harassment and its insidious fallout. "The #ripplesofdoubt hashtag on Twitter is alternately a heartbreaking read as the stories pour forth, and an inspiring one as women take comfort in the support of their peers, and men seek to self-examine and figure out how they can be better allies and mentors when they might not even realize the effect they have," wrote Tania Browne (@CherryMakes).

What’s next for #ripplesofdoubt? Tweets and blog posts continue to appear at a slower but steady pace, and I’m hopeful that the discussion will continue, with or without the hashtag. But can we do better? Could the hashtag be transformed into a more permanent home for sharing and discussing sexual harassment in science, science communication, and beyond? The Everyday Sexism Project provides a potential model, and I’ve invited a group of women from the ScienceOnline community to discuss the possibilities with me.

Whatever form the legacy of #ripplesofdoubt takes, I hope it will continue to be there, as Tania Browne tweeted, “for the women who've lived through this stuff [and] need a safe place to discuss. No judgements, just bravery.”

Karen James is a staff scientist at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine and co-founder and director of The HMS Beagle Project. Find her on Twitter at @kejames.

Photo: Frozen ripples, photographed by the author near her home on Mount Desert Island, Maine.

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  • Thank you Karen James for your generosity and courage in starting and continuying that tweet. And also for that beautiful photo!

    Catherine Tihanyi Catherine Tihanyi
  • Dear Karen, Thank you for your work. After my own experience with this form of warfare, I tried to discover its source. After being sexually harassed out of a tenured position in English at a Community College in NY, I moved to other areas of the country trying to find a place where such behavior was not encouraged by an army of political/religious puppets. I never found another job teaching or working for minimum wage where this army was not in play. I realize this sounds paranoid, but sadly, it is true. I eventually moved back to my family in another state and when my mother entered a nursing home, I tried to deal with the staff that was sexually harassing her. She was 82 and so crippled by Parkinsons that she could not use a TV remote. We moved her from place to place and every nursing home was using this same weapon. The staff would not dress her properly, so she was often left in a wheel chair exposed. Whenever I visited her, her roommate and her family would pretend that I was her roommate or that members of our family were her nurses. I wrote letter after letter, made phone call after phone call, but nothing changed. She finally caught pneumonia when her aides left her window open in freezing January weather. In the hospital, a nurse told me that I was dirt (because I am a Democrat and so was most of my family) beside her bed. As she was dying, the nurses in the Catholic hospital refused to clear her breathing tube as directed by the doctor, so I spent the last few days of her life sleeping by her bed listening to her breathe making sure her tube was cleared and the nurses kept snickering at me suggesting we were lesbians because I did not want her to choke to death.

    When I entered a nursing home last year with 4th stage Breast Cancer, I was prepared for the harassment of the staff. For an entire year, I did not take a shower without an extra person, male or female improperly and against policy entering the shower with me and my aide. After numerous complaints, they let me shower in a private shower that has a lock. Notice the staff never stopped the harassment, I was just given a place where I could lock them out. Not a day goes by without a staff member calling me sweetheart, darling, honey, baby, or sweety, despite my many protests and lectures by the head of nursing against it. Also my Catholic roommate and her family try to make me feel that she is my mother and we are still lesbians.

    You and university and medical administrators need to realize that sexual harassment and stalking and false accusations of homosexuality or lesbianism is a widespread tactic used by religious and political groups to demean anyone who is not a conservative. This has been going on in my experience since 1992 and perhaps before. This is why conservatives are so rigid about gay rights because they use slander about sexual issues to discredit and harass liberals out of educations, healthcare, and careers, and sometimes I'm pretty sure they poison people to create illnesses to torture and murder them while bankrupting their family. Please understand that this is massive warfare, sexual and otherwise. It has little to do with sexual attraction since is it so widespread in nursing homes. When I went to a Catholic hospital 12 years ago, my doctor told someone in the hallway that I was just an old "bitch" meaning Democrat and then he walked in before I had put my robe on. So your story does not surprise me, conservative Catholics and other conservatives are trying to weed out people who disagree with their elitist status through lies and economic and physical persecution. I have complained in every way I know how, speaking out against it in my classroom and to appropriate administrators. Nothing has changed it. I hope you and some of your friends find a way to end this madness so that we can have a Democracy again.

    Vara Tamminga Vara Tamminga
  • “How many freelancers felt intimidated...but didn't know where to turn?”
    or are “now doubting their value as science writers?”
    “How many women [were] not mentored because they weren't attractive to him?”
    or are “wondering if that’s why didn’t get [a] blog gig?”

    A day will come when the revelation that a creep abused his position of authority to "get lucky" won't trigger a wave of self-doubt in women, but probably not before the universal rejection of cosmetics. I hold that women's and girls' faces are perfectly presentable in public without cosmetics, but until women agree they will be plagued by (rather valid) self-doubt.

    John Vincent John Vincent