Three years ago at a conference, as I was leaving the hotel bar to go up to my room, I hugged my friends goodbye. Another author, whom I’d just met that weekend, also asked for a hug, and, given the circumstances, it seemed impolite to say no. He used that hug as an opportunity to fondle my breasts.
We shared a publisher. He was a powerful, bestselling author, and I very plainly was not. And I said nothing.
In February, Anne Ursu’s qualitative survey about sexual harassment in children’s publishing peeled back the curtain on one of the industry’s largest problems, and soon after, the comments section of an article on SLJ.com became an unlikely forum for exposing some bad actors in the publishing sphere. As a participant in Ursu’s survey and also as one of the anonymous commenters on the article, I can tell you that the support and relief I felt due to the fact that someone—anyone—was taking these stories seriously was, and is, staggering. I would not have been able to write this column if I hadn’t initially found a safe space to come forward without fear of retribution or indefinite career harm.
Safe spaces are essential for people who’ve been harassed or assaulted to speak, and safety sometimes necessarily involves anonymity. It’s vital to remember the very real stakes faced by those who come forward, and even more vital to remember that these stakes are gut-wrenchingly higher for creators of color, or for those who are queer or trans, or have disabilities. The stakes are both professional and social, legal and deeply personal; and accepting anonymity entails understanding how these forces come together to subdue and silence victims.
But while anonymity serves a crucial role, I also firmly believe anonymous culture can’t be the end of the conversation. There has to be more.
There is a pervasive shadow of skepticism hanging over current events in the form of the idea that if one anonymous comment on a month-old article is all it takes to topple an industry giant, a dangerous precedent is being set. Perhaps it’s not the potential that someone will use an anonymous venue to make a false claim but the fear and doubt created by that possibility. At the same time that anonymity gives those who need it the freedom to speak out, it reinforces suspicion and uncertainty in those who have not experienced harassment and don’t understand what it’s like to be harassed or sexually assaulted.
The truth is that one anonymous comment is not what led agents and publishers to cut ties with some of the abusers named. Those abusers had records of harmful patterns stretching back years, and the climate has forced industry professionals to stop making excuses for these patterns and to accept the radical idea that women in publishing deserve to work without being touched, without being propositioned, without being wheedled or threatened, without being objectified, stalked, or assaulted.
Without that climate, without the outcry that the anonymous comments caused, nothing would have changed. And change also couldn’t have come without all the brave creators, librarians, booksellers, and publishing professionals who’ve been reporting incidents, who’ve been quietly speaking to those in power, who’ve been risking their careers, emotional and financial well-being, and social standing by putting their names to abusive events.
I can’t pretend to have a cohesive solution to this. Putting names to my story is a perverse kind of luxury—one I’m afforded because I’m a white, cisgendered woman and because I no longer have a career in kid lit to protect. My privilege will muffle the worst of the effects of coming forward, but there can be no solution to the problem of harassment without taking into account the deep imbalance of power and justice faced by publishing professionals of all marginalized groups.
We have to focus on structural solutions that make it feasible and safe for our colleagues to come forward. We have to focus on rewriting the script for those with formal power and those without it. We have to make it clear and obvious that speakers will be believed and supported. We have to grapple with the ways we’ve failed, and we have to work to improve.
I’m here to do my part and walk the path that others have made for me, and I’m here to anchor what’s been said anonymously and further the conversation. I’m here to put my name and my face to what happened three years ago.
My name is Bethany Hagen, and the author who harassed me is James Dashner.
Editor’s note: James Dashner declined to comment on this story.
Bethany Hagen is a former librarian and the author of Landry Park and Jubilee Manor (both from Dial).