The Perils and Prudery of Victim Feminism
Bora Zivkovic is a Belgrade-born scientist and writer who settled in North Carolina after doing research at NC State. Slightly built, with round wire-rim glasses, poofy graying hair, and a prominent nose, he’s friendly, energetic, and passionate about science and science writing. Photographed from certain angles, he has the look of a cartoon owl.
A man who helped organize the popular ScienceOnline conferences in the Research Triangle near Raleigh, Zivkovic earned the nickname “Blogfather” for his role as editor of the Scientific American blogs network. He also served as series editor of a yearly anthology of the best online science writing. Well-known for promoting science journalism, Zivkovic assisted numerous young science bloggers, and took pride in his efforts to encourage and support women interested in writing about science.
One day Zivkovic was having a smoke outside a Manhattan bar with writer and Scientific American blogger Hannah Waters. He bought a rose from a street vendor for his wife, who was waiting for them inside. The vendor handed him two.
“What’s that, one for the wife, one for the concubine?” Zivkovic joked to the vendor.
I find that funny. It made Waters uncomfortable. She said nothing at the time, but later, in a 2013 blog post on Medium, she deemed this and similar behavior sexual harassment. The article subhead read: There wasn’t any touching or overt sex talk. But it was still harassment.
That same year, two more Scientific American bloggers, Monica Byrne and Kathleen Raven, published posts accusing Zivkovic of sexual harassment, citing interactions from previous years they said made them uncomfortable.
But none of Zivkovic’s behavior came close to meeting legal standards for sexual harassment. There was no quid pro quo promise of advancement for a sexual favor, he didn’t issue a threat (such as warning of professional trouble if sex was not granted), and what he did wasn’t “severe and pervasive,” leading to a “hostile work environment.”
In the incident Byrne referenced, she said she’d known Zivkovic for about a month. She invited him to coffee in September of 2012, looking to interest him in her writing. Seated at the cafe with him, she mentioned visiting a strip club. Zivkovic then “began describing his own experience of going to a strip club,” she wrote.
After that, he got personal, talking about sex in his marriage and how he nearly had an affair with a younger woman. Byrne later emailed Zivkovic to tell him she was uncomfortable when the talk turned to sex. He emailed her an apology, and that was that. Or so he thought.
Something worth noting when it comes to Bora Zivkovic: He exhibits symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, which involves difficulty reading and decoding social cues and understanding appropriate responses. Though he hasn’t been formally diagnosed, his wife and a psychiatrist who knows him, along with many in the science-writing community, have expressed the opinion that he does suffer from it.
Zivkovic has the Aspie’s tendency to laugh at the wrong moments and natter on endlessly about whatever’s on his mind. He doesn’t always seem to sense when his presence is no longer wanted. For example, he and Kathleen Raven were attendees at a science journalism conference in Helsinki, Finland. He’d arrived at the hotel late in the evening and texted, “Can I come by and see you now?” Raven texted back, “No, I’m afraid we have to wait until tomorrow morning. My husband is already in bed, sorry.”
Shortly afterward, there was a knock on their door. Zivkovic said, “Hi!” and marched into the hotel room. Her husband “sat shocked” in their hotel bed, Raven wrote. She added, “Bora grabbed me in an embrace, picked me up, swirled me around, and kissed me on the cheek. After a few minutes of small talk, he left.”