Independent writer Deborah Copaken tells ASJA Magazine how sexual harassment left her devastated and helpless
Author and independent writer Deborah Copaken assumed she could report a prominent editor who she says sexually harassed her while dangling the prospect of more work. In fact, as is almost always the case when freelance writers are harassed or bullied, there was no protocol and no one to turn to.
“I was naive enough to believe there was a procedure in place. But I also counted on that money every month and knew if I reported my boss, bye-bye money,” says Copaken in an interview with ASJA Magazine.
“When you count on a good relationship with editors to buy groceries and pay rent and send your kids to college, you are far more likely to put up with abuse you’d never tolerate in your day-to-day relationships,” she adds. “They know this. And the troubled ones use that powerlessness against you.”
In a story for The Atlantic published in March 2018, Copaken accused Ken Kurson, a previous editor of the New York Observer, of sexual harassment through inappropriate remarks and pressure to date him. Copaken is an author, freelance writer and former war photographer.
When asked for comment, Kurson simply told The Atlantic that “Deborah is a terrific writer. I published her often and wish her nothing but the best.”
In the ASJA Magazine interview, Copaken describes why she wrote the story about her devastating experience: “I wanted to point out the subtle, evil, step-by-step destruction of a career that comes via sexual harassment for any woman out there. An editor had dangled a job he’d never actually planned to give me, for over a year…. His checkmate move—‘How come you never asked me out?’—was devastating. It made me reevaluate everything leading up to it. He’d never wanted me to write for him. He wanted me to date him. The betrayal flattened me for months.”
Independent writers typically work on a contract basis and do not receive employee manuals or any other material about how to report abusive behavior to the management of publications or publishing houses. In some cases, freelancers may not even know anyone in management other than their editor.
Veteran freelance journalist Randy Dotinga, immediate past president of the ASJA, says he’s felt helpless amid bullying by editors. “Many of us love our careers as independent writers and don’t want to do anything else. But there’s usually little or nothing we can do when our bosses are abusive other than quit or accept the abuse,” he says. “It’s difficult if not impossible to sue over abuse as a freelancer, especially if the publication is based out of state, although editors based thousands of miles away can still harass us online. And we can’t turn to unemployment insurance if we lose a gig. The money is just gone.”
What should be done? Copaken says “it’s up to the magazines and newspapers themselves to provide each freelancer, along with a freelance contract, directions for reporting sexual abuse, should that happen, so that freelancers know they can say something without fearing loss of future income.”
But there’s a hitch. “Then again, freelance work often comes from relationships with editors,” she says. “Once you call out an editor, will you be reassigned to another? In an ideal world, sure. But the world is not ideal.”
ASJA Magazine is a benefit of membership in ASJA. Published six times a year (print and online), the publication keeps independent writers up-to-date on current trends in a variety of areas, including craft, business management, marketing, and more. Certain articles of each issue are made public online, but to receive the magazine in the mail, consider joining ASJA.