My experience with sexual harassment in the Scala community
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.”
— Edmund Burke
After three years of silence, I have decided to speak up and share the story of how I was manipulated and harassed the past several years by an idolized figure in the Scala community, Jon Pretty.
Three years ago I was 21, an undergraduate college student who was enthusiastic about Scala and wanted to be involved in the community around it. However, as a non-native English speaker I was intimidated and reluctant to attend Scala conferences. Heather Miller, a professor at my university at the time and a prominent Scala community leader, encouraged me to attend and in 2018 I attended my first conference at NEScala where I met Jon Pretty.
Jon Pretty was one of the first people I met in the community and he quickly gained my trust by highlighting me on Twitter, connecting me with well-known open source maintainers and influential figures in the community. He told me that he had recommended me to the conference that accepted my talk, which led me to believe that he was the reason why I was chosen as a speaker. I trusted that he was a mentor and a close friend and believed that I couldn’t have joined the community so quickly without him.
In our conversations, he also mentioned a few times where he helped other women to attend conferences that they otherwise couldn’t have attended by sharing Airbnbs with them to reduce their travel costs. He asked if I wanted to share an Airbnb on my trip to the Typelevel conference in Berlin. He also mentioned that he planned to invite others. As a student with limited financial resources, I accepted the tempting offer and felt grateful that, once again, he helped me. At first, he mentioned that I could invite others to join our Airbnb. Having attended only two conferences, I did not know many people at the time. When I thought of a person to invite, he stopped me and asked if I was not feeling comfortable sleeping in the same apartment as him, and if I was trying to get a chaperone for us. I felt bad that I made him feel untrusted and stopped asking others to join.
When I arrived in Berlin, I found out that the airline lost my luggage and my electronics were dying without chargers. I was jet lagged, tired, frustrated, and disoriented in a foreign country. I was hungry and therefore bought some food. Remembering that he had suggested I get milk and wine in our previous conversation, I also bought them. I don’t remember how much I drank. I don’t remember him drinking. But I remember feeling uncomfortable when he made advances on me. I felt being taken advantage of that he had unprotected sex with me when I was intoxicated. Nothing felt right. I remember panicking and crying.
During those horrifying days, I felt that he was treating me as an object. For instance, he distanced me at conferences but wanted to be intimate in Airbnb. There was another time that he insisted on having intercourse regardless of me didn’t want to. I did not blame him for what happened, and didn’t think those behaviors were problematic at the time, because it didn’t even cross my mind that he would do anything that I wasn’t comfortable with. I trusted that he would not hurt me. I even blamed myself for not being clear.
I was feeling overwhelmed and emotionally stressed during that time, I mentioned to him that I wanted to reach out to my parents for support. He discouraged me by saying that my parents would not be able to help me since they are away in a different country. I felt ashamed, isolated, and scared.
In June, Heather noticed that I was upset at a dinner after ScalaDays. I shared with her about what happened. She warned me to stay away from Jon Pretty. And she wasn’t the only person who told me that. Even though my experience in Berlin was awful, it was difficult for me to accept that someone, who seemed like a good friend, mentor, and ally, could be so selfish, manipulative, and cruel.
I maintained friendship with him for a few months after May, because I was gaslighted and convinced that it was all consensual and I didn’t want to “make a big scene” like he accused me of. In addition, he asked me to not dwell too much on that episode. As an inexperienced young woman from a patriarchal culture, I was running away from the stereotype of being thought of as someone “traditional”. I should, like he implied, and wanted to be “cool about everything that happened”. I was lacking the knowledge to identify abusive behaviors from sexual interactions.
I was heavily gaslighted to invalidate my memories. The stories he presented were always very different from what I remembered. For example, when I confronted him in person about the episode in Berlin, he told me that I had lured him. His words left me scared, humiliated, and ashamed. I found myself self-doubting, distressed, and depressed.
Even several months later, I continued to suffer from stress and panic attacks. I started therapy sessions. From talking to my therapist about what happened, I started recognizing predatory, gaslighting, and abusive behaviors. When I shared with my friends and family about my experience, they all told me to stay away from him.
I started reflecting about my experience and started my journey of realising what happened to me. I expressed several times, in various forms of communication, that I wish not to engage in more conversations with him. His presence, online or in-person, has caused me lots of pain, stress, and even harm. My boundaries were constantly being violated. He continued to engage me in different conversations, “emotionally trolling” me (in his words), and publicly accosted me and insinuated himself into my space. Here are a few incidents (but not all):
- He mentioned that he didn’t want me to stop talking to him because he thought that I “can become successful and valuable in this field” and that he had a lot to offer. I felt threatened mentally and physically.
- At Scale by the Bay 2018, Seth Tisue and I were having a conversation in a small booth, Jon Pretty physically blocked the door and directed the conversation to a different topic. I was sitting there forced to hear him talk before I could walk away. I was scared to show any negative emotion because I could be seen as crazy and unreasonable.
- After the conference, he joined a group dinner that I planned to attend ahead of time. I broke down in front of Ely in the restroom because his presence triggered so many terrible memories and emotions. Ely helped to arrange me to leave dinner early.
- He forced me to hug him at Lambda World 2018. (Susan Potter witnessed this.) He said he knew that he wouldn’t get into trouble doing that because I also hugged other people who were my friends.
- At NEScala 2019, he stopped by the registration desk, where I was helping Brian Clapper, and tried to speak to me. I ignored him by looking away.
- At Scale by the Bay 2019, Adelbert Chang and I were sitting by a table at lunch, he walked towards us. Adelbert is one of my friends who I shared with about what happened. Knowing that I did not want him approaching me, Adelbert asked him to chat somewhere else.
Looking back, there were also times in our conversation where he made problematic comments that made me feel uncomfortable. He bragged to me about close interactions with at least ten women in the Scala community: coffee, dates, kisses, and sex. I found that in many of those stories, it was almost always women being charmed by him and “liked him too much” (in his words). Knowing how he described our situation, and learning about narcissism and gaslighting, I have reasons not to trust his characterizations of his interactions with these women. I have met some of them in-person at conferences before. Many of us fit into the profile: young, new to tech or the community, non-native English speakers, have a minority background (race, education, financial…), lacking the knowledge of sexual or abusive behaviors, etc.
I have reported all of my experience to the ScalaCenter in 2019. I was hoping to see concrete actions, such as building a reporting mechanism, to protect minorities in the community. Unfortunately, I am not aware of such actions taken. I did not speak up in public because I was convinced that he was powerful, authoritative, influential, and popular in the community, and that it would be easy for him to destroy my career, which had just begun. In addition, many people in the community saw him as a friend and no one would have trusted me and my experience.
One month ago, I watched the documentary, Filthy Rich. And I am absolutely in awe of women, such as Sarah Ransome and Amy McClure, who have stood up and confronted their abuser, regardless of the power the abuser had. I admire their courage and determination to protect others. In addition, connecting with Vic and learning about her similar experience with Jon Pretty made me realize that I wasn’t alone. Knowing that more women in the community were targeted recently, I realized that this type of behavior will never stop if people are not aware.
Today, I am speaking up. It took me three years to gain my voice back, I will not be silenced or intimidated again. I am not trying to convince anyone of anything. I simply want to share my story and make peace with my traumatizing experience. And perhaps by speaking up, I can take my stolen power back. And perhaps, my story will help people learn about predatory and abusive behaviors. And perhaps, I can help prevent the next woman from being harmed.
To those who says “it was just another bad relationship”: No, it was not a romantic relationship. I was going to Berlin to attend Typelevel conference, not to go on any dates. I was 21 and he was 35 (? estimate). I saw him as a friend and a mentor. In addition, I was mentally and physically easy to take advantage of during that time.
To those who blame me for trusting him: I did trust him at the beginning, but that did not give him any right to take advantage of me and my trust. After countless sessions of therapy, I learned that I am not the one to blame. I did not consent to be exploited.
To those who ask “why not try resolving this privately?”: I did confront him before. However, he simply twisted what happened as described above. He has shown me no remorse, sympathy, or guilt. By speaking up, I want to protect others from what I went through. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself, if I knew that I could’ve done something to prevent another person from going through what happened to me.
Sharing this trauma publicly was never an easy decision. I went through lots of shame, self-doubt, and other overwhelming emotions. But seeing history repeat itself, seeing people being gaslighted, like what happened to me, made me sick. I couldn’t protect myself three years ago, but I hope that my story can help protect others.
For those who feel shocked, please know that this does happen in real life. And yes, you can help by learning how to recognize this type of behavior at conferences. Stand up and speak up if you see something, for yourself, for others. People get away with this by counting on you to stay silent, ashamed, and self-doubting. Here are some resources that could help you become a better ally.
For those who have power and voice in the community, please, use it the right way. Building a safe community requires your participation, i.e., building an actionable code of conduct with a reporting mechanism. Read more here.
For those who have been through this, I am so sorry this happened to you too. I can’t say that my pain gets easier to deal with as time passes by. But I do find myself stronger, and doubting myself less. I hope you can find your voice and recognize your strength one day. Understand that it wasn’t your fault. No, there was nothing you did that caused this. No, you weren’t too forward to lead him on. No, you didn’t “lure” anyone. No, a hug and a smile is not consent. No, you did not deserve this. No one deserves this. I will be a resource for you, always.
For those who are new to tech, who are so curious and passionate about Scala and about the community, like I was, please don’t be afraid. Please still go to conferences, contribute to open source, give talks, and keep doing what gets you out of bed in the morning. Simply learn from me and my experience. Learn to identify abusive behaviors, and never be afraid to speak up when something doesn’t feel right.
For those who are supportive of me throughout this process, my family and friends, you helped me recognize my strength, for which I am eternally grateful.
Note: If you would like to report similar instances of harassment in the Scala community, please contact this email firstname.lastname@example.org, which will be monitored by our trusted ally @_zainabali_, Vic and I.