This week, after news broke of yet another sexual harassment incident at a convention, I decided I needed to do something tangible to help solve the sexism, misogyny, and harassment problem in the science fiction and fantasy community.
I’ve been a part of the community since I was 19 and attended Westercon in Portland, Oregon, and I have worked and played in the field ever since (nearly thirty years). It’s home to so many friends and is part of my family life. I have always thought of it as an accepting community, and it is in a lot of ways. There are few places where people can be pretty much whatever or whomever they choose and not feel judged, and SF/F fandom is one of them.
But it was an incident at Norwescon in Seattle a couple of years ago that helped me come to the realization that I had to start talking about feminism. Living it. That I had to stop being a Feminist Butt.
I was on a panel with two men where I was ostensibly the moderator. One of the men very helpfully took over moderation duties, ran the panel, and he and the other guy proceeded to do most of the talking. I gave up trying to do my job or get a word in edgewise at some point about halfway through and just waited (with what I hoped was a patient, not-bitchy look on my face) for it to be over. It wasn’t until I walked out of the room that I allowed myself to get really pissed. Two months later I started this blog.
It wasn’t an isolated incident (and the Internet is currently brimming with women’s stories of sexism, misogyny, harassment, stalking, and assault at SF/F cons), but my decision to come out as a ranty feminist was certainly not a result of my experiences in SF/F alone. And until recently I’ve been pretty focused on the larger culture and the video games community (my other home) where we’ve finally begun talking about these issues in earnest, and haven’t really given a lot of thought to the need for activism within SF/F. Then all hell broke loose, and it broke loose again, and a writer named Kari Sperring coined a hashtag that gave me one of those “Light bulb!” moments:
Okay, men in sff, that’s it. I’m taking away your privileges. #sffragette
— Kari Sperring (@KariSperring) June 28, 2013
The conversation was already hopping on Twitter, so I ran over and created a Facebook page and posted some of the wonderful posts coming across that feed. The idea was to get people all in one place and start talking solutions. And as I thought about solutions, I realized what I wanted to see for starters was a presence at conventions to counter sexual harassment. To that end, I and my ultra-secret partner-in-crime began designing a badge idea to propose to the community as part of a campaign to achieve three goals:
- Provide information on how to report harassers.
- Act as safety liasons (someone you can go to for immediate assistance if security isn’t around).
- Create an awareness among potential harassers that we are watching and reporting harassment.
It soon became apparent that we were going to need a website* and a Twitter account, so that achieved, I’m now engaging members of the community on the design, the slogan, etc. and am really encouraged by the response. I’ve also learned of two groups doing similar work (Nerdiquette 101 and the Backup Ribbon Project) and I’m looking forward to talking with them about what they’ve learned and how we can work together.
All this to say if you’re a reader, writer, or SF/F con-goer and want to help make positive change in that community, join the discussion. Chime in on the blog, Facebook or Twitter, write a blog post telling your story or giving your perspective, and consider participating in the upcoming campaign to be part of the solution at cons you attend. I’d love to have your help making SF/F the accepting, safe community we all want it to be.
*SFFragette.org domain active soon!
- We’re Watching (sffragette.wordpress.com)
- Their Fear is Justified (or Why Speaking Out In Your Community Is Important) (makemeasammich.org)
Recently Mandaray told me about the Kitten Setting: a method for dealing with trolls on the Internet. I’ve been dying to try it out. Behold my first attempt at employing the Kitten Setting. For SCIENCE!
See the ongoing saga here (see warning below):
Part I: FUN
Part II: The Troll Came Back…
Part III: Disappointment (sad trombone) [Warning: Contains porn.]
Part IV: The Silence of the Kittens
Part V: Kitten Claims VICTORY
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
The title of this post is the name of a street art project by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh aimed at raising awareness in men that street harassment is not ok, and in women that it’s perfectly acceptable to wish–and even to insist–that men would not demand their attention and energy all day, every day, every time they walk down the street.
If you’re a woman, there’s a good chance you know what I’m talking about–although I’m perfectly aware that not all women are bothered by this. When I first got boobs, I was flattered by the attention. It took years to realize how exhausted I was with parrying advances all day, every day. When I tripped over this project on Facebook, a woman claiming to be a therapist had gone from disagreeing to outright trolling, so intense was her need to convince everyone present that not only was asking women to smile not harassment, but that anyone who thought it was should obviously just sit the fuck down and stop talking. So, male or female, just in case you don’t get what the issue is, here are some hypothetical examples. We’ll start with an easy one:
Imagine you’re at a social event and you’re introduced to a gentleman by the name of Dan Bond. You say the first thing that pops into your head: “Bond. Dan Bond.” Dan gives you a look somewhere between patronizing and withering and says, “Congratulations. You’re the first person who’s ever said that.” If you’re like most people who recognize social signals, you probably feel a bit sheepish. Your aim was to be clever, and you whipped out the one line that was certain to irritate. And if you had any designs on Dan as a friend, business partner, or lover, you’d better hope you’ve got some better lines in your pocket, because at this point he’s is looking for the nearest exit and hoping you don’t follow him.
Now imagine how exhausting it might be for the nth man to say as you walk down the street: “Smile!”
Here’s a better one: Guys, imagine you’re walking down the street and seven out of ten men you see are a foot or more taller than you are and outweigh you by fifty to a hundred pounds. Imagine these guys take steroids, so that weight is all muscle, where yours is not. Now imagine that, as you walk, you’re aware of their eyes on you and the lewd comments they make, the whistles, the remarks about your body, what they’d like to do to you. Or maybe they just insist on your attention. Maybe they just tell you to smile. And another one does. And a third. And sometimes you can get past them without incident, and other times, if you don’t respond the way they hope you will, they shout insults after you.
This is what women deal with all the time, walking from home to the bus stop or from the bus stop to the office. In between the wolf whistles and the stares and the lewd gestures and critiques of our looks, is the constant insistence that we present ourselves at our pretty, perky, man-pleasing best. “Smile!” They cry. “Smile!” They exhort. “Smile!” They command, as though our faces are theirs to mold. As though our faces don’t please them as they are. As though it is our duty to paste fake grins upon them on demand even though all we really want to do is get past this fucking gauntlet and get to work.
Most of us are all for friendly conversation when the conditions are correct. But as social beings, we learn to interpret signals that tell us when the other person is open to conversation. Men do not, as a rule, insist on the attention of other men walking down the street. Men (and women) working construction sites rarely, in my experience, insist that men walking by stop and talk to them, respond to “compliments” on their appearance, or smile. And yet for some reason, some men believe that a woman is obliged to be polite when they do ignore the signals that say “I’m on my way somewhere and I’m not even looking at you so please, let me be” and demand her attention. And that’s what Stop Telling Women to Smile aims to change.
From Tatyana’s website:
The project is saying that street harassment is not okay. That feeling entitled to treat and speak to women any type of way, is not okay. That demanding a woman’s attention is not okay. That intruding on a woman’s space and thoughts is not okay. That women should be able to walk to the train, to the grocery store, to school – without having to cross the street to avoid the men that she sees already eyeing her as she approaches. That making women feel objectified, sexualized simply because they are women, is not okay. That grabbing a woman’s wrist to force her to speak to you is not okay. That requesting for a woman to “smile for you” is not okay – because women are not outside on the street for the purpose of entertaining and pleasing men. That it’s quite possible women are wonderful, happy, intelligent human beings that simply want to move through out the world comfortably and safely while wearing their face however the hell they want to.
Another project I recently learned about is They Know What They Do, by a young woman named Shreya living in Calcutta. Shreya photographs men who harass her (known as “Eve Teasing” in some countries) on her way to and from work.
There are certain structural privileges that work in the favour of the perpetrators of street sexual harassment, whether the non interference of spectators, or active participation of friends, but most of all, the assurance and continual affirmation of their own gender-based privileges by sociocultural norms. With my camera I thought I could strategically intervene within some of these processes that work against me.
I’d like to arm women like Shreya with hidden video cameras so they can film the actual harassment they experience and show it to the world. I’d like to see Stop Telling Women to Smile posters go up in every city in the world where women deal with street harassment. I’d like to see the term “Eve Teasing” (which can include assault) abolished and the crime of street harassment and assault taken seriously worldwide. And I’d love it if you would all work with me to make all this positive change happen.
My Streets, My Body: How street harassment impacts my weightloss, my eating habits, my body
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
This is from my friend Sid, who has experienced a lot of street harassment in the years I’ve known her. The most recent incident was different, and Sid asked me to let her tell you about it.
I’ve been working on different versions of this same blog post for maybe a month. Part of it is that I’ve never felt that I blog particularly well—I start them, I stop them, I never know what to do with them. Most of it, however, is that this blog stemmed from wanting to express an experience I had and to express how such a simple thing could terrify me so deeply—but when I started actually writing the post, I found that just bringing the experience back into my reality long enough to write about it was nearly impossible.
The event I’m referencing was my most intimate experience with harassment. Now, harassment can take all kinds of forms. It can be as simple as someone excessively staring at you or as complex as someone coordinating their actions around yours (this gets the extra label, “stalking”). For someone on the receiving end, the line between what is and isn’t harassment can feel fuzzier than it is, specifically because we’re trained to be tolerant and polite—particularly women—to a startlingly detrimental degree.
My experience was just a couple of weeks ago. I tried several times to write the story down, but was startled by the degree to which I found it difficult. I could start, but before I got very far, this wave of despair would wash over me and I would be unable to finish. Finally, I got the bare bones of the story down, which is below for context.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that I’m presently recovering from a significant injury which has left me more physically vulnerable than I’ve ever been. As someone who is fairly strong and also trained in martial arts, this feeling of physical inferiority is still new to me, and part of what made the experience below so terrifying.
This event started as many of my less upsetting stories do—at the bus stop. Our antagonist was an older man who was the kind of drunk you just can’t achieve in a single afternoon. He asked if I was a “working girl” on a street notorious for prostitution, then apologized for being “so bold” while going on to explain how women just excite men, and so on.
From there, he cycled between trying to save me from a life I don’t lead and getting angry that I wouldn’t offer something I don’t sell. Once we got on the bus, I made every effort to be as far from him as possible, but once the bus started moving, he came and found me.
He continued the cycle for some time as I stared at my phone, his voice escalating until he was yelling at me on this crowded bus. I wondered if the folks around us thought we were together. I sat as far into my seat as my body would physically go while he was halfway out of his, knees almost constantly touching mine. At one point, I said in a clear, firm voice that I wanted him to stop touching me, and he yelled something else in Drunk. Eventually I noticed out of the corner of my eye (the only time I’d looked at him was to tell him to stop) that he was very slowly punching at the air about five inches from my face. When the doors next opened, I got off the bus and walked all the way home.
I’ve told the story several times in person, and when I do, I can make light of it. “He says this through a thirty-year drunk,” I usually explain, as I describe the slur that comes from not a lot of drinking, but from a long time of drinking, and my audience laughs and I laugh and we all laugh because it’s in the past and oh ho ho, what a funny tale it is. It sure is good fun to talk about the crazy shit that happens on the bus, lawl.
But it wasn’t funny. It was some scary shit. I wouldn’t call it the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me, but it was a new kind of terror. It was a much more intimate kind of terror. Invasive. And maybe most importantly—intimidating. Whether or not he was aware that he was trying to intimidate me (or aware of the date or where he was), he absolutely was. Yelling at someone in public is a form of intimidation—it hopes to quiet the other person into submission and agreement. Miming that you are punching a complete stranger is a threat, plain and simple, which is another form of intimidation. He wanted me to talk to him—and perhaps quite a bit more—and he was doing everything he could to manipulate the situation toward that outcome.
In my case, I didn’t take advantage of any of the ways I could have reported this man. I was too concerned with getting to a safe place for it to have even crossed my mind. Too often, though, even when harassment is reported, nothing—or not enough—is done about it. The recent events at Readercon are a great example of this.
If you’re not familiar with the Readercon debacle, this page makes it easy to follow. The very first post, by Genevieve Valentine, sums up her experience at the science fiction convention a few weeks ago, where another attendee harassed her, later hugged her from behind without invitation, and finally, supposedly seeing the error of his ways, followed her around the rest of the con so that he could apologize to her. She wanted him to go away. He refused to go away until she would hear his apology, thus nullifying the apology he insisted was so sincere.
According to Readercon’s own policy, they have zero tolerance for harassment of any kind, and harassers will simply be banned from the convention. Forever. In the case of Ms. Valentine’s harasser, however, the ban was a bit shorter than forever—rather, it was for two years. The board of directors stated that this leniency had been afforded because he was so sorry. (“You may not have been willing to hear his apology,” I imagine them saying, “but we’re so much more reasonable.”)
Before continuing, it is absolutely worth noting that Readercon has since come out with a full apology and has banned the gentleman in question for life, as per their original policy. (It’s quite a good apology, in my book.)
One of the biggest problems with the original verdict (and there are many) is that this tells harassers, “It’s okay to keep doing whatever you want, whenever you want because all you have to do at the end of the day is act really apologetic (you needn’t even genuinely feel it, but make us believe it), and you’ll be off the hook.” The even bigger problem? This gives them even more of a reason to turn an apology into harassment. It makes harassers feel even more justified in cornering you away from people long enough to make you understand how sorry they are.
The most important part of Ms. Valentine’s post might be that harassers lose the right to choose how they apologize. “You have forfeited the right,” she points out, “to unburden yourself by apologizing to [a woman] until she forgives you, assuring her that you have learned things until she praises you.” With my experience above, I definitely got the sense that the drunk man was offended when I chose not to acknowledge his slurred apology for being “so bold” as to ask if my body was for sale—and further when I chose not to acknowledge anything else he tried to say to me. He started yelling as a method of getting me to acknowledge him.
I had a boyfriend who would use this same tactic. I would need space from an argument, so I would walk away, but he would need to fix things in that moment and why wasn’t I listening to him? He would grab me and hold me still, pressing his face against mine in an attempt to get me to hear him. He would chase me down the street—literally—yelling and crying the whole time. Because he was going to apologize to me whether or not I felt threatened by his method of apology. (I hope I needn’t mention that the relationship didn’t last.)
Too often, we’re made to feel unreasonable if we won’t listen to drunken, crying, or insistent apologies—many delivered in the same manner as the behavior they are supposedly decrying! “If you won’t listen to my apology,” we’re told, “then you’re just a bitch. You don’t even deserve my apology.” No. What we deserve is to be left alone if that’s what we’ve asked for. What we deserve is to be treated as full human beings and not tools you use to feel better about yourself. To quote Ms. Valentine: “If a woman has indicated you are unwelcome […] your apology is YOU, VANISHING.”
But the accusations make us second-guess ourselves—and they’re supposed to. The whole point of the outbursts and the cries of bitch and the exasperated fine! is to make us feel as though we’ve made the wrong choice. You can call it manipulation or social engineering or whatever you want, but it amounts to the same thing. The harasser begins to lose control of the situation and so takes to base tactics we all learned on the playground. (“If you don’t agree with me, then you’re a doody-head!” or “The louder I get, the righter I am!”) The truth is, of course, that it’s the harassers, not the harassees, who should be second-guessing—or more likely, reevaluating—their actions.
One of the best lines that has come out of the Readercon fiasco and the flurry of posts that followed is from science fiction author Ann Leckie:
If you really think anti-harassment rules bar flirting, you’ve got an idea of what constitutes flirting that really needs some re-evaluation. I mean, if someone said, “Hey, we should outlaw rape,” and the guy standing next to you said, “But that’s the same thing as saying people can’t have sex!” you wouldn’t say, “Wow, good point!”
In this post, Ann makes several points about how, even after everyone makes sure the harassee didn’t “send the wrong signals” (which in itself is condescending and demeaning), the attitude is still very poor poor harasser. “Did you have to be so mean?” That’s the question I always expect whenever I tell this kind of story, and the question too many women do get when they tell a story in which they stood up for themselves.
I even feel it myself. One late night, as I was waiting for the bus by my old apartment, a gentleman walked up to me (and when I say “walked up,” I mean the dude got really close, and I really don’t like people that close—especially strangers, especially late at night) and he said, “Do you think if a man does not desire a woman, that makes him gay?” Fairly certain he wasn’t actually looking for intellectual discourse, I said I didn’t know and took several steps away from him. He took this to mean that I wanted to continue our conversation over here, and followed. He started saying something else—I don’t know what it was because I honestly wasn’t listening, but he sure wasn’t asking for directions. I said, very loudly and clearly, “I need you to stop talking to me right now.”
He wandered off—which I had hoped, but not expected, he would do—and the first thought through my brain was, “Man, that was so rude of me.” Not: Why are you approaching women in the dark talking about desire? Not: Good job, Sid! Congrats! But: Oh no, I might have hurt the poor feelings of a man who was aggressively hitting on me late at night. Why is that my first reaction? Why do I expect people to tell me I’m ridiculous for being upset over some drunk guy yelling at me on the bus?
It’s a trap, this cycle of second-guessing—of either assuming or being led to assume that our reaction is somehow unreasonable or unjustified—and that’s what harassers depend on. That you’ll accept their apologies and then feel guilty for having any thoughts on the issue that don’t coincide with their own. Even well-meaning people can perpetuate the cycle of doubt and leave you unsure of what to do. I’m extremely fortunate that everyone in my social circle to whom I’ve ever told a harassment story has encouraged me to report it when applicable—or at least helped me see that I was, in fact, being reasonable.
I know that I need to hear this from time to time, so I’ll say it here: No matter your experience, harassment is harassment—whether someone’s stalking you around a convention or pretending to punch you on a bus. If you feel threatened, it’s harassment. If you’ve asked someone to stop a behavior directed at you and it continues, it’s harassment. If anyone at any time is trying control any aspect of your person or personhood, it’s harassment.
I can’t cover the full spectrum of what constitutes harassment in a single blog post, but you can feel it in your gut, and it’s so important to not ignore that. When I read or hear about other people’s experiences with harassment, it reminds me that mine weren’t imaginary—that what I perceived to be harassment really was. Even if you misjudge a situation, following your instinct will keep you safe. Your safety is not worth a wary courtesy—and the only people who would appreciate sacrificing your safety for a courtesy are the same people who would leap to take advantage of that.
The more we can each become confident in our own evaluation of a situation, the more we can collectively send out the message that harassment is not okay, and not something a woman—or anyone—should just get over or resign herself to expect.