A ranty, funny, dead-serious intersectional feminist blog.

Posts tagged “Harassment

SFFragette: Moving SF/F into the 21st Century

Woman-in-Space-Suit-Reading-a-BookThis 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:

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:

  • Don't Harass Me BroProvide 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!


Virgin: We’re Not Flying It (#notflyingit)

Image

“Hi, there…”

UPDATES: See bottom section for news.

Imagine: You’re all settled in for a long flight and ready for a bit of solitude (as much as can be afforded on an airplane these days) and a drink, when lo and behold, a flight attendant appears with a daiquiri. You didn’t order a daiquiri. In fact, you haven’t ordered a drink yet.

“It’s from the gentleman in 21A,” the attendant tells you, still holding the drink as though you really ought to take it. Across the aisle, the “gentleman” in 21A winks at you, and raises his glass. And introduces himself as the flight attendant sets the drink on your tray table and walks away.

This is how I imagine Virgin’s new “get lucky at 35,000 feet” promotion (for their seat-to-seat service) panning out for women. The actual service is pretty cool: It allows passengers to buy items for other passengers, so for example, adults traveling with multiple older children can feed and water them easily all with a swipe of a credit card in a seat-back terminal. But let’s face it: though some women will probably take the bait, this promotion is aimed at men and encourages them to aggressively pick up on women on Virgin flights. That’s not something I want when I travel. And it’s certainly not the attitude I want from the airline I fly with.

Virgin has long been my favorite airline. Their “Fear of Flying” program helped me fly again after years grounded by my terror. My daughter won’t fly any other airline. And now she very likely won’t fly at all until Virgin gets their act together and realizes that this promotion–aimed at men–targets women and essentially turns Virgin flights into flying meat-markets. For women–many or even most of whom experience unwanted sexual attention in public spaces on a regular basis–this means that Virgin flights will be potentially uncomfortable and even unsafe spaces. Certainly for women who don’t seek male attention when they fly.

I propose a hashtag campaign on Twitter similar to the #notbuyingit campaign aimed at companies that exhibit, promote, or support sexist behavior. Please help me tell Virgin we’re #notflyingit until they drop this promotion and apologize for putting women on the menu.

What you can do to help get this rolling:

  • Share this post on all your social media networks. Here’s a handy Twitter button so you can tweet it out now:
  • Tweet to @VirginAmerica and let them know this is a bad idea. Here’s another handy button for you:
  • Sign this petition asking Sir Richard Branson and Virgin to take a stand for women and end this promotion. While you’re at it, sign this one, too.
  • Use the #notflyingit hashtag to tweet CEO @richardbranson and tell him what you think about this “get lucky” promo.
  • Use the #notflyingit hashtag on Google+ to alert people to this campaign and make it easy for us to track who’s talking about it there.
  • Email your friends and allies and ask them to participate!

notflyingitimage.png

UPDATE:

6/4/2013 4:30pm
This morning, I received an email from Jennifer Thomas, Director of Corporate Communications at Virgin America. Here’s an excerpt:

First off, we are sorry to hear your disappointment re: the promotion of the new seat-to-seat ordering feature. Please know it was absolutely not our intent with the service or the promotion to make anyone uncomfortable, and we’d like to chat with you (and our head of marketing Luanne Calvert) to discuss the intent of the campaign and your concerns in a bit more detail as well as explain the mechanics of the feature (namely that there is an anonymous block feature built into the service). I also wanted to pass along that the Get Lucky promotion itself actually endedthis Friday, so that campaign is no longer live and in the market. In addition, the only official photo we released of the service was of a woman ordering for a man (for what that is worth). Please know that we do take your feedback to heart – and will bear it in mind when evaluating future campaigns. But would love the opportunity to chat with you more if you were open to a call.

I was. So this afternoon–after sending along some links so they could make themselves familiar with the issues as some of us see them–I spoke with Jennifer along with Luanne Calvert, VP of Marketing for Virgin America. Jennifer seemed to do most of the talking, but Luanne chimed in a few times, especially with regard to the marketing side of things. They had, from what I gathered, four primary goals for the conversation:

  1. To explain how the seat-to-seat system works (again, there is a decline feature) and how it is being used by customers (primarily as I described previously: among people who already know one another or are already chatting amiably);
  2. To point out that the “get lucky” promotion (which ended on Friday 5/31 [yay!] but is still on their Facebook page and a contest was still running on their website the last time I looked) was launched in conjunction with their new Los Angeles-to-Vegas direct flights, and was intended as a “tongue-in-cheek” play on getting “lucky” in Vegas.
  3. To assure me that regardless of how I may have interpreted their marketing campaign (marketing being one of those things that “people interpret differently” according to Luanne Calvert, and I agree–to a point) they were absolutely dedicated to passenger comfort onboard their flights and would never tolerate any abuse of the system or harassment of one passenger by another. (In fact, they said that if they believed the service was being “abused” they would turn it off or otherwise address the problem.)
  4. To assure me that they had heard our concerns and would take them into consideration when planning future promotions.

I’m going to break this stuff down and fill in some details of our conversation, along with my own takes on…well, everything.

How STS Works

In her email this morning, Jennifer Thomas included the following:

The function itself was designed to accompany the existing seat-to-seat chat feature (something we’ve had onboard since 2007). There were actually similar concerns raised about that feature when we launched it – yet we have never received complaints since its inception six years ago. Most people use the service to chat with friends, family or co-workers traveling in the same party. Built into the feature, there is a function that allows guests to block all chat requests – or just a specific one, and as a result — we have not seen issues arising.

In our conversation today, Jennifer reiterated that the seat-to-seat system has a “decline” feature so you don’t have to accept anything purchased for you by a stranger. I explained that I would much rather opt in to such a service than have a request pop up on my screen while I’m watching my movie to intrusively alert me that “someone wants to buy you a thing.”

This brings us to the second part of point 1 above:

How People Use STS Now

Many people use the STS system. I’ve used it. It’s great! Here’s another excerpt from Jennifer’s email:

In fact, guests have enjoyed — and provided overwhelmingly positive feedback about — the chat feature since its launch: it makes the flight experience a bit more social. And as you note, the seat-to-seat delivery feature grew out of a common request from family members and friends flying together in different rows — with the addition of the new remote ordering feature, for example, a guest in one row can now order and pay for their friend who may be traveling in a separate row.

Yes. This is how people mostly use it. And I sincerely hope this promotion doesn’t result in more men inflicting unwanted attentions on women. But again, that’s only part of the problem.

The “Intention” of the “Get Lucky” Promo

Luanne Calvert wanted me to know that the “get lucky” campaign was meant to be “fun” and “cheeky” and that they didn’t intend to offend anyone. I explained that the promotion appeared to be encouraging people to use it as a pick-up tool, and since the primary aggressors in these situations are traditionally men in our culture, that means encouraging men to hit on women on an airplane, and that many women don’t relish that idea.

“I’m not sure what your experience is,” I said, “but a lot of us feel like we run a gauntlet of unwanted attention wherever we go.”  A moment of silence, then they assured me that they wanted people to be comfortable on their flights and again, this was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, a Vegas tie-in, etc.

I read Sir Richard’s quote: “I’m not a betting man, but I say your chance of deplaning with a plus-one are at least 50 percent.” They pointed out that the promo video (from which that quote was taken) was full of silly stuff like puppies and space ships and was meant to be funny. I pulled up and read to them from another article where Sir Richard talked about “dating” being the next big thing, the feature people wanted on airplanes that he was going to give them. They repeated that no one seemed to be using STS in any objectionable way and that they would take action if they ever did get complaints. (They also said they keep a close eye on alcohol consumption, which reduces the likelihood of drunkenness contributing to any potential problem.)

Dedicated to Passenger Comfort

Thomas and Calvert seemed genuinely to want me to feel like I could comfortably fly Virgin America without fear of harassment by other passengers. They reiterated several times how important it was that people feel comfortable on their planes. Unfortunately, they seemed to think that the discomfort with the “get lucky” promotion was based on a) lack of context and b) misinterpretation of the intention of the campaign.

Resolution?

Throughout the conversation, I pointed out that the feature itself was not the problem, but that the marketing was problematic. At one point Luanne said, “It’s regrettable there has been some misunderstanding of the campaign,” and reiterated that with marketing, a lot is open to “interpretation.” I think it was around this time I explained that, to my thinking, intention didn’t let them–or anyone–off the hook. That when you realize you’re contributing to the problems we all face, sometimes you have to take a step back and say, “Ok, that wasn’t what I intended, but I understand why it was problematic (here is me explaining my understanding of the issues) and I apologize.” I said this is something people like me do all the time. And that those of us who care about this were counting on them to do that: to say–not just to me on the phone, but to all of us–we get what the problem was with that promotion, and if we had to do it over again, we wouldn’t.

I recommended several times that they consider publishing such a statement: the apology we requested for making us feel commodified. Each time my requests were met with silence followed by assurances that they heard me and that this feedback would “inform our thinking” in the future. “We’ve responded publicly to feedback about this in the past,” they said at one point. There was a news story out there, and they promised to send me a link.

Finally I took a deep breath, sighed, and took another.

“Ok,” I said, “I just have one more question for you: Would you run a promotion like this again?”

Laughter. “We’d call you first!” someone said. I think it was Luanne.

Jennifer Thomas and Luanne Calvert listened. They gave me some of their time today and treated me with respect and for that I’m grateful. I received a link in email to the news story containing Luanne Calvert’s statement. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

Using the seat-back computer on all Virgin flights, passengers can order drinks or food to be delivered anywhere else on the plane. Perhaps you want to treat a travel companion — or perhaps you’ve noticed a cute brunette in 14A?

Luanne Calvert, the head of marketing, said Virgin America always wants to stay a step ahead of competitors with in-cabin features. The idea for seat-to-seat delivery, she said, grew out of the existing seat-to-seat chat feature on the seat-back computer system, called Red.

“Our in-flight system is about fun,” Calvert said.

She said it has been received well on recent flights since its rollout. But she squashed any suggestion that the service has turned flights into a 30,000-foot-high singles bar.

“The way people are using it in reality is with someone they know already. They say, “it was fun hanging with you. I want to buy you a drink.’”

So, the promo is over. Virgin America listened and apologized to me, but they have pretty much outright declined to make any sort of statement (which I would happily have helped them craft) that communicates their understanding of the reasons their “Get Lucky at 35,000 Feet” left a bad taste in my mouth and at least some of yours. I’m not at all convinced they get it, but I do believe they’ll think about all this the next time they plan a promotion. And I thank everyone who got involved for helping me to get their attention. In less than 24 hours, we made something happen–just a few of us working together. Thank you.

I’m still chewing on all this and will write a bit more later. Meanwhile, I welcome your comments (as long as they’re polite).

6/4/2013 9:00am

I just got off the phone with Jennifer Thomas, Director of Corporate Communications for Virgin America who says they’re anxious to discuss my concerns. I’ll be talking with her and Luanne Calvert, VP of Marketing, in a bit. Watch this space for news.

FAQ:

Why can’t you just refuse the drink?

Oh, I can and will refuse drinks from strange men on airplanes. But that doesn’t change the fact that many women will feel obliged not only to accept the “gift” but to pay some attention to the giver. Because that’s the point, isn’t it? And she’s on an airplane, so she can’t just excuse herself when she wants to get away. If the guy is nearby, she’s stuck.

What’s your problem? Buying drinks for women is a traditional entry point to dating!

Yes, it is. And when I go to a bar full of men and women hoping to meet the next love of their life, I am not at all surprised to receive a drink compliments of some man or other. I can take or refuse it, and if I’m at all uncomfortable, I can leave. When I get on an airplane, it’s for completely different reasons, and I can’t escape. That’s my problem with encouraging this kind of behavior as a way to “get lucky” on an airplane.

Why a boycott? Why not just write a letter?

This post and the hashtag campaign are sort of a letter to Virgin. Boycotts–or threats of them–are, in my experience, the most efficient and effective way to get a company’s attention. And I wouldn’t advise any woman who wants to fly peacefully to book a flight with Virgin until this changes.

Have questions? Ask in the comments below.


Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.


The Kitten Setting: An Experiment

kitteh

This is how I will imagine trolls from now on….

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!

Kittehfied.

Kittehfied.

See the ongoing saga here (see warning below):

The Kitten Setting: An Experiment (with tweets) · MMASammich · Storify.

Now including…

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.


Stop Telling Women to Smile

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 6.51.16 AMThe 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!”

fazHere’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.

street harassers, calcutta

via The Banjari Manifesto

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.


Related:

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.


How M Quit Workplace Sexism

Office Sexism 2

Guest post by M

Office Sexism“Dude, she’s got a smoking hot body!”

Hardly an uncommon phrase in the workplace. It may not be something we say publically anymore (at least, not loud enough to be overheard), but guys still send it over IM, mention it in hushed tones around the water cooler, or talk about it around bites of sandwich at lunch when our female colleagues aren’t around.

For a while, I’d excised this phrase from my vocabulary. It was standard fare at both the company where I began my career and the marketing agency where I continued it, especially the later where career-minded women were impeccably-dressed and fit because that’s simply what our clients expected. It was an unwritten rule but a rule all the same: if you were fat, ugly, or a mix of the two, you weren’t going to go very far because clients wanted to see good-looking women.

So did the guys in the office, and we talked about it to each other.

When I did a spell in an office in the UK, I found attitudes towards female colleagues much different. There was more open flirting but when I mentioned how hot one of my coworkers was to another guy, he was flabbergasted. “We’re married,” he said. “And that’s destructive.” It just wasn’t done there, at least not like that. If a colleague was well-dressed or looked nice, you could say so and it wasn’t sexual harassment. But talking about how much you wanted to bang her over Instant Messenger? Not kosher.

Office Sexism 2I recently started at another marketing agency. About a week after I arrived, one of my guy colleagues (and an old friend of mine) sent that phrase to me me over IM.

I responded in kind. And so it began again.

Except that late last week I realized exactly how destructive this phrase is, and why.

Language, to a greater or lesser degree, shapes perception of reality—which for creatures whose reality is in some part determined by our perception means that language can also help shape our reality. At the very least, it shapes our responses, which can be awfully close to the same thing.

There’s evidence of this principle (called linguistic relativism) in behavior sciences, including cognitive behavior theories (and the implementation of cognitive behavior therapy to alter behaviors). You could also make the argument that it’s the cornerstone for religious behaviors—most notably the principle of Right Speech in Buddhism, but bearing false witness could fall under this category too.

In less-technical terms: if you talk about reality in a certain way, you become habituated to respond to reality in a certain way. This is the theory behind some kinds of politically correct language. If you constantly refer to black people as “niggers” even though you don’t hate black people, or women as “bitches,” or gays as “fags,” then it reinforces the perception that those people are somehow less-than-human in your head. At the very least, it reinforces an “us vs. them” dynamic with you as the “superior side.”

In the workplace, if you’re constantly talking about how hot your female coworkers are, even if you’re married and have no intention of sleeping with any of them, then you’re reinforcing the notion that women are objects, not people.

“But it’s harmless! It’s just what guys do! It doesn’t hurt anyone!”

womanobjectThat isn’t true. I felt my perceptions subtly start to shift in the couple of weeks I started participating in being a stereotypical male again. I was checking out my female colleagues, and doing it all the time. A little bit of this is natural. We’re wired to look and evaluate for potential mates. When that instinct starts overriding equal treatment of our colleagues however, that’s when it becomes destructive. That’s when it hurts. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I saw the early seeds of this destructive attitude in myself. I was mentally evaluating female colleagues not on their intelligence, creativity, the kind of work they produced, their client management skills, or any of the other elements you’d use to evaluate a successful marketing executive. I was not treating them as equals, as I’d want to be treated in the workplace. I was mentally reducing them to objects.

I’m not saying that removing this kind of language is the only solution to workplace inequality, but it certainly helps guide thought processes away from it. The very act of mindfully considering whether your thought patterns or speech are truly treating colleagues equally regardless of gender (or race, or religion, or sexual orientation) helps shape the reality we need to create. To take it a step further: if your thought patterns reinforce the criteria for evaluating people equally through intelligence, creativity, and so forth, then you’re starting to reinforce positive thought processes in yourself and those around you. We naturally evaluate each other, especially in a workplace where a lot of Type-A people are vying with each other for success. Let’s make sure we’re evaluating each other without bias, and about things that really matter.

equalityUpon my realization last week I told my friend exactly what my male colleague overseas told me: “I’m married and I don’t need to participate in this behavior.” And it has since stopped, and I’ve felt my own perceptions go back to normal. Which isn’t to say I don’t notice attractive colleagues, but not being immersed in the language of sexism all the time means that we naturally start to interact with each other without it.


M is a friend and feminist ally. Read his previous MMAS article, Lolwhut?


Punch Drunk: Sid’s Story

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.


The Lost CorrespondentI’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.

creepy guy on busFrom 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.

street harassment cardI 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.


Read Sid’s other MMAS articles in Sid’s Stuff. Follow her at @SeeSidWrite.