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)
Guest post by Zachary Jernigan
I asked Zack for a post in response to recent kerfuffles, debacles, and all-out flame-wars in the science fiction community. For background, read Chuck Wendig’s series (links to third post, where you’ll find links to 1 & 2), “Calling for the Expulsion of Theodore Beale” on Amal El-Mohtar’s blog, and “The Readercon Thing” at Under the Beret.
Hi. My name is Zack, and I’m a science fiction and fantasy (sf&f) geek.
To be clear, I’m the particular kind of geek who only really cares about sf&f literature (novels and short stories, in other words). Movies, comic books, video and tabletop games: I think they’re neat on a theoretical level, but I have no practical interest. Nonetheless, I know a lot about them because I associate with other geeks, most of whom are enthusiastic partakers of all forms of media.
lf there’s one thing that’s true about being a geek, it’s that one can’t escape being inundated with information about all of geekdom.
Most of the time, this situation produces awesome results. I get to see what other geeks are crazy excited about, what they hate, and what arouses their disdain. I love passionate people and their strongly-held opinions, and geeks are among the most passionately opinionated people you’ll find in this world.
Of course, I said “most of the time” for a reason.
It stops being awesome when geeks open their mouths to espouse hate.
It’s happened a lot lately, which is why I’m writing this now.
Before I go on, one thing:
There are no links in the following post for a couple reasons.
One, I’m fairly sure this blog’s (amazingly cool) owner Rosie is going to provide a few, from which point you’ll be able to ping-pong around to a whole slew of other links, many of which will anger and inspire you by turns.
Two, if you’re really interested in the subject I’d encourage you to do a little experiment in order to see just how pervasive the problem that I’ll be discussing has become. Just type in “science fiction sexism” into your Google machine and see how many hits you get. You’ll end up in many of the same places that Rosie’s links took you, and a whole lot more besides.
Why do I endorse this activity? Because I think it’s important to see just how simple it is to be informed about the happenings in a scene — a scene you may never have thought twice about. If you’re inspired to look a little further into (the mostly) wonderful and welcoming world of sf&f fandom, so much the better.
You know when you’re at a gathering of extended family — let’s say it’s a 4th of July barbecue — and you overhear a conversation you wish you hadn’t? Someone, an uncle or aunt maybe, says the word “nigger?” Or “cunt?” (Or whatever other words you associate with prejudice?)
And you’re like, Whoa, whoa, whoa… WHOA. Hold up. We’re not that kind of family.
That’s how I’ve felt lately, over and over again.
Now, in all fairness I was only adopted into the sf&f community recently — around 2010, three years before the publication of my first book — but I’ve grown to love the folks in it. To say they’ve welcomed me with open arms is to do them a great disservice: they have, so often it shocks me, been my advocates in trying to get my career off the ground. People who are as different from me as one could imagine have offered heartfelt congratulations on my small accomplishments, debated me with civility, and forgiven my occasional trespasses.
My experience, in other words, has been overwhelmingly positive.
And so it hurts — it angers to white-hot flame — to see how vociferously the men (clarification: mostly men) of my newfound and much-beloved community have behaved of late. The defense of a way of life, of a mindset so retrogressive and thoroughly lacking in compassion, makes me afraid for people.
I was at Readercon last year, when Genvieve Valentine was harassed repeatedly. I didn’t know about it at the time, but you can bet I was horrified to hear of it. And then I watched in even more horror when the convention’s board gave her harasser a slap on the wrist in direct contradiction of its own harassment policy. Hardly an encouraging development for women who want to attend the convention this year.
(Just so you know, the organizers did eventually do the right thing. I’ll be at the convention again this year, in part to see if the controversy produces a positive result.)
Anita Sarkeesian? She’s receiving rape threats. Why? For simply challenging the video game industry on its portrayal of women. Trolls line up to tell her what an insufferable bitch she is, to tell her what she needs is a good cocking. They are, point in fact, an almost neverending legion — which I suppose is not surprising: Yesterday it was reported that a Microsoft employee made a rape joke while playing a new game in front of thousands of people at the recent E3 conference.
These are just two examples among many, more of which are being reported all the time.
Of course, I’m not just afraid for people (though that is obviously the most pressing concern).
I’m embarrassed. I don’t want to be associated with any scene, no matter how tangentially I’m related to parts of it, that produces and endorses the kind of mindsets recently on display. I hate how it misrepresents the rest of us, how it warps perceptions of what is overall a very well-intentioned group of people.
I want better for my adopted community than to be relegated to the status we are increasingly in danger of being relegated to.
In order to avoid this marginalization, we need voices shouting in opposition.
We need people — men just as much as women, all of us unafraid of stepping on toes (I don’t kid myself that this isn’t riskier for women; it always is, and will continue to be until the situation changes) — insisting that equality is not a subjective matter.
It is not open for debate, the issue of prejudice, of undeserved privilege. I’m tired of hearing that it is.
It is not a matter of free speech. You are not being censored. I’m tired of hearing that there is a force telling you that you cannot be you.
You, Mister (or Misses) Bigot, will still be free to be as fucking stupid as your atrophied heart desires, but you will not be free to have a voice everywhere. If you espouse a hateful rhetoric, one that objectifies women and encourages violence against them, you will be shouted down by our culture, by our collective weight of Objective Rightness. You will not be allowed to act on your hate publicly and push others down. You will not be able to get away with pinching asses, putting your arm around the shoulders of complete strangers, making unwelcome suggestive comments.
You will find yourself increasingly marginalized by your baseless judgments and entitlement, pushed ever further into the corner.
You will be put on Time Out until you can behave like a rational adult. Sometimes, you won’t be forgiven at all, because it’s too risky to trust you again.
It would be easy to say goodbye to all this, to quit thinking about The Problem of Being a Geek and go live in some virtual land free of idiots. I don’t need to concern myself with this crap. As I said, I haven’t been in the community for long. I could be like the respected author Nick Mamatas, who early this month announced his retirement from the sf&f community over some of the very issues I’ve outlined — and it would be easier for me than for him, being that I’m a relative noob.
And yet I won’t do that.*
I love how sf&f causes the reader (viewer, and/or participant) to look at the world in new ways. I love what I’ve already accomplished in the genre, and the potential I have to accomplish more. I love my friends, and the potential they have to do great things — as authors, as commentators, as people simply taking inspiration from what they read (view, and/or participate in). I love so, so much about the community that continues to bolster me.
More than anything, I love that I see change happening. The confidence I displayed above, when I used all those “You will…” statements? That doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from seeing more and more people stepping out and asserting what is right. It comes from seeing our enemy on the ropes, throwing weaker and wilder and ever more desperate punches at us.
This is a war, and we’re winning.
The sf&f community, of course, can be a metaphor. For anyone not in the thick of it, it’s perhaps best viewed this way. All communities, large and small, meatworld and virtual, have their problems. Sexism (and its even more disgusting neighbor, misogyny) is a normative throughout all of the world. It’s a universal problem, and perhaps always has been.
It’s important, for those of us who would have the problem solved for good, to take courage from developments. To not feel too much despair.
All those rape threats Anita Sarkeesian is getting?
They’re proof that she’s struck a nerve, that she’s aroused a defensive reaction from her attackers. They’re proof that the bigot’s bluster is just that — a pretense, a façade of confidence to cover what they really feel, which is fear.
Oh, yes: the fact that such men (in my particular community, but also throughout civilization) are frightened, desperately trying to hold onto what they have, is obvious to anyone with a brain. They’re scared of living in a world where they don’t have that one unearned thing that makes them automatically higher on the ladder than the “other” half the population. They’re petrified by the thought that they won’t continue to be listened to — coddled and made comfortable — simply because of that Y chromosome. They’re worried to death that someone, somewhere, is going to call them out, and that the voice will have hundreds of thousands behind it, a clear moral weight.
They’re afraid that the sun has already set on their unearned privilege.
And you know what?
Their fear is justified.
*This isn’t said in criticism of Mamatas. I respect his decision to leave the sf&f community. I think it’s a gutsy, principled move, and I applaud him for it.
Author Note, for those even more invested in this subject:
It may seem odd that I haven’t touched upon the recent SFWA controversy (which has been one of the most recent spurs to conversation on the matter of sexism and misogyny in sf&f), and I understand that. I chose not to comment on it for a few reasons.
One, I don’t want more people to make the following leap of ill logic: “The SFWA Bulletin had sexist stuff in it, thus SFWA must be an awful organization.” This is hardly the case.
Two, I wanted to concentrate on more obvious examples of aggression towards women. As much as I disagree with some of the SFWA Bulletin’s content recently, it is mild compared to some of the reactions it has inspired, many of which are in my not-so-humble opinion bordering on the kind of behavior toward women I talk about above.
Three, I had no intention of politicizing this post. The SFWA debate has become very politicized, and though I stand firmly on the left side (as I very nearly always do) I recognize that it is false to assume that encampment signifies actual conviction. The more politicized an issue becomes, the harder it is to convince would-be allies — those who’ve fallen on “the other side” of the debate because others of their political stripe did so before them — of your position. I’m speaking to anyone who cares about equality in the sf&f community, not simply to those individuals who are likely to agree with me on all fronts.
- SFFragette: Moving SF/F into the 21st Century (makemeasammich.org)
- Reconciliation: A Response To Theodore Beale (fozmeadows.wordpress.com)
- We’re Watching (sffragette.wordpress.com)
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.