This is a very hard post to write. In fact, it’s so hard, I’ve started trying to write it several times over the last couple of years. Every time, I’ve made it part way in and then decided it was better, politically, to just shut up. Let it slide. It’s not *so bad* after all. And there are ways to cope with these things, silently, and on the side, aren’t there?
I’ve learned that most people can see the elephant in the room. I’m just the one who always has the need to point to it and then ask everyone else if they can see it too. Whilst I haven’t necessarily written about this stuff before, I have openly spoken a lot about it on Galactic Suburbia.
Overnight, Elise Mattheson came forward and spoke up about her reporting of sexual harassment at Wiscon. What strikes me most starkly about this is that hers was the first formal complaint about this particular person. I have been aware for several years about this person’s behaviour and I have avoided him at cons since being warned. I was aware of his behaviour at World Fantasy Con in 2010 and of other incidents with people I know. I’m not shocked that it was the first formal complaint but I’m aware that for every time we don’t openly speak out and report incidents, we contribute to the ongoing status quo of allowable/acceptable behaviour in our spaces. As our Chief of Army recently just said – the behaviour you walk past is the standard you set.
I was watching discussion last night on Twitter about harassment at cons. And I found myself questioning some tweets about whether I thought some cases were really harassment. I mean, sure, I’d feel pretty shitty in that instance if it had been me, but did it really constitute harassment? And when I interrogated my own thought process on this, I realised it’s because I’m used to a lot of this kind of behaviour through spending four years with 75% male classes in engineering school with males 17 to 22 years of age. And then again in postgrad in the same school but to a lesser degree. And then ramped up again when I went out into the real world and into a male dominated field – in my first job I was the only woman in my section and usually the only woman in meetings. After that, I ended up in female dominated sections but usually was the only woman when I went to business meetings. You have to grow a thick skin, you have to learn to smile and smooth over situations. You have to learn how to clearly let the other person know their behaviour was inappropriate and unacceptable whilst still being on the side of “professionalism” when you do so. I didn’t always succeed. I was better at it when it came from people other than my bosses.
But my point is, I have a thick skin when it comes to a lot of this kind of stuff – I’ve had to handle it for years in my day job – both sexual harassment and also just plain old sexism. It means, I probably let a lot more stuff slide than others might do and I voice to shut down stuff too.
So all that said, I’ve still found myself pulling away from conventions at home. I no longer really enjoy most of the aspects of conventions. I’m lucky because I have a lot of friends that I enjoy catching up with at cons and I can spend most of my weekend in the bar or out at restaurants deep in conversation with them. I’m also lucky because being a publisher, I can have a dealers table and I can spend the rest of a con weekend at my table. I can still catch up with people, I can still talk about my books, I can still pitch and get pitched projects and I can still check in with my writers to see how they’re going with what they’re working on.
But I’ve long since stopped going to parties for example and I don’t really participate in programming anymore.
I don’t feel comfortable at parties. I’ve been touched and groped inappropriately and without invitation at more than one of them and by people whom I see openly and vocally acting as “allies” and discouraging sexual harassment. I often wonder if they are aware of how they (have) behave(d) or whether they don’t realise it. Are they clueless or with intent? I’ve also been privy to the warnings about members of our community – don’t stand next to that one, make sure you don’t sit too close to him/her, don’t let yourself be alone with them etc. We circulate warnings about people. I do my best to warn those who do not know. I’ve had my own encounter with someone whom I’ve been reluctant to ever really publicly call out. I was drunk. He was not. It was not at a convention. He is known to you. It wasn’t flirting, I don’t think I could have misinterpreted his actions. He was a bit aggressive. I’d spent the evening on the phone texting this guy I liked, in and out of the room to take phonecalls with him. I don’t think I could have been making any invitations for the behaviour that happened. But still, even now, I wonder if I misunderstood what happened. I was drunk, but not that drunk (I’m too much of a control freak to ever be that drunk). I asked others about it later – is this acceptable behaviour among friends? Maybe it was me? Maybe I was too much of a prude? He never ever mentioned it again. And never understood why I avoided interaction with him. He’s not been nice to me since. I don’t think it was my fault. I still feel gross and yucky about it.
It makes me feel like, no matter what I achieve, I can still be reduced to just a sexual object, who can be overpowered and plied with. And maybe that was the intent.
(If this was you, and not me, I’d be encouraging you to call him out, make it known, take back your power! I’d kick and scream and tell you he doesn’t have power over you. I’d have your back and I’d go in and fight for you. I’m aware of the hypocrisy. I write this to illustrate that it has nothing to do with who you are and I understand why people don’t come forward and don’t speak out. If there wasn’t an issue with coming forward, there likely also wouldn’t be an issue to come forward about.)
I don’t go to parties anymore. It’s no fun to spend your evening making sure you’re on the other side of the room as a serial harasser. It’s even less fun when those people seek you out to come and speak to you and the whole time you’re trying to smile sweetly but you’re thinking “please don’t grab my boob, please don’t pull me onto your lap”. I prefer the bar and intellectual discussion and debate. That’s why I go to cons. But I want to be clear, our cons *are not* safe spaces. No matter how many times you say something aloud, that doesn’t make it so. I’ve been touched and grabbed in the act of “friendly hugging” in front of the registration desk or passing someone in the suddenly narrow corridor on my way to a panel.
In the last couple of years, I’ve pulled away from being on programming at conventions too. Programming is an excellent way to network, to promote your work, to make connections and to build your profile. That’s what everyone told me and that’s why, when I was first starting out with Twelfth Planet Press, I wanted to be on programming. And it’s why I continued to say yes to programmers long after it stopped being fun. In my experience, I found them to be highly combative exercises where I had to fight to be able to get a word in edgewise, often not called on or allowed to speak at all, or it was an exercise in belittling the work I was doing and discouraging anyone in the audience who might be remotely thinking any of this gig was fun. I’d walk away from them depressed, despondent, maybe with a sore throat, or bored out of my brain cause I hadn’t brought my knitting for the hour session in which I never got to speak. Having moderators on panels is newish here and for a long time, I’d find myself the only woman on the panel, maybe I didn’t even get a microphone or the one being shared would never be passed down to me on the end. My opinion was rarely sought and rarely valued. I think worse than being spoken over is that polite waiting til you’ve finished and then the rest of the panel carrying on as though you never said anything at all. The last Swancon panel I was on, I actually stopped actively fighting for sound space and waited to see how long it would be before the other person on the panel stopped talking – 30 minutes.
Programming just wasn’t fun. And that’s one of the reasons we started Galactic Suburbia. Look what happens when you don’t get derailed, belittled or not allowed to speak. Instead of doing programming at conventions, I’ve been paid to give 15 minutes to 1 hour talks and lectures on exactly the same material by universities, schools, writers organisations, other (nonSF) conventions and as a guest speaker at a charity dinner. Instead of doing programming, I’m available for the same discussions in the bar and at my dealers table. But just to reiterate, our spaces are not safe spaces just because we say it so enough times.
I’m writing this post for solidarity. I don’t want to walk by behaviour and accept it as the standard. I want to say that the kind of behaviour being spoken about online at the moment doesn’t just happen at *their* cons, over *there*, by *those* people we don’t know. I’ve found kindred spirits and lifelong friends in the SF community. I’ve been supported, encouraged, nurtured, taught and loved by this community. I’ve been supported through some of my toughest life moments. I’m a better, smarter and more caring person because of this community. I met my husband and I’ve changed my career because of it. I’m finally happy in life, and it’s a lot to do with the friends I’ve made here. I’m me again. But that doesn’t mean that some of these years haven’t been the hardest and most confronting too. It doesn’t mean that everyone is supportive, nurturing and caring. It doesn’t mean that everyone wants the best for everyone else. And as much as we love this community, we need to be sure that the behaviour we walk past really is the standard we want set.
Tags: feminism, sf community