BUT HE DIDN’T KNOW HE WAS HIJACKING YOUR SHIP: On Conference Creeps
So, all day today there’s been an epic twitter storm regarding sexual harassment in the science fiction and fantasy convention circuit, specifically the means for the official reporting of same. See Elise Matthesen’s post quoted in full at John’s Scalzi’s WHATEVER for the events that led to said storm.
I feel the need to weigh in on the topic, given that I’m a female writer who attends conventions regularly as part of my professional life, and given that I have been harassed all over convention hotels from here to San Diego. Despite the fact that I’ve also experienced a lot of great stuff at cons, smart and fabulous people, there’s certainly been a lot of Other as well.
I’ve actually never made an official report, largely because I’m so used to being harassed that I’d just chalked it up to basic workplace suck. Of course, my position on this – that I should tolerate it, rather than battle it – was wrong. It was very helpful to read Elise’s post, in which it’s revealed that someone with a seemingly long record of sexual harassment had no record of official complaints filed against him. So, that sucks for obvious reasons, one of which is that he has apparently continued, for years, happily harassing women right and left, without repercussions.
That looks to be changing. Scandals right and left, and rightly so.
I’ve been working professionally as writer for 17 years, as a playwright first, and then as a prose writer. I’ve been in this genre for about three years. I know a lot of people. I don’t go to every convention, but I go to several every year. I’d love to say I’d been to any conventions in the SFF field wherein things like this didn’t happen.
So in weighing in, what I want to do is give a sense of the things that can happen, sexual harassment-wise as a baseline at conventions, using some examples of things that have happened to me, and to my friends.
Today was, I think, eye opening for some people who didn’t realize the breadth of the snarl.
My female friends and I are a group of writers who’ve sold books and stories professionally for years. We’re a pretty formidable group of women (and men, but here I’m mostly talking about women getting harassed. I know people who aren’t women get harassed too – yes, oh, I do. But today? It’s about my experience as a woman in the genre.) Among us are NYT bestsellers, award winners, lawyers, doctors, and various badasses. On panels, we hold our own – sometimes against significant odds. In rooms, we hold our own, again, sometimes against significant odds. On the internet, we hold our own, despite exactly what you’d expect, significant odds.
We’re outspoken women who write about history, monsters, sex, battles, cities, science, love, myth, creatures, the worlds above and below. If you met us at a convention, you’d think – accurately – that we were confident, smart, and capable professionals. You might not realize that most of us had been harassed at the very convention you were meeting us at. I’m not using names. But I want to say a few things about things that have happened to me.
There’s been a lot of talk about conventions being “safe spaces” – but one of the very unfortunate things is that a lot of conventions, while being safe spaces for people who don’t fit into societal norms, have also managed to make themselves safe spaces for sexual harassers.
As follows. Here, a partial list.
1. My first convention. I’m at a party, where I know maybe 2 people. A respected SF writer beelines up to me, kisses – with tongue – up my arm from wrist to shoulder without introducing himself, mutters “stunning” and is gone. Later that night, he googles me, sends me an email through my website informing me of his identity, and telling me that he is the man who left his “spoor” on my arm. I write back. I say, “you know, you should have actually spoken to me. I’m an interesting person, not to mention I’m one of your fellow invited pros, and I’m smart, and a writer.” He writes back to me, having done some more googling. He says, oops, I didn’t know that you had a husband (and, implication mine, are his property, therefore not on the open market). I didn’t mean to disrespect him. (Ital mine.) My soul is yours. I’ll blurb you if you need a blurb. He doesn’t speak to me or acknowledge me professionally ever, though we are at the convention together for days.
2. Same convention, some guy in the dealer’s room with whom I’ve been having a brief conversation about whether or mot my book is stocked picks me up and holds me in his arms, as though I am a toddler. I instruct him to put me down. He looks bewildered. It’s because i’m little, he says, and because I’m wearing green, which is his favorite color and which means we have a connection. I’m 5’3″. I’m not big. I am also not a toddler. And even if I was? I WOULD NOT BE ASKING A STRANGER TO PICK ME UP. EVEN IF THAT STRANGER LIKED GREEN. I DID NOT WEAR MY GREEN DRESS IN ORDER TO BE PICKED UP. My dress is not an invitation, yo.
3. Moments later, another guy, a fellow writer, hugs me tenderly from behind, though I do not know him. When I turn, startled, to protest, he says “You have the greatest smile. It just makes me want to hug you.” I’m doomed to avoiding him for the rest of the con, because he’s always wherever I am, charging at me with open arms, hugging me in elevators and moving at me to hug basically just wherever I go. It’s gross. He becomes known to my swiftly formed girl posse as The Hugger in the Hat. And when I say hugger, I mean full body contact with erect bits against my thigh. I don’t report him. I’m new to the scene. I feel awkward. I’m used to being harassed in the world. This is bad, but it’s not insane in terms of how much wrong attention I get from creeps in cities. So, I don’t report.
4. What Cherie Priest says in her post on this is true. We form protective posses. Descriptions of creepers are traded like cards. Women say things such as “Do you need back up when you walk through that room?” “What color is his shirt?” “Oh, I saw The Hugger In The Hat in there – I’m getting between you and him.”
5. Conversely, when I complained about The Hugger anecdotally to men, most of them said he was just clueless and didn’t mean to creep me out, and that if I was clear that I didn’t want to be hugged, I wouldn’t be, because The Hugger was a nice guy. Don’t get me wrong. Most men are great. But I think most guys have also not been witness to a lot of this. Creepers wait til you’re with your girls, or alone. Because Creepers calculate.
6. The Hugger wasn’t hugging the guys. Nor was Spoor Guy licking their arm and then sending them love letters. Nor was Dealer’s Room Guy lifting them off their feet.
7. Notice that I’ve not even mentioned anyone giving me any kind of respect for being a professional writer here. In these scenarios, I’ve been A Pretty Writer. It’s part of my job to be nice to people at conventions. I don’t like to cause scenes and be ill humored. I’m inherently a friendly person. Sometimes this bites me in the ass, literally. Sometimes it gropes me in the ass.
8. To ask me to be someone who is not friendly is to ask me to be someone other than myself. Yet, people who have heard these stories, have sometimes said “Maria, you should be less friendly. It’s not their fault they get confused. You’re pretty and nice.”
9. So, apparently pretty and nice means I should change, not the harassers. But how should I change? It’s not me who is at fault. It’s historically been unusual that anything is a harasser’s fault at a SFF con. They often self-market as misunderstood, and act as though somehow their creepy, stalkerish behavior is the natural result of Mean Pretty Women of SFF who are also Crazy Feminists Who Don’t Know How To Have A Good Time. Creepy men often self-market as Innocents Abroad. This, when they have long been attending conventions with women, and in fact, have been schooled before, usually beginning in kindergarten, about what constitutes an inappropriate touch or action.
10. This pisses me off. I feel pissed off when i find myself followed into an elevator and have to get off the elevator because i don’t want to be followed to my room. I feel pissed off when I find my group of friends joined at the bar by someone who seats himself on the arm of my chair and insists that because he wants to buy us a drink, he is allowed to sit there, then curses us for denying him. I feel pissed off when my space is invaded repeatedly by someone who wants to stare at my boobs, over, and over, and over, and who cannot seem to keep himself away, despite being spoken to by a defender. I feel pissed off when I have to dodge away from a guy who has no personal space and keeps pressing me hard against a wall. I feel pissed off when suddenly i’m getting a neck massage I didn’t request. I feel pissed off when in all of this?
NO ONE EVER ACKNOWLEDGES ME AS A WRITER. Which is the whole reason I’m at the con to begin with.
11. Post-witnessing a creepy interaction, people often say things to me like “You seemed like you knew how to handle yourself.” It’s true that it is unusual for me to feel frightened. I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I’ve never felt myself to be in danger. What I have felt is that my time as a writer is being wasted.
I’ve had, for example, small toys pushed down the front of my dress, as though this was a playful thing to do. I’ve been on panels where i’ve been asked questions that began “As a female writer” – when everyone else on the panel was a guy, and didn’t have to answer the equivalent. I’ve had my ass grabbed in an elevator and proclaimed “perky.” I’ve been called “feisty” because I protested sexism in a conversation, and the person i was speaking to told me I was “cute and sassy” for speaking out, but that I didn’t understand the history of the genre, and how what I was protesting was actually just normal.
I have no huge conclusions here, just aggravations and airing of a pretty basic account of my pretty basic female writer experience at SFF conventions.
On twitter today, I said:
“After my first convention, I almost didn’t go back to any others. It was that bad. Everywhere I went, there were dudes waiting to grab.
And if you question how bad it would have to be to make me feel upset? Know that I used to be a pirate negotiator in the maritime industry.
The pirates in the maritime industry were generally a great deal more polite than the creeps in the SFF world. They stuck to terms.
In the SFF world, the nasty that happens is as follows: ‘He was confused,’ rather than “HE JUST TRIED TO HIJACK YOUR SHIP.’
But I’m here to tell you, people have regularly tried to hijack my ship, and then protested that my real problem was a bad ship and bad weather, rather than dudes trying to board me.
This is, alongside all that has been said today, a plea to convention attendees, to writers, to people, to watch for these things and work with us to stamp them out. They suck. They make conventions un-fun for women, and for everyone. If you see something, say something. If you watch something, walk up to the something and intervene. If you feel uncomfortable with someone’s action, chances are the person who is experiencing it is too. It’s likely that she would like you to chime in with her.
And me? From now on, I report officially. It’s the right thing to do.