The buzz is on sexual harassment in the literary world lately, especially at cons. And I’ll tell you that, as a woman, I’ve been there. I had a well-known literary name grab my butt at a con last year, and I was so surprised that I didn’t know what to do. There weren’t any roundhouse kicks to the face, or firm dressing downs. My friends didn’t rush to my defense. There was just his hand. My body. And shock. Some shame. A whole bunch of confusion.
Was this the first experience? Of course not. Will it be the last? Sadly, no. I don’t expect it will be.
At the same time, I feel like we’re getting a bit reactive about all of it. It’s almost a battle to see who can be more affronted. Oh yeah? Somebody actually touched your body? Well, somebody just looked at me wrong, and I filed a report on sexual harassment. Therefore I am much more educated and proactive than you. If only you respected women or yourself more, you could be angry like me.
I’m nervous to even publish this essay, because it’s such a charged subject. I know the flack I’m going to get about it.
There are people out there who scare me. They push so hard to make sure that they never become victims that they actually come across as bullies. I’m terrified that I’ll get nervous, say the wrong thing and affront them. I would never intend to, but sometimes I think intent has very little to do with it.
Case in point: An author told me he writes erotica and sent me unsolicited links to his work. On the page was a picture of him that can never be unseen. NEVER. UNSEEN.
Friend One (female): You were just sexually harassed! Get a rope!
Friend Two (male): I think maybe you were just sexually harassed. Should I…do something?
My Mom: You knew better than to click that link, sweetie.
I think Mom is right. I knew he was sending me stories he had written. Did I expect to be blinded by boy bits? No, I did not. But it’s like the old folktale about the little boy who carries the snake (no pun intended) to the top of the hill: He knew what the snake was when he picked it up.
I don’t consider it sexual harassment. I had an idea of what I was getting into. I’m certainly not going to report him for showing me his, ahem, work when he had given me an idea of the kind of work it is. Sure, a warning of the visuals would have kept me far away from the link, but ultimately I believe the fault was mine.
But this made me realize that most of us don’t have a clue as to what sexual harassment is, especially on the Internet. A man (or woman, for that matter) corners me at a con and says suggestive things or puts their hands on my body, and that’s definitely harassment. I know it with every fiber of my being. But online? The lines become blurry. I’m not exactly sure.
This last week I blocked somebody on Facebook for making inappropriate comments. The conversation went very quickly from “Tell me about your work” to “You have beautiful lips. And hair. And eyes.” Uncool. Uncomfortable. Blocked. Ugh.
A while ago, three other women and I were at a horror con. When the picture came up online, there was immediately a conversation about our bust size. Yes, we’re busty. No, that doesn’t give you a pass to discuss it. More ugh.
These things were obvious to me. They made me feel bad. Uncomfortable. But what about the flirty friend you have to keep reigning in? Being sent unsolicited stories high in sexual content? Being sought out simply because we’re women? The Shock Totem staff often says, “Why did So and So approach you about this and not me?” Probably because I’m a girl. Because we’re seen as easier to approach and sometimes dominate. I’ve had people sweet talk me about getting in the mag when I know they aren’t doing the same thing to Ken or John or Tom. What about when women are invited to an anthology because “the antho needs women”? So does Mars. Is that a form of harassment? My body parts gave me a free pass? Then again, how many times have we been upset because an antho or “Best Of” or, heaven forbid I say it, the Bram Stoker Awards had a glaring lack of female participants and nominees? Is it true that there just aren’t any winners here?
Let me give you a completely opposite example that was actually comical in its intent. I was at WHC in New Orleans. My friends were all at panels, and I hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before. I found a nice, quiet person sitting in the lobby, who turned out to be John Urbancik. (Whether or not John is nice and quiet in real life is not up for debate. It was early in the morning and he was absolutely lovely.) :P
Me: Excuse me. I’m looking for a place to eat breakfast. Do you know anywhere?
John: Yes, I went to this bar the other morning and it was wonderful. It’s located AAFD@#$@#$ Blah blah Neeeeeneeeeneeeen wigawomp.” (This is how I understand directions.)
Me: I’ll never find it. But thank you anyway!
John: W…would you like me to show you?
Me (eying him mistrustfully): Yeeeeeees…
We were so afraid of being forward. Of putting off the wrong signals at a conference and a city known for debauchery. He walked me to the bar, hesitantly, wanting to be honorable and promising that he would drop me off when we arrived there, so I wouldn’t have to eat with a total male stranger. I was grateful, but felt stupid for asking. But more than that, I was really STARVING. So we made it. Waved farewell. I bellied up to the bar and had the best breakfast I had in New Orleans, by myself. And when I was nearly done? A man sitting at the bar next to me threw down a five dollar bill, said, “It was a pleasure watching you eat,” and left.
Ugh. Again. After the “I don’t want to be offensive in any way” dance with John earlier that morning. I could have had breakfast with somebody who turned out to be a friend, instead of being tipped by El Creepo at the bar. I throw my hands in the air. I’m defeated.
Hey. I’m a woman and I’m confused about the whole thing. I thought I was supposed to know what was going on.
Let’s go back to basics. Treat me with respect and as a professional. In return, I’ll treat you the same way. I won’t go looking for ways to be slighted if you don’t go out of your way to slight me. I think we all need to act better. Just because I have Bettie Page bangs, that doesn’t mean I’m your personal pin-up girl. And just because you hold the door open for me, that doesn’t mean you have an angle. I want us to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to assume that the other person meant no offense. Wouldn’t it be nice not to be on guard all of the time? Wouldn’t that be a relief?
I yearn for a world of courteousness and professionalism. That’s all. Being a writer…heck, being a HUMAN is tough enough. We don’t need to complicate things.
And even as I write this, the events of ComicCon were brought to my attention. My mind boggles.
Respect. Let’s try it.