Was I Just Sexually Harassed…Or Not?

We are a world of offense. A litigious society. Too sensitive. Or not sensitive enough. Or maybe both, who knows.

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.

About Mercedes M. Yardley

Nonfiction Editor, Slushie, Shock Totem Goddess
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13 Responses to Was I Just Sexually Harassed…Or Not?

  1. Somewhere along the line, the Collective Male Decency Barometer blew a gasket (if it ever actually existed in working condition). Men have reached absolute zero when it comes to knowing how to act appropriately around women. I take comfort in knowing I had a mother who raised me on the simple premise that all people are to be respected–unless, of course, they give you a reason not to respect them. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt starting out. Once they show they aren’t worthy of it–and they do, often–they’re instantly discarded.

    Harassment is a symptom of modern times. If there’s a cure, it’s yet to be discovered. Let’s hope one is soon.

  2. I’ll agree that it’s a symptom of the times, and a definitely lack of respect. But I don’t think it’s strictly a men-preying-on-women problem, either. Women definitely harass men. Women harass other women. But somehow that’s seen as a completely different thing. It’s either not reported, or the guy is seen as lucky instead of a victim, or whatnot. And there’s a completely different shame cycle that takes place when a man is a victim. Society just kinda sucks, sometimes.

    I try to give people the benefit of a doubt and then I’m instantly labeled as “weak” or “naive”. But I also get nervous and say inappropriate things all of the time. Not sexually, but I did joke about physically assaulting one of the leading names in horror if he was late returning an interview. I apologized profusely and thankfully he was very cool about it, but if he hadn’t been, I would be in a world of hurt right now.

    Thank you for your comment, Aaron! I’m hoping this fosters some discussion.

  3. Masonian says:

    You said: “I yearn for a world of courteousness and professionalism. That’s all.”

    To which I reply: AMEN and HALLELUJAH and other shouts of assent.

    The exact line for some things is a bit fuzzy (enthusiastic huggers, for example) but anyone who imagines that grabbing a handful of a woman-that-is-not-the-significant-other’s derriere is “just being playful” ought to have their fingers stapled together.

    “Ugh” is right

  4. Mercedes, you’re absolutely correct that harassment comes from all corners. I’ve been on the brunt end of it via both women and men and it is quite uncomfortable and demeaning. However, it is male harassment of women that has become pandemic. It’s as if these losers actually believe unsolicited lewd behavior will attract a mate. That flawed logic is about as biologically unsound as you can get.

    Hey, Mason! The last time I saw you was in the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone, strumming a ukulele beside William F. Nolan. How’s life since?

  5. Kelly says:

    I’ve been in shock for about a year while watching everyone get upset and high & mighty about personal space being invaded as extreme sexual harassment. Yet when a friend was molested and almost raped at a con party in September of last year, I sit here in even more shock that not only does the committee of that con know what happened, but they welcome him back and praise him for this and that on public forums. (I helped my friend when I realized what was going on, carried her to her room with help, and spent the night with her. And I’ve spoken to several people about the situation.) As a result, there is no way in hell I’m going back to that con as long as he is welcomed back. Dragging a passed-out woman into a bathroom, then dropping her on the floor and fleeing when you realize she can’t perform? The hell? And he dares to still show his face in this circle? Blows my mind!

  6. Pingback: Was I Just Sexually Harassed…Or Not? | A Broken Laptop

  7. Robert Fleck says:

    Thinking this behavior is something new or different is, I can tell you , a delusion. What is new is that people are starting to talk about it as unacceptable. Any woman who ever sat near Forry Ackerman at a signing or panel or dinner or anything else probably has a story about him and his wandering hands. I remember Janet telling a story about Ray Bradbury having lunch with a young woman and nodding agreement with her cleavage. The thing about conventions is that they are often peopled by the socially awkward. Not everyone, and there are also exceptionally well-mannered and aware men who frequent conventions. The behavior only changes, though, when we men go to each other and make it clear where the lines are. The frontline behavior only changes when our “private, manly” conversations stop revolving around women as a collection of fun anatomical parts and start just talking about people. That requires a level of maturity that is hard to find in this or any other society. It’s always a work in progress, and open conversation is always better than attacks and recriminations.

  8. well said. thank you for this, MMY.

  9. Masonian says:

    (Aaron, I tried to email you but got a “Delivery Status Notification (Failure)” rats!)

  10. Timothy W Humphries says:

    An intelligent thoughtful piece, thank-you

  11. I appreciate this discussion. At the corporate level, sexual harassment (at least at my company) is defined as anything that makes the recipient of the behavior uncomfortable. I’ve always found that definition vague and unhelpful. Such a subjective line creates exactly the situation mentioned in the piece: men and women walking on egg shells around one another. But a hyper-litigious set of “rules” to follow isn’t the answer either.

    I think that men need to set better examples for young men and boys on how to show women respect. As as society we need to evaluate how we create an atmosphere where respect is expected, and a lack of respect is dealt with my a conscious majority calling out those who cross the line. Policies and rules, while necessary, cannot and will not change our culture.

    Kudos to Mercedes for writing this piece.

  12. We are biologically sexual beings. Sex is everywhere. And our species is very successful at performing it and sometimes even making it worthwhile, wonderful, and fruitful. If we find ourselves in intimate proximity to a desirable “object” of attraction, our synapses fire, our enzymes percolate and flow, our heartbeats do the jitterbug in our chests, we sweat pheromones, we even have difficulty piecing together a coherent sentence sometimes. The problem for folks who are socially inept is they feel this as much as anyone, but too often misinterpret a casual kindness for desire, or they mistake the social signs of reciprocity—or, unfortunately, they simply just don’t care, reciprocity and venue be damned. Blatant harassment in the way of unwelcome touching and even lecherous, Bradbury-esque ogling needs to be addressed as socially intolerable.

    But you’re right, Mercedes, the line between harassment and playful banter and even innocent flirtation is blurry. That’s why I keep my interactions professional until the other party indicates a comfort level with silly and flirtatious repartee,. It can be fun as long as mutual respect is accepted and understood, but the indicators are hard clues for the sexually-charged or socially inept. Sad, but true. Harassment has been around as long as we have, and though, yes, we are engaging in discussion and solidarity, my feeling is there are just way too many jackasses out there in the wide world for harassment to ever become a non-issue.

  13. Gabriel Novo says:

    I love your article and the courage it took to write it. Too often people fall on one side or another of a topic and forget that there is a middle ground. I also feel your pain. The tightrope of modern society is a pain in the ass to walk. Like you and several of the commenters have already mentioned, it’s difficult to accurately determine what constitutes harassment in every situation.

    When I lived in Miami and worked in Hispanic offices the idea of harassment was completely different. What went on, perpetrated by both sides, would have triggered class action lawsuits in another city, but culturally it was acceptable in South Florida. It was just considered playful banter.

    I myself grew up kissing women on the cheek as a greeting. Family, friends, new people I was meeting for the first time, if you were female you got a peck on the cheek. When I first moved to Charlotte people backed away from me as if I were trying to assault them. What was a normal exchange for me was outside of their comfort zone.

    Another good article you may want to check out is Scalzi’s “Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping.” It reads like a beginners manual to social interaction for the socially inept. I highly recommend it.

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