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No Right Answers to Sexual Harassment

dirty fansFans. Meet Shit.

A bunch of unsuspecting fans got hit with piles and piles of shit this week, and it seems all the corners of the Internet have been sprayed with putrid muck. I’d like to weigh in on the controversies like the Scientific American writer/editor story and the tragic story of the 12-year-old girl in Florida that took her own life after being bullied. I’d like to talk about how my women friends are rallying behind a “imwithshea” Facebook page set up to support another girl who received anonymous and threatening texts.

But everything I want to say about these things is considered unacceptable. My words will seem crass to the ‘net-polizzi . My responses about sexual harassment especially come out as victim-blaming. My words seem biting when I write about getting harassed via anonymous sites like ask.fm and Pinger.

The Right Answers

I know the proper things to say about these subjects. I know the right answer is that sites like ask.fm and Pinger shouldn’t exist. I know the other right answer is that children should act more empathetically and not send harassing notes through anonymous sites. I know that men should never use their position of power to influence an underling to listen to their sexual woes or intimidate them for sexual favors.

Yes, in an ideal world, none of this shit would ever hit any fans, because none of it would happen. In an ideal world, men would not push their power around, and children would not be cruel to each other. Despite decades of consciousness about the banality of men and the barbarity of children, we are still not living in the Eden we’d been promised. Let’s talk about the harassment that is here in this world now.

Sexual Harassment Engine

Yet we mustn’t ever speak of the reality. We mustn’t ever learn how to handle the huge piles of shit that are in our way, because, you know, the Eden people say the shit shouldn’t be there in the first place.

The idealists may acquiesce 1 point: we can go after the technologies and systems which allowed the shit to pile up in the first place. Hell, we can even go after the fans that are spreading shit everywhere. We can shut down apps. We can penalize companies that don’t fire these slime ball bosses. Indeed, if the Twitter and Facebook storms are any indication, whole contingents are working on these solutions.

In the meantime, am I not permitted to ask what it is we ourselves can do in situ? Is the young freelancer to endure an inappropriate tirade from the next powerful editor, with no immediate recourse or resource within herself? Is she supposed to sit there, stunned that she has happened upon fecund fistfuls of feces that shouldn’t be there?

I feel deeply sorry for this young woman with the bad editor. She wasn’t at all prepared. But my question is thus: Why wasn’t she prepared? Yes, yes, the world shouldn’t be sexist or bullying or harassing. Some of us are working to fix that. (Hint: we need more male allies). But in the meantime, why was this woman shocked? Why was she a deer in the headlights? Why was *I* a deer in headlights when it happened to me, more times than I can count? Why are we raising girls to be deer in headlights?

It Happens

Preparing our girls for dangerous situations isn’t permitting or accepting said dangers. Reality exists. Shit happens. The cold, hard fact is we need to recognize when a meeting is going nowhere quick. That writer had no chance with placing any pieces with that editor. The editor was interested in only 1 thing: sex. The writer, by her own account, sat there, listening to the editor’s lurid narrative, holding on to the hope that she could salvage the working relationship.

Herein lies the flaw. Here’s where we raised-to-please women go wrong. Men seem to have the freedom to ditch a social situation as soon as the situation warrants it. We think if we seem empathetic and caring that we can cleverly and imperceptibly slip out of the dangerous grasps and terrorizing disapproval of these predators. We women think we can turn things around. We need to recognize when we have no chance.

Hopefully next time that talented young writer can instantly recognize the situation for what it is: a set-up. Hopefully next time she can voice her disdain as soon as the conversation goes awry. Hopefully next time she doesn’t enable one more second of an asswipe’s behavior. No job is worth it, and there is always another path to success. (Advanced Warrior status: stay and record said asswipe’s harassment and present it to asswipe’s organization.)

Don’t Equate

Don’t generalize what I am saying here to situations of rape or any other forcible, repeated physical abuse. Don’t seethe crazy over what I’m saying. The woman was in a cafe. She was not being held down by anything but her own false (but originally reasonable) hopes. Yes, the pile of shit shouldn’t have been sitting across the table from her. But we can all learn to recognize the smell a bit more quickly and hightail ourselves out and away. We can accept the reality while still working toward the fantasy. These are not mutually exclusive endeavors.

UPDATE + more rant I’m not supposed to publish: I’m already receiving upset comments on Facebook. One simply cannot address the lack of self-defense or suggest a bit of self-preservation in this environment. It’s only: “Men are not allowed to do this.”  Nothing else? We can’t discuss any of our own agency ever?

I can’t sit and read through another woman’s account of the same predator and not think, “Why put up with that behavior?” Women as well as men enabled this piece of shit’s crimes. Are we never to mention this fact? Are we never to teach women how to lay down boundaries (continuing to email or speak with a person who insists on speaking that way is not laying boundaries)? Why am I the devil and automatically a victim-blamer because I am suggesting that we women don’t have to feel like sitting ducks, waiting for shit to dump on us again? I don’t think the victims deserved any of it. I am not blaming them for anything. I am suggesting that they can, now that they are awake, learn to recognize sexual harassment and react to it accordingly. Because if we don’t, it will keep happening, as it did in the case of this Bora asswipe.  Swift and resolute reaction (when possible, if one is physically safe, obviously). That’s all I’m saying. All of these cases involve a need to please this guy in power. Remove the need to please and a lot of his power is taken away. It isn’t our fault that we don’t have that power. It isn’t our fault that we are oppressed. But there are better, more clever ways to navigate these things than kneeling down and trying to appease a sexual harassing elder. I’ll bet there are women out there who found a way to work around or without this Bora person. What did they do differently? Are we to assume Bora didn’t harass them? There are different styles. This is fact. But apparently I can never ever mention it.

Before anyone thinks I can’t possibly imagine what being harassed is like, I can guarantee you that I can, and I have more stories than I can count. I have had to leave at least 3 workplaces due to harassment. Like, lawsuit-worthy levels. I’m not kidding.

I may ask the question “Why put up with it?” but I actually am acutely aware of the answer. I put up with it because I didn’t know what else to do. I thought I had to endure that treatment. I was taught to please, to never rock a boat. To sit down and shut up, to be a sympathetic ear. In those awful jobs, the best I could do was quit as soon as I was able. Do I think I am to blame for that? No. What happened to me shouldn’t have happened to me. Many more incidents of sexual harassment later, I changed. I learned something. A man in my life asked me, point blank, why I took it. In questioning my actions, I realized he was “giving me permission” to act another way. Acting this other way, with self-esteem and strength, might, god forbid, get me labeled as a “Bitch” (which, if you are new to this planet, is the Official Absolute Worst Thing to Be Labeled), but it also might make my life easier and happier.

So, I could be seen as a “bitch” by sexual predators or I could feel slimy at every job I’ve ever held. I took Bitch. Strangely, the Bitch thing turned out to be a myth. Now if I’m labeled as a Bitch it isn’t because I’ve rebuffed slimebags, it’s because I’m more honest, more strategic and/or harder working than others, which, all considered, makes “Bitch” a semi-fair slur. Honesty is bitchy sometimes, even when it is delivered in the nicest of ways.

In recent years, I’ve been harassed, obviously, as I’m a woman and it is everywhere. But my reaction to it has been such that it doesn’t happen again from that same person or in that same environment. I no longer give a rat’s ass what a slime bucket thinks of me, firstly. Secondly, I immediately step back and assess my next course of action. No part of that course of action is wondering what it was I did or said that brought on the crime. See? THAT’s victim-blaming. Telling a woman that her actions brought on a crime is victim-blaming. I’m talking about WHAT TO DO WHEN THE CRIME HAPPENS! But I’m not allowed to say that. No. Telling a woman that she actually has permission to get up, walk away and report is taboo. Instead, we have to let her stew in her own low esteem and wonder what it is she did that brought it all on. It’s taboo to say, “Once you are safely away, you don’t have to allow it to continue” (continued emails? For the Love of Mary!) or “Here are the typical ways situations like this go down. It’s OK to make decisions based on this information, even if this harassment isn’t exactly the same.”

I am victim-helping, not blaming. I don’t care if a woman goes to ComicCon NAKED, she shouldn’t be touched. Hell, she shouldn’t even be stared at. But will she be? Probably. Is there anything she can do to prevent this? No. Some of you may suggest she wear clothes. I don’t think that’s necessary. She is (maybe) allowed to be naked at private events.

Instead, I say, make a VERY loud example of the asshole who touches you first and every single one thereafter. If you see someone staring, stare back and say, “Do YOU MIND? Your staring is making me uncomfortable.” Be aware of your skin and know when someone is touching you and deal with it immediately. Some naked women may want to employ some allies, bodyguards, other naked women, ComicCon staff. Whatever. That’s a good approach, too. A BAD approach would be to cover oneself from head to toe when one prefers to be naked. A BAD approach would be to stand there until the slime are done touching you, then go back the next day and let them do it again, because you don’t want to hurt their feelings or make a ruckus. A BAD approach would be to tell yourself that you are a bad woman because you want to be naked at ComicCon, even though you are an artist and an expert in the human form.

We are all victims of the patriarchy. We are undeserving of our position in it. That’s plain. But internalizing that message and behaving accordingly isn’t necessary. There are other ways to live.


PHOTO CREDIT: Teemu Mantynen on Flickr