lucky

July 1, 2013

I’ve been trying to write a blog post about sexual harassment against women at conventions and in general.  It’s taken awhile because I’ve been reading dozens of accounts and reactions, and pondering.  Originally, this was going to be a post about how I haven’t been harassed, and how that makes me lucky.  Nothing about me suggests that I wouldn’t be harassed, I’m not all that different, I’m just part of the percentage of women who hasn’t been harassed.  I’m just lucky.

But then I remembered that one time at a Worldcon when this guy I’d never met before propositioned me out of the blue.  He walked away when I said no, so it was more an annoyance than actual harassment, right?  Then there was that one time when that big name writer said something inappropriate to me in a workshop, but I got him back for it (seriously, rendered him absolutely speechless) and we all moved on.  And there are the times I’ve been the only woman in the room and wondered if it was a problem, but it generally wasn’t a problem, and I’m pretty good about leaving if I start to feel uncomfortable, and that’s not really harassment.  And there’ve been a couple of times at readings & signings where someone made not just me uncomfortable but had other people worried on my behalf, to the point where friends have insisted on escorting me to my car, just to be sure, but things hadn’t gotten to the point of actual harassment, you know?  I’ve had situations with actual stalkers, but those were outside conventions for the most part so even though I felt deeply uncomfortable it wasn’t like I was getting harassed at a convention.  It’s not like I’ve ever been groped or assaulted. . .

You see how this works.  The insidious inner voice that tells us this sort of thing isn’t really harassment, it’s no big deal, you’re just being overly sensitive. . .  Then you line all these “no big deals” up together and think, whoa.

I can sit here and say I’ve never been harassed, but is that just because so much of this is ubiquitous background noise that I don’t even notice it anymore?  Have I developed an ultra high tolerance because I’ve been dealing with sexism and low-grade harassment my whole life and I’ve gotten so good at ignoring it that I really, honestly, don’t see it?  I was 24 years old when my Grandpa Vaughn asked me if people teased me about being an old maid.  He was joking, but not, you know?  I said, “Well, not until just now, Grandpa.”  I realize I have a highly developed “Oh, Grandpa,” response to a lot of this, because I don’t want to ruin Thanksgiving.

I just have one story to tell:  I was the first girl to join my high school’s science fiction club.  This was 1988.  First, my high school had a science fiction club, so yay!  It may not be much of a “first” trailblazing milestone.  Not like Sandra Day O’Conner or Sally Ride.  But I did it.  And I was lucky because 90% of the guys in the club were fine with having me there.  (In fact, once I brought some of my friends along, they were downright giddy.  They realized if they behaved themselves and endeared themselves to us, they would have prom dates forever.  It worked.)  But there was this one guy.  I think I broke him completely, because he could not wrap his head around me being there.  He never reconciled himself to it.  He argued against inviting me to D&D parties.  When I was elected president of the club the next year he informed me that I had stolen the club from him.  His abuses never got past the verbal, and never became sexual because frankly, he didn’t have the imagination for it.  But as far as he was concerned, women didn’t belong in science fiction.

He lost that fight.  Mainly because I kept showing up, and eventually he stopped showing up.  I’m sure he’s convinced that I drove him out, but leaving was his choice.  I didn’t “do” anything to him.  He did it all to himself.  I haven’t ever looked him up because why would I, but I have a feeling he’s on the Internet somewhere ranting about the terribleness of uppity women.

I straddle generations.  I’m just old enough to be part of the “you just deal with it” generation.  You ignore it.  You keep quiet because you don’t want to rock the boat, but you keep showing up and doing the work and don’t let them close doors on you.  You don’t say anything because no one will listen to you, and you don’t want to get kicked out.  And for God’s sake you keep showing up because no one else will fight these fights for you.

I’m also just young enough to be part of the next wave of feminism.  The generation that’s standing up and declaring that we shouldn’t have to put up with any level of harassment, low-grade or otherwise.  And who are generating a level of backlash I have never witnessed before.

I am a beneficiary of several generations of feminism that went before me and I’m so grateful to them for the right to go to college, to own property, to have access to birth control.  To live the life I want to live.  I didn’t have to fight those fights.  I’m lucky.  But there are new fights, aren’t there?

I love science fiction and fantasy.  And I love that there are communities of people who love science fiction and fantasy, and I want to be part of that.  The thing that jerk in my high school SF club taught me:   Keep showing up.  Gather your defenses, array your allies around you, speak up.  We’re fighting for the generations that come after us.

25 Responses to “lucky”

  1. Noelle Says:

    From someone who predates the second wave – Thank you. I was far to uncertain about my place at the table to even recognize the harassment, never mind calling anyone out for it,

    I hope for so more for my daughters.

  2. Claire Says:

    I can still remenber the surprise on the group of young men’s faces when I walked up to their table at GenCon and introduced myself as their DM. They soon got over their surprise and my gender never became an issue. (This was in the early 90’s.) Though I wondered a bit at the time if the fact that I was older than most of them helped things along.

    Participating almost exculsively in RPGA events at cons insulated me from most of the issues women face in the gaming community. In the early days of the orginzation women frequently held leadership postions. This was brought home to me when about ten years ago I was in the postion to suggest some panels for DragonCon. I included one on “Women in Gaming” which my husband thought would be poorly attended (since he believed all the issues surely had to be old news and fixed by then). The rom was packed!
    Not all the issues were the same ones we faced in the 80’s but it really made me realize how lucky I was to be involved in a group that, for the most part, (all groups have some jerks) saw women gamers as gamers not intruders.

  3. Deb V. Says:

    Thank you for this post! While I hope my daughter has a healthy dose of “just keep showing up” I also REALLY hope that the environment to which she shows up is far less insidious and unspokenly hostile than what you describe. But if it is, I hope she has the wit of her Aunt Carrie to she her through.

  4. Carrie V. Says:

    Aw, thanks Deb!

    One of the hard things, is that there are so many good communities within SF, but also some really bad apples, and you often can’t predict until you’re in the middle of it if you’re going to get a good group or a bad group. Another way I feel lucky is that I tend to hang out with really tough looking guys — who are totally wonderful, polite, kind human beings as well. But they do tend to scare away trouble.

  5. Kim Power Says:

    Carrie, a brilliant exposition of so many women’s experience. As an older woman, and one of the first in my discipline in my country, I encountered this embedded but subconscious sexism continually. It is very wearing and has a significant impact on my sense of self.

  6. flo Says:

    There are so many “traditionally male” activities that for no logical reason I can think of have few women present. I can remember in elementary school hanging out with other trekkies and I was always the only girl. I love SciFi/Fantasy but have no women friends who share my interest. If I go into the local comic book store I am surrounded by young guys who give me strange looks. Where are all the other women like me? Online I guess. I haven’t been to any cons so I can’t comment on that.

    When my daughter was in elementary school she participated in the yearly city chess competition for kids. There were maybe 50-60 kids there. For the two years she went to the event she was the only girl there. I couldn’t believe it. It did make her feel like an odd ball. She finally stopped going. She was also in the lego robotics club at school and participated in the county wide competitions, there were girls there but the ratio was about 10 to 1. Times are changing, slowly…

  7. Griggk the goblin Says:

    I’ve met Ms. Vaughn at a few signings and conventions, had the pleasure of hearing her on panels and swapping thoughts between activities. She’s a strong yet composed person. I pity the chauvinist who attempts to put her in her place, because her place, obviously, is at conventions and signings and other gatherings of like-minded individuals.

    I think the 90% statistic holds true for most populations. 90% of people, male or female, will accept you at face value. 10% will try to make a bid for social dominance. Call it harassment. Call it bullying. I call it wolfpack nature.

    I think Carrie *is* lucky…in that she must’ve won the birth family lottery. Pursuing the goal of becoming a professional writer takes loads of confidence and courage, and that kind of personal strength comes from having some awesome support while the personality is developing.

    Final though; We’ve seen the stack of rejections slips Carrie has collected throughout the years. If she’s strong enough to amass that much rejection, convert it to positive feedback and keep plowing forward until she achieves success, then the occasional lech, oaf, boor, bully and prig probably do fall beneath her notice.

  8. Jenn Burke Says:

    I’ve been lucky, too, as it seems that I’ve always been surrounded by friends who accepted me for who I was. When I read these types of posts, though, I think of my daughter. I think of how I need to prepare her not only for handling this sort of situation—so she doesn’t feel like she has to duck her head, smile, and leave—but also so that she knows that she DOES belong. She CAN choose to be in the chess club or the science fiction club or the robotic club. Or she can be a cheerleader, if that’s what she wants—not what she feels is the only thing left to her.

    I also think about teaching my son. As his parent, I know I need to combat the negative messages he might hear from other kids or adults. Girls can do anything boys can do, and he needs to accept that and welcome it. I think it helps that he sees his mom drooling over sports cars and playing video games and getting excited about space and astronomy, so he knows that those aren’t just things for boys.🙂

  9. Jo Anne Says:

    Griggk, thank you! I wish I could tell you what we did to help Carrie and her brother. I know we weren’t helicopter parents. We just did what we thought was right and let them be themselves.

    Mom

  10. Carrie V. Says:

    flo — I think you’ve hit on what ends up being a self fulfilling prophecy in these communities: women show up, they’re treated weird (I, too, remember being the only girl in the comic shop), it’s uncomfortable so they leave, so there are no women, so when a woman shows up it’s weird, she gets uncomfortable and leaves, etc. This is the cycle we need to break.

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

  11. Adam. Says:

    Way back in the mists of the early nineties at the start of each academic year at the UofY there would be a succession of females asking “will I be the only girl” when considering joining the archery club. The answer usually went along the lines of “well so far you’re the 27th person to ask that question and not put your name down on the list”.

    Right up until you find a brave one and the answer becomes “nope, there’s one there”.

    For the most part you could try and convince them for hours that there were female members from last year that haven’t been by the booth yet, but until there was another girl’s name on the paper they wouldn’t take that step.

  12. Carrie V. Says:

    It’s really hard being first. You look at the room filled with men and think “I won’t be welcome — or safe — here,” and turn around and leave. It’s a survival instinct.

  13. David Bowles Says:

    Maybe its because I grew up watching Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” franchise, or maybe I’m just wired in a weird manner, but I don’t get sexism. It’s not that I don’t understand that there are a ton of sexist people, but it never occurs to me to be sexist. Quite literally. Maybe I just hate making assumptions.

    Women at sci-fi conventions register to me as “people at sci-fi conventions”. I don’t ever assume that I can beat any given woman I meet at a physical activity just because I’m male. I know some men who would probably give me flak if they understood exactly how I approached this topic, but that would never change the way I view things.

    I’ve also been influenced quite a bit by the study of history. Female soldiers inflicted plenty of damage for the USSR during WWII, and I’m sure that not the only example, but its probably the best mass scale example in recent history. I’d say its better than the modern US military, because Soviet women faced a much more adversity in their situation.

    Enough babbling. Three cheers for a very good insight into the plight of female sci-fi fans.

  14. Jazzlet Says:

    Thank you for this Carrie, I went to a university where there were six males to every female and where taking appropriate precautions – never go to a party on a male floor on your own etc etc etc – became second nature as it was the only way to be safe. I know things have changed a lot, but there is still a long way to go, we need to remember that progress and where we want to be.

    Griggk the goblin – you might want to update your wolf pack knowledge as the dominance theory was derived from an artificially contstructed wolf pack and bears no relationship to wild packs. Wild packs are family groups and behave a lot like most families with the parents balancing each others strengths and weaknesses; there is no dominant ‘Pack Leader’. There has been some interesting work on why this particular meme has persisted, despite it being scientifically discredited, with one favoured hypothesis being it fits so many men’s confirmation bias’s …

  15. Carrie V. Says:

    Some people do use the whole “alpha male” bullshit to excuse a lot of bad behavior. I love the research that’s coming out now, it basically justifies everything I’ve been doing in the Kitty books!

    And really, that makes it all the more imperative for us, men and women, to stand up and call it out when we see it happening. There’s nothing “natural” about bad behavior.

  16. Sharon Says:

    Back in the late 60’s I was the first and only girl in my high school to take drafting, not home ec. In college I was the only woman in at least half of my classes – mostly engineering and computer science. When I became a programmer, most of the older programmers were men, but more and more women were joining them. Things were changing!
    It’s rather sad that four decades later, we still have the same struggles. We should be past this by now.

  17. WanabePBWriter Says:

    In the vein of changing attitudes and behavior, and how we usually wish things were further along than they are, “Why is this still and issue?” The way the media and other influences speak of generations, we tend to think of generations as flat layers of sediment, but myself, I’m only 47, but I had two grandparents born before 1900 and the other two both born before 1920. Generation are more like folded layers of rock with the 20’s touching the 60’s 70’s and even the 80’s. In the movie “Field of Dreams there was a great line. “I experienced the Sixties.” “I think you had two fifties and went straight into the seventies.”

  18. Griggk the goblin Says:

    Jazzlet: I’m not making a biological comment on the social interaction of wolves. I’m making a reference to how the pack singles out the weak to prey upon. Bullies look for weakness and capitalize on it, much as pack predators look for the weaker members of the herd. Sorry if this created confusion for you.

  19. Danny Adams Says:

    “…but I have a feeling he’s on the Internet somewhere ranting about the terribleness of uppity women.” I have the feeling he may on the Internet complaining about how bad your books are without having ever read them.🙂

  20. jackie Says:

    What we are talking about is part of what makes up something called rape culture, or at least makes it possible. We shouldn’t be accepting all this low level bullying and intimidation. Not for women and girls, not for anyone. Like you said, it makes it too easy for us to discount our very selves, let alone others. And women and girls are not the only victims. You know that high number of sexual harassment incidences in the military? A lot of the victims are men. Far from a majority, but still. And yes, some of the harassers are women. We need to do better. We need to teach both our sons and daughters not to bully and abuse, and how to stop it.

    Thank you for the post. I am glad you are trying to make sure that our little world of fandom is safe and welcoming as we can.


  21. I have been harassed but not sexually harassed. However to me it is much the same and has very little to do with me or my appearance. They don’t find me attractive so they are rude, if they did find me attractive they would be crude. Men like that are little better than rapists. It is all about power.


  22. You got that right Kelly. Either way we are judged on our appearance much more than men are. One thing that always pisses me off is how freely people feel they can comment on our appearance. Or treat us differently according to our appearance. I can let it slide off my back but when my daughter started getting comments on her appearance in 5th grade from both students and teachers, leers, suggestions and very subtle physical intimidation from boys, it made me furious. It also makes me furious when someone, regardless of gender is teased or treated badly because of their weight. Aren’t people taught manners as children? It is so upsetting how many people hurt others for no good reason. This topic sure can snowball!

  23. Heidi Says:

    I spent my 20s believing that sexual harassment was the last generation’s problem, and then I joined the Army. One of my first experiences was literally being denied a job opportunity because I was female (The available spots were to go to the top student in each class. I was the top in all the classes. In my class, the spot mysteriously went to the top eligible male in the class…even though he was actually ranked last in the class! I got the problem solved, but the whole experience was totally shocking to me.). When I showed up to my first assignment, I discovered my crew, in anticipation of my arrival, had been practicing “not swearing” for 3 weeks. I felt bad – like I had made them change who they were to accommodate me – and I had heard a lot of stories about women playing the “EO card” unfairly. I didn’t want to be associated with those kinds of female soldiers. So I told a couple of dirty jokes, and they loosened up, and we were all good…until it wasn’t. “One of the guys” turned into never-ending harassment from all corners, even a first sergeant who wanted me to sleep with him before he would let me go to a promotion board. The last study I saw showed that a woman in the Army is twice as likely to be raped than one not in the Army, and not by the enemy! It’s their fellow soldiers. And it’s more likely to be officers or higher ranking NCO’s than the “grunts” who do the harassing. Sexual harassment was the reason I left the Army and went back to civilian life. Because why would I stick around and take that kind of treatment when I knew I didn’t have to? I was recalled to active duty out of the IRR after 2.5 years, and I was terrified to go back and experience all of that again. This time I was just plain rude and cold and standoffish to everyone until they got the message that I wouldn’t allow anyone to mess with me. It worked. I was left alone. But I was bitter over having to pretend to be someone else, and lonely, because there weren’t many women there to be friends with (less than a dozen on the whole base), and I couldn’t be friends with the men, because it would be misinterpreted. I felt it was really unfair that I had to spend most of my deployment worrying about my fellow soldiers, rather than focusing on the other dangers of a deployment. I was so relieved to come home!

    The whole thing made me very nervous about joining the gaming community last year; I’d learned my lesson about male-dominated environments. But in this case, I was “lucky.” Everyone was very welcoming, and I love gaming! But there’s always a part of me now that is now cautious about feeling out such environments rather than just being myself from the start.

  24. Carrie V. Says:

    Heidi, thanks for sharing your experiences.

    It’s that ever-present caution that’s really hard to explain to people who’ve never experienced it. So many guys take being at ease all the time for granted, and it’s not what many women experience.

  25. RobertL Says:

    Maybe the reason you can say and feel that you have not truly been harassed is because you have never found yourself in a situation that you felt completely out of control?

    In wolf terms. You can not be prey unless you back down from the predator. It is impossible to go through life without meeting some class A jerks but it is possible to mitigate them by biting back and never giving an inch.

    Groups can be another form of protection unless that behavior is encouraged. In a military unit there is an expectation of testosterone over load which glorifies and encourages the ultra male image. Complaints about hurt feelings are met with scorn and shows you can’t cut it. I can’t imagine how Heidi threaded that needle and my hat is off to her for getting through.


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