I'm sure everybody who reads this LJ has read or heard of Genevieve Valentine's repeated sexual harassment at Readercon. She has been a true model of strength and forthrightness throughout this entire ordeal, and I am filled with admiration for her bravery in blogging about it and going public.
In this post, I want to take a moment and think about the reasons why a woman has to be brave in order to report sexual harassment, whether to the concom or to the public at large. Because sexual harassment is like a cockroach—for every incident that you see, the rooms are teeming with about 100 that you never know about. Why is that? Why is it so hard for women to come forward?
It's easy, after all, to make the case that we should. It helps other women feel less alone in their experiences; it helps women and other community members identify harassers and get rid of them, so saving other women from the experience of being harassed and followed; we have a responsibility to the community; concoms can't act on our behalf if they don't know about harassment, and on and on. I get it. It's the same reasoning that encourages women to report rape, and I admire every single woman who does. But I also respect the women who choose not to.
Four years ago at Readercon, I was sexually harassed by a man I'd never before seen named Aaron Agassi. Genevieve was there, and she was awesome—she quite literally saved me by reporting the harassment to the concom when I couldn't bring myself to do it. Within five minutes of her report, we were met in the lobby by the head of security for Readercon and the head of security for the hotel. They told me they had called the police and were having the harasser thrown out, and that if he should come anywhere near me in the meantime, I should call them immediately (they gave me their personal cell numbers). The head of security for the con told me, I remember, that she “would not let some predator ruin her con for any women.” I will never forget how wonderful the response was, and how validated and protected I felt. And I will never stop being grateful to Genevieve for doing what I did not have the courage to do. We talked about what had happened on the way back from the con, and decided that I wanted to stay anonymous, but that it would be good for Genevieve to write up the incident on her blog, which she did.
It turned out that Aaron Agassi is well known for sexually harassing women and girls and has been for years. He has written and distributed several unhinged pamphlets about how if you just follow a woman around and stare at her long enough, she will have to have sex with you, but puritans have prevented him from ever staring long enough to enjoy the fruits of such labor (these pamphlets were on-line for a while, but no longer). Women wrote to Genevieve to say that he had been harassing them too at this convention, that he had harassed them when they were teenagers, that he was a known danger. (So why was he even there in the first place? How many women does an asshole have to endanger and harass before he's pre-emptively banned? Apparently, he has to do something—and have it officially reported—at every single convention he attends.)
Looking back, I'm far enough away from the experience and feeling so much more secure that I was at first confused as to why I didn't want to come forward in the first place. All I could think was that I had been lazy and cowardly. And then I reread the one hostile comment on Genevieve's post about the experience, and my stomach clenched up all over again, just like it had four years ago. And I thought about how I speak about the experience even now; telling a dear friend about it at Readercon this year, I kept hedging. “This may sound childish,” I said, “but he wouldn’t stop staring at me.” The woman sitting across from us immediately turned around and said "That is NOT childish of you. Being stared at is frightening," and I appreciated the validation all over again.
Why didn't I come forward/go public/go to the concom myself?
Here are some of the reasons:
1) I didn't want to “sound stupid,” or make a big deal out of “nothing.”
What Agassi was doing was following me around and staring at me. He hadn't spoken to me and he hadn't touched me, and I was afraid that if I made a complaint about his behavior, nobody would take it seriously as harassment and intimidation. Moreover, like most women in our society, I have been socialized to give other people, particularly men, the benefit of the doubt. How could looking hurt me? What if it was just a coincidence? What if he denied the whole thing?
I didn't want to cause any trouble for anybody, did I?
Note how I perceived my going to the concom rather than his stalking me as the cause of “trouble.”
Also like most women, I've been socialized not to trust my gut feelings, or even my own actions. So let me articulate this: being followed around and stared at is frightening. It is breaking a social boundary, a social code, and men who violate women's social boundaries are dangerous. I was constantly, anxiously looking around to see if I was being watched. At one point during the con, I hid in the ladies' room for half an hour just so I could be in a place where I was relatively sure that he wasn’t looking at me. It was when I told Genevieve to go down and meet a friend for lunch without me, because I'd rather have room service so I didn't have to worry about Agassi looking at me, that she told me she was going to the concom.
But I needed that external validation in order to give credence to my own feelings and actions. Of course being followed and stared at is threatening! Wasn't I acting like somebody who felt threatened? Didn't I feel frightened, and like there was a big target on my back (or ass, as the case may be)? Yes, I was and I did. But I couldn't bring myself to trust my own perceptions until a friend told me that what Agassi was doing to me was unacceptable.
Because women are socialized to think of men's points of view; we are inundated with men's points of view. We read men's points of view in English classes, we go to the movies, where the male gaze is taken for granted, we scrutinize ourselves, and, as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out, we learn to see ourselves from the outside, we learn to see ourselves as objects. We are constantly seeing through men's eyes and taught to value the view; how, then, can we trust our own points of view when the two conflict?
It is also incredibly disorienting for somebody to breach the social contract; it's so disorienting that inevitably, I think, the breached party wonders if the breach really happened, if maybe she just misunderstood the breach, or misunderstood the social contract, because surely nobody would actually breach the social contract, right? Especially brazenly and repeatedly?
2) I felt vulnerable and didn't want to go on being a target.
Aaron Agassi was 6'4” and burly. I am 5'8” and rather willowy, to put it kindly. I was physically frightened and I felt exposed already by his gaze. I did not want to expose myself further—having been stared at so intimidatingly, what I wanted was not to be looked at. Anybody who knows me will tell you that this is wildly out of character for me. I revel in readings and panels. I think that what I have to say is dynamic and interesting and everybody damn well should shut up and pay attention to me. The fact that I wanted to be invisible is a measure of how threatening this gaze was. I didn't want to have to fight with assholes like herma_s in comment threads; I didn't want my newly reaffirmed sense of reality shaken by some asshole telling me that Agassi was just socially awkward or whatever.
3) (I think this one is most important) What I wanted most of all was for this not to have happened.
I wanted the experience erased, gone, out of my life. I wanted a life without Aaron Agassi in it, I wanted a world in which I had not experienced sexual harassment, in which I did not feel threatened. And going public would have prevented me from returning to that world; it would have prolonged my stay in the land of sexual harassment. I didn't want to think about it any longer, I didn't want to talk about it any longer, I just wanted it gone and over. I had felt targeted already at the con; I didn't want other people to see me and think “that's the sexual harassment girl.” I didn't want that to be who I was, to be singled out all over again.
I know—I KNOW that there have been experiences of sexual harassment that women have not gone public with, maybe for the same reasons as me, maybe for entirely different reasons. I'm going to enable anonymous comments on this post and leave it unlocked, and if anybody wants to post about an experience they had and didn't go public with—or did go public with, that they reported or didn't (and the effects of reporting it), well, here is a place to talk about that, and to talk about the forces that keep women quiet.
And let me say this about this post: I am not usually into safe spaces. But this post is an environment in which we give the benefit of the doubt to women reporting harassment, not to the men targeting them. This is not a place where we feel sorry for “socially awkward” men (all too often men who are fully aware of the boundaries they’re violating and are trying to avoid blame), or ask whether she said/wore anything that could have been “misinterpreted.” This is not a place where we expect women to put the emotional welfare and status of a man who is violating their boundaries ahead of their own emotional welfare and safety. Nor is this a place where we castigate women for “gossip.” Gossip is how disenfranchised people communicate information that the dominant group does not want them to know. Nor do we laugh things off with “Oh, that's just Joe being Joe!” Joe can shut up and be somebody else if harassing women is part of his identity. And if you feel the need to be or defend Joe, I will either delete your comment or let it hang out there in space showing everybody what an ass you're being and freeze the replies.
As far as I'm concerned, you're welcome to name names.