I began writing this back when the original SFWA hullabaloo started up – but I never published it. Now seems like a good time to finish it up and hit “post.”
I have been very lucky. I’ve been writing genre fiction as a professional for about ten years, and my experiences in the field have been overwhelmingly positive – particularly with regard to my fellow pros. Truly, I have met some of the most fabulous, friendly, brilliant, and all-around amazing people … many of whom have gone on to become dear friends. Some of these dear friends have gone on to do great work within the SFWA – the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I am a member, myself – having joined when the Marvelous Mr. Scalzi took over the presidency a few years ago.
So to be clear, I am not writing this post to crap on the SFWA or anybody in it.
To sum up the situation for those not in the know … some old dudes said some dumb things about women, via a piece published in the SFWA bulletin. Then, when they were called out for having said these things out loud, in front of God and everybody, they cried “censorship!” Because some people don’t know the difference between being censored – and not having every pontification greeted with wild cheers.
I don’t know anything about how the bulletin comes together, so I don’t have an opinion on how the article reflects on the SFWA as an organization. I think the matter ought to reflect most poorly on the old dudes in question, since they’re the ones who spouted the silly opinions. I mean, hell – let ’em say their piece in public. It puts them on my radar as “people to avoid.” I appreciate the heads up.
There have been times when I could’ve used a heads up. Mostly when it comes to conventions.
Like oh, say – that time I was with some other guests, posing for a group photo … and the day-drunk gent behind me snaked his hand onto my ass but goddammit it was time to smile. I would’ve appreciated a heads up about him. See also: the fellow panelist who yelled in my ears until they rang, and then put his hand over my face (yes on my face) to prevent me from answering a question. (It wasn’t my turn to talk. The next turn wasn’t mine either. I didn’t get a turn. No use trying to take one.) For that matter, maybe someone could’ve clued me in on the writer who leaned in for a selfie with me … and tried to nibble my ear.
You know. That kind of thing.
Look, a guy can say something sleazy – and I can fire right back. I have no problems holding my own against inappropriate commentary; it’s almost always clear-cut and I’m a fast talker. No, I won’t come back to your room for a private party. Yes, I’m married. No, you can’t have my number – phone or room or any other number. Don’t let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya, etc.
But the touching stuff … so much of it comes with plausible deniability built right in. Hand on your leg under the panel table? Accident! He was reaching into his pocket for a tissue. Surprise back rub from a relative stranger while you’re holding a drink and talking to friends? Only trying to say hello! Accosted with a very personal full-body hug from behind? Apologies! He mistook you for someone else!
Because … I mean, anything’s possible, right? I’m pretty clumsy. I make mistakes – we all do, and I don’t want to come down like the Fist of God on some poor guy who just needed to blow his nose, or some fellow whose wife’s ass bears an uncanny resemblance to mine. Sure, this other dude is all up in my personal space, but it’s kind of crowded in here, maybe he didn’t mean to rub his arm against my boob. Either of those times. My boobs aren’t very big. They’re easy to miss.
Besides, I attend these events as a professional. It’s my job to be Nice and Warm and Approachable. Therefore, I get Approached.
So it’s easy to wonder if maybe it’s just me, sending out the wrong signals. Getting the wrong approaches. And God knows if I do bring up my discomfort, the odds are very, very good that I’ll hear, “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.” “He’s just trying to be friendly.” “You’re overreacting.”
With enough repetition, enough reinforcement … (enough dismissal) … any reasonable person would start to think, “Well, I’m the common denominator, here. I guess it is just me.”
So now, in a more direct way, I’ll talk about the situation that prompted me to finish this post and put it out there. Long story short: an established, prominent editor has been outed as a serial sexual harasser. It’s not a great surprise, frankly; he has a longstanding reputation for the behavior. Hell, when Tor first brought me on board back in 2002, my fellow writers quietly warned me about him. He was obviously a Known Quantity, and had been for years.
Since then, I’ve met him a couple of times. He was nice to me during those brief encounters, and not in a weird way – but I was on guard because in the back of my head, I knew. And even though nothing weird happened, I was worried that it might, and I was worried about the fallout if it did – particularly because I was younger and newer then, and this was a man old enough to be my father, and he was a respected professional in my field, in my own publisher’s stable.
So for real: What the fuck would I do if he creeped on me?
Now here: have a funny gif.
It’s just us, talking quietly in the bar, in the green room, in the corner of the party at 2:00 a.m. after a friend has asked you to run interference because that one weirdo will not. stop. touching. her. And baby, we do talk. To each other, if not always in Formal Reports – because experience has told us, repeatedly and insistently, that our perception of our own experience is incorrect.
(Experience has also told us that speaking up will get us ignored if we’re lucky, retaliation if we’re not. Maybe we don’t want to deal with it. Maybe it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the trouble. Maybe we can let this one go, have a glass of water, and move on to the next panel. After all, it’s probably just us.)
So we talk. We compare notes, raise our concerns, and we look for patterns because knowing the patterns will protect us. We find out that maybe the one guy has vision problems and it turns out, his wife’s ass really DOES look just like mine, and we were wearing almost exactly the same outfit that night. No one else has any iffy stories to recount and he seemed mortified by the whole thing, so that one was probably an honest mistake. Good to know. But the day-drunk who felt me up during picture time – I wouldn’t sit next to him on panels, if I were you. He gets handsy, and when he can’t get handsy – he takes off his shoes off to play footsie behind the tablecloth. Right. Filing that bloke away as a creep.
When we don’t report, when we don’t come forward in an Official Capacity, this is what we do instead. We form social antibodies. We inoculate our friends, the newer women who aren’t used to this shit yet. It feels like the only thing we can do – the only thing we can really do, since a Formal Report might be your word against his. A Formal Report might not believe us, and might even come back to bite us one day for all we know. It’s a small industry. People talk. We don’t want to look like a “problem.”
But posts like this one, by Elise Matthesen will make it easier for me to speak up in the future … not just because it lays down a practical road-map of how to go about it. More than anything, it will help prompt me – remind me – to shake off the surprise, the second-guessing, and the general sense of uncertainty (am I overreacting?) that I always feel in case maybe I should let it go, since it’s probably just me.
Because it’s not just me. It’s not just us.
And the truth is, it never has been.