Maybe It’s Just Us

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?
Probably nothing.

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.

34 thoughts on “Maybe It’s Just Us

  1. Well-put!!!

  2. Stina


  3. Jacob Lindfors

    As a guy myself as well as an aspiring steampunk author I hate the sleezy and a-holish people who share my gender. Thank you Ms. Priest

  4. Thank you! I’m still new to publishing and haven’t really gotten into the con scene yet (as anything other than an attendee, that is). The past couple months of posts from women leave me to wonder what I’m signing up for with some of the cons I’m planning on attending.

    The other thing that’s going on, though, is the backlash against women saying, “You’re not relevant enough to bother with” or “you’re fat and ugly, no one would sexually harass/grope/rape you.” Gee…thanks? My safety or luck of not having to go through this shit is because I’m even less of a human being?

    So yeah, it’s good times in girltown.

    Thank you for posting this. We hear the dismissals all. the. time. It’s old. Thank you.

  5. Alex von der Linden

    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.”

    It’s very telling that in darker corners, this “revelation” is immediately met upon with disbelief, and then a thorough discussion of the the suitability of the harassed as an object to be sexually harassed. That the people discussing the issue don’t understand that the very discussion they are having is in itself offensive and part of the larger issue.

  6. Capiz

    Oh, mama… That line “We inoculate our friends, the newer women who aren’t used to this shit yet.” It’s so true, and it reminds me how much I hate the fact that we’re supposed to get “used to this shit”. Ugh. Thank you for this.

  7. yeah it’s difficult to raise rebuttals to this sort of creepy behavior because if we aren’t superhumanly savvy about it, invariably we’ll be perceived as either simply lame or the most extreme version of some negative female archetype. Thanks for the article!

  8. Tee

    Thanks for this. I swear, this type of behavior frustrates me to no end. Thank God for Genevieve and Elise and the countless others like them that speak up. Sometimes I think the world has gone mad!

  9. yowie9644

    Sadly, this happens everywhere. To all women.

    Its rare for a serial creep to just outwardly be a sleazeball in front of witnesses (unless of course, they’re very drunk…. or pretending to be). No, the serial creep takes futakes full advantage of that big grey area of ambiguity; takes full advantage of that big power difference between him and his victims. In fact, I think thats part of the thrill for them, that their victims are powerless to say or do anything about it so they can *get away with it*, time and time again. IMHO, its as much (or more) about power as it is about sex.

  10. Chris

    You are a far nicer person that I am Cherie the crep under the table would have had me stand up right there and then and would have been decked in the face. And I would have said ” that is why I named one of my characters Swakhammer and then I would have grabbed a mike and said ” for the audience who missed the context this man received a Swakhammer for a presumptuous conjugal visit under yon table and as I am not a bar wench of yore ripe for the grabbing but an equal and a warm and a goddamn righteous person I demand respect.. not the inches that you think passes for male respect some of you might think to give but genuine respect.. now let the Q and A proceed.”

  11. Chris

    the creep sorry for the typo.. I just got on my soapbox there.

  12. Homa Sapiens

    Chris I admire your standup qualities. I’m pretty ballsy, but I don’t know if I would have the presence of mind to deck a guy, not to mention the upper-arm strength.

    But maybe– If I practice a few times, model the behavior– I might be able to stand up and tell the audience what has just happened.

  13. <3

  14. “We form social antibodies.”

    This metaphor captures the experience of immunizing ourselves against such creeps so well. I wish it were not true but at least there is that level of protection.

    Thank you for speaking out.

  15. Michael Curry

    Great post!

    > It’s a small industry. People talk. We
    > don’t want to look like a “problem.”

    I think this belief is something that needs to be fought against too. With the obvious exception of Frenkel, I don’t think most of the spec fic editors at Big 5 houses (or notable independent presses) are going to not buy a book because the writer reported being harassed at a con, and I think that also holds true for both most (or all) of the major short fiction editors and for agents as well. The idea that speaking up will somehow get you blackballed only benefits the harassers.

  16. “So it’s easy to wonder if maybe it’s just me, sending out the wrong signals.”

    No. No, it’s not and you should never wonder. I never have, but that may be because I’m older and grew up in a time when women were sexually harassed on a regular basis. Especially if you were good looking. I learned early to be polite, but put them in their place. And if that didn’t stop it (it usually did because most of these assholes actually think you won’t mind–don’t get me started), then you told your male friends who suddenly loomed large if the creep came back and had no compunction about laying down the law. Back in the 80’s, you didn’t make a formal complaint because there was no such thing.

    But your saying that you sometimes think you’re wrong about what’s happening reminded me of something that happened to me long ago. I was on a train and had taken the aisle seat in a set of three, and there was another woman about my age (in my 20’s at the time) sitting by the window. Just before the train pulled out, this guy came and plopped himself down in the seat between us. Annoying, but you can’t do anything. He immediately proceeds to fall asleep. I’m reading a book when he shifts and his hand drops next to my leg. This isn’t an immediate cause for a reaction because the seats are narrow, there’s no armrests, and our legs are practically touching anyhow. But then, after a few minutes, he shifts a little again and now his hand is ON my leg.
    “Get your hand off my leg and keep it off,” I say, and my tone was no doubt sharp.
    He snorts as if I’ve just woken him up (which I don’t believe for half a second) and mumbles something about sorry, he fell asleep. He also removes his hand. I say nothing and read my book. In a few more minutes, he gets up as suddenly as he’d sat down, pushes past me and disappears never to return.
    The point of the story is this: once he’s gone, the other woman turns to me and thanks me for saying something. Apparently this creep had been doing the same thing to her before he tried it with me, but she wasn’t sure what to do. I mean, he was asleep, right? Not his fault.
    I was stunned. I told her even if he had really been asleep (which he was not), he was still touching her leg in an inappropriate fashion and that meant he should wake up and stop it.
    I didn’t understand until later that she was embarrassed about it, and that factored into why she had hesitated to speak up. I wasn’t embarrassed at all–I was an attractive woman, so some men were going to behave this way, and I would have to stop them. It was just a fact of life.
    Women need to get over this embarrassment factor. There is absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about unless you want to feel embarrassed on behalf of the creep. By being an attractive woman, you have NOT invited this kind of behavior. Never, ever hesitate to put a stop to it. Be nice, but firm. If it’s a sincere mistake, this will save you from creating an international incident over a guy who honestly mistook your ass for his wife’s.

  17. Splicer

    I work in the broadcasting industry and also blog about that business and about politics. The sexual harassment that I’ve witnessed over the years and continue to witness on a daily basis would reach the moon and back if the reports were stacked one upon the other. I will say that being an SF/F fan, I’ve followed these sexual harassment stories with interest because I’ve often felt utterly helpless to do anything about it when facing the “clubby” nature of the business I’m in. There’s a lot of winking and nodding and things being swept under the carpet. I know someone who was browbeaten into quitting because the-powers-that-be wanted her to apologize to the person who manhandled her. Sickening.

    The openness of the SF community has really given me the courage to actually do something about what goes on and what I see. I thank you all for that. The changes in my business may be slow, I may actually lose my job over it because I’ll be seen as a “troublemaker” but my conscience can’t deal with this anymore.

  18. A hand over your mouth? Seriously? SERIOUSLY?! I’m beyond disgusted.

    The only physical thing that happened to me at con was stopped by a white knight, which I actually didn’t mind because the knight correctly inferred that I was about to break my harasser into tiny bits. The knight’s interference removed the need for me to muss up my fantastic white gloves and got the creep to go away. The knight also turned into a good friend.

    My plan for future encounters of this nature will be to use the same strategy I used on the Metro in DC, which is to loudly (not scream-to-high-heavens loud, but loud enough for the people next to you to hear) ask, “WHY is there a hand on my ass?” or “WHY are you petting my leg?” If you don’t use too much snark, then all you’re doing is asking a polite question that just so happens to put the harasser on the spot and alerts others around him that he’s a creep. That shut down most guys pretty quick. Only one every got indignant with me, but he got off at the next stop.

  19. Jesse the K

    The social antibodies concept is right-on, and I know it’s helped me avoid problems many times.

    I think Cliff at the Pervocracy’s excellent essay,
    The Missing Stair
    points the way forward so this auto-inoculation won’t be needed

  20. Thank you, Cherie. It’s not us.

  21. Mary

    Yep. On the one hand, I’m raging over the line “you’re safe because you’re considered unnattractive/subhuman” (in the comments) because that’s a horrible, horrible thing to say, and on the other hand I’m raging because, as a SSBBW, I know it’s not true because I’ve been harassed at conventions. It is about power more so than about sexual gratification. Thank you for the wonderful post, Cherie. Scalzi is also awesome, he wrote a related post a bit back about creeping at conventions in case you or anyone else missed it: And there is also this wonderful piece about Shrodinger’s rapist:

  22. Excellent

  23. lkeke35

    Not victim blaming here but a lot more of you guys need to be a lot less nice. To Hell with being nice or feeling embarrassed. I learner at a very early age to loudly protect myself from skeevy males.

    That said, I’m absolutely appalled at these kinds of goings on at various cons. I have no intention now of ever going to one after reading the horror stories of so many women. Not be pause I’m afraid of being creeped on or groped but because I may end up bent banned for assault. I am deeply phobic about strangers touching me. I suppose you could call it a “trigger ” and anyone who touched any part of my body without my permission won’t get that hand back.( It will officially become mine because it was given to me.)

    And for the record, wholeheartedly agree that it is never about a woman’s looks. It’s about power. Age, ableism, race, level of hotness, manner of dress, has absolutely nothing to do with any of it. Thank you for mentioniing it. You don’t gag a harassment free card based on anything you wear or do.In the minds of such predators, all females are fair game.

  24. lkeke35

    Sorry for typos. I blame my Kindle for that.
    Yes, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.

  25. Fi Michell

    Thanks for this article, and I love some of the suggestions in the comments. I wish when I was young, someone had given me the advice here. I had to deal with a lot of harassment, to the point that, at one stage, I felt hostile if a man I didn’t know even smiled at me. Working in an all male environment and fearing for my job, having even my manager lean forward to stare down my cleavage as we talked (the mildest harassment), I didn’t know what to say nor who to complain to.

    Twenty years on, I still find myself in a state of disbelief when the occasional harassment occurs. Usually, by the time I comprehend ‘this is really happening’, it’s too late, and only then do I think of what I should have said or done. Usually then I berate myself for not responding faster – another kind of guilt we shouldn’t have to deal with.

    It’s wonderful that the SFWA community has responded to this issue. Two decades ago, there would have been no response. It affects all women, everywhere, and though it’s disappointing to see it at cons, it is fantastic to see articles like this one, and actual discussion, and support from both women and men. It would be great to see women more equipped to deal with this stuff at the time it happens.

  26. this whole situation made me think about back in the day when we didn’t do shit about unwanted touch. I still don’t know why, but I wrote about it anyway.

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