This is going to be a bit of a ramble, so bear with me.
We keep seeing more incidents of sexual harassment emerging into the light of day within the science fiction community. There are people who have been behaving poorly for a long time and finally they’re being called on it. Why this is such a difficult concept for some people to grasp eludes me. The excuse-making is both ancient and pathetic. This is science fiction, these are supposed to be people who are ahead of the curve when it comes to social grasp, we like to pretend we live in the future.
Well, that may explain a couple of things. No one adopts behavior out of the blue. Some people have serious organic problems others have a wispy grasp of the reality and still others just don’t consider what is not wholly inside their heads worth due consideration.
Ann Leckie has penned a first-rate explanation of one of the problems with a dandy analogy. Yes, this. It describes so much on so many levels. (Not only about sexual harassment, but with similar dynamics, this is one of the reasons I stopped going to live shows—the security protocols that became common after about 1980 just became too invasive and I realized I didn’t really like being in a crowd wherein every 10th or 20th person was so drunk that they had no sense of boundaries anymore. Some people—a lot of people—will find excuses for themselves that make putting up with it worthwhile, and it is a shame this has to happen, but on the other hand, no, it doesn’t have to happen if we’d all just grow up a little. People by the millions attended movies for decades without feeling the need to bring beer into the venue or carrying on a private drama, loudly and in public, or indulging behaviors better suited to…well, some I never did find a place where they would be better suited. Movies are different than concerts, you say? In what way, I ask? Are you there for the show or to be seen? Anyway, back to my main point.)
Of course, now, we hear the bleat of pain of the attendee who doesn’t understand that a convention is not there to be a smorgasbord of sexual opportunity and wonders why, if all these women aren’t there to have sex, how come they dress in those costumes? I mean, really, if they aren’t looking for it, why are they showing it off?
As if there could be no other reason to cosplay than for the sexual edification and enticement of strange boys with illusions of their own desirability and prowess.
Also as if the costumers are the only ones or even the majority who are having problems with this.
It seems to me, though, that this is partially a legitimate question.
Let me take a brief detour through a short history of the treatment of sex in science fiction. Really short. Originally, SF was a genre marketed to adolescent males of a certain disposition (we call them nerdy today, a label I dislike for a variety of reasons, but it serves). At the time—1930s through 1950s—these were also young men who were inclined toward the technical arts. A lot of engineers and more than a few scientists claimed to have been inspired by reading Golden Age science fiction. Now, a survey of the covers of the major magazines of the period would suggest a lot of semi-clad females were being creatively ravaged in the pages within, but this was not the case. These were as sanitary in that regard as Good Housekeeping and Readers Digest. Which, of course, irritated many of the writers, who saw themselves as writers first and foremost and chafed under the assumption (by the publishers) that all this neat stuff they were writing about was exclusively for kids. They wanted to write adult stories that appealed to adults and part of that had to do with sex.
There is a law of some kind that states that the more and longer something is suppressed the greater the excess of it will be when the chains come off, sort of an inverse reaction, and when after the 1950s sex was no longer taboo, there was a lot of it in the stories. Often for no reason other than suddenly it could be there. The 1960s…well, the Sixties, what more can I say? Not just in science fiction, but everywhere, in everything. The Sixties was drenched in sex partly because the previous decades had been so buttoned-down about it. (One of the things about Playboy that seems difficult for us to “get” today is that this was liberating. Prior to what Hugh Hefner did, the prevailing attitude was that women did not have a right to their own sexuality, that any woman who took control of it and unabashedly enjoyed it was somehow trash. Hefner blew the doors off that canard and helped usher in the sexual revolution, one facet of which said that women owned their sexuality and no one had a right to judge them for it. This is why, contrary to the stereotype, men were more troubled by Playboy than women and in some circles waged a war to shut it down. This will be important later.*)
In any event, all of a sudden, people in SF stories were having a lot of sex and it was not in traditional (read: 1950s) forms. Much of it was absurd. For a time, the idea of the domestic contract ran through a lot of stories, the idea that marriage could be reduced entirely to a short term contract that, when done, could either be renewed or both parties could go be with someone else—with no emotional downside. More importantly, sex was treated as a purely physical function by many writers, something one did the same as exercise or swimming or attending the theater.
A lot of this went away. With the increased number of prominent women writers, some rationality was introduced, and by the end of the 1970s a lot of the bizarreness that attended stories from the Sixties went away—or at least was treated with the kind of understanding of how people really are.
This left us, however, with an æsthetic that has never quite gone away and has, in an embarrassing way, manifested most visibly in comics, with the absurdly sexualized appearances of female superheroes. It’s an æsthetic that is unfortunately difficult to deconstruct in such a way as to leave the cool aspects intact while getting rid of the toxic elements that tie sex to entitlement.
I said “partially” a legitimate question. It has to do with role-playing and if what we’re looking for is some version of a future to live in where we can be “that way” then we have to understand what impulses are being acted out in so-called real life.
Nah! It’s a legitimate question primarily so we can dismiss it. People are expected to know the difference between stories and real life and mostly do. This is another elaborate excuse because nothing in that suggests a disconnect from common human decency and mutual respect.
I suppose I could riff on how the surfaces of things deflect comprehension and distract from even the attempt at deeper empathy—or empathy at all—but that would perhaps elevate the problem to a level where it cannot be effectively managed.
My default behavior, from the time I became aware that girls—well, girls—has been that the female is in charge of the sex. It’s her call. I don’t know where I learned that, it just seemed natural to me. They have the power, as far as I’m concerned, and that seems to me entirely natural and, for the most part, has been entirely congenial. If she says No, that’s it. Discussion finished. Move on, there’s nothing more to see here. I may not know why she said no, it may have hurt a little, disappointed me, but oh well. (Conversely, as one ages, one realizes that one also has exactly that same right—to say yes or no.)
I have never assumed that I have a “right” to someone’s body.
Which is where a lot of this seems to be breaking down.
We are not, I hope, talking about anywhere close to a majority in this, but as Ann’s essay makes clear it only takes a few—and then the tacit cooperation of the rest—to poison an environment.
Here’s a stereotype: “Oh, she doesn’t really mean no, women don’t know what they want, you have to take no as maybe and then keep at her.”
In certain venues—locker rooms, for want of a better description—men who fail to recognize this can find themselves derided as less than.
Less than what, I eventually realized, I never knew. But less.
I think this is part and parcel of that other stereotype, men who never ask directions. As if asking is somehow unmanly. Getting lost on a back road, though, is one thing—forcing yourself on an unwilling woman is quite another.
But asking right out is dangerous for a certain kind of mentality because if the answer is No, then all future opportunity is cut off. Being ambiguous, refusing to acknowledge that they way you are doing something is offensive and, in some cases, frightening, all because you don’t want to risk that definitive No, that’s not very manly, either, if the adjective has any meaning outside of a bad joke. I’ve come to the conclusion that men who don’t ask—clearly and unambiguously and politely—are a specie of coward. Most cowards, when given the opportunity, can become bullies. And bullies have no regard for anyone else in their quest to fill a void which they blame on others but really is of their own making.
Now, while it might seem kind to try to make space for someone like this under the assumption that really they mean no harm—maybe they don’t, not consciously—and that rehabilitation can only occur within a community, a couple of things make this simply weak-kneed avoidance. Going back to the theater analogy, you don’t tolerate the asshole who won’t shut up during the movie or the play because it’s not about him, it’s about everyone else. You’re not going to “solve” his problem by tolerating him in the audience, you’re only going to make the experience miserable for everyone else. No one has a right to be an asshole.
But we add a layer now to the problem and assume that the person in question has some power. He (or she) important and throwing them out may have other consequences we won’t like.
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
That. If that’s the excuse, then you ruin it for everyone and the asshole never learns.
But I’m not even concerned with the asshole learning anything. I just want him/her to cease the behavior that’s making everyone else uncomfortable.
“But if so-and-so hadn’t said anything, no one else would’ve known and no one would have been uncomfortable.”
Does Omelas ring any bells?
This is not only entitled thinking—the kind that says your party is more important than someone’s well-being—it is cowardly thinking.
Why is this so difficult to get? You establish a clear policy and those who violate it get tossed. I have a hard time imagining a convention establishing a weapons policy—no real guns—and then choosing to look away just because a big time writer or editor decided to show up with an AR-15 across their shoulder. Cons have had policies about even fake weapons for decades now and have enforced them without getting all uber sensitive. But once more, when it comes to sex, reason abandons us?
People have been banned from conventions for decades because of inappropriate (and often criminal) behavior, so it baffles me that a sensible policy over harassment cannot be devised and enforced. Instead, we get a lot of hand-wringing and mumbling and excuse-making.
Look, this isn’t about the predator’s problem. That’s not in anyone’s job description to try to fix at a convention. This is entirely about what is allowable conduct in the theater. To argue that it spoils the æsthetic is evasive—if so, then it’s time to change the æsthetic. Victims of harassment already know they don’t feel safe around the predator, but to then double down and make them feel unsafe among the people they look to for protection as well—because the predator is not dealt with once the problem is known—can call everything into question. Especially when “everyone” knows what the problem is and no one seems willing to do anything about it.
*The Playboy thing is difficult for some of us who remember a time when what they did was relevant to a larger issue, which was exactly the “who owns female sexuality” question. It has become problematic because the culture moved on and at some point Playboy became the opposite of what it initially tried to be, which was in some sense countercultural. Today it’s pretty much just another “girlie” magazine (what we called them back when I was a newly-emerged adolescent on the prowl for cheap thrills) but there was a time it meant something else. The whole point of the erotic content was that (a) sex is not “dirty” and (b) sexuality was and is the sole property of the individual. Secondarily, it also called the whole standard American model of what “good girls” were allowed to do and be and for that matter the standard issue American lifestyle into question. But it’s a relic now and context has changed.