Earlier this week, I blogged at Wonkomance about being sexually harassed at the RWA national conference, my initial instincts to shrug off what happened to me, and then my willingness to step up when another woman was being harassed by the same man. You can find that post here.
So many women have told me stories this week, on Twitter, on Facebook, in comments on my post or by emailing me, about their own harassment experiences. A common thread for all of us (myself included, as you can see in my original Wonkomance post) is that we think we didn’t do the right thing. We wish we’d reacted, or acted, differently. We beat ourselves up afterward for not having been bold, or been smart, or been more aware.
This is not good.
My thoughts about exactly how this is not good are legion and perhaps less than orderly, but I’m going to try to hit the major points here:
1) NO ONE GETS TO JUDGE A WOMAN’S RESPONSE TO HARASSMENT. EVER. The situation I described in my blog post, being harassed in the hotel at the RWA conference, had all sorts of unique aspects that made our response to that man’s harassment and assault possible. I was with a group of good friends. We were in a public area with some foot traffic. We were at a conference of 2,000 women (and a handful of men) from the romance writing community who are absolutely unwavering in their support for other women. Very rarely are women in a situation as full of support as mine was. Responding to harassment, either through confrontation or reporting, is full of real risks—physical, emotional, and social. In every situation, a woman’s safety is priority number one and only she is able to judge what will most protect her from further harm. It is her choice whether or not to confront or report a harasser and no one should be guilt-tripped, or guilt trip themselves, in regards to their response.
2) YOU CANNOT PREDICT HOW YOU WILL REACT TO HARASSMENT. One of the best workshops I attended at RWA was Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, about how our need for storytelling evolved as a survival technique. We need stories because they teach us how to survive in the world. In her talk, Ms. Cron explained how we none of us make decisions using our intellects. We make decisions using our emotions/cognitive subconscious, exclusively, and then our brains provide us with intellectual justifications after the fact.
The example she gave was of driving on the highway and seeing a bunch of red lights in front of you. If you were using the thinking part of your brain, it would go like this “Hey, look at all those red lights. They look like brake lights. Man, there are a lot of them. I guess all of those people have slowed down. Or even stopped. I should lift my foot and put it on the brake—” and you’d be dead already. Instead, your cognitive subconscious, which is constantly taking in information from your surroundings, does all of this analysis for you, which means that you find yourself stepping on the brake before you even realize what you’re looking at.
So, when you are being harassed, it’s not your rational mind analyzing and detailing what you ought to do next, based on your intellectual grasp of the situation. It’s your gut. Your cognitive subconscious. Your actions are driven by this unarticulated analysis of your situation and you are not to blame for responding in ways that you might not have chosen in a hypothetical situation.
Several people, including Jennifer Lohmann and Carolyn Crane, mentioned Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear, as an excellent read on the subject of our subconscious awareness of dangerous situations and how to pay more attention to that instinct we have that something is just off. I read this book when it first came out almost twenty years ago and can still see its influence on my behavior.
3) HAVING EXPERIENCED BEING THE ONE IN CHARGE MAKES TAKING ACTION EASIER. MAYBE. Both Jennifer Lohmann and Shelley Ann Clark pointed out that as librarians, they were used to being in charge at work and regularly responded to harassment without hesitation to protect their patrons. I spent a number of years working in both HR and as the general manager of a staff of eighty employees at a day spa, and was regularly responsible for addressing harassment issues at work.
We all agree that these experiences have strengthened both our willingness to get involved and our belief that we will be listened to and supported. However, this still only helps us, we discussed, when we are the observer, the witness, stepping in on another woman’s behalf. On our own, we operate with the same habits of minimizing the harassment we experience and shrugging it off.
So, having experience with being in charge isn’t a magical panacea. But it does point to something that would be useful for girls, particularly while they are young, I think. Because we are so conditioned not to put ourselves forward, not to take charge, a heavier focus on getting girls into leadership roles at a young age might be one step towards encouraging them to feel like they have the right to control or question what is happening in a situation where they are being harassed. Audra North talked in the comments of my Wonko post about how women are conditioned to be givers and how we have all absorbed the idea that women are issuing an invitation for harassment by our very existence. Putting women, but even more particularly girls, in positions of power might be one way to begin to break down some of that conditioning.
I need someone smarter than me to come up with this plan.
4) BEING AN ALLY INSTEAD OF A BYSTANDER, WHEN POSSIBLE, IS INVALUABLE. There are many ways to provide support to someone who is being harassed. It is important, though, to remember to respect the agency and choices of the person being harassed when offering help. In the RWA incident, once the man moved from harassment to outright assault, our decision was easy. The woman had stood up and said in a loud voice, “Get your hand off me!” She clearly didn’t want him near her.
In other situations, it is more helpful to check-in with the person being harassed as to how they would like to handle things. You can ask them: “Do you want me to say something?” “Would you like me to stick around as a witness?” “Do you need any help here?” All of these things allow you to make it clear that you are available for support or intervention, without taking away the agency of a woman who is already being denied that by her harasser.
In addition, breaking the Bystander Effect with your willingness to step forward may encourage other people in the area to take the harassment seriously also.
Right. I think that’s it for now.
I have been reading on this subject for years, going back to my undergrad years long ago at a women’s college, where I regularly sat with big eyes in a lecture hall and had shocking realizations about society and my own behavior in it. Lately, some thought-provoking reads on the subject have included Karina Cooper’s Consent & Consequences at Cons, Natalie Luhrs’s Harassment and the Back Channel (with a ton of terrific links to other posts), Rosie R.’s Stop Telling Women to Smile, Deirdre Saoirse Moen’s Marion Zimmer Bradley Gave Us New Perspectives, All Right, Jim Hines’s How to Report Sexual Harassment by Elise Matheson, Laura Koroski’s Making Change and Turning Heads at C2E2, and John Scalzi’s Readercon, Harassment, Etc..
There are many really smart people talking about harassment these days. We are barely making a dent in the actual problem, but I honestly do believe that it is getting better. Please share links to anything you’ve read on the subject that sheds more light. I’m still at the beginning of my learning curve.