Sexual Harassment

Once again, I find myself wanting to write about something gender-related and not wanting to do so because I don’t know how to do so from a non-gendered perspective.

So, I’ll try it and hopefully not offend too many people.

There’s been a good bit of chatter this week about an editor who doesn’t know how to behave himself around women.  Seems he crossed the line yet again at Wiscon, but at least one of the women he offended had the guts to formally complain about it.  You can find discussion of it on a number of SFF blogs. (Scalzi, Wendig, Kowal, etc.)

What I thought I’d share is a post that someone shared in the comments on (I think) Chuck Wendig’s blog: The Missing Stair from The Pervocracy.

I think it brings up a good point.  A lot of people already knew about this editor and would quietly pass the word on to new women.  But that really isn’t the best way to handle these things.

First, if you know about someone like this and you tolerate their presence, you allow their behavior to continue.  And not every woman will handle a situation where a man harasses her in the same way.  Some women may be able to walk away or grab the man’s privates in a vice grip and explain why his actions are inappropriate.  But other women will freeze and not be able to get out of that situation.

When I was skydiving, I jumped with a couple of girls from another country.  At their home dropzone they had a guy with decidedly poor social skills who was known to try to crawl into bed with women who slept in the bunkhouse or otherwise try to touch or hug women inappropriately.  These two women thought nothing of it because they were equipped with the ability to tell him to go away.  But we had a discussion about what might happen if another girl were in that same situation and wasn’t equipped to handle it herself.  What if he crawled into bed with a girl (you can start jumping at 16 in that country) and she just froze and let him do whatever he was going to do?

Just because you or the people you know have found a way to maneuver around someone unsafe, doesn’t mean that the situation is handled.  And you can’t keep an eye on someone like that all the time.

The other half of this issue is that you can’t rely on other people to tell you when you’re in a dangerous situation.  (Granted, not really the case here since the incident in question happened at a large party in front of a number of witnesses.)

There was some comment in the comment threads about how people were upset that they hadn’t been warned about this guy.  Sure, it’s nice when someone tells you to watch out, but you can’t count on that.

I travel alone a lot and sometimes the warning signs that I’m in trouble in a foreign country aren’t the same as they’d be here, so it is nice to have someone say, “You don’t really want to go past X street–it gets pretty dicey there.”  But I can’t assume that just because no one warned me about a place that it’s safe either.

I have to keep an eye out for things like thinly populated streets, people who are watching me a little too closely, someone who starts following me, someone who stands too close to me for no apparent reason, the general wealth/poverty of the area, etc.

So, what can you do to avoid situations like this?  (And, no, this is not me trying to put any of the blame on the victim for what happened.  Or on any victim when something like this happens.  This is me saying that there are creeps out there and that if you want to avoid dealing with them (or most of them–you’ll never avoid all of them), there are certain things that will help.)

Listen to how people speak about things.  Someone who says a lot of negative things about members of your gender or makes a lot of sexual comments is more likely to be a problem than someone who doesn’t.

Understand that just because someone else has never had a problem with this individual, doesn’t mean you won’t.  I worked with a guy who hit on a married co-worker, another co-worker’s wife, and any number of other women in the office.  But there was at least one woman I know he never hit on.  Ask her and she’d say there was nothing wrong with him.  Ask pretty much anyone else in the office and they’d all nod their heads and say, “Yeah, when he gets to drinking…”

If someone is invading your space, view that as a warning sign.  It could be cultural–many countries are more comfortable standing closer than in the U.S.–but if someone continually steps into your space even when you reestablish distance, view this as a warning sign.

Know that alcohol or drugs will generally make a person worse.  So someone who is a little annoying in the office may become a very significant problem at the bar.

And know that some of these people are pure predators, which means they’re looking for you to be vulnerable.  Alone, intoxicated, emotionally upset–any of these make you more vulnerable.

Don’t worry about “making a scene” or “overreacting” either.  Tell them to fuck off.  Loudly.  It’s ok.  Worst that happens is you have to apologize later.  Better to have someone walk away mumbling about “what a %@%#” you are than have them continue to harass or assault you.

(By the way, that works best when they haven’t already isolated you and there are still people around to hear you.  If you think someone is a danger to you, try your best to not end up alone with them.)

I’m not saying you can’t live your life and have fun.  I’m just saying that, in the same way you need to be aware of pickpockets, you need to be aware of people like this.

I’ll pull it back to traveling alone.  When I travel alone I try not to have more than one or two drinks in an evening.  I’m in a foreign country with a bunch of people I don’t know.  They seem nice.  We’re having fun.  But I don’t know them.  And no one has my back if something goes wrong.

And even then I’ve probably been stupid a few times by letting people I didn’t know serve me alcoholic drinks I didn’t watch them prepare.

Same thing with hiking.  I’m always more alert when I’m hiking than when I’m on a city street.  I’m alone in the wilderness, often on sparsely traveled trails.  If someone wants to do me harm, I’m a lot more vulnerable in that setting than I am at my local grocery store.

It’s great when people look out for you.  But you should always, first and foremost, watch your own back.

And if you know someone like this, try to do something.  I can look back and see situations I knew of where I didn’t get involved and maybe I should have.  It didn’t happen to me so I didn’t see it as my place, but I don’t know what those people went on to do later.  Better to fix that missing stair than to keep stepping around it.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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