So I have, in the past, related stories about how I’ve been sexually harassed on the street. Or made to feel unsafe and unsure in public spaces by what appears to be clueless men. I have also been known to relate how some of my experiences in gaming were sexist and definitely affected my ability to have fun at a game.
But those specific incidents aren’t what I want to talk about today. Instead I want to talk about the kinds of reactions that these kinds of stories generate and how gamer culture, in general, tends to frustrate me.
Being Made to Feel Unsafe
I have talked this topic to death elsewhere. But when a guy makes me feel like my safety is in danger, I will behave in ways that are designed to keep me safe. This does not mean that the guy in question is actually a threat, but that I have assessed the situation to be threatening.
Here’s the thing. When I feel threatened in a public location it can probably be chalked up to the guy lacking the social graces that recognize that I don’t want to be bothered, or that I might not feel safe if they try to talk with me. Elevatorgate is a prime example of this. A woman was made to feel uncomfortable and threatened in a situation where the guy clearly did not intend to do either and the way that geeky men reacted was insane!
So why are geek men getting so defensive about this?
I think, and this is personal opinion after seeing these discussions a number of times, this is because the geek men see themselves in that hapless dude. They think “Hey, it could have been me in the elevator, hitting on that woman”. Or they think, “How am I supposed to know that the lady on the bus didn’t want a conversation”. Because they’ve been there. They’ve either seen or had those awkward conversations with women. They empathize with the maligned guy who just can’t seem to talk to women without it going wrong.
It’s part of the stereotype of geek men. That their social skills lag. But when a woman responds or tells a story about how something that did not result in assault or danger, they get angry. How dare these women accuse these hapless men of being dangerous! They clearly aren’t dangerous at all!
But that’s the problem. The woman has no way of knowing that. I didn’t know if the guy who kept violating my desire to be left alone would continue to violate my wishes. I had no way of guessing if he was someone who would follow me off the bus or into the washroom at the club. I got off at a public location specifically so I could feel safer. I stood next to burly male friends to keep safe. Because if I get it wrong even just once, it’ll be painted as my fault and I know it. Our culture happily reinforces this.
So when a woman tells you about a situation made her feel unsafe or talks about paying attention to signals, don’t butt in on the side of the guy who made her feel that way. Instead accept that her feelings are valid and she has her reasons for feeling that way and that’s fine.
Her concerns are valid. Even if that means you may have been creepy or made women feel unsafe in the past. It’s not about you. And if you think it is about you, take a deep breath, calm down and try to learn from it.
Ha ha! Yes. This fun conversation.
Almost all of the sexual harassment I’ve faced has been of the verbal variety. Very rarely has it escalated into something physical. You’ve heard the stories of the guy shouting something inappropriate to women as they walk around, just doing normal human things.
And that’s just verbal things. It’s got nothing on the physical assaults that can happen.
Geek men seem to respond to these kinds of comments completely differently than the creeper statements. These are usually a case of clear-cut harassment and everyone recognizes it. So generally when I say these things, I get one of two responses. Either sympathy that this still happens or men will start to offer advice. I should have shouted back. I should ignore them. I should have punched them. Called the police. Etc. etc.
Sympathy is a great response because usually it’s what people want when they tell these stories. That and for some people to have their eyes opened to how common this is.
But offering ‘solutions’ is rarely called for and usually unhelpful. Seriously. If you’ve never been in a situation where someone has done something that has shocked and surprised you, this part will be harder to understand. A person who is shocked and surprised rarely can control their first reaction. Which is usually to be stunned. By which time after they’ve recovered, all those offered responses are useless. That and they do smack a bit of blaming the victim for not reacting in the correct way.
However, it changes again when the harasser is a friend. Or a well known figure in the geek community. Because we don’t want to believe that a person we like could do something offensive and geeks are just as bad for this as anyone else. Because geeks want to believe that our heroes and friends would never stoop to behaviour like that. Because as humans, we’d like to believe that the people we like aren’t monsters or bad people. We know this reflects on ourselves and we don’t want to be seen as bad people.
Avoid this trap! Instead of assuming that your hero is always right, maybe you should actually accept that your hero is also human. And sometimes humans are despicable fucking things while still being incredibly good at something else. We are infinite, we contain multitudes.
Sexism Around the Table
So about six or so months ago, I put up a thread detailing how I’d faced subtle sexism throughout my life of gaming and how that shaped who I am and how I believe it affects women who want to enter the gaming world. I posted it both on G+ and rpg.net. In both places I had a number of responses that were sympathetic, a number of women came out to agree that they had had similar experiences and interpretations, and a bunch of men claiming that I misread the situation and was making stuff up to be more than it was.
Why should anyone else get to decide that I misread the situation? Or that my reactions to this kind of thing were wrong? And I think it comes back to the first point. A lot of geek men see themselves as being the social outcasts. Because they, too, have been downtrodden, they cannot be responsible for behaving in a way that oppresses others. So when women tell them that, hey, that shit they just pulled in a game was bad, they get upset.
Geek men empathize and put themselves into the shoes of the guys who ran games with questionable themes. They’ve run games in which appear marriage, rape and pregnancy. They’ve been the guy who suggests something lewd to the girl at the table without thinking about it. They’ve referred to “winning” in a video game as raping the other player. So they think “Hey, I was that guy. And I’m not a bad person. Why are they insisting that people who do this are bad people?”
But they do this without realizing that the experiences of many women are vastly different from the experiences of many men. They don’t want to be seen as ostracizing anyone. I mean, they are themselves outcasts so how dare you accuse them of marginalizing someone else? But it happens. It happens all the time. I do it too!
What really confuses and annoys me is when men respond with “But that’s just your experience. It’s not like that for everyone!” You are right. It isn’t. However, I posit that I’ve seen a lot of stories like this to the point where I can usually tell you how the whole conversation is going to go. Dismissing my experiences as being just an anecdote is just that. Dismissive. Don’t do that. Data and statistics are awesome and nice but this doesn’t invalidate anecdotes. So instead of demanding solid numbers, just listen.
So, basically, all I’m getting at here is that when women want to tell their stories, listen. If you empathize with the guy in the story, that’s fine. You can even say it. But don’t start telling the women what to do. Or what they felt. Or why your empathy for the guy in the situation trumps the woman’s right to feel safe or enjoy the game.