Over the past several years, female professionals in my field (artists, fiction writers, storytellers) and in closely related fields (game development, SF fandom) have repeatedly endured online and offline harassment, stalking, shaming, character assassination, and doxxing (for the uninitiated, “doxxing” is when someone posts your personal information online, maybe your physical address, maybe your social security number if they can hack it, etc.). And I’ve lost count of the reports of community fans and cosplayers who’ve had to deal with stalking, harrassment, and molestation at conventions.
This is just unacceptable.
One of the things that allows this behavior to continue and proliferate is that well-meaning men are often super unhelpful in responding to it. I’ve heard responses ranging from:
1. Dismissal: “She’s probably over-reacting.”
Why this isn’t helpful: It isolates the victim and gives tacit permission to the offender to continue.
2. Indignation/Defensiveness: “Hey, not all men are jerks and stalkers.”
Why this isn’t helpful: When we see someone else in trouble, it would be more useful to rush to their defense, not to our own.
3. Slightly Predatory and Smug Confidence in One’s Command of Dating Market Share.
This shows up as variations on the theme: “Hey, it sure is a good thing that there are some awesome, great, date-able guys out there, too, like me, not just all these hideous trolls.”
Why this isn’t helpful: Seriously, do I actually have to explain this? I mean, ick. Just, ick.
4. Deflection: “Don’t make this a political thing. It’s actually about ethics in _____ [pick your poison].”
Why this isn’t helpful: Look, it doesn’t matter whether you’re left-wing or right-wing. It also doesn’t matter whether there is an issue with ethics-in-whatever. None of that is relevant here. When an artist or author (or any woman, for that matter) is receiving a flood of rape and death threats online (or anywhere), this isn’t the time to toot your political horn; it’s time to stand by that woman.
Guys, the reality is that female professionals are more vulnerable online (and offline, for that matter) than male professionals. This doubles when the professional is a person of color or is LGBT, because the attacks get nastier and the allies fewer. And there is just no universe in which it is acceptable for us to look away when an artist or author is receiving rape or death threats, or is being described as a slut on a popular scifi forum (simply because someone is mad that her work is getting, in their eyes, too much notice), or is being harassed at a convention.
If you’re a dude, and you become aware of an incident like this, here are 4 steps you can take that are helpful:
Seriously, just listen to whoever’s being threatened, harassed, or stalked. Our first duty to our fellow human beings is always, always to listen. Don’t let your default, unspoken assumption be that a woman is over-reacting. That default is especially unhelpful because that’s already her default assumption. The victim of harassment has second-guessed, third-guessed, fourth-guessed, and fifth-guessed herself long before making the situation public to anyone else. Women are taught from a young age to doubt their perspective, to wonder whether they’re being harassed because of something they did, because of what they’re wearing, or because they smiled too long at a fan, or didn’t smile long enough, or spoke too cheerfully, or not cheerfully enough, or did something to invite or “ask for” the harassment or the attack. She has already questioned her own reaction to the situation to a far greater extent than you ever will. So don’t insult her intelligence and courage by automatically assuming—by default—that she’s probably just being overly sensitive. Men have been calling women hysterical and oversensitive for the past century and a half. Now, I’m sure there is a tiny minority of cases when someone is actually over-reacting. But you know what? When a woman lets you know that someone is after her and wants to hurt her, usually it’s because someone is after her and wants to hurt her. So listen. Pay attention. Be there.
2. Don’t make it about you.
After we listen, the next response is: “How can I help?” This isn’t the time to defend your niceness, your political position, or your objectivity. It also isn’t the time to lecture her on what to do. It isn’t even the time to rush in, unthinking, either. The person who is under threat is really the person who’s the biggest expert in the room on what’s happening to her, and it’s important to respect that. So the response needs to be: “How can I help?”
3. Stand by the threatened party.
This should be obvious, but it clearly isn’t. If someone is under attack, stand by her. Visibly. Online predators, online trolls, and online lynch mobs all rely on their ability to isolate a female professional from her support (from both other women and from male allies). It’s hunting behavior: separate one from the group and then attack in numbers. It only works if we let our colleagues be isolated. At a convention, this may mean engaging a creepy fellow in conversation and interposing yourself physically and verbally between the creeper and his target. Online, it may mean coming to a woman’s defense on a forum or on social media, or blocking someone from a group, or reporting harassment. Most of all, find out what support your colleague would like. The point isn’t to ride in all knight-errant to rescue a damsel in distress; the point is to back your colleague.
4. If needed, call in reinforcements.
Seriously. A convention moment that made quite an impression on me involved an incident when other authors and fans at the con rallied quietly but effectively to shield a female author from someone who was acting really creepy toward her. You know what predators and creepers really don’t like? Not having overwhelming numbers on their side, that’s what.
Be safe at the cons this year, and stand up for each other. That includes standing up for each other online.
My 2 cents. Because I’m fed up with folks standing by while people get hurt.