Monday, November 18, 2013

Silent All These Years

Comics, like the world in general, has a problem with sexual harassment. This isn’t new, it isn’t going away, and the only way to do anything to change it is to speak up about it often. This is going to be a rather long post because I don’t know any other way to discuss this topic other than thoughtfully and, for me, that usually means at some length.

I’m also going to get this out of the way now and it will not come up in the post again: not all men do this. But I am very tired of having to add that caveat every. Single. Time. this topic is discussed. We shouldn’t have to soothe anyone’s ego before being able to tell our stories. I’m telling you what I’ve experienced at, sometimes, the actual hands of men. I don’t need a reminder that not every man does this. I know that. All this really does is serve to distract/distance/derail the conversation away from the topic at hand. I’m sorry it makes you uncomfortable but it’s really not my job to make you feel better about all this. You need to work that out on your own.

Also: I am not now nor will I ever claim to be speaking for or about all women’s experiences in this sphere or with sexualized harassment. These are my experiences, I am not the representative for All Women Ever.

Moving on.

I’ve been working in comics for well over a decade and, unfortunately, I’m one of those women with more than one example of sexualized unpleasantness I can discuss whenever this topic comes up. I have rarely, if ever, talked about them all. Some of them happened at conventions. Some of them happened in offices I have worked in. Some of these examples were perpetuated by “known” creators and some were from fellow editors/professionals.  I truly wish I didn’t have such a broad group to choose from. I’d rather not have any.

Just about all of the more “severe” examples happened before I turned 27, so many of them are nearing a decade old. A lot of people seem to think there’s a time limit on how long events in your life will bother/influence you. There isn’t. I can no more control when one of these experiences will blossom up like a poisonous flower to make me feel sick and embarrassed than I can help when a memory from childhood will get triggered by a familiar smell. While time often helps these things feel less immediately painful, that’s not the same as them having no continued impact on your life. And, for women, since we are reminded pretty much every day that we are at risk, I’d hazard to say that it’s particularly unlikely that, just became something happened a decade, two, three, etc. ago, it will somehow evaporate and no longer have any importance in how we view the world and ourselves within it.

That doesn’t mean these experiences define us, but our lives are a mixed bag of memories, experiences, feelings. It would be pretty weird if they had no impact on us just because time had passed.

I’ve talked about what happened to be me at my first SDCC here. The TLDR version: I was groped by a “name” creator I had worked with for years at the Hyatt my first night. At first I thought I must be mistaken, but when I mentioned it to another creator he said, nope, he definitely did. He’s “known” for that. I want you to take that in. This fellow comics professional (who was also male) was not A. not surprised this other comics professional had groped me B. it was a "known" thing. And yet no one said anything about it.

I have not gone anywhere at SDCC or any other con by myself since, which was in 2006 or so. I don’t drink at conventions unless I am with VERY trusted friends and we are somewhere like a dinner. Never at a party of any kind. I will occasionally buy a drink that I don’t like so it looks like I’m drinking, but I don’t. I never let it out of my sight. If I do have to go someplace alone at a con, which sometimes can’t be avoided, I spend the entire time feeling anxiously keyed up, hyper aware of everything going on around me, and I tend to have a miserable time unless I can find someone I know.

So, that’s conventions. Aside from all the professional anxiety I have this added layer of stress that never let’s up. It leaks into my day to day life, too, whenever I go out. I think this is a familiar reality for a lot of women.

I wish these kinds of things were isolated to the madhouses that are conventions, because they might be easier to address if they were. They’d still be unacceptable, but it might make addressing the underlying problems somehow more manageable. More concrete. More about a specific environment than something wider, more ingrained and insidious like culture.

Unfortunately, I also experienced sexualized harassment in the supposedly “safe” environment of an office. None of these are things I really want to relate to anyone because they’re embarrassing, humiliating, gross. They make me feel wrong. But I think maybe they need to be said.

The one I remember most vividly was a series of emails from a creator that got increasingly more suggestive. I tried to derail the direction they were going in assuming, naively, that they were “jokes”. Or I just wanted to believe that. I’ve worked very hard at being professional but personable in my career and it actually takes quite a lot to offend me. I’ve also worked on a lot of mature content so discussing things like sex has been a legitimate aspect of my job. I just don’t discuss it in personal terms because that is the line that I draw professionally.

However. There is nothing ambiguous about a creator sending, in response to an email asking about what other comics they’d like to have sent to them in an upcoming package:

“oh, x books, your used panties, and a recording of your laugh when you cum too soon”

Yes, I committed that to memory. Even now, typing that makes me really uncomfortable. When I got it, all those years ago, I immediately wondered what I’d done wrong. I didn’t respond to it, I didn’t know what to say. The creator in question apologized a few hours later, citing drunkenness. I honestly don’t find that to be a compelling excuse and I asked not to have to deal with that particular person again. I did not, however, specify why. It was simply too awful and I didn’t want everyone I worked with to find out.

Another time a co-worker, apropos of nothing, mentioned that his current girlfriend thought he was so great in bed that she couldn’t believe that I had “never blown him in the office” while working together. This was relayed to me as a very strange “joke” that it was perfectly fine to bring up because it was the girlfriend asking, somehow. I remember saying that it was a good thing I had a sense of humor and knew that wasn’t serious because other people, not me mind you, but other people, might think that was a highly inappropriate thing to say to someone you shared an office with and could lead to problems. It was never brought up again. This was previously someone I had had no issues with and didn’t want to get in trouble for what I hoped was a momentary lapse in judgment. I still don’t know if I did the right thing.

There are the little things that add up, what are now called “micro-aggressions”. The male co-workers who, when finding out I’d been with my boyfriend (now husband) since I was 15 started mentioning how their female friends who had been together that long always freaked out before marriage and started sleeping around. One of them felt compelled to specifically tell me that he was the one a lot of his female “friends” went to have sex with before settling down. He felt it was very important that I know, even though I had not in any way solicited his advice, that having sex with only one person meant an eventual sexual meltdown. This was all based on assumptions, I never discussed my sexual history with anyone I worked with.

Sometimes people would comment on my clothes which always made me self-conscious, as though by wearing black I had invited this attention on myself, when in reality there is nothing to compel you to comment on another’s person’s appropriate work attire. Sometimes they ‘d comment about other female co-workers looks, which always made me wonder: if you say that about these women in front of me, what do you say about me when I’m not around?

I look at the discussions about this in comics and I don’t really know how I feel, other than angry. I think about cos-players having to contend with creeper shots and groping and people posting pictures of them online to say shitty things. I think about the professional men who go to great lengths to tell everyone who is and is not a “real” geek girl, who are obsessed with ferreting out some sort of evil female interlopers who are wandering around, ruining their conventions and fandom with their cooties and their disinterest in sleeping with these men or conforming to their expectations of how women should interact with their geeky interests. I look at the endless online conversations that call any woman who talks about this topic “crazy”, who hypocritically demand names and then chide those who do name as “life ruiners”. I look at young women being told, in every possible way, that they are not welcome or safe in these spaces because they are women.  I see them being told that speaking up will get them rape and/or death threats, that their careers can be ruined. That they only reason they’d talk about this kind of thing is to somehow get attention, to further their careers, because naming well known creators has such a long history of making people instantly successful rockstars in their fields.

I see the gaslighting, I see the status quo perpetuating itself, I see people endlessly justifying this behavior, excusing it, and telling women that how they experience their own lives in wrong. That no matter what, we don’t get to define what happens to us. Because if we do, then we are “crazy” or wrong or “too sensitive”. We should just shut up and let other people tell us how things “really” are. Because we can’t be trusted to know how our own realities have shaped us.

We’re told not to “make” men feel bad about what other men do. That relaying our stories is generalizing and condemning and unfair. We’re told it’s our responsibility to “get over it”. To internalize every single thing we are subjected to as “just the way it is” and, ultimately, our fault for existing as women in spaces. For existing in the world. For trying to make our way in that world and be treated as human beings.

We are told: don’t feel this way. Don’t think these things. Don’t express normal human emotions, like anger and resentment, about upsetting experiences. Stop talking about things we don’t want to hear about. Stop telling us we are complicit through our inaction. Stop expressing yourself in ways we don’t like. Stop making us uncomfortable about the things that go on around us that we don’t see/ignore. Don’t trust yourself. Don’t exist in ways we don’t like. Don’t exist in “our” spaces. Don’t try to live your life like it matters. Like it’s important. Like you have the right to be here.

Women don’t exist for you to approve of or to make you feel better about the shitty way the world works. We don’t exist for you at all. We exist for ourselves. And we’re going to keep demanding for our rightful place in the world whether you like it or not.

You can get on that bandwagon or you can fuck, permanently, off.

Monday, November 4, 2013

My Expat Diaries: The Stare

Germans stare. A lot. Almost none of them will admit that they do this, but they do. Sometimes it's disapproving stares, sometimes it's just bald curiosity, but there is some kind of cultural eyeball fixation issue going on here and it's disconcerting.

I've spent the last year trying to figure out if it's some kind of innate Americanness that is immediately apparent to Germans on sight. Like a beacon or a forehead tattoo that declares "I am not like you, please look at me thoroughly to discern in what way you can make me feel the most uncomfortable with your ocular orbs".

Now, in all fairness, I do have unusual hair. It is white and orange and pink. However, neither it nor I are the most unusual hair thing you're going to see here in Hamburg. I see at least 4-5 other people with blatantly fake hair colors most days and the current hair fashions include a lot of inexplicable shaving of seemingly random strips, sections, and usually sides of heads. That's on everyone, from desultory euro teens to peppy grandma's. By that measure my hair is the least interesting thing you're going to see all day. Especially given how bright neon pants colors are here.

Maybe my idea of what is "unusual" is somewhat off. I've lived in New York, San Diego, and San Francisco, and I have seen all of the following, including but not limited to:

1. A guy who shouted, every 10 steps or so in the tunnel between the Shuttle train and the E, "Everyone in New York has AIDS! You have it! And so does he!"

2. Real live pimps in all 3 cities, one of which had an actual pimp suit on complete with purple velvet hat with a crumpled plume at 6am.

3. A woman who used to sing at various plants along the Aqueduct walking path behind our apartment. She just sang random notes at them. This usually occurred about once a week.

4. Comicon.

5. The Village.

6. Two young men in The Castro district, at about 4pm by a cafe on a Saturday, in splendidly old fashioned pilot hats...and not a stitch more.

This is why it takes a fair bit for me to even note something like hair color or a face piercing, beyond a "Oh, that person has hair and a face, so do I, yay hair and faces!" It's not that I don't look at people or am oblivious to how they look, it's just that staring is not a thing that I do unless it's a parade or the night sky or something. It feels rude.

Take this evening. I picked up a shipment of cat food and litter from my husband's office because getting things shipped to us personally seems not to work out well. Our last flat was is in a totally standard, normal, residential neighborhood, but a good 50% of the time Fed Ex or whoever wouldn't be able to find us. At our new flat it's been even worse so we just don't bother. I took a hand cart because we get the litter and food in bulk and they are heavy.

For reference, we live pretty much the dead center of the city where people are shopping and carrying things all day. There's also a lot of construction currently where I swear they aren't really building anything, they're just digging to some unspeakable netherworld and eventually Cthulu is going to come screaming out. Or maybe an Oliphaunt. I don't know, all I know is that they keep drilling and it keeps sounding worse and deeper and more unearthly with every passing day. Anyway, the point is, stuff goes on in this city of many varied natures. It's not some kind of sleepy burb.

And yet, walking back with an umbrella because it was raining and hauling this box, which helpfully says "Fressnapf" on it so it's obvious what is inside, I started getting really cranky with the staring. Especially because, instead of even attempting to walk around you or out of your way, Germans will stare and then DRIFT CLOSER TO YOU. Even when it is obvious you are pulling something heavy and a bit unwieldy and you can't move as quickly or deftly as they can.

At a certain point I got fed up and started gesturing wildly at people to get out of my way with the umbrella and muttering in English about how rude it is to stare and how their bureaucracy isn't nearly as "efficient" as they like to think it is, and why isn't there any decent tofu or Thai food here anyway?

In short, I had a mini meltdown on the street and basically guaranteed I would get stared at ever harder and confirm all their suspicions about crazy Americans.

But at least the cats won't shit on the floor anymore.