Thursday, August 23, 2012

I take it we're too sexy for you?

[CN: Sexual harassment, bullying, victim-blaming]

I want to talk about a few things that have been on my mind lately that were crystallized in this post over at Geek Feminism.

The post begins with a story about a girl in first-grade who was bullied for bringing a Star Wars water bottle to school. It got so bad she wanted to bring a pink bottle instead, just to avoid being teased. This story generated a lot of sympathy and even action on her behalf:

“Katie’s story went viral including at the official Star Wars blog and a year later CNN reported that at GeekGirlCon when a brigade of Storm Troopers formed an honor guard for Katie, and that there’s an annual Wear Star Wars day as a result.
We had our own smaller burst of geek support on the Geek Feminism blog in May this year, for five year old Maya, who was turning away from her love of cars and robots...In addition, it wasn’t an especially difficult thread to moderate as I recall: a few trolls showed up to tell Maya goodness knows what (sudo make me a sandwich LOL?) but in general people left warm, honest, open stories of their geek life for Maya.”

Just as Mary specified in her post, I also want to clarify that I think this kind of support is a very positive thing. But I too have to ask: why doesn’t this degree of unified, unequivocal support exist for women who point out gender-based bullying and harassment, especially in male-dominated spheres? What about cases of sexual harassment or rape?

I think one important distinction lies in the latter: much of the harassment women discuss is different precisely because it is more likely to be sexual. Mary briefly alludes to this contrast too:

“What they don’t seem to have in common is a universal condemnation from geekdom: bullying children? Totally evil. Harassing adults? Eh… evil, except you know, he’s such a great guy, and he hasn’t got laid in a while, and (trigger warning for rapist enabling) he does have the best gaming table, so what are you gonna do, huh?”

But I think this point merits deeper analysis, particularly because it accounts for a broad array of bullying women face, as distinct from the kind that Katie and Maya dealt with. This type of bullying exists on a continuum:

  • Targeting a woman’s presumed sexuality or promiscuity as a way to justify disrespect, invalidation or exclusion (this is especially relevant in geek culture)
  • Targeting a woman’s presumed sexuality as a way to demean them, by using hyper-sexualized rhetoric and slurs and/or pornographic imagery (which Anita Sarkeesian discussed as just one component of the bullying* she faces online)
  • Sexual harassment
  • The threat of or act of sexual assault and rape

You may be thinking: how does this relate to the topic at hand? A couple ways: 1) I’d venture to say that the above encompasses the vast majority of bullying that women face and discuss (whether in geek culture or not). Any discussion about the bullying and exclusion [geek] women face is woefully incomplete if sexual harassment/violence isn’t also addressed and 2) I think it’s another important component in understanding why the same people that felt sympathy for Katie and Maya will feel far less for [geek] women who experience this kind of bullying.

I understand that there are a lot of reasons that Katie and Maya received more sympathy than adult women, and Mary already discussed a lot of them. Thus, I’m not arguing that sexual harassment is the only factor or even the most important factor in explaining this difference in sympathy. But I think it's an important factor that merits more discussion.

Let’s use Katie’s story as an example. Perhaps her story seemed universal to other geeks and that made it easier for a broad array of them to empathize with her--after all, she was being teased and bullied for being different and for her “geeky” interests.** But what exactly did those boys say to her that made her feel bad? Well, isn’t that a ridiculously callous question? All we need to know is it was bad enough to make her cry and no longer want to take her Star Wars water bottle. In the face of her unhappiness, I’m betting no one would feel right about grilling her, especially with an aim to argue that she somehow wasn’t justified in feeling that way.

But once you reach adulthood, that callous reaction becomes much more commonplace when talking about harassment and exclusion; people want to know what happened, largely so they can assess whether they find your emotional response justifiable. “Wait, what made you feel uncomfortable? Oh, that? That isn’t even a big deal/That wouldn’t bother me/Others have it worse/Can’t you take a joke/You should just suck it up/Well, if you don’t like it, you can just go somewhere else/It’s part of the culture” etc.

I acknowledge that part of this callousness is due to the fact that there’s less compassion for adults, regardless of their gender. But that doesn’t account for all of it. The problem is compounded when a)the harassment is sexual and b)the victim is a woman. 

For one, the lack of empathy (“this isn’t a big deal”) can be tied to a lack of perspective: not everyone experiences sexual harassment, and men certainly don’t experience it on the same scale or in the same way that women do, so it may be more difficult for them to empathize (this of course doesn’t give them a free pass,  just explains why some men have trouble being sympathetic). Some men don’t understand the ways that sexual harassment and bullying can make the victim feel uncomfortable, alienated, or even unsafe because they’ve never been subjected to it. And of course, some men just don’t care either way because they’re not personally hurt or excluded by it, and in fact, enjoy being able to harass women and and don’t want to give it up. If they felt sympathy for one victim of sexual harassment, wouldn’t they have to question their own behavior? Cognitive dissonance? Oh no, we can’t have that!

For another, sexual harassment opens the door to victim-blaming in a way that is far less feasible in cases like Katie’s. No one asks if there was something Katie did that meant she was “asking for it” or deserved to be bullied. But in the case of sexual harassment, there will probably be a lot of interest in what the victim was wearing, whether she was being flirtatious, whether she was drunk, etc. (i.e., victim-blaming and slut-shaming). This means that, for some people, sympathy for women who’ve been sexually harassed is conditioned on whether they conform to the flawed notions of what a truly “blameless victim” looks like.

With all of this in mind, let’s take one more look at Katie’s story. What moved people? I think it was ultimately because it was sad to think of her giving up something she loved, something that made her happy, all just to avoid being made fun of. It was sad to think that gradually, she might change herself and her interests to avoid being targeted, instead of just being herself. And it was sad to think that all of this trouble was caused by some arbitrary, baseless notion that she wasn’t supposed to like Star Wars because it was “for boys.” But the point is: all of that is still sad regardless of her age, interests or the nature of the bullying.  And it happens all the time (and this is only the tip of the iceberg.)


*Yup, bullying, not “trolling.” Jay Smooth does a great job explaining why these coordinated attacks should not be understood as harmless trolling, but as an effort to intimidate, bully and silence. I want this distinction to catch on because it’s essential to understanding the nature of harassment and bullying in a digital world.

**Although Nick Mamatas makes a good case that the perception that geeks are bullied for their interests does not reflect reality, I’ll still argue that the perception is fairly strong, and was probably at play in this case.

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