Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Women in Elevators

I've got feet in two big online communities. Obviously, there are the comic fans, but I'm also pretty active in the science/skepticism blogohedron. Recently, there was a flare-up--one of a series, frankly--that exposed some ugly misogyny, some unfortunately unrecognized privilege, and what the hay, touched on everyone's favorite third rail, the issue of "tone"--or, "I don't disagree with anything you said, but did you have to say it that way?"

The inciting incident was a facepalmingly common one--some dude at a conference played the creep. More specifically, awesome Skepchick Rebecca Watson announced her decision to go to bed at 4 AM, and was followed into the elevator by some guy, who proceeded to proposition her. Bottom line, it was creepy, and that's about the extent of Rebecca's initial comment on the subject, which set the whole blogosphere a-gnashin' about feminism and privilege and misogyny and so forth.

On the whole, I think the conversation has been worthwhile. There have been some truly clueless comments by some otherwise intelligent people, and I hear the comment threads are just brimming with misogyny, but it seems like several good things have come out of this incident: first, a line in the sand has been drawn, saying that prominent women in the community will no longer take this sort of treatment silently. A sizable and vocal block of feminist skeptics has formed, slamming their collective staff on the stone ground and telling the Balrog of misogyny that it shall no longer pass. Second, it's shown that no one is necessarily above privilege, and thus no one is above criticism. Finally, and most importantly, I think there's been a lot done in this situation to educate some of the thicker people who might not have gotten it any of the other times this has gone around (and I count myself somewhat among those thick-headed people). Richard Dawkins aside, I think we can all recall times when confronted with creepy people engaging in behaviors that most folks would recognize as socially unacceptable. Not all such situations have such connotations of sex and rape and objectification, but I would hope that we all know what it's like to meet someone who's a total creeper, and to apply that awkward pressure on them in hopes that they will be less creepy.

If you haven't had such experiences, then I suspect that people around you might have.

I think that's easier for most men to understand. Men might not get why women don't like being ogled and cat-called--even my brain clicks to "gee, it'd be nice if someone ogled me once in a while"1--but they get what it's like for someone to stand too close to you in the elevator, to take the urinal next to yours when there's one open on the other side of the restroom, to strike up a conversation from the next stall violate any of a bajillion understood-but-unspoken rules of social conduct and trigger that weirded-out feeling.

I realize, of course, that there's a lot more to it for women, but men have fur, and I think this is something that gets through it a little. Which is why I think that this is a great example: most people see why it's a skeevy thing to do, regardless of their privilege, and not just in the intellectual, detached, "women don't necessarily like being hit on" way that's the case with most of these situations. And that's why I think this incident might actually make a difference to the (thick-headed men in the) community in a way that previous incidents haven't.

Boy, I'm rambling here. So, why am I rambling on this blog instead of the other one that would generally be more suited to this sort of thing? Mainly because I really would like to see that kind of difference happen in the nerd community at large. Ragnell linked to this post describing a strangely similar incident from a comic convention several years back. There were notable differences--Karen Healey wasn't directly propositioned, she was wearing a costume, there were multiple men--but the situation is remarkably similar: woman in an elevator receives unwanted and unwarranted advances from strange men. Strange men who apparently saw no problem with making advances toward a strange woman in an elevator.

Karen mentioned in passing another strange situation in that post:
This and like incidents have happened to me, like many women, time and time again: strange men telling me to “smile!”; strange men shouting “Show us your tits!” as they drive past; strange men groping my breasts and ass in crowded train carriages.
It's disturbing, for two reasons. One, it resonates with another such incident I encountered on the skeptical side of the blogosphere. Two, it lays bear the assumption (I think) that's going on here: women's bodies are public. Remember the open source boob project? It's the same kind of thing, but without even the token advances toward consent. A man can expect to have a bubble of personal space, violation of which results in, at the very least, that "weirded out" feeling. Women can expect the same, but must also expect to have that space violated by others (read: men) who view women's bodies as some sort of public resource, subject to public oversight.

I realize that this is a larger problem than the geek community, and my conversation with Ragnell and MadMarvelGirl on Twitter suggests that geek conventions may be better than my experience would suggest. All I know is that at GenCon or Wizard World or C2E2, I encountered my fair share of people with no apparent capacity for self-awareness or self-assessment, people ignorant of basic social mores and courtesies, people with no regard for personal space--you know, creepers. Moreover, I think geek culture shields creepy people, and largely justifies, defends, or validates creepy, socially-awkward behavior.

Yes, I realize that people are different, and I'm not one to say that all social rules, standards, or mores are good or justified or reasonable. I also realize that there are actual conditions (like Asperger's) that may impact someone's social intelligence. That's really beside the point, which is that the important social rules--the ones whose violation will set people off as "creepy" and elicit that weirded-out (or threatened) feeling--exist as a result of people's basic social expectations. Violating someone's personal space or ogling them in an elevator violates the basic social contract, the basic principle that people deserve to be treated as individual persons whose desires should be respected and taken into account.

The point, to reiterate, is that people--regardless of gender or dress or attractiveness or whatever--deserve to be treated like people at all times, deserve to have their wishes taken into account at all times. Cornering someone in an elevator when they're trying to go to bed, and asking them to have sex with you, is a violation of that principle. Telling someone that they should be smiling, as if you own stock in their face, is a violation of that principle.

And people should be able to bring this kind of subject up on comic blogs and forums without being shouted down by misogynists and the clueless-and-defensive.

1. My brother likes to eat Ramen noodles. He makes enough money that eating Ramen noodles is one option out of many. I suspect, if he had no choice but to eat Ramen noodles all the time, he'd like it a lot less. There's a difference between wanting a thing, and that thing happening whether you want it to or not.

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