On sexism, sexual assault and the threat of the ‘non-bro’
When I was just a little bitty budding activist just starting to get involved in organizing and protesting more heavily than I had in high school, I remember this conversation I had with my mom. I excitedly told her that I had found “my people”–people who cared about the same sort of idealistic things I did–like ending the Iraq War, redistributing the wealth, ending sweatshops, freeing Mumia, feminism, fighting racism, supporting unions. It felt like a big deal at the time, because up until then I’d been sort of marching all alone.
I remember her warning me that activist men fighting the good fight could be just as bad, sexism-wise—if not worse— than non-activist men. Because they think being counter-cultural and progressive gives them “a pass” that other men don’t have. “Don’t forget–Angela Davis.” she said.
“Whatever, mom. EVERYTHING IS NOT THE SIXTIES, OK? Things change! Times change! Not everyone is Jerry Rubin.” I said.
“Just promise me you won’t join a commune, OK? Because you know who’s going to end up doing the dishes? You and whatever other women are there.”
But as time went on, it was hard to not notice certain things. I noticed that I was talked over a lot in meetings. That other women were talked over a lot in meetings. That the leaders of our leaderless group were all men. I noticed the occasional comment about the size of my chest. It wasn’t everyone–I met and am still friends with a bunch of awesome, super feminist men I met during that time. But it came most noticeably from the leaders of said leaderless group.
I don’t remember the purpose of the last protest I attended with my former “affinity group”–it was either stopping the war or the World Bank–but what I do remember was an offhanded comment about two women who had ridden down with us, that they had “run off to cry” after getting scared by the cops. Because “you know, women.”
After that I was done. I decided I did not could not reconcile marching side-by-side for human rights, women’s rights, etc. with obvious misogynists.
Ironically, the next community I was involved with was the “lit scene” in Chicago. More on that in a bit.
There’s been a lot of attention, recently, paid towards sexism, sexual assault, harassment and misogyny in certain counter-cultural or non-mainstream groups. Specifically, the gaming community, the atheist community and, now, the alt-lit community.
One thing all of these groups have in common is that they are primarily populated by men who think they are not “bros.” Usually, they consider themselves intellectuals. Often, said men have a perma-vendetta against the sort of men they consider “bros.” For the most part, they’re not “alpha-males,” they weren’t jocks in high school–they were, more often, nerdy or even shy.
They are always the first to lock arms with you and rail against sexism coming from these other types of men. They are always happy to poke fun at Pat Robertson saying something horrifically misogynistic. They like to think of themselves as “the good guys” and the jocks and bros as “the bad guys.”
In some ways, these men align themselves with women. They were perhaps even picked on by the same “bro-dudes” that they believe are the sort of men that victimize women. Which is why they get all the more touchy when criticized for behaving exactly like them.
It’s like my mom said, in a way. They think they get a pass. Because they know all the progressive stuff to say, because they listen to NPR, because they didn’t join frats or play football, because they’re not “in finance.” Because they read lofty books rather than play beer pong, or whatever other idiotic stereotypes you want to throw out there.
I knew Stephen Tully Dierks, the Pop Serial editor recently accused of sexual assault by several young women. He used to live in Chicago. We weren’t friends-friends, but we ran in the same circle. He actually read at my very feminist, very sex-positive, talk-about-consent-all-the-time reading series “The Sunday Night Sex Show,” once or twice. I used to comment on what a “wholesome” face he had. Dude totally looked like Opie. I thought he was harmless. I’ve been dizzy thinking about it the past few days.
How could I not have seen it?
I have only been physically assaulted by two men in my life, both of them writers.
The first was one who was so enraged after meeting the man I was dating–who looked a bit like Don Draper and was not at all “artsy seeming,” definitely not “one of us,” which was part of what I liked about him since I hate being told what to do–that he choked me in the middle of a bar and threw a bottle at my head. Another male writer was there, who was–I thought at the time–a good friend of mine. He said “What did you expect?” I never spoke to either of them again.
More importantly, there were two other female writers there, older than I was, whom I am still somewhat acquainted with. Even after he was kicked out of the bar, they made excuses for him and tried to brush it off. I am still friendly with them when I see them, but there will always be a part of me that is so mad about that. A part of me that always thinks “Yeah, I’m smiling, but I know who you are.”
The other was an actual professor, or semi-professor of some kind. We were all drinking at a bar and he got it in his head that I was going to go home with him. When my friend came to pick me up, he got so enraged with me that he slammed my head against a brick wall.
When I told my friend about it, I literally had to beg him to not go back and try to strangle the dude.
I know there are still people who are “weird” with me because they know about these things and are still friends with those people. All of them are women. Oddly, in both of these situations, I found far, far more support from men–two in particular–than I did from women.
To this day, on the few occasions I have mentioned this, I still get “Oh, that was when he was drinking. He’s different now.” It does not make me feel much better.
The second guy had the gall to come to my reading once. Shaking, I got up to the microphone and announced that there was someone in the audience who had physically assaulted me for not wanting to bang him, and that I would like him to leave immediately. He did. His date stayed. Small victories.
I was once on some guy’s “Writers I’d Like To Fuck” list years before Janey Smith came out with his–along with several other women I knew. I remember going to a reading and being told about it.
Luckily it’s off the internet now, but I still remember how I felt when I went home and looked at it. I did not feel complimented, I felt violated.
I think a lot of the reason sexism, misogyny, assault and other problems are able to fester and grow in these communities is because there are women out there who have more of a vested interest in protecting these communities from criticism than in protecting other women.
I think another problem is that they are intertwined not only socially, but professionally. Your friends aren’t just your friends, they’re your contemporaries. If you make too much noise, draw too much attention to things that make the community look bad, ruffle feathers–it doesn’t just mean losing your social circle, it could mean messing up your career.
Luckily, in the cases of calling out Dierks, in the case of calling out Ed Champion, and now Tao Lin, it’s the men who have been ostracized rather than the women. It’s been a bit of a watershed moment, and it’s been good to see.
One thing that has stuck in my craw recently, concerning the big-A Atheism and skepticism movement, as well as some others, is the perception among some that they ought to be immune from feminist criticism, because that is “not the point” There is anger at discussing it, because “Hello, we just want to talk about how god doesn’t exist, not about how we’re sexist, or how Richard Dawkins vomits out misogynistic crap on the daily, or how Michael Shermer sexually harasses women, or how Sam Harris suggests that atheism and skepticism lack an “estrogen vibe” that makes them more attractive to rational, critical men than to “nurturing” women. That’s not the point. The point is that god doesn’t exist, ok?”
Some of these people are still furious because Rebecca Watson, godforbid, called out a man at an atheist convention for having asked her to coffee in his hotel room, in an elevator at 4am. They are still mad at her for saying that this made her uncomfortable–as it would the vast majority of women. I will literally not get on an elevator if it’s just me and a strange man I don’t know.
All Watson did was point out “Hey, men may not realize this, but this is something that actually makes us feel pretty uncomfortable.” That was it. That was enough to spur years of frothing fury at her, not to mention Richard Dawkins classic “Dear Muslima” letter. Because, you know, since genital mutilation exists, no one can complain about any other kind of sexism.
These same people will be perfectly happy to join in the chorus of condemnation were Pat Robertson, or Rick Santorum, or Rick Warren or any other Christian were to say or do something sexist. They would not think it was “beside the point.”
Similar things have happened in the gaming community, a vocal portion of whom also believe they should be immune to feminist critique, because “all they want to do is play video games, not have serious discussions on whether or not video games are sexist.”
They, of course, do not have to have these discussions. We are perfectly capable of having them without them. However, what they do not get to do is insist that they have some special “Get out misogyny free” card where they get to be as sexist as they like without anyone ever pointing that out. We don’t give that card to Phyllis Schlafly, who is a woman, so why the hell would we give it to them?
I’m glad that more attention is being drawn to issues of assault, misogyny and sexism in these communities. It’s important. It’s also a lot harder than calling out Rush Limbaugh, because none of us have to live with Rush Limbaugh. I want to make these spaces safer for women, because we have as much right to them as men do.
It’s not just bros and jocks and finance dudes and yuppies and Christians and Republicans who are shitty to women. Being part of a counter-cultural or progressive community does not give you a free pass to be shitty to women without being called out on it. We need to hold our own communities to an even higher standard than we hold those in the opposition, we need to welcome criticism, and we to realize that the ones who call out shitty behavior in these communities are not the threat, but that those who protect it and shield it from criticism are.
Note: I originally attributed the sexual harassment to Sam Harris rather than Michael Shermer. I apologize for this.