I’ve been thinking about…

I've been thinking about the whole convention harassment issue, in the wake of the various comings-out from the last few weeks, trying to remember what, if anything, has happened to me. It's really hard to pin down. Various slightly-too-friendly gropings, perhaps, but I was quite flirty in my early 20s, especially at cons, and I think I'd put those down to slightly crossed signals rather than anything more problematic. It happens.

There was one clear-cut incident. I was a youngish writer, attending a con party, and a well-known editor that I was rather in awe of reached out and pulled me onto his lap for a photo. I am small (5'0") and it is easy for most men to pick me up and move me around. In college, that used to happen all the time -- one guy actually picked me up in the hallway outside class and swung me up in the air, dancing, without asking, and it was sort of funny, but then he dropped me and I cracked my tailbone and needed to be on pain meds for weeks. He was very apologetic, but still. Anyway, back to the con.

At the time, I laughed, and the editor laughed, and all the women standing around him also laughed. I know this man much better now, and I quite like him, and I'm very confident that he meant nothing inappropriate at the time, that he would, in fact, have been horrified and very apologetic to learn I'd been upset by this incident.

I think it's important to say that, that there can be absolutely no ill intent in this sort of dynamic, but there can still be inappropriate behavior, and possibly damage. I've been trying to check my own privilege on this lately; I'm a touchy person, and I'm small, and I forget that just because I don't mean to be threatening or intrusive, that doesn't mean that everyone I'm feeling very fond of in the moment will want to be hugged or touched. It is, of course, harder to remember such things when intoxicated, but I'm working on it.

It can be confusing, when you see someone at a con that you haven't seen in a year, someone that you feel fond of, and you're trying to remember whether you're on hugging terms, whether this is a person who likes casual friendly touching or not. I'm working on it, and when I mess up, I'm trying to apologize for it, which is a bit awkward and uncomfortable, obviously, but is better than sitting around wondering if I made someone else uncomfortable with my overly-forward touching. Better to check in, make sure we're okay, and apologize if needed.

And the truth is, back at that party when I was a youngish writer, I was mostly fine with it, and maybe a bit flattered, but I was also startled and uncomfortable and not at all sure how to handle it. And I remember thinking afterwards -- well, okay, it's me, I'm flirty and physically affectionate and basically okay with this kind of thing. He might well have thought I wanted to be pulled onto his lap, and if we were just person and person, I'd probably chalk that up to crossed signals and move on. But there's a power dynamic at play here.

Once I started Strange Horizons, I spent the next decade mostly not picking up people at cons, which was a bit sad for me, since cons are full of my kind of people, and my odds of finding someone at one is far higher than in the outside world. But I didn't think it was worth the risk, now that I was in a position of editorial power. Just as I wouldn't hit on one of my students, even the ones who are roughly my own age. There's a line.

What if that editor had performed that move, the lap-pulling move, on another aspiring young woman writer, one who would have been really upset by it all, but afraid to say anything because they're shy, or because they don't want to make a scene, or because they really want to be published in his magazine? It's not okay. In retrospect, I kind of wish I'd said something to him at the time, or over a drink at the bar later, rather than just laughing it off and moving on.

One thought on “I’ve been thinking about…”

  1. When I meet a friend, especially if it’s been a long time, I prefer letting her initiate the physical contact of a hug, just in case. Besides, when she does hug me, it makes me feel good that I am thus considered trustworthy and that’s the best gift a woman could give me.

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