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Resistance Is Useful: An Essay

Hello internet. We have something to talk about, and it’s been cooking for some time.

We’re going to talk about geek culture, about misogyny, about rape culture and rape apologism, about safe-spaces and fear, harassment and assault, about growing-up-geek, about social responsibility, reckoning and resistance.[1]

We’re going to talk about my experience of this in a small Australian city, and about making a declaration of intransigence. For the bemused and curious some context and links can be found at the bottom of this post. I’d suggest taking a look before reading further. Additionally, there are footnotes, because if you are reading this, you deserve juicy footnotes.[2] Now, on with the show.

For many, many years, I have lived as a nerdy young woman in this city. I grew up and grew older (and perhaps wiser) lurking on IRC, posting on the Usenet, reading and watching science fiction, blogging, data modelling, attending cons, gaming, geeking-it-up and generally being me. And during that time, within the culture that by all rights might be expected to be a place of belonging for a nerdy being such as myself, I have witnessed a parade of abhorrent behaviours and events. We shall not argue here about whether geek culture is broadly misogynistic, predatory and hostile. We shall talk about the fact that in this place, in my small city, I have observed geek culture embracing all of those things, that I have been on the receiving end of them, that I have been an observer of them, again and again and again. Stalking, rape, the enabling of rape, rape apologism, sexual assault of various kinds, opportunistic harassment, predation, collusion to trivialise boundaries and consent issues, violation of consent, coercion, marginalisation and broadly, a deep, vile and insidious culture of loathing and sexual violence. This is not theory; this is what has happened and what continues to happen. It happens your cons, in your city, in your gaming groups, on your streets, on your internet, at your parties, in your forums, on your blogs and in your workplaces. And this is my big Fuck You to all of it.

We are shaped, in part, by our solitary journeys through unsafe spaces, and by our experience of predators. We grow up, experience sexual violence and harassment, flee the unsafe places and retreat into enclaves of safety. And as we do so, a new generation of younger (and younger, ever younger) women are left to meander into the meat market we have abandoned, and to learn the same hard lessons, the same hard way. For many of us, there are few other routes to learning these things, groomed as we are by society to please, to succumb to coercion, to be polite and compliant. To keep the dirty secrets of others, to shelter them from the judgment and disapproval of our community. To to trivialise, to accept blame, to dismiss. Each subtle line of that code is still written somewhere deep in my brain.

Like many, I did not begin this journey with the code that told me how to fight back, how to be joyfully and relentlessly non-compliant, nor how to feel good about making a scene when I damned well thought it justified.  I had no concept of calling out another person on their bad behaviour and feeling anything other than guilty for having done so. And, thanks to the prevalence of the first Geek Social Fallacy[3], I also picked up a few more lines about it being so very wrong to exclude others, no matter what.

And so, once I had learned to slip past the hands, to see trouble coming, to largely stay alert and sober and evasive, I retreated into a communal bubble where consent ruled supreme, and where respect flourished. Which was all very well and good. However, it also meant that I stopped going to the cons, started declining the invitations to parties and other social events, started feeling uncomfortable about having even a single drink when in the company of whole tranches of the Perth geek community. Essentially, I excised the spaces and people grinding down my will to engage, and left them to those women who would choose to brave the jungle.[4] My friends have done likewise, and all too often, this has meant that the most predatory and intolerable of spaces – less characterised by well-intentioned failure than by the unambiguous intent to prey – are abandoned to newer, younger and more vulnerable women, more inclined to awkwardly tolerate assault than to oppose it.

And to all of this, I wish to say: Fuck You. This is unacceptable. This is war.

I believe in the need for a collective resistance, and in the need for an aggressive take-down of the predators in our geek communities. I believe in colonising those previously abandoned, unsafe spaces and sub-communities, and inoculating them. I believe in our collective social responsibility to police our culture, to change social norms, and to shelter our vulnerable. (For at times, we are all vulnerable.) I believe in declaring that no, it’s not just you to whom this has happened.  Not just you who has been stalked or fondled, harassed, pressured, abused or raped.   That this is all so very wrong and it’s honourable to resist and criticize, to not only say ‘no’ but to call people publically on their bad behavior, to out repeat offenders and generally, to make one hell of a scene where one hell of a scene is required.

And I have an idea. Alone, I am prey. But when I gather a handful of safe, trusted friends and we explicitly commit to fight this, I always have someone to fall back upon when I don’t know what to do. I have someone I can call, or bring along, who will make space for me to be heard and will speak for me when I’m unable to find the words. I have a handful of people of various genders and backgrounds to whom I can turn for context, illumination and consultation.  As does each of those people in that handful of safe, trusted friends.  And if one of those people gathers their own handful of people to do the same, the first cell spawns another, and another and the resistance spreads. The permission to speak out, to inoculate new groups, to normalize a culture of respect and safety, to make amends when we have caused harm, to talk about our experiences, to discuss the behaviour of ourselves and others, and to make a big damn fuss without shame or fear – it expands.

When I feel threatened or unsafe, I will have someone who has made a explicit commitment to stand with me. Whenever another woman is threatened, I will have made a public commitment to stand with her – not just for her individual well-being, but as an advocate for and protector of my community. When I accidentally trample someone’s boundaries (as even the most careful of us will do upon occasion), I have people to help me work our where I went wrong, and how best to make it right. This is not new; it’s not even particularly exciting – we know how to back each other up, and largely we do it competently.

What interests me more is this: acknowledging the grey, fuzzy, difficult nature of consent, the fundamentally inadequate nature of a ‘no means no’ approach, and the benefits of both women and men helping their male friends in dealing better with these issues, and helping men call out other men on sexual violence. I have spoken to so many who have expressed a concern that intervening in a situation will be insidiously trivialised and dismissed as ‘jealously’ or ‘just trying to impress her’ (or more typically, ‘just trying to get in her pants’). And it will, because that is how it works. I have spoken to many who have watched small consent violations escalate, and angsted over exactly when and how they ought to say something, without overriding an adult woman’s right to speak for herself. So many fundamentally decent people who feel they have handled a situation poorly or violated a boundary, or may be about to, and who are unsure who to ask for compassionate yet honest feedback and practical advice. To innoculate our spaces, women backing up women – while essential – is insufficient on its own. The men who loathe this violence also need access to the support of others whom they can ask to speak with them, or in their stead; allies who will back them up when they call a predator on their behaviour, who will help them negotiate difficult, grey and ambiguous situations, where ‘no means no’ is insufficient to deal optimally with a complex reality.

The problem is not that we require more like-minded people to fight this. We have like-minded people. What we require is interconnectedness between those people, and an explicit commitment to support, to defend, to assist, to go public and reach out to break the back of this sickness that pervades our culture.

If you’re in my small city, welcome to the Perth Geek Underground. If you’re elsewhere, pass it on.

[1] And for the sake of not writing a thesis we’re going to talk here about men and women, but not fail to bear in mind that the principles that are more broadly applicable to all genders, orientations and indeed people.

[2] Oh yes, you do.

[3] Geek Social Fallacies

[4] The words ‘cock forest’ came up in conversation the other day. This seems relevant.

 

Further Reading Around & Under & Beneath & In-Between

Geek Culture

On the criticism of ‘exclusionary spaces’

Women in Geek Culture

More Women in Geek Culture

Men and Women and Misogyny and Blogging

Privilege

Harassment

Predator Theory and Rape Culture

More about Rape Culture

Rape Humour

Victim Blaming – the process informing rape apologism

Growing-Up-Geek

Thoughts on Safe Spaces

Category: geeking it up

Tagged: , , , , ,

15 Responses

  1. Jade Carver says:

    Count me in, SO MUCH.

    A brilliant piece of writing. As a fellow Perthian, a geek and a feminist… reading this made my heart swell.

    So many (men AND women) don’t understand how this society still binds us, still makes our own streets and homes unsafe. They need to be educated, they need to know, they need to realise we aren’t going to tolerate this bullshit any more.

  2. Helen says:

    Thanks so much for the comment, Jade – I’ve been sitting on this one for the better part of six months trying to think of what I wanted to say, and the positive response has been fantastic.

  3. […] warning Resistance Is Useful: An Essay: We’re going to talk about geek culture, about misogyny, about rape culture and rape apologism… […]

  4. Samantha says:

    This article felt like a call to arms for me, I’m a woman who’s been in the perth geek community since she was a teenager, i’ve been to LAN’s, CON’s and all sorts of things.
    Everywhere I go I see misogynistic behavior.
    I”m sick of being stuck alone in a boys club.

    If you’re ever down at Murdoch Uni and want to talk to a painfully obsessive sociology major and feminist, look me up!

  5. SunflowerP says:

    Found this via the Geek Feminism blog.

    I don’t know if you’ve heard about the Back Up Project – its premise is pretty much what you describe here, women in fandom backing up other women (but in practice extending, as your footnote says, “to all genders, orientations, and indeed people”). It may be that it’s still mostly a North American initiative, but it makes sense to me that the interconnectedness you call for should be international.

    (I hope having two links in this doesn’t send me to your spam folder.)

    Sunflower

  6. […] Resistance is useful. We shall not argue here about whether geek culture is broadly misogynistic, predatory and hostile. We shall talk about the fact that in this place, in my small city, I have observed geek culture embracing all of those things, that I have been on the receiving end of them, that I have been an observer of them, again and again and again. Stalking, rape, the enabling of rape, rape apologism, sexual assault of various kinds, opportunistic harassment, predation, collusion to trivialise boundaries and consent issues, violation of consent, coercion, marginalisation and broadly, a deep, vile and insidious culture of loathing and sexual violence. This is not theory; this is what has happened and what continues to happen. […]

  7. Rock on, sisters and brothers! The best way to get bullies to STOP is to name and shame them. But it takes us bystanders to realize that we are the majority, we are the Public, and we can stop this. If we band together, and if we want to.

  8. Helen says:

    @Samantha Thanks! Looking at your blog and interests, I would be surprised if we had no overlapping friends, or at least ended up at some of the same gigs.

    @SunflowerP Yes, I’m aware of the Back Up Project – it’s a great idea; thanks for mentioning it in the comments so others can check it out!

    @Valorie Absolutely! I still run into my social conditioning that says it’s essential not to upset people or make a big deal. It’s alarming and exciting to practice being open and expect that some people will take offense, but that so many others will say ‘hell yes, that happens all the time’. Thanks for linking!

  9. David Mills says:

    +1

    As a man, I’d like to thank you for this very well thought out piece.

    I’m not in Perth (actually, I’m about as far away as is geographically possible), but this is needed the whole world over.

  10. Keith Fyans says:

    I’m sooo on board with this. Any specifics you can recommend in undertaking?

  11. Style Note says:

    Excellent piece. I was a bit miffed by the whole thing about footnotes, though. If you’re going to have footnotes in an electronic medium, at least make them links so I don’t have to scroll up and down and up and down to read them (invariably losing my place several times thanks to my disability).

    I like footnotes. I was excited to read, “Additionally, there are footnotes, because if you are reading this, you deserve juicy footnotes.” Then it was like a slap in the face that I couldn’t jump to the footnotes, and that they turned out to barely surpass the number of words used to exclaim there are footnotes in the first place.

    Oh, also, this is pedantic and not from the blog post itself, but you can’t be both “a .. creature” and “many other creatures”, you’re either one or many ;)

  12. Helen says:

    @Keith – I actually sat on a good panel yesterday dealing with, among other things, requests for ideas on how to manage specific situations. The response, broadly, was that the most immediately useful & effective approach is to start talking about these issues to others.

    I think there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit here, because issues of consent are so rarely discussed in many cultures & sub-cultures. For instance, saying to your friends (of all genders) something like ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about X lately; what do you reckon? Any ideas?’ might well be the first discussion a given group of friends about these things – whether X is a specific situation, or your interest in generally creating safer communities.

    (I guess that may sound like an oversimplification in many ways, and it is. However I never fail to be surprised by the chorus of ‘Oh, I’ve worried about that too; I didn’t realise it wasn’t just me!’ that arises when one of my friends starts a conversation, be it situation-specific or general.)

    @Unnamed Stranger With Technical Feedback – Thank you for your comment. Regarding hyperlinks, my posts suffer somewhat from being written in a plain text editor rather than online, and I appreciate you taking the time to point it out.

  13. TeamOyeniyi says:

    While mine is a different topic, your attitude makes me feel better about speaking out about mine.

  14. […] today’s awesome, must-read essay is Resistance is Useful: I have observed geek culture embracing all of those things, that I have been on the receiving end […]

  15. Geekyewok says:

    Holy crow, you’re in Perth. Back in 1993 I went to Murdoch Uni, went to Swancons and managed to pick up a particularly nasty stalker. I was also pretty threatened by the early anime community, which had its good people, but a definite undertone of creepy guys, including one who was eventually outed as a pedophile. I stopped going when my friends stopped going.

    In uni, I was a member of MARS and it was pretty awesome.

    Now I’m in Canada, and I wish I could say the climate is different. It is in my local geekish community, or maybe I just surround myself with likeminded folks. There are still the creepers at cons that talk to breasts, and sniff people’s hair (Ugh), but I find that being in a group and also giving a ‘Fuck off’ to the harassers, that I have a degree of power.

    This is my fandom too. I refuse to deal with the bullshit on the terms of those who try to bring women/gays/lesbians/minorities down.

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