Sexism, SF, and Me

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.
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April 15, 2013

How It Works - xkcd

How It Works – xkcd

I came to the science fiction, fantasy, and romance genres at about the same time in my life.

All of them were, in many ways, marked as off-limits to me.

When I was 12, I borrowed my mother’s copy of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s Shanna. When she discovered I’d read it, she told me that it was too “old” for me and forbade me the rest of the books on the shelf by her bed. I read the rest of the books in secret and confined my non-secret romance reading to more age-appropriate fare.

At the same time, I was reading fantasy from my school’s public library. Mostly fantasy, though. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels (which are secret science fiction and have strong romantic elements, too), Weis and Hickman’s Darksword trilogy, and Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger books. Not a lot of science fiction.

That’s because I literally thought that science fiction was to boys as romance was to girls. Just like the Star Wars and GI Joe toys I always wanted and never got, those science fiction books were for boys, not for me.

I did start reading more science fiction a few years later–picked up one of my dad’s books during a family camping trip and I was hooked. But it was a pure desperation move on my part. I would never have touched my dad’s books if I’d had other options available. (For the record, the books were Charles Ingrid’s Sand Wars books–I didn’t know it at the time, but Charles Ingrid was a pseudonym used by a female writer.)

I also learned another important lesson during this time: it wasn’t acceptable for me to be openly enthusiastic about anything. It took some time but I eventually learned to keep my enthusiasms to myself. If it appeared I was getting above myself to my peers, my family, or my teachers, I was put in my place and often not very nicely–my possessions would be defaced, I’d be grounded for breaking rules I didn’t know existed, and I was never quite good enough for anything that would have required me being in anything other than a support role. I learned that I needed to be quiet and watchful and keep to myself.

I think a lot of women learn this when they’re teenagers. I don’t think it matters what they’re interested in–if they’re openly enthusiastic someone will find a way to put them back in their place.

I learned that enthusiasm made me a target–in addition to the mocking words thrown at me, I also dealt with physical assaults–nothing that caused injury or left marks, but was still painful. My private parts were grabbed, sometimes by boys I thought were my friends but more often by ones who usually ignored me. My rare complaints to adults were brushed off with a pat “They’re doing it because they like you.”

No, they weren’t. They were doing it because they could. They were more powerful than I was, both physically and socially. It was fun to bait me because I’d eventually snap and become incoherent with rage and throw things. I wasn’t very good at using my words–I swallowed my rage and embarrassment until I could hold it in no longer. And then my inability to control myself was also held against me.

I endured as best I could by escaping into books. I read. Constantly.

All of this came rushing back when I read Hugh Howey’s recent post about an interaction he had with a female fan at Worldcon last year (Google cache, post at the Daily Dot /w text).

He sure put that nameless woman in her place, didn’t he?

He’s basically told every single woman involved with science fiction that she shouldn’t be opinionated and enthusiastic in public. And he’s done it with imagery that just reeks of sexual assault. There’s really no other way to interpret the “Suck it, bitch” at the end of his post.

Howey knows he has more power than this unnamed woman does and he’s not shy about using it. I totally understand revenge fantasies (I think we all have them at times) but like most people I know that making them public is a terrible idea. And does anyone actually believe that her behavior was as bad as he describes it? And if it was, haven’t we all run into that person at a convention or, occasionally, been that person? (Note: If I am ever that person, someone please, for the love of all that is holy, tell me.)

And then there’s this: “I should point first of all that I don’t tell people who I am or what I do when I’m at conferences. I often check to make sure my badge is the other way around, hiding my name.”

Seriously? He’s that guy? The guy who makes sure no one knows who he is at events which are, in many ways, networking events for professionals in the field? Last time I checked, Hugh Howey wasn’t that famous. I’ve seen writers who were much better known that he is interact openly with fans at conventions. Sometimes a bit of crowd control is needed and sometimes writers have fans with serious boundary issues which does require special measures but as far as I can tell, Howey isn’t in the same league as those people in terms of fame. He certainly wasn’t at the time of last year’s Worldcon.

It is also disheartening that Howey decided to to vent his upset at not being nominated for a Hugo at this woman–his issue really isn’t with the unnamed woman he’s assaulting with his words, it’s with the fact that he didn’t get a Hugo nomination. The woman in his post is just a convenient target–as so many other women have been throughout human history.

Sure, Howey apologized. Kind of. He apologized because he was being called on his blatant misogyny. I also suspect he apologized because he was concerned about sales of the recently released paper edition of Wool. I don’t think he apologized in order to make amends to anyone. I hope that the unnamed woman he sexually threatened and humiliated never finds out about this. And if she does, I hope she knows that there are people willing to stand with her and say that this kind of abuse is wrong.

Ultimately, what I’ve learned from this most recent misogyny flare-up in science fiction fandom is that if you’re a woman in genre and if you speak up in a way that’s unacceptable to someone with more power, then you may find yourself being threatened with humiliation and sexual assault. Just so you know what your place is.

This is the sort of fear that kept me from attending conventions for a long time and kept me afraid to speak up online. I refuse to live in fear any longer. I expect to be treated as a full and equal member of this community–I don’t need to prove my credibility to anyone and I have as much right to be here as anyone else.

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