Sexism, SF, and Me

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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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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  1. Beth

    This. All of this.

    • Natalie

      It wears a person down. As you know.

  2. Jeremy

    Beautiful. I’m bothered by all the rampant, blatant sexism in the geek-o-sphere, wherever anyone happens to land. I see it all the time in gaming, and it drives me screaming up a wall. The place that I see it most that nobody ever brings up is, oddly, in bookstores. Why is Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series in Fiction, but Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series in Paranormal Romance? There is more sex in Butcher’s books than in Briggs’ books. Kalayna Price’s Grave Witch series? No sex. Paranormal Romance. Simon R Green’s Secret History series? Sex. Fiction. In fact, most of the urban fantasy fantasy authors working today are female, but they only appear in the Paranormal Romance section.

    Maybe it’s a little thing, but you know, it bugs the glitter out of me. I don’t even know where to start to complain about it.

    • Natalie

      The bookstore placement, actually, is mostly marketing. Which is a whole other thing worthy of discussion.

      Did you know that when they first came out, LKH’s books where shelved in horror? And Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books were marketed at mysteries.

      The ways of bookstore placement are strange and often bear no resemblance to actual genre.

    • Jeremy

      I do remember seeing the LKH books in Horror. They should be in Porn. I know they’ve been cleaned up in the later books, but she lost so many people because of the porniness.

      It’s frustrating about the marketing and bookstore placement. I get a lot of my books at Half Price Books, and I have to check both areas for all of my books because sometimes, they’re split. Which is just *weird*.

    • Natalie

      I agree completely that it’s frustrating to have to traipse all over a bookstore to find the books you’re looking for. Marketing is a strange, strange thing.

      I don’t think it’s the sex that drove people away from the Anita Blake books–I think it was the bad writing and nonsensical plots along with the obvious working out of her personal issues in the books. Anita was pretty obviously a self-insert character from the beginning and she always had a whiff of the Mary Sue around her but it was balanced by interesting narrative/sexual tension and reasonably interesting and well-paced plots. When the books became all about Anita’s sex life and her constant leveling up. And the fact that she turned into a monster and then Edward DID NOT KILL HER LIKE HE SAID HE WOULD.

  3. Victoria Janssen

    Well, he succeeded in one thing – now I know his name. I also know I will never buy one of his books!

    • Natalie

      Isn’t it AMAZING how that works? Wool was on my to be bought list but not anymore!

    • Beth

      Same here. In spite of his whiny behavior on Absolutewrite, I was happy for his success and had his first book in my to-buy list. Now? No, no, no. As I said on Twitter, a guy who is truly nice doesn’t use the phrase “suck it, bitch.”

    • Natalie

      I’ve heard a lot of really good things about his book. But I have no desire to support the career of someone who thinks so little of women that he’s going to nurse a grudge for that long–I can forgive a gendered slur used in the heat of the moment–a lot of people say stupid shit in the heat of the moment. I have a much harder time forgiving one that’s been cooking for 8-9 months and deployed in the wake of disappointment over not getting nominated for an award and especially when it’s followed by a non-apology apology.

    • Beth

      Exactly. If he’d posted an angry rant, then immediately apologized when called on it, I’d give him a lot more slack. We all have bad days, after all. But this was a long-held grudge, and he did not even offer the faux apology until the furor got loud enough.

    • Liz Bourke

      Now I know who he is, I know to avoid his work! I will not accidentally pick up his book: his name is burned into my brain as Hugh HELLO HERE IS MY SEXUAL ASSAULT FANTASY AIN’T I COOL Howey.

  4. Kristina S

    This was a well worded blog, but I have issues with it. I have read Howey’s blog from time to time, not to mention the Wool series and the Shift prequel. I agree that sex-oriented slurs are not good – though I use them and don’t judge others for the use of them – so hear me out. Yes, the post about the “mean woman” was not nice. She was called sex-based slurs and generally told to “suck it” but a) Hugh Howey’s writing is? certainly enough to tell me that he doesn’tthink women should get out of sci-fi and into the kitchen, and b) it’s really judgmental to call someone a misogynist based on ONE post calling ONE woman a bitch. This is not the same as calling ALL women bitches. Also, attacking one wom an for being a publishing predator says nothing about how you feel about women’s interests in a particular genre even if the behavior you are attacking her for happens at an award ceremony that is genre specific.

    • Natalie

      As I said elsewhere, I can forgive a comment made in the heat of the moment. This was not a comment made in the heat of the moment, this was a revenge fantasy lovingly nurtured for most of year and deployed in the wake of disappointment over not being nominated for a genre award. It was not a spontaneous outburst, in other words.

      If that makes me judgmental, then so be it. The best way to not be called out for being a misogynist is to not say misogynistic things.

      Also, lots of jerks manage to make good or great art. I have no obligation to support that art and I have every right in the world to say why I’m not supporting it.

    • Jeannie

      “Hugh Howey’s writing is certainly enough to tell me that he doesn’t think women should get out of sci-fi and into the kitchen,”


      You mean his writing in FIRST SHIFT, in which all the female characters are either:
      1) the receptionist
      2) the secretary
      3) the wife who sits by the phone and occasionally walks the dog
      4) the evil ex-girlfriend who lusts after the hero (for no apparent reason)

      You mean his writing in FIRST SHIFT, in which future!Silo One has NO WOMEN, because apparently the mere presence of a double X chromosome will cause all the men to spontaneously erupt into fits of passion and not get their work done.

      You mean his writing in FIRST SHIFT, in which “there’s a change in the air,” because in 2052 the US is finally about to nominate a woman for President who might actually, gasp, win the White House. Forget the very real possibility that Hilary Clinton might run in 2016, or Condolezza Rice, or any number of talented and deserving women who could be nominated and win between now and then.

      So, sorry, but Howey’s writing says that he is, indeed, sexist. As is blatantly evidenced in his blog post and his half-assed apologies that prove he still doesn’t understand why what he said was wrong. He left that blog post up for days, laughing at those who thought it was offensive in the comments, and he only pulled it down after bigger literary names than him talked about it negatively on Twitter.

      People keep pointing to Juliette in the Wool books as some sort of amazing female character. But she’s not. She’s too cardboard, for one. She’s basically a tool wrench with arms and legs. She has no emotions, no quirks. She’s not even all the smart; other people make the necessary intellectual discoveries. She’s basically a just a pawn, with as much depth as a plastic chess piece. She gets a job (for which she’s not qualified) because of the male Deputy; she loses the job because of the male head of IT. She doesn’t even really save herself; her male friends in Mechanics do that for her.

      The only thing the success of Hugh Howey says to me is that people really need to read more widely. And perhaps that’s the reason why he didn’t get a Hugo nomination: he’s just. not. that. good.

    • Belinda Pepper

      I’m with Kristina on this one. Wool featured two extremely strong and driven women, one of which was the hero of the entire story. Let’s not forget his Molly Fyde series. Just because he chooses to write the occasional story that (shock! horror!) doesn’t feature a female lead, doesn’t make him sexist. Especially when, as a male, he’ll find it easier to relate to men and therefore tell stories from their perspective.

      But I realise that once people cry “sexist” (or some other such politically correct term), they’ll believe what they want to believe, and pull whatever evidence they can find to support their rants.

      The biggest reasons people got up in arms was because he was apparently discriminating/belittling/being rude to this woman. Yet everyone thinks it’s totally okay to tear pieces off Hugh and hang him out to dry.

      The whole post was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, and an authors way of making light about a crummy encounter. I mentioned in my blog post ( that because Hugh didn’t win the Hugo, one of the most prominent occurrences (related to the Hugo) in his mind is this incident. If he’d won the Hugo, I’m sure he wouldn’t have given this woman a second thought- getting acknowledgement from his readers trumps all. But he didn’t, therefore one of the most prominent memory he has of the Hugos is being publicly shamed and belittled in public by a woman who was behaving rudely for her own selfish gain.

      The way I see it, everyone who sees Hugh as a horrible person (and in turn publicly shooting him down and slurring his reputation) is just as bad, if not worse. After all, Hugh apologised (and if you know ANYTHING about him, you’ll know that apology was genuine), yet everyone else don’t feel they have to apologise for all the horrible things they’ve said about him, keeping in mind that he didn’t ACTUALLY commit any wrong to this woman- he was nothing but polite to her in person, and he didn’t “out” her identity in his blog post.

      My 2 cents, for what it’s worth.

    • Natalie

      It’s hard to win an award you’re not even nominated for. Howey wasn’t at Worldcon as a nominee, he was there as one author among many. And he was there incognito, so I’m not sure how one person being rude to him counts as public humiliation.

    • belindapepper

      Just because she didn’t know his identity, doesn’t give her the excuse to treat him like she did. And as for it being public- she belittled him in front of a group of other people, including the two Canadians Hugh was originally chatting with.

      I’m just finding it hard to understand why Hugh’s actions were taken so out of proportion, while the woman’s actions were completely ignored. Does she get a free pass just because she’s a woman?

    • Natalie

      Assuming that her behavior was as described by Howey–I am not convinced his account is accurate–then she was obnoxious and rude. But being obnoxious and rude to three people is not in the same league as posting a revenge fantasy for hundreds or thousands of people to read because you’re upset that you didn’t get nominated for an award. Howey is being held to account because his actions were out of proportion to the offense.

      What I am unclear about is why you think he needs you to defend him–over a month later.

    • belindapepper

      Oh, he doesn’t need me to defend him- he doesn’t need anyone too. Personally, I think he’s handled the whole debacle well. But there’s been a lot of people who (within the last week or so) are *still* shooting him down over this. That gets my feathers in a ruffle, regardless of who the victim is, Hugh Howey or no. Those were the people my comments were primarily aimed at when I sat down to write my blog post.
      However, I also stumbled across your post, and wanted to drop my opinion, on account of the fact you’re actually articulate and even-handed.

    • Natalie

      Fair enough! I wasn’t aware that there was still discussion going on around this subject.

      I would hesitate before using the word “victim” to describe Hugh Howey in this situation–I’m pretty sure you can’t be a victim of your own foot being inserted into your mouth. His wounds are entirely self-inflicted.

  5. Shelley Ann Clark

    Absolutely spot-on post, Natalie.

    The implied threat of the “suck it, bitch” at the end of his post, combined with his repeated use of that word throughout, is chilling and terrifying. The idea that calling one woman a bitch is okay as long as you don’t call all women bitches doesn’t really hold up when you apply that idea to other hate speech. (“He only called one gay man a f*ggot, so he’s not a homophobe,” “He only used a racial slur against one person he was mad at, so he’s not racist.”)

    Add in the context of a community that is known, unfortunately, for its sexism, and you get a chilling effect on women who might have braved the genre. It’s yet another sign that this is not for us. It’s a boys’ club. No girls allowed, keep out.

  6. Sunny Moraine

    Gotta love the way he mentioned her appearance, too. That’s always a barrel of charming.

    Thing is, ultimately, I can’t know a person’s intentions and I also don’t give a damn. All I can judge someone on is what they do. I don’t care if you’re really a good person inside, if you love your wife, if you wouldn’t call “most women” bitches. The fact that he thinks that some women – the women he identifies as worthy, of course – are worthy to be called bitches, to be threatened with sexual assault… Yeah, I think that’s actually all I need to know?

    What gives me hope are the number of people I see standing up when something like this happens and declaring loudly that it is unacceptable. And that they are not buying this douchebag’s books.


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