I was at dinner with some friends on Tuesday night, discussing the sad sack of fail who ruined many a party at the 2011 World Fantasy Convention in San Diego by getting drunk and sexually harassing some of the women in attendance. Some of the women I was eating with said it wasn’t that bad, and that when a man harasses you, you’re just supposed to twist his thumb or take his hand away or yell at him loudly enough to shame him. In some cases, these tactics work. In others, they don’t.
When I was fourteen years old, I was harassed by an upper classman at my school. It was after class, and the hallways were empty. He called me over to him, asked me for a hug, and because I was naive, I gave him one. Then he started kissing me and groping me. I managed to push away and walk down the hall as fast as I could, smiling like a nice girl the whole time and saying I’d see him later. Inside, I was shaking and sick. What if I really did have to see him later? What if he cornered me? What if he followed me? What would I do?
I was fourteen. He was sixteen. I was ninety-five pounds. He was probably over a hundred and fifty. He was huge. To hug him, I had to stand on my toes. To get away, I had to wriggle like a worm. And that’s what I felt like — a worm.
When I told my school’s vice-principal, she said: “Well, you know, that boy’s a little slow. And you have such a cute little body. He couldn’t control himself.”
I’ve had a complicated relationship with my body ever since. On the one hand, I want it to have the power that attractiveness brings. I want it to be healthy and desirable. I want it to be good enough. On the other, I hate it for even existing.
Schools, churches, community groups, conventions, and gatherings of all sorts need harassment policies not because the laws we have aren’t good enough (although in some cases they aren’t), but because sometimes, people in positions of authority react the way my vice-principal did. They say it’s all okay in context. They say it’s your body’s fault. And when there’s a strict policy in place, there’s less of a chance that’ll happen. At least, there’s less of a chance that it’ll happen and the people in charge will stay in charge.
It’s great if you’re a tough, brassy lady who can shout “Anybody missing a hand? ‘Cause I’ve got an extra one on my ass!” when she gets groped. But sometimes, we’re just not that tough. Sometimes, we’re fourteen. Sometimes, we’re alone and there’s no help in sight. Sometimes, we worry about being uncool, or too sensitive, or that deep down it was really all our fault.
My writer friends sometimes bring their young daughters to industry events — conventions, signings, launches. And as they grow into that “special age” during which they “become women,” I’ll have my eye out. Because I want that age to be truly special for them, a time when becoming women means wrapping themselves in the mantle of their power, and not learning that someone else’s inappropriate behaviour is their responsibility.