(This article originally appeared on These Certain Musings in July 2012.)
This story troubles me greatly. It’s taken me awhile to pinpoint exactly–beyond the obvious–why. During this morning’s karate class, I think I figured it out. Now to see if I can articulate it. I’m using a bunch of newbie-author italics and bolds. Oh, well.
The decision made by the Readercon board says to me that harassment happened, and that witnesses backed it up. It says the behavior was not acceptable–but it was excusable. A short-term banning says the boundary-crossing–which I understand included physical contact, correct me if I’m wrong–was determined to be not nice, but not a big deal.
But there’s another notion I want to discuss–a related tangent, if you will–that this situation triggered for me. I don’t think it’s anything new, and it incorporates what others are saying, but I decided to post it anyway. While the situation I’ve read of is the jumping-off point, I am not talking about that specific situation. I’m talking about generalities and probabilities, not specifics and certainties.
Statistically, the larger danger is not the creepy stranger lurking in the bushes, waiting to pounce. It’s the family member or acquaintance who keeps his behavior just inside the lines of what society tells us we should expect to accept, the level of behavior we should treat with subtlety and civility, until he’s ready to attack.
But the primary danger is where society puts those lines.
Alas, many acquaintance attacks begin with the same behavior that many would deem “mere clueless rudeness.” But following from place to place, invading personal space, seemingly casual touching, refusal to stop–all are behaviors we know can lead to a life-threatening attack. We know this at a deep and primal level. That’s why it makes us uncomfortable.
And society as a whole has agreed we may not take defensive action until after the aggressor has attacked. In other words, it’s perfectly cool for the man to say he misinterpreted a woman’s actions, even though the woman is left fearing for her physical safety. But if the woman takes definitive and physical action to stop an attack before it escalates, she is usually blamed for overreacting. Shamed for being rude. Castigated for embarrassing the one who is crossing boundaries.
Y’all know I teach self-defense. One thing we discuss and practice at length is the correlation between distance, time, and safety. The greater the distance between you and danger, the more time there is to react. The more time you have, the greater the likelihood of reaching safety.
But the good manners women are taught draw the lines of “appropriate” response inside an average person’s reaction time, inside the point of likely success. It isn’t the man’s superior strength or size that is most dangerous. It’s the fact we’re not permitted to take action against him until he’s already gained the advantage.
If society wants the woman to take defensive action only after she has been isolated, restrained, or struck, society is placing the woman’s right to protect herself far behind the man’s desire to avoid being embarrassed by his own behavior. Clueless or intentional–I don’t care. The aggressor’s feelings are given a higher value than the woman’s safety. And frankly, it’s the ones who claim cluelessness who are more dangerous. If they claim they don’t understand, “Please leave me alone,” they can’t be trusted to understand, “I don’t want to have sex with you,” either.
There is one thing I try to hammer home–for myself as much as for my students–in an attempt to override that societal conditioning: If someone places an unwanted hand on me, that person has forfeited the right to said hand. If it is on my body, it belongs to me, to do with as I think appropriate for the situation. That might mean a pointed but low-key removal of the hand from my shoulder, or a blatant and painful pinky-finger twist, or something more aggressive.
(If my intuitions–which should be trusted–are telling me the man isn’t going to comply with my words, I hope to all that’s worth hoping to I’d do what I’ve been trained to do. Saying with complete conviction that I’d do X would really be nothing but bravado. We all hope we’ll know what to do, but it’s after you’ve faced a confrontation that you realize how unpredictable it can be. Anyway.)
My actual response isn’t as important as knowing, deep down, that a person who harasses me, touches me, and tries to corner me has forfeited the right to polite words and civilized reactions. I don’t need to be his teacher first, and verbally remind him to be a man rather than asshole. If he hasn’t already learned, that isn’t my problem to solve nor my fault to bear.
If you tell a woman her “appropriate” boundary is within an unwanted hug–when her ability to strike is impaired, her ability to flee gone, and her body possibly at the mercy of another person’s strength and mass–you’ve decided you’d rather see her come to harm than upset the “civilized” nature of an event.
Really think about that for a moment. Consider the term “acceptable losses.” Now put faces to those losses. Put that in context of what price we’re willing to pay to keep those lopsided and threatening situations from being an “embarrassment.” The physical and emotional wellbeing of the person is of less value than the feelings of a man who may choose to pursue a woman who tells him to leave her alone.
Distance = time = safety. No amount of training can compensate for a societal requirement that the woman wait until she is hurt and restrained before fighting back.
I can’t speak to what Readercon’s decision means to those who are involved or those who have faced similar situations. That’s for others–who have more con-going experience than I–to explain and discuss. It’s just this little sliver of self-defense I’m addressing.
1. All of the above applies equally to men who have been assaulted by men or women, and women who have been assaulted by women. I struggled with what pronouns to use, and decided to default to the genders specific to the Readercon situation for the sake of clarity.
2. I’ve had women ask me some variation of, “But what if it’s one of your husband’s friends, and he’s drunk, and he doesn’t mean any harm?” My response is some variation of, “But what if the next time he cops a feel, it’s your teenage daughter?”
3. Yes, it’s possible to turn an unwanted hug to your advantage, but not for the average person. If that nitpick is the best response someone can come up with, I expect it to be followed by, “So let’s give everyone a year’s worth of Krav Maga training!”