I learned something about myself at RWA this year.
Ok, I learned many things about myself. I learned that I cannot hang with Texas salsa—my Midwesterner taste buds are pepper-challenged. I learned that, yes, it’s still just as easy as ever to make me cry at a keynote speech about the hope and succor and comfort that books in this genre offer to readers. I learned that I don’t just have a second wind, but a third and even sometimes a fourth wind.
And I learned, or was reminded, of how well trained I am to shrug off harassment, to ignore being mistreated by someone, to declare that “it’s no big deal” when a man is inappropriate.
I also learned, or was reminded, of how much easier it is to access my ability to act when I am doing so on another woman’s behalf.
On Friday morning, I got on the elevator with two other women to head down to the lobby. A man was standing in the back corner of the elevator and after a moment he interrupted our conference chat.
“Do you want to go on a sex date with me?”
My brain doesn’t always process speech quickly, especially when it’s completely out of context to the situation. So I just looked at him for a moment while the other two women said, “No” and looked away. I think that if I had understood what he was saying and felt like it was directed to me, I might have done much the same.
But by the time I figured out what he’d said, aided by his helpfully repeating himself, I was furious on their behalf.
“You don’t talk like that to women. EVER. That is not okay. Do not say that to any woman. EVER.”
I was in lecture mode immediately, feeling protective and outraged on behalf of these women who were so clearly uncomfortable (as anyone would be while being sexually harassed in a tiny, enclosed space) and just hoping the elevator would hit the lobby as quickly as possible.
We all got off the elevator on the same floor and the man walked away. I didn’t realize that he’d walked in the direction I was headed until I sat down on a bench next to the friends I was meeting and saw that he was already sitting two benches away.
“See that guy over there?” I said in my not-at-all lowered voice. “He just asked me and two other women in the elevator if we wanted to go on sex dates with him. Yes. THAT guy.” I told the group what had just happened, but I was also ready to break out my laptop and get to work on my edits.
My friend Shelley Ann Clark was the first person to ask, “Did you report him to security?”
It honestly hadn’t even occurred to me to do so.
I have been harassed so many times in my life, that it’s just become a part of my background noise. Stranger in the elevator asks for a sex date? Quelle surprise. That was far less shocking that the guy ahead of me in line at the 7-Eleven once who stared at my breasts until I told him to stop and then told me, “Why don’t you grow some tits?” That time, the cashier grimaced and shrugged and tried to get the guy to check out and pay as quickly as possible, but no one other than me said anything. It was certainly less shocking than the time my boss’s friend whistled me over for a drink while I was tending bar and when I jokingly (not-so-jokingly) scolded him, “I know you didn’t just whistle for me like I’m a dog, right?”, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Well, I’m sure my dog is smarter than you are, so how about you just get me a drink?”
Elevator Sex Date man?
Not even on my radar.
He was on Shelley’s though. She, and my other friends, told me that I really ought to report it to security. After asking my permission, Shelley actually left and walked to the front desk to alert them to this guy. She left and I sat there with my phone in my hand, and I was still uncertain about what I should do. It is so deeply ingrained in me that harassment isn’t a big deal. That no one is going to do anything about it. That I just need to suck it up and move past it.
Finally, the voices in my head united in agreeing that Shelley was right. I called Security and had just gotten them on the phone when the man in question moved to another bench near us and sat next to a woman who was reading. I was in the middle of telling them that I thought he was probably harassing another woman right now when I heard my friends gasp and say, “He just grabbed her.”
The man had his hand on the back of her neck. The woman very loudly told him to stop touching her and attempted to get up and move away from him. He didn’t let go. It honestly looked to me as if he were attempting to pull her out the hotel doors right next to us and into the mall.
Social conditioning is a powerful thing. But it works in more than one way and sometimes it comes into conflict with itself. I felt no urge whatsoever to do something about the harasser for myself, but once he escalated to assaulting another woman? I was on my feet in an instant, chasing him out the door, shouting and putting myself in between him and the woman he’d grabbed, because I am also conditioned to be protective and that instinct was more powerful than the one that minimized his harassment of me.
The elasticity of time is always a marvel to experience in an adrenalin-filled moment. During the two minutes that lasted a half hour as we yelled at him (because my friends and even a random man nearby in the mall all jumped in), I had so much time to think about what was happening. We were protecting her. We were chasing him off. But also not trying to chase him too far, because I knew hotel security was on their way. We were bracing ourselves for him to turn violent (or at least I was, as I realized when he took a step towards me once and I immediately retreated back through the glass door of the hotel), which he never did.
And all of it felt so good. It feels powerful to stand up and shout and threaten someone when they are aggressively hurting others. It feels powerful to know that standing right behind you are women who have your back and are ready to step in. As support, as witnesses, to take the lead if you get tired or scared or just overwhelmed. And afterwards, my friends offered to get the woman who had been grabbed anything she needed. They walked her to meet her lunch date (her mom, which must have felt like safety personified.) They exchanged cards with her and offered her company at any hour of the day or night so that she would never have to sit alone at the conference anywhere, if she wanted to feel safe. They followed up with emails and tweets to make sure she was doing okay.
I follow a lot of SFF and comic book community members online. For the past several years, there has been an ongoing and escalating conversation about harassment at conventions, the need for explicit policies and plans to handle it, and the regular and disappointing failure of even the savviest of cons to get it right.
There’s a little part of me that wants to brag about how awesome the romance writing community is after everyone’s response to this incident at RWA.
There’s a bigger part of me that needs to apologize with sincere regret both to the woman who was assaulted by this man and to the rest of my conference attendees. (I am not mentioning her name in case she would rather not relive the moment online.) I didn’t act fast enough. I didn’t take our right to exist in the world with freedom and safety seriously enough. I know better. I will do better. I promise you that.
And that man?
A security guard from the San Antonio Mariott Rivercenter came running up as we were still yelling at the harasser outside the hotel/mall entrance. When the guy took off with the guard chasing after him, I thought, “Well, he’s never going to catch him in that crowd at the mall. We’re going to have to alert the entire conference to be on the lookout for this guy.” But Mr. Charles Rodriguez of the Marriott team is committed to protecting his hotel guests. He chased the man through the mall and into the parking garage, before running him down and calling the police. The San Antonio bicycle police officers on the scene said that he would be charged with assault, trespassing, and possession. I can’t thank the hotel, and Mr. Rodriguez in particular, enough for acting swiftly and without hesitation in support of our safety.
I will attempt to learn from their example.
ETA: I wrote a follow-up post, Don’t Judge – Further Thoughts on Harassment, here.