Everybody needs a sherpa

I’ve always been comfortable around guys; for many periods of my life, I’ve been more comfortable with guys than other women. Part of this was about common interests. From preschool to high school, if I wanted to hang out with other people who loved Star Wars and sci-fi/fantasy and punk rock and hobby games, that pretty much left me with male companions. For instance, I was the only female among 23 males in the high school Strategy & Tactics Gaming Club. It wasn’t until I got to college that I met other women who liked the same things I did, but even still, I felt more at home around men. They were less maintenance, less complicated, and to a girl with Asperger’s (though I didn’t know it then), the big surface emotions of my male friends were far easier to navigate, and less fraught with booby-trapped layers of meaning, than my interactions with the majority of the females I knew.

It’s not that hard to get into those male social groups. You prove you can give as good as you can get on crass humor and double (or, in the case of high school guys, single) entendres. You show that you can avoid overt emotional displays that make them uncomfortable, but also that you can be a silently commiserating soundingboard on those occasions (read: breakups) that demanded support and solidarity.

I was so successful at this that I sat, one female in a car with six other males, through a one-hour conversation about all the mysteries of the fairer sex. Only ten minutes from home–after a pee break on the side of the country road, in which I clearly did not participate, for heaven’s sake–did someone pipe up, in a tone of dawning discovery, “Hey! Jess is a girl! We can ask Jess!” I didn’t know whether to be insulted that this feature of my identity had been so thoroughly forgotten, or flattered that I’d assimilated into their group so seamlessly. The sudden and emphatic arrival of the Boob Fairy around my junior year of high school was the only thing that disturbed my status, but even that came to be regarded as a sort of personal quirk, as if I’d shaved my head without warning–a change, to be sure, but superficial and easily ignored once the novelty had passed. So I’ve got a very thick skin when it comes to matters of sexism and creepiness. Part of that also came as defense in the wake of my sexual assault and abusive relationship–if every expression of sexism has the capacity to personally wound, how would any person ever recover from overt damage?

Obviously, though, because I’m an attentive, intelligent, enlightened woman, I perceive sexism in my environment, as it’s expressed both individually and institutionally. There’s been a great deal of discussion about this lately, especially in the context of the Internet. Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown collected comments from fellow female bloggers, made by men, attacking them specifically and often violently as women when they didn’t agree with their arguments; in many cases, the initial argument had absolutely nothing to do with gender. A Twitterstorm blew up around similar attacks on women who play multi-user video games. The basic pattern is this, for those of you who haven’t followed these discussions: Woman says X. Man disagrees with X. Man does not say, “I disagree with X because of Y.” Man instead says, “You’re a stupid whore for thinking X. I hope someone rapes you to death.” Woman decides to shut up instead of writing about Z. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see sexism in this.

A secondary pattern has emerged when lots of my fellow smart, sensitive friends of both genders discuss the ways in which the enviroment for women is not the same as men. People of earlier generations thought they were being enlightened and anti-racist by saying, “I don’t see race” or “There are no black or white people; we’re all our own individual shades of human.” This is no longer acceptable, because duh, of course we see race, and racism is real, and pretending it’s not relevant doesn’t fix anything. Similarly, some men, when confronted with something which screams SEXISM to women, say well-meaning but unhelpful things like “No, no, it’s not sexism, it’s this other thing,” or (even more maddeningly) “You say those behaviors make you feel scared/threatened/objectified? No, you actually feel this other thing.” As if my lady parts somehow impaired my feelings.

Here’s the thing: If someone feels a particular way in response to something, that’s how they feel. That feeling is valid, and they really are feeling it, even if it’s completely incomprehensible to you how they could feel that way. You can try to explain how you see that something differently, but it is Highly Inadvisable to tell someone that they are feeling it wrong, especially if you are not a member of the class that is particularly singled out or threatened by that thing. So if a person of color says something feels racist to them, or a woman says something feels sexist to them, the correct answer is, “I’m sad to hear that you’re so upset by that” or “I can tell it really bothers you.” In fact, this is just a general Rule of Thumb in life–people feel how they feel, and nobody knows better than they do what those feelings are.

Nobody would argue that some of these situations are clearly sexist.  I’ve had entire conversations in which I felt like I, too, should be looking at my breasts. But the saddest thing about this whole sexism debate is that, often within geek/nerd culture, there’s a fundamental disconnect between a man’s intention and a woman’s reception. Things that men do to express their admiration for women frequently make those women feel creeped out, the exact opposite reaction the men are trying to elicit. I’ve known guys who lavished extravagant compliments, frequently couched in quasi-faux-RenFaire-style language and great flourishing gestures, on women who are painfully embarrassed at being singled out for such attention. Those women seek to put as much distance between themselves and that attention as possible, and contrary to the man’s intention, they feel objectified–they feel that all that flowery language and dramatic attention would be directed at any woman, by virtue of being a woman. The objectified gaze is not the same thing as the public gaze. Sure, this sounds very Women’s Studies 101, but it’s true nonetheless. There’s a world of difference between being looked at and admired for a striking, elaborate costume or a particularly smart/funny/insightful comment, and being stared at like a piece of meat.

But sexism is so much more than this, and it’s so complicated, even women argue about this stuff. And frankly, a lot of it is gut reaction. Anyone would feel threatened if someone says, “I hope someone stabs you to death.” You get a cold ball in the pit of your stomach and a hot rush up the back of the neck. You feel queasy, your vision blurs, the space around you seems to shift unexpectedly. You need to run. This is primal stuff–flashes of neurochemicals deep in your amygdala and hippocampus–pure lizard brain, fight-freeze-or-flee response. It’s your danger sense. It can save your life.

But it doesn’t only get triggered by death threats. Those same chemicals kick in when someone’s creeping on you, and you can’t always explain it. I’ve never been explicitly threatened with sexual violence at a gaming convention, but I’ve been creeped on. The time that sticks out most vividly had no sexual overtones at all. The guy started with the extravagant attention that I described earlier, despite the presence of my husband at the table and a two month old baby in my arms. He made persistent decisions that forced our characters into proximity, and he “roleplayed” that with physical proximity that violated all acceptable boundaries among strangers. This man was so close and so loud and so intrusive, he actually startled my son awake; the baby wouldn’t stop crying until I left the room entirely. I shook badly, and worked to swallow my nausea as my husband and friends tried to comfort me. My reaction was as violent as the one that followed a too-close brush with stranger rape years earlier.

I can’t explain this, but if someone tried to convince me I shouldn’t have felt threatened or completely creeped out because I wasn’t in actual danger, or that the root of that interaction wasn’t sexist, I may slap that person. My feelings were very real, and therefore very valid. I have an unexpectedly strong sensory memory of that event even now, almost ten years later. And, really, do you want to train women to turn off that response? Do you want women to stop listening to those early, physically rooted danger senses that tell them something is not quite right? It happens, you know–women are taught to mistrust those feelings. It’s called gaslighting, from the unforgettable Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer movie Gaslight. When women stop listening to their danger sense–that creeped-out feeling–it makes it easier to manipulate and abuse them.

So please, don’t tell anyone who says they’re feeling singled out, discriminated against, or creeped out that they’re not entitled to feel that way. Racism and sexism are real, and they have undeniable histories (and current realities) of violence. If someone tells you that what you’re doing is creepy, just stop. If you don’t understand why that behavior registers as creepy, ask others. If they say, “If you can’t tell, I can’t help you,” keep asking until someone explains it in a way you can understand.

This stuff is as complicated as human nature, and everyone needs a guide, women just as much as men. If you want to understand, surround yourself with sherpas–folks who have seen the terrain before, know where the pitfalls and footholds are, and can explain the culture you’re exploring. Don’t have someone you feel you can ask? Ask me. Gods know, I wish I’d had the knowledge I have now, back when my high school friends asked me for the secrets of the feminine mind. They could’ve really used a good sherpa.


  • Another amazing blog post. I really appreciate the last two paragraphs, too.

    • You’re so welcome; thanks so much for sharing your positive reaction. One of the things that always frustrates me about articles on sexism is that they’re full of accusations and examples of offensive behavior, but they never finish the thought and explain what to do differently. I wanted to fill that gap in some small way.

  • I’m going to break on of your rules, and possibly frustrate you here. But that creepy guy at the gaming table wasn’t just being sexist, though that was a part of what he was doing, he was being a predator and a bully.

    Was he doing so in a sexist manner? Yes, but the most important part of his actions was the predatory and “creepiness” of his actions. He might not have specifically threatened you with violence, but your danger sense was spot on. I’m sorry to say this, but I wouldn’t trust that guy to not actually physically harm someone.

    Other than that small quibble, I think this is a valuable post and must read for male gamers. It’s amazing how often the “Penny Arcade Internet Anonymity” phenomenon turns into hateful attacks against women in conversations about gaming — though certainly not limited to gaming.

    Tracy Hurley has had venom thrown at her because she wants to offer a freely accessible library of images of women in fantasy and people of color in fantasy that break stereotypes. She is offering it for free…herself…and she gets flak and abuse?

    That’s crazy. It’s reflexively sexist and racist.

    By the way, I agree with Jeremy that the last two paragraphs are important. Some people do just have low Emotional Intelligence, and I shouldn’t assume that they are all predators…it’s just my creepy meter went off when I read your Con example and I’ve been at tables/LARPs where similar things occurred.

    • Here’s why I say it was sexist, though: if I were not a woman, he wouldn’t have felt like he could transgress those boundaries. I could tell that by the overly flattering, pedestal-putting behavior that preceded the out-and-out creeping. Sure, not every creepy act is based in an -ism, but when they only creep on women (or insult people of color, for another example), you’ve got to call that out so people can add that to their personal algorithm of “What Sexism Looks Like.” It’s how people raise that emotional intelligence for future reference.

      • There is a book by Gavin Beck called, “The Gift of Fear,” which is about learning to recognize and trust the instinct that says, ‘Danger, Will Robinson, danger.’ I found it super useful, since my own was trained out of me before I figured out how to recognize it.

        It is also handly for folks on the other end, to be able to pattern map what in their behavior is setting up a response from other folks. (I should warn: parts of it may be triggering for survivors. It describes encounters in specific enough detail to analyze them, and some of it is upsetting stuff.)

        This post made me think of that book, in terms of trusting your instincts and listening to the voice in the back of your head as valid, regardless of wether an objective observer would see it the same way. I wonder if the urge to defend that feeling is in essence defending your own sense of what you feel and your right to defend yourself? Good stuff to trust, in any case.

        • Thanks for the book rec, Deborah. I’ve seen it before, but never read it myself. It’s an interesting topic to me, especially because my whole problem with Boo seems to be related to having a frotzed fight-freeze-or-flight response. Some have suggested that it’s a leftover from PTSD; others think there’s a tie to the general nervous problems that go with fibro.

          In any case, between that and the Asperger’s, it’s a constant struggle for me, too, to figure out when to listen and when to ignore. But it’d be nice to know that, when I’m at places like cons, I don’t have make so many judgment calls because people are being responsible for their own behavior.

  • I’m just thinking of the situation from a “rapist” mindset. No, the person didn’t commit rape, but the person put you in a situation where your danger sense thought that you were physically vulnerable — and rightly so.

    The actions were predatory. Sex played a part, but only in so much as that individuals sexual orientation and perceptions of your weakness. Those perceptions of weakness were — in all likelihood — based on your gender, but were not limited to them. Your child was a victim, your husband was a victim, everyone at the table was a victim. Even as you were the most victimized.

    I guess what I’m saying is that it was more than sexism going on, and not that “it wasn’t sexism but it was x.” I’ve seen this kind of behavior during sessions with LGBT players as well, where one LGBT player was acting this way toward the other.

    That’s all I’m getting at. Sexism isn’t — as you have already pointed out — always predatory, but it’s always wrong. Sexism can be dismissive, it can be mean, it can be insulting, it can be many things. All of those are true. But when things shift into sexual predatory activity, I just prefer to call it sexually predatory activity.

    “This man was so close and so loud and so intrusive, he actually startled my son awake; the baby wouldn’t stop crying until I left the room entirely.”

    The above and the sentence that follows are what make me put this into the predatory category.

    I am sorry, but this guy makes me like berserker angry. Most sexism just makes me frustrated or annoyed, but this touches a nerve. Having had friends who have been sexually assaulted, my body chemistry gets really worked up with stories like this.

    • I see the distinction you’re making, and that’s a legitimate hair to split. I should clarify one thing: sexism obviously isn’t restrained to inter-gender interactions. Women can be just as sexist to one another as men are to women, and all possible reorganizations of that equation. And yes, definitely sexual predation isn’t limited to male-on-female or hetero or any of that.

      I’m a survivor of sexual assault myself, so my initial impressions and lasting memories of that event are heavily colored by a lizard brain chemical stew. He still attends Gen Con, as does the poor GM who was running his own homebrew game. Every time Cam or I run into the GM, he apologizes again for having been so powerless–you’re absolutely right that everyone at that table was victimized and violated by that one person’s actions.

  • Awesome post!

    Like you, I spent most of my time around boys as a kid. I had to prove that I deserved to be there, but once that happened, things got better. One interesting bit from that experience is the realization about how much my society tended to separate boys and girls.

    I was a Girl Scout. For the most part I enjoyed it, especially when our leaders decided to do a big trip to Boston with us. I didn’t really get along with the other girls enough for it to be fun hanging out with them, but one of the moms on the trip and I clicked. There were also two boys, a chaperone’s son and his friend.

    Tired of feeling out of place, I decided to sit down with “the boys” during one of our meals. We had a pleasant conversation and then it was back on the bus for more sightseeing.

    The questions came out as soon as the bus started moving. Why were you flirting with the boys? Who do you think you are? I was confused; all I did was talk to them, something I do every day. But suddenly it had meaning. Then, lots of questions about how a girl can just talk to a boy? What do you talk about? I had no idea what to say.

    This is one of those moments where I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I could tell those girls that it’s ok to talk to boys, that just talking to a boy shouldn’t be seen as flirting. Seriously, I have to talk to men all the time now. I wonder how those girls, now women, deal with those mixed messages and, just as importantly, how the boys and men deal with it.

    Anyway, that’s one of the strange stories from my past that really made me question gender roles and society and how it influences even the small things in our lives.

    • On the flip side, I’m watching my sons grow up very content with girl friends as well as boy friends. There are some of the dynamics that society fosters–they clown, girls giggle; they get teased about marriage, sitting in trees, etc.–but for the most part, it’s all remarkably drama-free.

      The boys get frustrated when the girls’ whole demeanor and willingness to play more physically changes when other girls show up, but I remind them that everyone can be many different people, depending on the situation. I do my gentle best to remind the girls of that as well, if only to delay that tragic day when some other girl(s) may force them to choose between their interests and their social acceptance.

      The 6yo’s two best friends are girls (the 9yo nicknamed them Betty and Veronica, and it’s very very fitting), and that’s fun to watch, but the space between intention and reception is like a DMZ with my autistic 9yo. I spend a lot of time in that zone, translating both when his actions don’t land the way he meant them and when he feels angry/hurt at his peers’ actions when they didn’t mean anything by it. It’ll be interesting to see how all this extra work translates into greater sensitivity later in life (I hope!).

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