Why Women Are Silent (Updated)

When I talk with women friends about sexual harassment it turns out that we’ve all experienced it at some point. But almost none of us have ever reported it. I have never been raped but I have friends who have been. None of them reported it.

The women who do report their rapes often say that it was like being raped all over. They were made to feel like they were the criminal, interrogated about what they wore, how they behaved, how they “provoked” the attack. Somehow the assault must have been their fault. Many say that if they could have a do over they would not report it.

Many of us no longer go to certain places—night clubs, friend’s places, science fiction conventions etc. etc., way too many places to list them all—because we don’t feel safe. Our best friend’s husband/brother/friend/nephew always finds a way to touch us in ways that creep us out. The bouncer at our favourite night club stands too close and won’t take no for an answer. The big name writer/fan/artist keeps following us around and no one will believe us when we complain. We’ve quit jobs to get away from harassers and stalkers.

Some of us have tried to report it and been silenced. “That’s not real harassment.” “You should learn to relax.” “He was just being friendly.” Or even worse, “Look, I know he’s an arsehole but he’s such a big name if we did something about him it would be disastrous.”

The punishment for women who report their harassers is ferocious. I know women who’ve lost their jobs, their health, their confidence, had to move cities. Who because they were brave enough to report the man who harassed them have suffered far more than the man they reported.

So most women don’t report it. We tell each other who the gropers and creepers are. For years women fans warned other fans to stay away from Isaac Asimov’s groping hands. Stories are still told about him. Humorous stories. Because ha ha that loveable Asimov and his wandering hands. What a silly duffer flirt! Harmless, of course. Didn’t mean anything by it.

Almost every job we’ve ever had we’ve been warned about someone. Almost every convention we’ve been to we’ve heard the rumours about who to avoid.

Bummer for the women who aren’t warned and don’t know who to stay away from.

If only these men were punished for making women’s lives a misery. Then we wouldn’t have to rely on gossip to stay safe. If only they were the ones who were fired and not invited back to conventions etc.

That’s why so few women report their harassers and rapists.

Because we live in a culture of apologists. We live in a culture that looks everywhere: at a woman’s clothes, body, behaviour, her being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the reason for why harassment, abuse, rape take place. Everywhere, that is, except at the perpetrator and the culture that enables him.

The culture that teaches the harasser, the rapist, that women’s bodies are up for grabs. Look at how she’s dressed! She’s totally asking for it! Teaches him that a woman who says no to him doesn’t really mean it or is a lesbian or frigid or a bitch and thus deserves whatever happens to her. That a woman who says yes and changes her mind is a tease. That a woman who says yes is a whore and doesn’t deserve her wishes and desires respected beyond that yes. That sex workers can never say no and mean it and so can never be raped and always get what they deserve.

I have heard people make these arguments who I thought were my friends. Who I thought were smarter and better than that. Who I thought shared my values and politics. They did not get those ideas out of nowhere. They are in the air we breathe. Every bit of culture we consume.

How the hell do we change this shithouse world we live in? This world where women’s and children’s word on sexual harassment and abuse is ALWAYS doubted.

Every time we’re brave enough to report our harassers and stalkers and rapists we’re standing up to rape culture. We’re making the world a tiny bit safer. But it is UNBELIEVABLY HARD to do so. I’ve never been brave enough.

We need men to do the reporting too. Men witness their friends harassing women. They need to STOP THEM. They have to speak up when other men make rape jokes. They have to stop laughing when their mates tells a story about sleeping with an unconscious woman or otherwise coercing a woman into sex when she clearly didn’t want it.

I know men who do fight back against rape culture. There need to be more of them. So many more.

I have also seen men change their behaviour. I’ve seen them realise that what they’d been doing was not okay. Despite the fact that their mates and their bosses and their culture said it was. Who realise that the advice they’d been given that “women like to be pursued” that “they don’t mean it when they say no” was crap and making the women they went after’s lives a misery. Not to mention their own lives.

Overwhelmingly it is women and children who are sexually harassed and assaulted and raped. But it does happen to men. Particularly in gaol. And because we live in such a misogynist world, where for a man to be in anyway aligned with a woman is the worst thing ever, those men who are raped are also largely silent and not taken seriously. Because, the twisted logic goes, if they were real men it never would have happened. Clearly they are effeminate and thus were asking for it. Misogyny doing what it does best: making everyone’s life wretched.

This post was inspired by Genevieve Valentine bravely reporting her harasser at a recent science fiction convention. Read her post it’s amazing and I am in awe. Because of Valentine’s actions and of the active support she received from brave allies like Veronica Schanoes the conversation about sexual harassment in the science fiction world has been loud and vigorous and, most importantly, the inadequate initial response of the convention’s board looks to be overturned. (Update: it was overturned. Here’s Readercon’s statement.) Twenty years ago nothing would have happened. Things are getting better.

Yes, way too many people crawled out of the woodwork to explain away the harasser’s behaviour but far more people were moved to action. To support Genevieve and to demolish those stupid apologist arguments. Valentine has a couple of follow-ups on what’s been happening that are well worth reading.

I hate the world we live in. But I also love it. I do think things are getting better. But, oh, so very slowly. But at least we’re having this conversation. When my mother was a girl we weren’t. Hell, when I was a girl it wasn’t the loud and persistent conversation that it is now. That’s something. Not enough, but something.

Comments on this post: Any rape apologies, “harassers are misunderstood,” “why are you trying to ban flirting” etc. comments are going to be nuked. You’ve been warned.


  1. Carolyn Jewel on #

    Thank you for this post. I work in a highly technical job where I am often the only technical woman on the team. Most of the men I work with are great. They don’t care about gender, they only care that the work gets done right. But there are always exceptions and they’re toxic.

    Recently, in passing conversation about a harasser/creep I and many of these men had worked with in the past, I mentioned that all the women in that office made a point of warning other women about him (never walk down a corridor or aisle when he’s there, never let him closer than arm’s length, never be alone in a conference room with him…) and they were shocked that women did this. To which I said, guys, we all do it, at every job. Because there’s always a creep. Always.

    Speak up about things like this, because I think there are an awful lot of decent men who just don’t understand the scope of the problem.

  2. Nicholas on #

    Thank you for mentioning men who have been assaulted in your post. It’s rare to hear a mention of sympathy for us. I hope every one can approach this topic with the intelligent fearless to be heard that you and Mrs valentine have. I agree it’s time we change the culture

  3. Justine on #

    Carolyn Jewel: Yes. All our lives we have heard these stories. But so many men don’t know about it. Men who would sympathise and help spread the word. It’s such a good thing that we’re all starting to talk about it.

    Heath: Wonderful response from the Concom. They’ve handled it perfectly.

    Nicholas: At a very impressionable age I was told in detail what happens to young offenders in gaol and how nothing is done about it and how most of those men never speak of it. I’ll never forget.

  4. Ashley Hope Pérez on #

    Such important words, which remind me why it was important for me to deal with sexual assault in WHAT CAN’T WAIT. It had been a reality for way to many of my female students, and–this was the case for me–some of the hardest emotions for some young women to handle is the question of whether what they experienced was “real” harassment or assault. A near-rape can be deeply traumatic, but often the victim doesn’t feel she has the “right” to the emotions she experiences after.

  5. flit on #

    As a counsellor who works at a rape crisis centre, I can’t help myself but to point out there is more to the bullshit victim blaming crap than just culture–but the only way to combat it is by speaking out. How amazingly brave of the women to speak out about it. I work with victims of sexual harrassment and stalking just as I work with victims of rape, and the long term effects can be just the same. In the case of long-term stalking, it can be more horrific. Any little inch of space that we get to talk about it, we should grab it with both hands and shove it under people’s noses, the more uncomfortable we make people the better.

    Okay, maybe a little rabid feminism going on, but it’s the only way. We like to pretend in geekdom (well, I do) that it’s a safe haven from the bullies. But when I think about it, I’ve never felt safe around other geeks on mass. Too often in conventions hands go where I don’t want them to, and I’m now no longer charmed when someone is ‘surprised’ that I can hold down a conversation about the finer points of sci/fi. I generally now avoid all comic book stores unless I’m walking in with a mass of other women, because at least then we can laugh at the sub-human males (they are definately not all in this category) who think it’s an okay practice. Which sucks arse because I think all those males need is a little education and to stop reading those comics where women are nothing more than blow up dolls.

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