Wednesday, August 15, 2012

On Social Predators and the Abuse of Safe Spaces

There's been a lot of talk lately about Creepy Guys and sexual harassment/assault.  A couple of conversations I've had recently have made me want to make something terribly clear, and explain why it is a large part of the problem.  It's not necessarily the Creepy Guys who break social rules that are problematic.  It's the ones that *follow* them, using them as tools of predation, that make others feel most unsafe.

Throughout my adult life, I've spent most of my time in communities where I was in some way tasked with the safety or conduct of the members of the community.  Online and off, I've been given progressively increasing levels of authority to address the problems of how people treat one another.  And I keep hitting a situation that makes me sadder, and angrier, every single time:

A community develops around a shared idea of openness, respect, and tolerance.  Its members, anxious to preserve a space where people are not judged and ostracized for nontraditional choices, codify that respect and openness into rules for the community.  They appoint people they feel are level-headed and understanding to judge, and maybe reprimand, violations of those rules.  It all goes swimmingly well, because most of what people require is to have pointed out to them that their actions were harmful or disrespectful.  We all do, after all, want the same open space in which we can exchange ideas, and being a jerk gets in the way of that.  For some period of time, we have this excellent space in which we can speak freely and be ourselves.

Into this space comes a predator (I will use 'he' for grammatical clarity, but it isn't necessarily a man).  He sees the structure of the community, and he uses it.  Maybe he strikes up friendships with people in authority.  Maybe he does a lot of work for the group, or picks a side on a cause important to someone within the community.  In an online community, he'll 'like' or upvote the comments of someone susceptible to flattery.  In an offline community, he'll be everyone's buddy and always there to buy a round or take on that unpleasant task.  He has sad stories about the mistreatment at the hands of another group (or groups), maybe a tale of how he made a powerful enemy who poisoned the community and drove him out.  He says things like, "It's so wonderful to be here, where I can be myself, without being judged or belittled."

All the while he does this, he preys on the community.  He builds goodwill and uses it to get favors, trust, money, information.  He takes sexual advantage of community members, or harasses them.  In an online community I frequented, a predator sent me (a community Admin) increasingly nasty sexual fantasies despite my repeated requests for him to stop -- often alongside the same chat room where the two of us were having an apparently civil conversation with several other members of the community.  Within the community, where we had the actual power of established rules, he never stepped out of line and he had some fairly influential friends who defended him as 'socially awkward'.  But around its edges, he drove multiple women away from the group entirely and we could not make him stop.  He acted where we did not have power, and obeyed the rules we had set.  Eventually, I simply blocked him in chat, and ultimately I left the community for a lot of reasons -- quite a few of which can be boiled down to "I did not have the power to tell someone to stop being an asshole, as long as he was an asshole according to the rules and someone was willing to defend him."

In pagan community, we see it as well.  Unwelcome touches around a fire ring, suspicious effects of beverages that *might* just be chalked up to a newbie who didn't know her tolerance, someone who 'wears down' a no until it becomes a "well, OK, maybe."  When we catch it, we call it out, but the predators are so careful to follow the letter of the law.  They're not being overt, they're doing something that just might be an innocent mistake.  We say, "That's not 'a misunderstanding', it's bad conduct," and he says, "OK, now I know," and changes his tack slightly

After several events, we can say "This is a pattern and you don't have a place in this community," but at that point he changes his craft name from RavenSong MoonFlower to RavenMoon SongFlower, and joins a different community to tell a fresh tale of woe and start over again (apologies to any actual RavenSong MoonFlowers or RavenMoon SongFlowers; I don't mean you).  The anonymity that protects a small-town schoolteacher against losing her job protects him as well, because I can't call the safety folks from other festivals and say, "Hey, let me send you a picture of this guy who did this thing," without violating the trust the community has placed in me to protect their identities.  Unlike Readercon, we can't name names openly and I don't know that I would, if we could.  That's a pretty big can of worms.

In the con, fandom, or Rennie communities, he hides out next to the people with Asperger's or legitimate social awkwardness.  They don't see or don't understand social cues, and he ignores them, so from a distance they look the same.  The differences are hard to spot if you're not familiar with some of the conditions, though this article by Arabella Flynn offers some good information about it.

And there is some protection in geeky or 'outsider' communities for people with a legitimate reason to be socially awkward.  No one wants to yell at the kid with Asperger's to stop STARING at you, for fuck's sake, because it's really goddamned creepy -- and just as importantly, no one wants to be seen as the sort of person who'd do that to someone who didn't know better.  So, when people talk about creepy or socially invasive behaviour, the people who defend those who can't help it also end up defending those who are hiding behind them, and the predator gets off watching people try and stop him while others challenge them as discriminatory and intolerant.  When word finally gets around, he's off to another con, another faire, another group.

The communities are different, but the MO remains the same:  use the exact rules intended to create a safe and nonjudgmental space to create a space where you're safe to abuse others at the expense of community harmony.  Exploit the social politics of the infrastructure to position yourself as an unfair target.  Escape the consequences of your actions by abusing the policies that protect innocent people, and move on when it stops being fun.

So, what do we do?  That's the hard part.  I don't really know, and I don't think any one thing will suffice.  We need clearer stated rules.  We need to understand that we have both the right and responsibility to communicate our boundaries.  We need to support those around us when we see that someone is not respecting a boundary, by saying "Hey, didn't she just tell you not to do that?  Why are you still doing it?" loudly and clearly.  We need to stop being so afraid of the idea of judging others that we allow ourselves to be manipulated by even the accusation of intolerance.

Ultimately, we need a cultural change in which predatory behaviour finds no purchase, where someone who disrespects others' boundaries finds himself quickly called out and corrected on multiple fronts.  And if he refuses correction, let him be shunned.  It gets hard to serially prey on communities if you never make it past the first night of a festival, the first day of a con or a faire, the first few weeks in an online community, before someone says to you, "Stop abusing the trust of this space.  Now," and refuses to tolerate you.


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