Failure Isn’t Forever, and the Man Who Wasn’t There.

One of the things in the air following the recent Readercon creeper mess is women writing about their own sexual harassment experiences at conventions, so often with codas of: “I should have been stronger! I should have been tougher! I should have made myself clearer! I should have set firmer boundaries!” And while that’s only natural it’s also unfair, self-castigating, and precisely aligned with the sort of victim-blaming behavior that needs to be forcefully stamped out wherever it pops up.

At the risk of coming off like that shudder-inducing tool Boy in Outer Space, it’s not your fault for having no idea what the hell you’re doing the first time you unexpectedly encounter an incredibly stressful situation, as when someone invades your personal space, takes advantage of you, or outright harasses you. It’s a keen encounter– your adrenalin is gushing, your pulse pounding in your head, and no doubt part of you is trying hard to disbelieve that something so unpleasant can really be happening. You may even be actively second-guessing yourself. It usually takes experience to evolve smoother, quicker, more forceful reactions. There is nothing wrong with you for not having been born with them.

ARCHIE GATES: “The way it works is, you do the thing you’re scared shitless of, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it. ”

CONRAD VIG: “That’s a dumbass way to work. It should be the other way around.”

ARCHIE GATES: “I know. That’s the way it works.”

-From Three Kings, (1999)


The first time I entered a burning structure as a member of a firefighting hose team, I was barely in control of myself. I shook like mad. I hardly did anything decisive or useful. Six years have since passed. I’ve walked through fire, climbed up to it, crawled down stairs into it. I’ve had ceilings and melted fiberglass come down on my head. Burning houses, burning garages, burning car engines, I’ve had my face in them all. I’ve learned to breathe more slowly, think more carefully, cut out panicky speculation and useless side-thoughts. It’s never easy. I’m always scared shitless. But I’ve evolved the ability to select and maintain useful action over less constructive behavior like, say, curling myself into a little ball and yelling, “Computer! Freeze Program!” over and over again until someone else drags me back into fresh air.

The ability to choose useful action under stress is a learnable skill. Practice makes courage. It also makes decisions move so quickly and smoothly as to be indistinguishable from courage. Either one will do. The point is, while you can certainly try to prepare yourself in advance with useful training and resources, you can only directly acquire smoothness at dealing with harassment in the most unpleasant way possible– by dealing with it.

So it’s no moral failure to not come out swinging and screaming the first time you realize you’re being made uncomfortable by someone else’s creepy behavior. Deliah Dawson writes about this at length in “dear dudes: don’t tell me how to lace my corset,” which is worth a read.


Even with that said, the whole “could have done more” shtick is a classic component of victim-blaming, a key element in rape/harassment culture used to turn all agency, all responsibility, all possible blame back upon the victim. The seemingly sensible, seemingly helpful question, “Oh, but could she* have done more?”

The thing about this question is that the goalposts tend to move, and move, and move, further and further away from assigning any fraction of responsibility to the actual creep. More is always open-ended, always followed by ellipses. “Oh, you got raped? Well, couldn’t you have run? Couldn’t you have run faster? Couldn’t you have run faster and climbed a fence? Couldn’t you have run like an Olympic sprinter, climbed a fence, and leapt onto a passing bus?”

The subtext of “couldn’t she have done more?” is always “oh, she obviously didn’t want to avoid that rape/harassment quite enough.” Whatever the questioner would deem “sufficient” can always just lie one step beyond what was actually done. Thus it becomes, gradually or all at once, none of the perpetrator’s responsibility and entirely the victim’s.

This is a mode of thinking intended to erase one human actor from the equation, leaving only one possible conclusion: Somehow the victim did this to herself.

The perpetrator becomes, by magic, the Man Who Wasn’t There, and we pretend that sexual harassment/violence is some natural phenomenon, like pollen or bad weather, that women just happen to walk into. We pretend that it doesn’t stem from human actions or choices, except the actions or choices of the victim.

Imagine that a man heaves a bucket of cold water all over a woman. Soaked, shocked, the woman appeals to passers-by for help, pointing to the man, who stands there laughing and enjoying her consternation. “Who the hell does he think he is?” asks the woman, but the passers-by completely ignore the man with the bucket. Instead they ask the woman why she wasn’t carrying an umbrella, since she ought to have known it might rain.

A small yet still depressing number of people right now are patting themselves on the back for asking “Why didn’t Genevieve Valentine just carry an umbrella and a raincoat with her at all times?” The question they ought to be trying is, “What the hell did Rene Walling think he was up to, following her around with that bucket of cold water?”


*Women aren’t the only victims of sexual harassment/assault, yet male-on-female incidence of the phenomenon so far outstrips all others, and is so obviously what the case presently under discussion is about, that I’ll consign any attempt to divert the discussion on this point to moderation purgatory.




7 thoughts on “Failure Isn’t Forever, and the Man Who Wasn’t There.

  1. There are a lot of incidents like this–undoubtedly far more than are reported–but in the cases where they are raised in public by some brave individual like Genevieve Valentine the ensuing discourse follows a relentlessly stereotyped pattern. The very fact you felt obliged to strongly constrain acceptable comments suggests you know what that pattern is.

    Since this pattern of discourse has played itself out many times over the last decade we can be pretty sure it will have the same effect this time on future harassers as it has in the past: zero.

    So my question is: how to we get beyond this? What can we do that will have the effect of producing a better type of man, such that no one would see Rene Walling’s indefensible behaviour as anything other than indefensible?

    My own take is to focus on what it means to be a man in the modern world. I don’t see this as a problem for men alone, but a problem for everyone. Our social ideal of manhood is broken, and it seems to me that a productive discourse would be focused on fixing it.

    We threw the baby of a new kind of manhood out with the bathwater of patriarchy, and while we’re well-shut of the latter (insofar as we are) we need to rescue and nurture the former. This will not only have the effect of reducing the number of women subject to the pathetic failings of broken men, it will reduce the number of broken men, and I think the latter should be our goal.

  2. I’d even say, a perpetrator and a target. To say “victim” makes a lot of assumptions, too.

    The other issue is that while of course any target of this behavior will second-guess her own actions, and it’s certainly not a bad thing to attempt to learn verbal and social self-defense skills, the difference between that and Scott walking (crawling) into a burning building is that Scott has made the choice to put himself in that position, and taken the responsibility upon himself to do so for the benefit of others.

    It’s not the target’s choice to be harassed, and it’s not her responsibility to avoid it or protect herself. It comes down to the old joke about Rape Awareness: “Men! Don’t rape!”

    No, I know that Scott’s not suggesting that it is–he’s pointing out that it’s in fact not a moral failing not to know how to respond when confronted with a crisis situation, and targets of harassment need not to be held accountable for their harasser’s behavior. But I felt like it’s a point that needed to be made, especially in light of incidents such as this one:

  3. it’s not your fault for having no idea what the hell you’re doing the first time you unexpectedly encounter an incredibly stressful situation,

    Or the second time, or the tenth, or the hundredth.

    The ability to choose useful action under stress is a learnable skill.

    But not necessarily one that everybody would want to learn, even they are “given the chance” to do so. It’s not a moral failing to never figure that kind of shit – the shit that just shouldn’t fucking happen in the first place – out.

  4. I hadn’t heard about this scandal (which actually isn’t that surprising– although I am an unabashed fantasy nerd, I have never attended any of the cons, and therefore don’t follow their affiliated news very closely). I just read about it in detail — at the expense of my interminable med school apps — and wanted to thank you for giving this issue some attention. It’s always nice when your favorite authors show signs of being thoroughly decent human beings, too. :)

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