So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

02 August, 2012

Readercon: On "Socially Awkward"

I don't know how many people who are currently reading me have any feelers in the SF fandom community, something which I have been on the fringes of in the past and may again, someday, if I ever get back to working with fiction routinely.

But in any case: there was a recent convention called Readercon, which happens to be located about five or ten minutes from where I lived until last fall.  I never managed to attend; I had always been Meaning To Do So Sometime (one of the founders was enthusiastic about my potential enjoyment of the con; eventually, I also had a friend running programming), but honestly my social resources are sharply limited so I don't get out much in general.

Genevieve Valentine, an author attending the convention, was sexually harassed by a Big Name Fan, Rene Walling.  Readercon had a policy of lifetime bans for harassers, which had been implemented previously; Walling got a two-year suspension.  The internet exploded.  You can find a collection of posts on the subject here.

Among the many things that has been said is, roughly, "But but but but what if this man is an Aspie!", a matter which has been responded to by others.  And people have even noticed that, y'know, maybe this particular "sexual harassment is done by socially awkward people, so we have to be forgiving of their disability" strawman is perhaps the prime way that geeky/nerdy subcultures forgive assault and rape.

And a couple of people said something that i'm frankly embarrassed to have not come up with on my own:  if we're going to make spaces that are extra-forgiving of people who are socially awkward, how about the socially awkward women that are getting hit on, huh?

You know why this is embarrassing?

Because the fact that I'm a socially awkward woman is kind of a big chunk of why I have GODS-BE-FEATHERED FLASHBACKS.

(And is not unrelated to why I haven't had the spoons to go to Readercon in the first place.)

I actually saw a conversation that raised "Well, what about socially awkward women?" as a question that was promptly derailed into "Well, they shouldn't be touching people without consent either!"

As if.

As fucking if.

There's this goddamn myth that women are all fucking supergeniuses about body language, about indirect and oblique communication, about communicating in fucking smoke signals.  That, for example, "autistic" is something that only happens to people marked "male", and that the rare woman who is socially inept is the Creepy Stalker Ex type.

And apparently the fannish communication system doesn't have space for the wallflowers, the lurkers, the people who spent too much time reading to actually know how to talk to people easily.  At least ... if those people are women.

Don't know how to communicate - either subtextually or verbally - that attention is unwanted?  Get very flustered by social contact that is outside of a reasonably small comfort zone?  Tend towards that often-ignored 'freeze' response instead of fight-or-flight in social situations that go over a very low stress threshhold?  Only able to communicate with anything resembling fluidity with people one knows well and has had time to build a cognitive model for?  Get completely overwhelmed with anxiety when a situation might lead to any form of negative response?  Highly dependent on sidelong watching of other people to figure out whether or not behaviour is inappropriate?

You might be "socially awkward"!

And you might be all of that and appear female.  'Cos that there?  That's me at the age I was nearly raped.  It's still me, in a lot of ways, I just have much more sophisticated coping mechanisms than I did twenty years ago.

Now let's imagine someone like that.  (For some of us this will be easier than for others.)  They don't have to be "on the spectrum" or anything; as far as I know I'm allistic.  Let's imagine that she's participated in fandom online, gotten to know a few folks, and been convinced that a convention is a social gathering for people basically like her: sharing enthusiasms, probably a little socially awkward in some ways but we understand that and it's okay, we make allowances.  She checks her budget and decides to try a con.  Maybe she travels for it; maybe there's something local to her.  Doesn't matter.

She makes it to the con.  She makes it to registration, picks up her badge, gets a program, looks at interesting panels.  She finds a few names she recognises, makes note of them, wonders anxiously if they will remember her, if they'll actually think she's worth spending any time with in the vastly more energy-investing meatspace.  She lurks at the back of panels, completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of people present - and even a small con is gigantic.

(Back when I went to cons, I don't think I ever did more than two a year.  They completely wrecked me, in that 'that was fun while it was happening but now I have a hangover that will last at least two weeks from just the amount of social management it required to get through that without dying of mortification'.  I actually had an easier time with larger cons, energy-management-wise, due to the sense of anonymity they provided me.  Get to a certain size and the standard billing of fandom as being a place for people-like-me who should be treated as extended family becomes the giant laugh that it actually is, and I stop trying to figure out if I'm going to offend Distant Cousins Francis and Alex with something about my posture, my lack of conversational segues, my incorrect jargon terms (like saying "sci-fi", gasp), my tendency to fall totally silent, or my interruptions.  Or, you know, any of the other weird things that I tend to do and don't know about and thus have inchoate anxiety about whether or not I'm causing distress by.)

So.  She's at the con.  It is completely overwhelming, beyond what she entirely anticipated, but she is at least more or less enjoying herself, in a stressy kind of way.  Eventually she ventures out of the more regulated spaces of the panels or the anonymous free-for-all of the dealers' room into the consuite, or a room party where some of her online friends said they might be hanging out, or something.  Yes: she is brave enough to venture ...

... socialising.

Maybe someone notices the unfamiliar face and strikes up a conversation.  Maybe there's a Moxie-drinking station set up in the corner (for those not in the know: Moxie tastes like flat root beer with a Listerine chaser, and I would not know this if it weren't for a con).  Maybe she gets some cheese and crackers and sits down to amiably listen to the conversations, because that's comfortable and reasonably safe.

Now: someone approaches.  He's a little too close, a little too familiar, maybe a little handsy.

And she freezes.  Maybe she looks around to see how other people react: whether they're standing too close to each other, touching each other, or indeed whether they notice how this guy is behaving and find it notable.  She doesn't know if she feels unsafe because he's violating social norms or because she's socially fragile, and she knows that she's socially fragile, so hey - that's probably the way to bet unless there's countervailing evidence, right?  Because that's definitely true.  And nobody's finding the guy out of line, so....

This isn't me.

But I damn well know it could have been.  Fuck, I had a six month relationship that started basically that way and ended in attempted rape; all I would need for this to be actually me would be to have done that a little older and in a different venue.

And I damn well know that if it had been - and by some miracle I had managed to try to report it or even talk about what happened in coherent terms - someone would have come out with "You know, there are a lot of socially awkward people in fandom.  It could just be that."

Because, I guess, being the person trampling someone's boundaries is more awkward than being the person who can't figure out thing one about defending those boundaries?

(It couldn't possibly be that those people are more 'people' or more 'in fandom' than their targets.)