No but really, all women.

I’m not much of a hashtag participant or follower on Twitter. Sometimes I find myself being contrary and wanting to just outright ignore something because I think the hashtag seems kind of dumb. But over the last couple of days, the things being shared with #YesAllWomen caught my eye. I shared a couple of things myself, and then I became aware of something that felt straight up disgusting.

I feel lucky because I don’t think I’ve been harassed much.

Not only am I repulsed by this realization, but I’ve also realized I’m scared. I’m currently leading a round number release of the most popular publishing software on the internet. What’s going to happen when it comes out and somebody doesn’t like something? I’ve seen the vitriol of those who feel slighted by the software. I’ve seen the amount of abuse our forum moderators endure. I get the creepy emails personally. I’m really fucking scared of what might come my way as I become ever more visible. If it weren’t for knowing that I kick ass, having an incredible amount of support behind me from men and women alike, and generally being unwilling to yield to other people’s bullshit, I would probably have quit long ago.

I’ve already been harassed plenty. The guy who kept trying to touch my hair and give me hugs, was told “no, I don’t like people touching me without permission, unexpected contact provokes involuntary reactions”, yet felt surprised enough to call me a bitch when he grabbed me from behind and got a stiletto through his shin as I kicked back. The guy who tried to play it like he was the gentleman walking me home from a grad student event, even after I stated I was perfectly happy being alone, and shoved his way into my apartment.  The emails I’ve been getting ever since my picture became a regular part of the WordPress credits screen. The catcalls that lead to me being called a “stuck up chink slut” when I don’t respond the way they want.

Despite that, I’ve heard and witnessed enough to know that what I’ve experienced as a woman and in particular as a woman working in the world of technology pales in comparison to many, many of my friends and peers. I’ve become more certain every day that I will face much worse yet. I have a hard time coming to terms with the idea that not getting harassed *too* much has become my baseline of existence. And the constant not-frightening-yet-unwelcome attention? Doesn’t even factor in anymore. This sucks. This isn’t how anybody should be treated – not me, not other women, not men, not anybody anywhere. We are not objects that exist solely for others.

I often feel conflicted when talking or thinking about what one might label as feminist issues. For many people, gender has influenced difficulties that have shaped who they are, and they often and understandably have a louder voice and a more thought-out viewpoint when it comes to issues stemming from gender. I have two specific tough things that I feel have shaped me, neither of which is being female. The primary one is growing up getting beaten by my parent on the regular. The secondary one is my race, or rather the racism associated with it. Largely fueled by the rage from the former, I got into a lot of altercations over things like being called a chink or a savage who needed to come to know the name of Jesus Christ (I’m not exaggerating: that actually happened, and hilariously on the same day my whole family got baptized in church).

As I’ve kept allowing myself brief digs into the past, I’ve realized that it’s not really that cut and dried, as nothing ever is. There is a hint of sexism mixed into the racism here and there. Moments like the customer at a Chinese restaurant who handed me a two dollar bill, saying “I bet your sweet ass ain’t never seen one of these.” The many guys (well, and girls, in the interest of being thorough) who have commented on my exotic Asian hair and asked to touch it, or worse yet, just helped themselves to a stroke or two. The innumerable comments I have gotten about how surprised they are that I’m not a submissive Asian female, which usually follows an exclamation over how good my English is.

If you’re here and thinking, “oh come on, not all men are treating you like crap” — well, no shit. But a majority of men treating me either wonderfully or not treating me like anything at all because we don’t interact doesn’t erase the fact that there will be some number of men who treat me like crap, and that small number is more than enough for me to put my safety and peace of mind first. It also doesn’t mean that all women treat me well, because “all” or “never” aren’t realistic statements. What we should be wondering is why and how so many women have had something to share, prompted by something as brief as a hashtag. Why haven’t we heard these stories before, how could it be so common, why is our first reaction to be defensive, how can we all find a way to be better? Why do we try to pretend that a small minority of harassers doesn’t actually have a disproportionately huge effect when they so clearly do?

Here’s what I’m not doing: I’m not pretending there is some magical solution, or even a known goal where we could call things “fixed”. I’m not going to make distracting hypothetical comparisons between how X group experiences constant and systematic harassment and the way Y group does or doesn’t. Believing that direct comparisons can and should be drawn between diverse groups and diverse experiences is the height of arrogance. It’s also irresponsible to make statements like “well, X wouldn’t happen if this was about Y”. We can’t know that, and again, it tends to detract from otherwise valuable discussion.

What I am going to do is keep listening to people who have things they need to share, find ways to show people they’re not alone, and continue to calmly and carefully talk through how a comment somebody might think they are lightly making about “not ALL men” is not just distracting, but actively destructive. More tellingly, though, I’m also going to keep being extra careful about how I present myself online and in person, because I still don’t feel safe.

4 responses to “No but really, all women.”

  1. Chris Avatar

    It’s hard clicking the “like” button on this post. There’s nothing to “like” about this and yet it’s important to hear stories like this — particularly as a man. Men, even the “good ones”, like to pretend stuff like this doesn’t exist because they don’t see it and they don’t hear these stories and it’s much easier to close your eyes, stuff your fingers in your ears and say “lalalalalala” than deal with the possibility that you’re part of the problem yourself (and causing more problems by refusing to see what’s happening around you). And pretending the problem doesn’t exist or that there is no problem is itself a luxury that no woman, anywhere in the world, can claim. And that makes me sad and angry.

    It’s great that the #YesAllWomen hashtag has brought a lot of these stories out, but these are conversations we should be having *anyway*. Every day. It shouldn’t be a “trending topic” that disappears after a week, it should be one of the only topics that matter.

  2. Ryan Hellyer Avatar

    If someone does harass you, please let us know so that we can go and give them a virtual butt kicking 🙂

  3. Japh Avatar

    Thanks for taking time to write your thoughts down and so clearly. As someone who doesn’t directly experience this, it really helps me to be more aware of things that might even be happening around me that I wouldn’t otherwise have tuned in to.

    My wife has been doing some WordPress work lately, and I’ve been encouraging her to attend the next Australian WordCamp when it happens. But I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little concerned about these issues coming up as she get further into the tech world.

  4. Jonathan Wexler Avatar

    Helen – you are inspiring.

    What you are doing now is affecting the whole planet and is in the best inspiration of Malala.

    as a man in 2014, all I can say is OMG.

    WordPress will take over the planet and you are the friggin lead.

    Let all the sexists read and weap.


    – Jon Wexler

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