Last weekend, I made public on twitter some emails I had received from an overzealous fan who had been harassing me for a month through email. The response was overwhelming. Publicly discussing sexual harassment (or any form of harassment) is not new, it’s definitely in the current cultural lexicon, but the idea of openly addressing it still seems to shock some people. Women, for the most part, were not shocked, since they’ve been dealing with it their whole life, but many men were, which shows me that the current discussion of sexual harassment is not reaching as far as it should. So I decided to make a post about it, and address some questions I got after I went on twitter. Also, I will not be posting any screen shots of the conversation, like I did on twitter, because I don’t want to give him any more publicity than I already did.
For reference, the focal point of this post is not about the specifics of the emails I received. It is about all sexual harassment. Street calling has long been the bane of my existence, but I will not be directly addressing it, however I certainly do mean for it to be included in the overall discussion. The umbrella under which I’m addressing the situation is this: I’m a female cartoonist who has thousands of readers. I do autobio, which encourages an unusual level of familiarity, and often people get confused about where the line is when they contact me. I understand this, and I am often forgiving of blunders of this nature. On the other hand, because of my work, I deal with more crazy correspondence than the average person. However, women everywhere, regardless of their jobs or social standing, receive some form of sexual harassment on a regular basis. So if you’re reading this and you can’t identify with the particulars, please substitute any woman you know for my situation.
The specifics are this: He sent me over 40 emails, some were seemingly normal, complimentary fan letters, some were just links to youtube videos, one selfie, and some had graphic sexual content, such as describing sex acts he’d like to perform on me, and screenshots of explicit sexting sessions. A polite request to not receive any more emails was ignored. I blocked him, which just means the emails go to spam, they do not bounce back, but they should, so the sender knows they’ve been blocked. Gmail, fix this please!
The day it all blew up was when he ordered a book from me and wrote, “I’d be enchanted if you rubbed your vagina on it.” I immediately canceled and refunded the order. He responded by calling me an idiot, criticizing how I run my career, and claiming nothing he did was harassment. He claimed to know the rules of online sexual harassment, because of course he does.
Since there was no reasoning with a person like that, I decided to make the emails public. The minute I did, he responded to me on twitter, proudly claiming responsibility for them, and published part of an email where he explained that the vagina remark was meant to ‘enlighten’ me, and was not sexual, and saying I should have been flattered by the praise that preceded it. I blocked him immediately, but I continued to address the situation.
While seeing the response this kicked up on twitter, it became apparent that many people, men especially, have no idea this happens to women. They’re not to blame for not knowing. If they’re not exposed to any media on the topic, and/or if they don’t have women in their lives who openly discuss it, it makes sense that they would not know. But on the other hand, it’s 2015, the topic is everywhere, so to not know is to have your head in the sand. (Although not knowing the extremes of public figure harassment is acceptable, since that is not a common aspect of the subject.)
A lot of men responded by asking me if I was okay, which, don’t get me wrong, was sweet and very much appreciated, and I know they were just looking out for me. But it backhandedly proved a level of naivety that women have long since shaken. Women are accustomed to harassment, they already know the person being harassed is okay, and they just commiserate with the frustration. And that’s where people get the “angry feminist” idea, but what’s really happening is that we’ve long ago gone through all the other emotions, and we’re just fucking fed up.
Which brings me to why some people are afraid to address harassment publicly. The idea of the “angry militant feminist” is losing ground, but it definitely still exists. We’re also often accused of overreacting, which is infuriating and demeaning. All of it is infuriating, and sometimes it’s even scary, which is why when women address being harassed, we bring to it all the harassment of the past, and because we keep it all bottled up, it comes out with a lot of emotion and anger. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, but hopefully the message will come through the (totally justifiable) anger.
Another condescension we receive is the claim that we’re generalizing- like saying being called “sweetheart” by an old man at a diner is just as bad as someone cat-calling. But we’re not. While the sweetheart thing might be mildly annoying, we aren’t dumb, we know the difference between an old man who has harmlessly called women sweetheart for 80 years, verses the aggression of a sexual email or remark. However when we address it, some of us lump it all together for the sake of brevity. Also we don’t want to give the impression that there is a level of harassment that is acceptable. So while we’re not trying to fight the old man at the diner, we are hoping that younger men will know better than to use the same terminology their grandparents did.
When you’re reading direct writing from a woman addressing sexual harassment, you’re often seeing a woman who’s at the end of her rope. She’s been pushed over the edge, and has gone public because of it. Unfortunately, that push is often what it takes to get people to talk about harassment. My generation, and the generations before me, grew up being taught to endure harassment quietly, to not provoke the harasser, and to just shrug it off. I’ve been shrugging off email harassment for years, due to this exact line of thinking. In fact, in my early twitter posts, I even apologized for upsetting anyone by making the emails public. It was a throwback to the way I was raised, a victim-blaming subconscious reaction. I had nothing to apologize for, and yet I did, because it is so deeply engrained in my behavior. And that behavior is what I’m trying to change.
Talking openly about harassment is changing the public landscape. It’s enabling young girls to fight back, and to not put up with it and to make it public. However, due to basic biology, women will always be afraid to fight back in some situations. Sometimes fighting back angers the harasser, and sometimes it leads to more harassment. I once confronted a man who was cat-calling me on the street, and his response was to follow me for two blocks, loudly hitting on every girl behind me, to prove his point that cat calling was “complimentary.” So my fighting back led to a wave of harassment, for which I felt erroneously responsible. Situations like that are why women will always be afraid, and that is sad.
I’m not delusional enough to think public discussion of harassment will affect those who are doing the worst harassing. Individuals like that are not mentally stable, and will not respond to reasonable appeal. But the hope is that by making it a bigger topic, we can reach the middle ground- men who accidentally harass women due to ignorance, or just bad judgment.
I sometimes get emails and drawings in which the sentiment expressed is that the sender saw a photo of me in real life and was surprised they were attracted to me. I understand that telling someone you find them pretty is relatively harmless, and sometimes even complimentary, if you know the person. However, being told by strangers that they’re surprised by my face is disheartening. It detracts from my work, and has a subtle demeaning undertone, like they can’t believe a pretty person could make work they like so much, as if someone who spends all their time and energy on faceless creative endeavor should be ugly. In short, it is mostly unnecessary, and occasionally offensive. Hopefully by reading something like this, the next time a guy wants to say that to a woman, he’ll think twice. (I keep saying men vs women, but I mean everyone. Men aren’t doing all the harassing, just the majority of it.)
The bottom line is this: I want public discussion of harassment to encourage women to be more open about it. I want younger women to recognize early on what constitutes as harassment, and to know it’s not their fault. I want the discussion to reach people it previously didn’t, and for them to understand how it feels, and why it’s important to think twice before engaging in what could be perceived as harassment. I want a new generation of women who are emboldened to not put up with this bullshit, who aren’t willing to just quietly endure it, and who aren’t afraid to fight back, and in doing so, will be supported by their community and the public. I want a new generation of men who fully understand why harassment is so damaging, and who treat women with respect. And that goes for everyone. Because of basic human nature, I know these are lofty goals, but this is me doing my part, and hoping you’ll do yours.
Addendum: I tried to address questions I received within this post, but if you have any others, or just general feedback, you can email me at juliajwertz(at)gmail(dot)com.
Bravo, God Damn.
Julia!! My heart swells.
You there, read this.