Harassment and bullying

Warning: discussion of harassment and bullying. There is mention of self-harm and links to real-life bullying accounts at the end.

The substantive part of Corey’s comment which was not published on my “Why don’t you just hit him?” post was the following:

It’s like if you’re a parent of a bullying victim, and you find yourself repeating ignore it
So I’m supposed to treat women like they’re my children. Isn’t that extremely sexist and patronizing?

I didn’t reply to it initially because I think it’s a misreading: here’s the full paragraph of mine that Corey excerpted (emphasis as per the original post):

This is the kind of advice given by people who don’t actually want to help. Or perhaps don’t know how they can. It’s like if you’re a parent of a bullying victim, and you find yourself repeating “ignore it”, “fight back with fists” or whatever fairly useless advice you yourself were once on the receiving end of. It’s expressing at best helplessness, and at worst victim-blaming. It’s personalising a cultural problem.

I am, of course, saying that if one advises that women should or must hit back at harassers/attackers, then it resembles giving a bullying victim the same advice. Since the entire post is discussing why that advice is often bad advice, I’m fairly clearly not making the argument there that people should treat women as if those women are their children; I’m making the argument that they do, and they shouldn’t.

So much for that.

Except… that’s not quite right is it? Of course you should not treat unrelated adult women who complain of harassment at geek conferences like they are your children, because Corey and I would both tell you that’s sexist and patronising.

But the way we treat harassment victims and the way we treat child bullying victims have many parallels:

  • we tell harassment victims it’s the price of admission to the awesome community; we tell bullying victims that it’s character building, the price of admission to adulthood
  • we tell harassment victims they asked for it by wearing certain clothes or being a certain gender or not being a certain gender enough among many other things; we tell bullying victims that they’re so satisfying to tease, because of the way they react, that they are different from their bullies in some way and hiding that difference is the way to go
  • we tell harassment victims that he’s basically a nice guy and he’s just a bit inexperienced with women, or with alcohol, or with both, and that his social skills need gentle nurturing; we tell bullying victims that their bullies are actually fine kids with good qualities that we don’t want to crush by labelling and punishing them as bullies
  • we tell harassment victims that it’s a private matter that they could solve by ignoring it, or fighting back; we tell bullying victims that it’s… a private matter that they could solve by ignoring it, or fighting back

When they do report it, we also often leave them both with such failures that bullying victims and harassment victims both come to internalise the lesson that their persecution is a private matter, or at least that better keep it a private matter than tell anyone with power about it, because people with power will just back each other up.

(Should be obvious: I don’t support required reporting, or shaming people into reporting. I do support solving the problem when they do report.)

So harassment and bullying are the same class of problem, in fact they blur into each other very strongly: bullying of children and adults often includes harassment and assault (among the other forms of bullying, like sudden unexplained ostracism and you’re-our-friend-today-no-you’re-not yoyos and so on), an individual incident of harassment or assault might be the beginning of or part of a bullying relationship.

And neither can or should be solved by the victim, whether by ignoring, or by fighting back, or by changing themself into someone or something that the bully or harasser will approve of.

While, yes, adult harassment victims are not the same as child bullying victims, and they shouldn’t be treated exactly the same, here’s what I would argue: we should be treating them both a lot better. If you think that it would be extremely patronising if your chosen approaches to dealing with bullying in a child community resemble approaches to dealing with harassment in an adult community, then perhaps your understanding of the rights of children who are bullied isn’t bloody good enough.

It also really puzzles me, frankly, that geeks, who I think are a population that has disproportionate experience of being bullied at some point in their life, are so unwilling to recognise the dynamic and similar ones when it occurs in their culture.

Warning, the quotes and links from here are from bullying survivors. Some include descriptions of bullying they experienced, and of self-harm or mental illness or physical harm that was a result.

I’ll leave you with a few links from geeks who wrote about bullying a few months back, in the discussions following the suicide of Tyler Clementi, who was bullied and harassed by homophobic classmates:

  • Kate Harding: On Good Kids and Total Fucking Assholes. Hey, speaking of which, how ’bout that LGBTQ teen suicide epidemic, which is finally hitting the news? While following that news, I, like probably everyone reading this, have been screaming obscenities, sputtering helplessly, cheering on Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project, and wondering what the hell adults are supposed to do about bullying. I don’t have a lot of coherent thoughts on the matter, but here’s one of them: We need to call bullies what they are — total fucking assholes.
  • Karen Healey: On Bullying and Being Failed.When bullies target people at school, the victims are often told to report to teachers. Unfortunately, teachers, constrained by regulations or poorly thought out policy, lack of opportunity, lack of witnesses, or a lack of understanding, compassion or will, often fail those kids.
  • Seanan McGuire: Bitterness, bullying, and breaking the circle. I listened to the adults when they told me it was my fault for being different. That if I just ignored the bullies, they’d go away and find an easier target. That if I was willing to change, to conform, that the bullies would be my friends, and not my tormentors. Why I would want to befriend people who once pushed me into traffic because, again, they thought it was funny…that part was never explained.
  • Marianne Kirby: It Gets Different; Leveling Up: But here is what happens: When you’re playing an RP game, and you first start out, there are these enemies at the beginning of the game who seem impossible. All you’ve got is, like, a flashlight, if that, and you don’t know where you are or what to do. You fight those enemies and sometimes they wound you gravely and you limp along avoiding other fights until you find something that will heal you. You repeat the process, and you level up… You keep leveling up until, when you go back and fight those early monsters, they seem like a cakewalk in comparison. The enemy isn’t changed at all – they are still the same low-hit-point ridiculous monsters they were at the beginning of your campaign. But you have changed. You’ve survived in spite of them and sometimes you even get to deliver a hearty fuck you in the midst of it all.

10 thoughts on “Harassment and bullying

  1. Meg

    Yeah, “don’t give them terrible advice that doesn’t work” applies to everyone, not just kids and not just women and is sort of the opposite of patronizing. Actually, “don’t assume you know how other people *should* behave” is probably an even better rule; there could always be context you don’t know about.

    You can, of course, help change the context.

  2. lala

    I don’t think it’s even worth it to reply to someone who reads a comparison, and then pretends that the author claimed that the two things being compared are actually identical. I can’t see how someone could misunderstand that a comparison is a comparison, so I’m left assuming that it’s an intentional deceptive debate strategy.

    As for the rest of the post, that is a very interesting point about internalizing messages early on. It’s making me remember when a boy in my second grade class was physically bullied and he ran to the teacher to tell her.

    Teacher: Why did he do that?
    Boy: I don’t know….he said I’m a wuss and a girl.
    Teacher: Well, are you a wuss and a girl?
    Boy: No, I’m not!
    Teacher: Well, you must be or he wouldn’t have done that, would he?
    Boy starts to cry.
    Teacher: See? You are a wuss and a girl!

    This conversation happened in front of the entire class. I’m pretty sure it taught me the lesson that when someone bullies/abuses/harasses/assaults you, the last thing you should do is report to an authority, because that authority will just carry on the bullying even more. The saddest thing is that I don’t think I learned a false lesson, either.

  3. Azkyroth

    Actually, in terms of the motivation of the attackers, the manner in which it occurs, the effects on the victims, and society’s inexcusable tolerance and victim blaming, there are a LOT of parallels between sexual harassment and assault on one hand, and schoolyard bullying on the other. Like, to the point they’re basically different manifestations of the same phenomenon.

    1. Kim Curry

      Yes! And that’s why I linked to the “Why don’t you just hit him?” post on my “It gets better” blog entry.

  4. JK

    I would like to argue against one of your parallels.

    Specifically, you (Mary) point that 3rd parties identify harassers and bullies as nice guys who we don’t want to stigmatize through the use of negative labels such as predator, bully, etc.

    Here is the direct quotation:

    “we tell harassment victims that he’s basically a nice guy and he’s just a bit inexperienced with women, or with alcohol, or with both, and that his social skills need gentle nurturing; we tell bullying victims that their bullies are actually fine kids with good qualities that we don’t want to crush by labelling and punishing them as bullies”

    First, I would have preferred the use of gender-neutral pronouns in creating this parallel. It detracts from its effectiveness when you compare “guy” with “kids”.

    My real point is that bullying is and has been treated with almost the opposite treatment. As a victim of bullying as a child I can say that literature and advising that were given to me always presented the bully as a “bully” and… a victim of bullying themselves!

    My experiences are specific to American children’s books and American education systems, but I am sure in many Western English speaking countries similar methods are used.

    Whether or not it is true that in real life a bully is a product of a broken or abusive home is besides the point. Children are told that bullies are targeting them because they have problems themselves. Children are also taught to identify aggressive and abusive kids as “bullies”. I have never encountered a book which tried to prevent a child from making an accusation to either their friends or adults.

    So in literature and childhood advising, bullies are given both the stigma of being predatory harassers AND victims.

    I’m not qualified to propose a new method of education, but I wanted to correct you on a rather ambitious parallel, which in my experiences has been incorrect. I believe other readers here can confirm that in our youth we were subjected to rather ineffective lessons about how our bullies were really just tortured children whose emotional well-being depended on us being their punching bags…I mean catharsis.

    1. Mary Post author

      Kate Harding’s post, linked from this, talks about being a survivor of childhood bullying and a major source of anger for her is that her bullies, and Tyler Clementi’s harassers, being considered and described as good kids at heart. So, it happens.

      I have never encountered a book which tried to prevent a child from making an accusation to either their friends or adults.

      The major incentive against reporting might be explicit “don’t report” instructions (as per my linked post Why don’t you just hit him?, some forms of which are supposed to replace reporting (don’t complain/report, just hit him!)), or it might be really bad responses when you do report. It doesn’t matter how much a book encourages you to report bullying, if your school teacher responds like Karen Healey’s teacher (and father) did. You’ll stop reporting, because it doesn’t work.

      First, I would have preferred the use of gender-neutral pronouns in creating this parallel. It detracts from its effectiveness when you compare “guy” with “kids”.

      Sorry. The context for my choice of pronouns comes from Why don’t you just hit him?, I should probably have repeated it in this post.

      1. JK

        Your links certainly present some upsetting anecdotes and show some of the difficulties involved with being a young person. However, I would be hesitant to use such severe anecdotes as the standard for young people in America.

        My reply is specifically arguing against the women’s harassment/youth bullying connection. Jayn is certainly correct in saying that we should look at harassment as a total problem affecting our culture.

        However, I’m generally unhappy with your bullying/harassment comparison (which I understand Corey originally created) since you explicitly separate the two. We can talk about adult harassment and youth harassment, but female harassment and youth harassment does not seem balanced.

        It just seems to me that you make some tongue in cheek comments about harassment that lead me as the reader to conclude you’re only considering female sexual harassment.

        Take this: “we tell harassment victims they asked for it by wearing certain clothes or being a certain gender or not being a certain gender enough among many other things”

        You are speaking of instances where women wearing revealing clothing or provocative clothing are then harassed or assaulted. Correct? I can’t really draw a parallel with children there.

        I just think that this really wasn’t your strongest essay, and you kind of let your frustration with Corey get the better of you.

        1. Mary Post author

          You are speaking of instances where women wearing revealing clothing or provocative clothing are then harassed or assaulted. Correct? I can’t really draw a parallel with children there.

          “provocative clothing” is a loaded phrase in this context, it rather presupposes that clothing provokes sexual and/or harassing reactions.

          That said, harassment being justified on the basis of clothing choices was one of the things I was thinking of. “being a certain gender” was intended to capture situations where the justification is simply “being a woman in a space with a lot of men [in the tech context]“. “not being a certain gender enough” is where the justification is that the person was, for example, judged to be trans by their harasser, or a woman wearing clothes assigned to men, or not judged by her harasser to be attractive by mainstream standards (she’s fat, or wearing a shirt and jeans instead of a dress, or her voice is loud, or many other examples, of course these separately or together do not change her gender identity, but they are policed by people).

          Child-on-child bullying does not, I think, generally centre on one child wearing clothes that show a certain amount of skin although teen bullying does and I’m sure child bullying sometimes does. But it certainly may centre on a child dressing or acting in a manner that the bully doesn’t judge a good match for that child’s assigned gender.

          female harassment and youth harassment does not seem balanced.

          I’m not sure what balance you want here: it’s true that women and children are not the only two classes that experience harassment. But this is a blog that is centered on women’s experiences: I’m extending it to and comparing it with children’s experiences because I think Corey and others serve children badly and want to challenge people on children’s rights.

          I’m not especially interested in developing a total theory of adult bullying here though.

          Side issue:

          the standard for young people in America

          I am not, and never have been a resident of an American country, and that is I think true of at least one of the linked accounts too (Karen Healey is a New Zealander). I’m not intending to write primarily of American childhoods here.

  5. Jayn

    I’m not really sure it’s a good idea to separate harassment and bullying from each other–they’re pretty much the same thing except for the age of the victims. Aside from taking maturity levels into account, and the greater options available to adults, I’d say that both require the same sorts of responses (which, yeah, isn’t ‘ignore them and they’ll go away’.)

    1. Mary Post author

      I don’t think I’m the one doing it though, frankly. (Note, these are not my opinions, if any troll shows up and quotes these words saying they don’t sound awfully feminist that would be because I’m summarising not particularly feminist opinions.)

      Here’s seemingly, the story about women harassed at conferences: it’s a sort of a helpless welcoming gesture on the part of men who are biologically inclined to approach women sexually and who haven’t been socialised out of doing so. (Which women have to do.)

      Bullying, perhaps especially of children by children, is described as an entirely different activity with different motivations. Typically the bully and onlookers regard the bully as better socialised if anything, as long as the bullying isn’t physical in nature anyway, that sometimes although not always changes things. I don’t want to always call them the same word (if nothing else, because bullying encompasses physical assaults of various kinds, sexual and not, and I don’t think it’s useful to extend harassment as a term to cover that) but I otherwise agree, I think.

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