"Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." -Margaret Atwood #YesAllWomen
— Lulu Antariksa (@LuluAntariksa) May 26, 2014
I’m the de facto head of the local English writers group in the city where I live. I reluctantly have taken on more and more responsibilities (or had them handed to me) out of a desire to create an inclusive group where everyone feels welcome. I had the first true test of leadership this week, and, interestingly enough, it came right on the heels of the #yesallwomen discussion on Twitter. The two are intricately linked.
Not long after I joined the group several months ago, I received an odd text from one of the male members of the group. He asked, “when you read about the woman in my poems do you ever wish it was you?” Immediately warning signs went off in my head. I’m happily married and this man is also married with a new baby, but there was definitely an undercurrent of flirting or overfriendliness in the message. I think that outsiders could look at that text and think, as a writer, it’s reasonable to ask if a person feels an attachment to something they read. So while it made me uncomfortable, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and shrugged it off as “no, I just really like your writing.” I brought it up, though, to another member, a woman who had been in the group longer than I had been. She said that she had also received text messaged from this man that made her uncomfortable. But, together, we shrugged it off, had a laugh, and just pretended nothing weird was going on.
The more involved in the group I became, the more women who joined, and the more people talked to me, though, the more I found out this man was sending texts to every single woman in the group. Some of the women would tell me only weeks afterwards when I emailed them and asked them why they never returned to any of our meetings. Even women who were still coming to meetings were telling me about texts inviting them to go to the movies, go hiking, and go have a cup a cup of coffee. And all of them women reported feeling uncomfortable, intimidated, and embarrassed. Some of them did not respond to his texts, and some just replied with a friendly “I’m busy; maybe another time” kind of response.
I finally decided enough was enough and confronted him about it. I knew it would be uncomfortable and most likely his feelings would be hurt, but this was not an isolated case of a misunderstanding. I couldn’t allow every single member (and future potential members, because every new member was receiving a text from him the day after they joined) to feel uncomfortable in a group that is supposed to offer friendship and support. I sent him a message and told him “I have heard that you have been sending private messages to several women in the writing group. It is making them uncomfortable. Please don’t do that anymore.”
Over the next four tortuous hours, he repeatedly played the victim. He completely discounted the feelings of the women. He believed that since he didn’t get to know the names of his “accusers” and he wasn’t able to tell his side of the story, he was the one being wronged. I tried repeatedly to explain to him that his side of the story (his intentions) didn’t matter. Even if all he did was send a message that said “hi,” if it made the women uncomfortable, then he needed to stop. He wanted to send me all the chat logs as “evidence” that he hadn’t done anything wrong. To me, though, the women’s feelings were the only evidence I needed. They were uncomfortable, so he needed to stop.
The only legitimate point he made was that none of the women themselves had told him “please stop messaging me.” I do agree that the whole thing could have been avoided if the women (me included) had told him “this text is inappropriate. Don’t message me again.” But this is where #yesallwomen comes into play. The common theme all of the women were experiencing was fear. They were all afraid to rebuff his advances. They weren’t afraid he was going to kill them, but they were afraid of hurting his feelings, or afraid of making waves, or afraid of causing a rift in the group. They all feared something.
Women are taught to keep their heads down, to smile, to stop making things worse. We are taught avoidance. Instead of telling men outright when they are making us uncomfortable, we just smile, and fidget, and change the subject. We avoid going places we like. We avoid talking to our friends. We avoid sharing our feelings.
This man, and millions of other, deserve the truth. They shouldn’t feel “led on” and should be called out when they are being creepy. Many misunderstandings could be avoided if women were encouraged to speak freely.
I don’t know what is going to happen with my writing group. There are hurt feelings right now and many people still feel uncomfortable. I handled it the best I could, but I have also learned from it. I know I am going to be more honest and open in the future, and I am going to encourage my group members to do the same. Fighting against the way society has trained women to act is going to be a struggle, but this is why feminism is as much for men as it is for women. All people deserve to hear the truth.
What do you think? Should I have handled it differently? Have you had any similar experiences in co-ed hobby groups? How did you deal with it?
Amanda Roberts is a writer, editor, and teacher living in China. You can read more from her at Two Americans in China.
(Note from Michelle: I've already got my order in for a dumpling cookbook. You should get yours, too!)