this post was prepared with a great support from Open Heroines community, with special thank you to Mor Rubinstein, Hera Hussain and Emily Fung
I want to share a #metoo moment. It wasn’t my first one, but it was different because it was the first one after couple of years of being part of feminist communities such as Open Heroines, Guilty Feminist, and Polish Girl Gang Dobre Ciało. Those communities changed my perspective and are the reason why I’m sharing this moment with you.
What has happened…
The moment didn’t feel like it was that big. A guy got too handsy, and then not noticing my non-verbal signals, he hugged me from the back in a “let’s go and have fun and dance” sort of way. Then I articulated: LEAVE. ME. ALONE. NOW. And then he let me go. Instantly — he was gone as the moment got obviously awkward. I know from friends that he was all over the dance floor trying to get closer to basically any women. However, I didn’t see this because immediately after he stopped grabbing me, I left the party.
I didn’t leave because I felt unsafe, I left because I was still feeling uncomfortable.
This was objectively quite a minor event, but there was just something about him crossing my boundaries that resulted in my rather unconscious decision of just leaving the party instead of pretending it didn’t happen. Instinctively, I took my coat and left. To be honest, I fully realised what had happened some 10 minutes later, after a furious walk to the hotel.
What has not happened…
The party was part of the evening program of a big conference, an event where I was a long-term member of the community, just as he was. One thing about this that makes me angry is that because I left, I missed out on conversations that would have taken place throughout the rest of the night. Possibly some projects or partnerships were not born. When we report the impact of networking events, it’s great if we can report numbers of projects and partnerships that started at the event. What about those that didn’t happen because of the people who felt uncomfortable and unwelcome, so they disengaged? I believe it’s a duty of organizers to make sure everybody feels welcome.
Ethics are important, but they are often quite vague. Even though we use the word “respect” all the time, in practice, it can mean something different for every single one of us. What exactly does it mean to you to be respected, and to respect others? To help answer this, I want to bring this conversation to a practical level and show that even in a mildly unfriendly environment, we are losing great people (women, POC, members of LGBTQ+ communities) who just don’t feel like they fully belong, and that there will be no ally behind them should they choose to take a stand.
When we lose these individuals, we also lose diversity, innovation, and possibly the next big idea to create change, too. Not to mention, we do not fulfil the values we claim to have. This is hard to admit sometimes, so it’s easier to be a hypocrite.
The perspective of the abused
So, what was going on in my head when this incident happened? I want to analyse this because in the future, I don’t want anybody to leave a party because of harassment.
The guilty feminist in me
First of all, I felt silly. So yes, he grabbed me and I asked him to stop. He stopped, and still, I left as quickly as I could. Why did I leave instead of just shaking it off and carrying on with the fun? Was it that I’m not strong enough? Am I just this snow-flake who requires special attention and is too self-centred? And why on Earth I got so emotionally and mentally frozen when leaving the party?
That feeling of being too weak was amplified after learning that the guy was acting the same towards other women on the dance floor. Yet, as far as I know, none of them left. They were just politely pushing him aside. So what was wrong with me?
Empowerment is a process
Firstly, for a number of months, I’ve been trying to listen to myself instead of denying my feelings. I let my body take over and decide for me without thinking. So no, I’m not too sensitive, but I have trouble reacting to violence and that was something that my body understood as such. So the only rational way out was to just leave.
I think I finally internalized the fact that behaviours like that were not right and we cannot accept them.
My surprisingly strong reaction showed me also that they have greater impact that I would admit. Probably for other women it was still just a normal thing that could happen, so they didn’t notice it. It’s like an annoying fly on a summer day. You just learn to expect it and normalize it.
Code of Conduct is most important when there is no friend to help
Secondly, it never occurred to me that I could address this incident in accordance with the event’s Code of Conduct (CoC). What I did was a compromise. I was lucky because I could call my friend, the event organizer, who was caring and nice and validated my feelings, which was helpful. He asked if I want to implement the CoC procedure and I refused, as it felt too minor. I’m not sure if it was the right choice. But I’m also not sure if the CoC would have had my back.
This incident made me realise how much is needed to take care of the mental safety of the victim, especially clearly stating what to do when somebody is wondering if to use the protocol. As a friend, I was well taken care of, but most attendees wouldn’t have a powerful friend in the organizers’ team. What if that was my first time joining this community? I’m not sure if I would come back.
This is not what I wish for my community. I want everyone, especially women and people belonging to minorities, to feel safe — even if they don’t know anybody in the community yet.
So the CoC needs to consider not only reactions towards the abuser, but also a clear protocol on how to take care of the victim even in minor cases like mine. I would recommend an instant physical meeting to make sure the person feels okay. This is a clear step in dealing with major incidents, but it should also done in smaller cases, the cases where there is grey area.
The clearer and more practical Code of Conduct the better
But this will not happen unless we start to treat codes of conduct seriously, and stop describing them as just “documents” about “respecting one another” from the main stage”. They need to be discussed in a practical way, so that people know what they are, and when to use them. It’s true that they need clear protocols, but I would also recommend highlighting the cases when attendees are not sure whether or not they will report the incident. Make sure attendees know they can report at any time. From any place. Put this number in your phone just in case — it doesn’t matter if it is during the after-party, the main conference, or even if the situation happens a week after the event as is the case for stalking victims.
If not for the discussions we have on the Open Heroines slack and my personal feminist journey, I would not feel strongly enough to write this. And honestly, I still feel a bit silly, and maybe too emotional writing it.
I don’t want people doubting their right to be in a safe, joyful, productive space as equals, and not as “we need to be forgiving because some boys will be boys” or “he was just a bit too drunk”.
The long-term transformation of taking care of each other
The last thing is important for the long-term transformation of the culture of our communities. We all need to become allies for each other, not only on the personal level, but on the systemic level. I hope to rebuild the CoC of this conference for next year, and prepare better implementation. I also talked with the guy who started the whole thing and told him how uncomfortable he made me feel. And that was okey. I felt good enough to do it. I asked him to talk to other guys about what happened and to show that it can happen to anybody.
Men raising the issue of harassment to other men is important for long-term transformation.
I took advantage of my privilege as a cis-white-woman, and I wrote this post to say out loud that we need to take better care of each other. The cost of not doing so can be easy to miss, but it is big. It will be the cost of not hearing and not including the diverse, valuable voices of those who have decided not to be members of our communities because they felt uncomfortable and unwelcomed. Lack of diversity starts with simple negligence.