A few days ago at the Hugo Awards ceremony at Worldcon, Harlan Ellison groped Connie Willis on stage. The primary source of the news is Patrick Nielsen Hayden, though Ellison himself confirmed it in the (ostensible) apology on his message board. (Text provided here by Elizabeth Bear. Also see her post on the original incident.)
He wrote the “apology” yesterday, even though the event occurred a couple of days ago, because he had no idea that there was a problem until he saw the reaction online. In other words, he didn’t know it was wrong until someone else told him. This is the kind of behavior that you would expect out of children developing their sense of politeness and ethics, not a grown man (especially one with as inflated a sense of self as Ellison apparently has).
Connie Willis is one of the most respected science fiction authors writing today – certainly one of the most well-known women in the field. She did not invite the groping, nor did she give him permission. Ellison calls it “intendedly-childlike,” and supposedly it came as part of a comedic schtick. However, Willis was not previously informed about his intention, and since she immediately removed his hand and continued on without comment, it’s obvious that she didn’t feel inclined to join in on the “comedy.”
His behavior – the fact that he even thought that this was an acceptable action (or at least funny, maybe “cheeky little bastard,” but not reprehensibly sexist), and furthermore, had to be told that it wasn’t – speaks to a deep disrespect for women. A disrespect that, really, isn’t all that uncommon.
An opening caveat
First, let’s be clear about what I’m not saying:
-Ellison is the oppressor of all women
-Ellison is the personal cause of oppression for Willis
-all men are horribly sexist
-touching = the root of sexist oppression
So anyone freaking out about how I’m attacking Ellison/blowing the situation out of proportion/hating on teh menz can calm down. Okay? Okay.
The acceptance of sexual harassment
This is what Ellison did: he invaded a woman’s personal space, and furthermore, touched a private body part (at least, it’s private in Western society since we sexualize and obsessively cover up women’s breasts). He did something similar to another woman at the same convention. Groping Willis was not a freak incident, but an indication of his disregard for personal space – the personal space, it appears, of women.
I’m not saying that Ellison took a moment, thought, “Boy, I disrespect Connie Willis! Let me show her who’s boss!” and grabbed her breast out of malice. The point is he didn’t have to stop and think. He simply assumed that it would be all right to grab a woman’s private body part without her prior permission, on a stage in front of a massive audience.
That’s the whole point. That assumption. The general attitude that makes people believe, without consciously thinking about it, that it’s okay to touch a woman without asking. (See George Bush’s invasion of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal space at the G-8 Summit.) The assumption that goes along with that belief is that, somehow, women just don’t get as much say over what people do to their personal space. Over who touches their bodies.
How many times have you seen a man touch a woman without asking: pat her head, pet her hair, grab her arm, put a hand on her waist? How many times have you been that woman? Both men and women do it – both genders absorb the idea that it’s somehow okay to do it. Women are expected to put up with it – to speak up and refuse a touch would be considered rude, heaven forbid. We’re expected to allow our personal boundaries to be blurred on a normal basis. This is one of the reasons why it’s so goddamned hard to recognize and react to sexual harassment. You don’t want to be the rude/uppity/bitchy one who says no; you think this kind of behavior is normal; you don’t know where to draw the line, how to tell when someone is trying to mask sexual invasion under acceptable “polite” behavior.
On the other hand, you very rarely see men being the receiver of this kind of unwanted contact. Especially from other men. (“Oh, but that’s different!” people say. “That would be weird and gay.” Well, if men touching men without asking is a sexualized violation, what does that make men touching women without asking?)
People don’t actively think this, think “touching women is okay!” when they do it. Of course not. You don’t have to. It’s just assumed.
When good authors suck as people
One thing I’m (shallowly) glad of is that I never read any of Ellison’s work. It’s frustrating and disappointing when I find out that authors I like are actually jerks.
But, you know, it is possible. The seriousness of this incident doesn’t negate the fact that Ellison is a well-known author of many admired works. You can be a good writer and still a social jackass – I greatly admire Margaret Atwood’s writing, but I hear she’s a very unpleasant person (which I can neither confirm nor deny, not having met her, but I am open to the possibility). Despite the horror stories I hear about Anne McCaffrey’s treatment of fans, I still look back on her books with affectionate nostalgia. And Anne Rice – well, okay, Anne Rice apparently fails at both literary and social skills, but whatever. XD;;
Beyond his writing skills, these incidents don’t even negate the fact that Ellison could be an otherwise good person – as I like to emphasize, you can be a good person and still be sexist/racist/whatever. But in many ways, your goodness is irrelevant. You still have to own up to the *ist behavior. If you’re a good person who’s also sexist, you’re just as sexist as the irredeemable asshole who’s also sexist.
Which is why it pisses me off to see that Stephen Brust decided that now was the time to post a paean to Ellison’s virtues and discourage attention to the groping incident. Now? Before most people in the SFF community have even heard what happened? Before (to my knowledge) there has been any sort of official response? Before we’ve even heard from Willis herself?
It smacks of trying to wriggle out of dealing with the incident, of trying to calm the rocking boat without even seeing what huge-ass boulder fell into the water in the first place. It also strikes me as a small – very small – version of the “but he was always such a good boy” defense of rapists, in that the perpetrator’s previous good behavior is used in an attempt to gloss over the objectionable action. Brust isn’t trying to deny what happened – there’s a large audience of witnesses and Ellison’s own admission, all in addition to what Willis says – but he is trying to minimize the censure directed toward Ellison, to hurry us on ahead by (ironically) emphasizing Ellison’s past good deeds.
Easy for you to say, Stephen Brust, a man who’s never been a recipient of male-on-female sexual harassment within a society that largely normatizes the behavior. (Now, I’ve actually read his stuff – but only one novel, and I didn’t like it that much, so that makes me less disappointed.) Something tells me his reaction wouldn’t be quite so detached if circumstances were different – maybe he can’t ever be a woman who’s harassed by a man, but he could know one. What if Ellison’s victim had been a relation to Brust, his wife, mother, daughter, sister? Would he be saying the same thing? My guess is, even if he still didn’t abandon Ellison, at least he wouldn’t be saying, “Sure, this was bad, but let’s make sure we remember the good that Ellison has done.” Instead, it would be more like, “Sure, Ellison has done good, but let’s make sure we acknowledge how bad this was.” In other words, the emphasis wouldn’t be on sweeping the incident under the rug.
In conclusion: Ellison is not an evil man. But.
As I said, I don’t find that Ellison is an anomaly – his action might have been outrageous, but his attitude is one that’s largely accepted. I’m not going to call him an evil sexist monster any more that I would call every man (and woman) that who shares his attitude toward women’s personal space. The point of my criticism, of all feminist criticism, is not to point fingers and declare this or that person evil, or to target someone for attack. The point is to reveal sexist attitudes and beliefs – attitudes and beliefs that we all fall prey to, to some degree – so that people can refuse to accept them.
But Ellison’s actions do need to be recognized – and criticized. (Especially since I find his “apology” lacking; you can read it and judge for yourself, but I get the impression he’s more enamored of his literary cleverness and bad-boy image than what Willis feels.) A lack of response to this incident – by fans, authors, and perhaps officials from Worldcon itself – would only reinforce the “boys’ club” impression of SFF.
Immature side note
Now I’m doubly amused by his run-in with the Penny Arcade folks last year.