INTRODUCTION

The genesis of this blog came from an article that I wrote for See Page XX examining prevalence of sexist depictions of women in different areas of gaming. Before you read anything else here, you should really go read the article. (Yes it’s important enough to link twice.) If you find yourself wanting to argue with the article, please read this post here elucidating common arguments against my findings and clarifying some points regarding my criteria and methods.

My goal is to make this a place you can point people to regarding specific issues pertaining to sexism in gaming.

If this is your first time visiting my blog, welcome! If you don’t want to read chronologically, consider checking out this guide on how to use this blog. If you’re a feminist or ally looking for a specific post to use as a reference, then visit this guide here.

Abusers and Apologies: A Rant in Lists

Today I have some shit that I need to say about abusers and apologies. I wrote out these lists intending them to be an outline for a post or series of posts, but expanding on these points would soften the language into language that makes it easy for people to ignore the point that I am driving towards, and I do not want my language to be comfortable or easy to live with.

So today you get a bunch of lists. Know as you read each item that each contains an entire diatribe. A rant with points both salient and emotional. With examples of suffering, tales of harm, and calls to action.

Today I am not doing the work of filling in the detail. Today you will have to do that work for yourself.

 

On Forgiveness:

Abusers who refuse to acknowledge that they have harmed people are not entitled to forgiveness.

Abusers who acknowledge they have harmed people but refuse to apologize are not entitled to forgiveness.

Abusers who apologize sincerely and have since learned to be better and stop abusing are STILL NOT entitled to forgiveness.

Feeling entitled to an abuse survivor’s feelings is itself abuse. Abusers are not entitled to forgiveness. Period.

 

On Apologies:

Not all apologies are created equal. The common wisdom is that we should forgive and forget, and that if someone apologizes, we should naturally forgive them. But that thinking only empowers abusers to use the common decency of those around them as a shield for their abuse.

Common abuser tactics involving apologies include:

  • Apologizing for the wrong thing
  • Apologizing for a small harm as a cover for the larger harm they have committed
  • Apologizing for one instance of harm while ignoring the larger pattern of identical harm they have committed
  • Apologizing for harm committed against a person of privilege while ignoring a pattern of harm committed against more marginalized people
  • Apologizing only after prevailing community sentiment has shifted against their harmful behavior
  • Apologizing for someone’s feelings or lived reality
  • Apologizing in a way that minimizes their agency in harming someone (IE “I was drunk”)
  • Making an apology blaming their behavior on mental illness or past trauma
  • Making an apology that adheres perfectly to the form of a good apology and then failing to take any action or make any change that would prevent a repetition of the harm they caused, trusting that only their words and adherence to proper form will be remembered
  • Making an apology that is overly emotional, self-flagellating, and full of shame, as a shield against further criticism for the harm they are apologizing. (IE “They already feel bad enough, shouldn’t we drop it?”)
  • Making an apology that centers their feelings and not the feelings of the person or people that they harmed
  • Making an apology that uses social justice jargon in order to establish credibility as someone willing to be “accountable”
  • Making an apology that promises unspecified future remedies without ever enacting said remedies
  • Making an apology that promises specific future action without ever taking that action
  • Making an apology that is accompanied by emotional or physical withdrawal

We need to stop assuming that all apologies are genuine, because apologies are one of the most crucial weapons in an abuser’s arsenal.

 

On Restorative Justice:

Restorative justice is not a panacea that can heal all wounds.

Restorative justice will not entitle an abuser to universal forgiveness.

Restorative justice will not prevent you from having to actually remove abusers from your communities.

Restorative justice will not rehabilitate abusers who do not want to be rehabilitated.

Abusers will invoke the desire for restorative justice as a cover against their abusive actions.

Abusers will get third parties the victim cares about to offer to facilitate discussions with the people they harmed as a way to wound their victims and make them feel further isolated from their community.

Restorative justice facilitated by people who stand to materially gain from the process is not justice.

Restorative justice that pressures victims to participate is not justice.

Approaching the same victim repeatedly with offers to facilitate restorative justice after they have declined is a form of abuse, which is not justice.

 

On Marginalized Abusers:

Marginalized people can be abusers.

Marginalized people can and do abuse people with more privilege.

Marginalized people can and do abuse people with more marginalizations.

Marginalized people can and do abuse people with different marginalizations.

Cishet white dudes can be abused by marginalized people.

Being marginalized does not render you incapable of abuse.

Being marginalized does not mean you automatically know how not to abuse people.

Being marginalized does not mean you automatically don’t abuse people.

 

On Defense

For those who lack the power – either socially, structurally, or organizationally – to take direct action to stop their abuser, the only defense against an abuser is not to engage with them.

 

On Relationships With Abusers:

Abusers invest heavily in relationships with key members of the community, people with either power, social capital, or other forms of influence, as a shield against inevitable complaints of abuse.

Just because an abuser has only ever treated you with kindness does not mean they are not an abuser.

If you have not seen someone being abusive, that does not mean they can’t be an abuser.

If someone has poured hours into thankless or tedious work on behalf of others, that does not mean they can’t be an abuser.

If someone fulfills an important role to the community that would be difficult to replace, that does not mean they can’t be an abuser.

If someone has supported you through something terrible with love, empathy, and compassion, that does not mean they can’t be an abuser.

Loving and caring about someone does not mean they can’t be an abuser. Your love does not make them not abusive.

[From the archives] Two parables about privilege

[This post was originally written and posted on Google+]

Let’s start with this – take a trip with me to parable land.

Privilege is a weapon, right? So let’s say that in our parable land, privilege is a knife. When a person is born and assigned male, they are given their first starter knife, which is upgraded as they get older and older. As adults, men carry different sizes and types of knives depending on occupation and social status, but all cis men have knives, while people who are not cis men do not.

This causes problems, obviously.

But no one questions it, because it’s just How Things Have Always Been. Writers write novels about stabbing people, directors make movies about how having a knife defines you as having worth. The culture celebrates and normalizes the experiences of the knife-havers and blames those who get stabbed for getting in the way of a knife in the first place. Now some not-cis-men have spoken out against this practice. And some men have started to listen. They speak out against stabbing. They pledge not to stab, and to speak up when they see people getting stabbed. There is incremental change. Glacially slow, incremental change.

And then a breaking point happens – a man that women had been accusing of stabbing them for YEARS actually really did stab all those women, and worse! Other women come forward with stories of stabbings, by this guy and others. People are shocked! SHOCKED! Because, sure, men have been carrying knives their entire lives, but who could imagine that they would actually USE them?

And then someone brings in a metal detector and blows the lid off of the whole damn thing.

It turns out that some of the men who have been the most vocal, the most “enlightened” about “knife culture” have been carrying concealed knives the whole time. And that they stabbed not-cis-men, all the while claiming that they had given up carrying a knife at all. Anger grows, and women and femmes start to whisper among themselves about men they have known who claimed to have given up carrying knives, but who actually just carried a concealed knife. Some not-cis-men have been stabbed by these supposedly anti-knife guys, some have “just” had to put up with the concealed knives being waved in their faces.

Not-cis-men grow heartsick and tired with each new name that is added to the list of Anti-Knife Men Who Carry Knives, because some of them are inevitably men who we looked up to. That we admired. We start to ask ourselves, if my judgement was off in those cases, who else? Who else is carrying a concealed knife that I don’t know about? Who else is going to stab me, or someone I care about, when I least expect it?

 


 

Now let’s shift the analogy a bit.

Let’s say instead that society issues EVERYONE a knife when they are born, but men are never given any lessons in how to use their knife, while everyone else is taught how to safely and responsibly handle their knife. Men, it is assumed, just innately know and understand how to use a knife. It’s part of what makes them MEN. So now you have a society divided into people who know the proper care and respect for knives and people (cis men) who thoughtlessly use knives however they want.

Because society says that however a man wants to use his knife is correct and safe, when they do stab people, that behavior is excused and explained. Not-cis-men are tired of getting stabbed. Worse, they are tired of explaining to dudes who SAY they get it over, and over, and OVER how to use knives responsibly without stabbing others, only to watch them thoughtlessly stab people anyway. They feel powerless to change anything, so in order to keep themselves safe they construct mental lists of men at different levels of knife safety. The absolute bottom of these lists is occupied by dudes who know how to use knives, but just like stabbing people anyway. Cool. Those guys are easy to identify and stay away from. But moving “up” the ladder, things get a bit more complicated.

The categorization system most people opt for is emotional maturity: re knife-handling. If a dude is at the toddler stage of knife-handling, he’s going to hurt himself as much as he hurts other people, and sometimes it won’t be bad and sometimes it will be really fucking serious, but every time he will be completely unable to deal with the emotional reality of his fault, because toddlers are sociopaths. (Please note: I say this as a parent)

Men who are Knife Toddlers are men that are not safe to be around, but often men that we HAVE to be around. Parents. Bosses. Police. People with power that we can’t avoid. So we make knife-avoidance strategies for keeping the Knife Toddlers happy when we HAVE to interact with them and hope it will be enough.

Somewhere above that are the Knife Elementary Schoolers. They can sometimes understand they’re at fault, but sometimes not – and they’re still largely unaware of the extent to which social conditioning informs their thinking and actions. MOST of the men that women and femmes interact are either Outright Stabbers, Knife Toddlers, or Knife Elementary Schoolers. Maybe 2/3, maybe 3/4 -depending on how cynical you’re feeling.

Then there are the Knife Teenagers. Mostly, they get that knife safety isn’t a fucking joke. But they can make you fucking nuts arguing about it, and playing “devil’s advocate” for Knife Rights. Mostly, you feel like you can trust them, but then, they are prone to occasional moody bouts of hormonal crazy and might just haul off and stab you anyway. Still, you’ve seen them handle their knives carefully enough over time that you’re resigned to the fact that the odds of them stabbing YOU are pretty low. This accounts for 99% of the men that aren’t one of the lowest three levels.

The last level is Knife Grownup. A Knife Grownup is someone who can be trusted to own and operate a knife in close proximity to another person without stabbing them. Repeatedly. For a long time. Almost no one gets put on this list, because women have seen just about every man they know stab people on multiple occasions, and even if they didn’t mean to it’s just safer to keep an eye on them. If a woman is exceptionally lucky, she might know five men who are Knife Grownups. If she’s very unlucky, she might not know any.

Different not-cis-men draw their lines differently. Some insist, rightly, that they will only associate with Knife Grownups, and accept that this means not associating with cis men, mostly. Others prioritize intent and are willing to include Knife Toddlers in their circles, because they have empathy for the fact that Knife Toddlers don’t MEAN to hurt people, and it’s not men’s fault that society never taught them how not to stab people. Heck, some women keep Knife Toddlers around simply because they feel that SOMEONE has to do the laborious, thankless work of raising Knife Toddlers into Knife Elementary Schoolers and Knife Teenagers. Or even just because they’d rather keep an eye on the unsafe people with knives than not watch them and get stabbed by surprise.

 


 

Both parables are true. In both parables, not-cis-men have been opening up, naming the people who stabbed them and showing you their scars. They do this in the hopes that cis men can learn to STOP STABBING THEM, and in order to find support from people like them who have been stabbed in ways they didn’t know about. We are raw, and in pain, and bleeding. And to top it all off, we don’t know which of you we can trust. Aside from an exceptionally small handful of guys, we don’t know who is going to stab us. And the more we open up, the more we learn some of the guys who seemed the LEAST likely to stab us were actually stabbing us all along.

On perfect communication and the tyranny of “platform responsibility”

While the incident I’m referencing here isn’t directly connected to games, it strongly echoes patterns I have seen play out in the game-o-sphere many times over the years. So I ask that people bear with me when I lead off by saying this post was inspired by a LeftTube dustup on Twitter: Natalie Wynn, a trans woman who creates social justice philosophy videos about masculinity, incels, and queer identities under the YouTube alias of ContraPoints, recently had the temerity to talk about her subjective experience on Twitter in a way that wasn’t 100% Perfectly Inclusive Of Every Oppressed Identity’s Feelings and Twitter predictably reacted by JUMPING DOWN HER GODDAMN THROAT.

The tl;dr – she started a furor by saying she didn’t care for pronoun introduction circles at events since she has experienced them being weaponized by cis people who clock her as the only trans person in the room. Predictably, trans mascs and nonbinary folks who rely on such conventions in order to not be misgendered spoke about the necessity of such things for them to feel comfortable. But instead of having a nuanced conversation about the problem of cis people who weaponize the tools of inclusiveness to against queer people and the ways in which heterosexist culture pits marginalized queer groups against each other, everyone FREAKED THE FUCK OUT and now ContraPoints has deleted her Twitter, so good fucking job everyone. We’ve successfully kept another trans person from talking about her subjective experience on Twitter. Way to improve the #discourse.

I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of BUT CONTRAPOINTS SAID, because honestly the amount of non-binary splash damage happening as part of that conversation is triggering as fuck now that everyone is circling the wagons and some binary queers are talking about how UNSAFE they feel around us nonbinaries. (Because somehow it always comes back to us being The Real Problem With Queer Spaces.)

Instead, we’re going to talk about one of my least favorite justifications for why notable marginalized people get crucified for not being 100% Perfect Online:

The “responsibility” of having a public platform

Whenever this type of shit blows up online (and believe me, it happens in gaming too), one of the most common justifications for being abusive to someone over something they said is the argument that “they have a public platform” and therefor they have the “responsibility” of not just saying “whatever they like” without considering other people. Which is a great idea in theory, but what it means in practice is that if you’re a marginalized person with a “public platform”, I get to abuse you for saying stuff I don’t like and it’s YOUR FAULT.

And let me tell you, as someone who has been canceled for having messy feelings about my queer oppression online, it really doesn’t take much for people to classify you as having a “public platform” in order to justify being abusive toward you. Natalie Wynn has more than 9500 patrons on Patreon, which is orders of magnitude larger than my audience ever was – even at the peak of my microfame. And yet, I understand what she’s going through all too well, because then as now I was told that it was correct for people to be abusive in canceling me because I had a “public platform” and had committed the sin of being clumsy in talking about my subjective experience of oppression.

And sure, it is good to hold people accountable for saying wrong-headed or hurtful things. But we need to remember that oppression is messy, peoples’ feelings about oppression aren’t always going to be neat and tidy, and sometimes in Having Feelings About Oppression we might inadvertently step on some toes. And we need to fucking allow space for that – because sometimes you need to say something and be heard about a shitty oppressive experience and the only words you have to describe that experience are maybe not your Very Best Words. Very often, when I am upset and triggered about an oppressive experience, I simply don’t have the capacity to be 100% careful in making inclusive word choices – and that’s normal!

Further, IT IS A BIG DAMN PROBLEM that we demand nothing less than ABSOLUTE PERFECT COMMUNICATION AT ALL TIMES from marginalized people while letting white dudes get away with ACTUALLY HARMING PEOPLE, only to be forgiven as soon as they post even a half-assed “sorry you were offended” nonpology. Seriously, have you seen the shit white dudes get away with without being canceled? It’s unreal – and we all just let it slide, but we’ll happily FUCKING DESTROY a marginalized person for not being perfect in the name of SOCIAL JUSTICE.

Marginalized folks, we get upset with clueless people with privilege for not having empathy for us and our feelings. Not-cismen, how many times have we rolled our eyes about cisdudes demonizing us because we weren’t “nice” enough about describing our experiences of oppression? Lots, right? So why is it that we (rightly) feel entitled to understanding and empathy from others in recognition of the effects of oppression, but we don’t extend that understanding and empathy by default to other marginalized people?

BUT WHAT ABOUT ACCOUNTABILITY, you might ask? And to that I say:

Accountability goes both ways

One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn is that having PTSD does NOT give me an excuse to react however I want when I am triggered – even when my reasons for being triggered are 100% valid. (Sometimes they’re not, because pattern-recognition monkey is an asshole.) If someone says something that seems like a microaggression, that doesn’t give me the right to tear their goddamn face off – because using your trauma as carte blanche to abuse people is exactly how the cycle of trauma and abuse perpetuates itself. If we want to break the intergenerational cycle of trauma, which is something EVERYONE SHOULD WANT, then we need to learn productive ways of expressing our feelings when trauma is in play that still recognize the humanity of the person we’re talking to. (Caveat: Does not apply to Nazis.)

It should seem obvious, but abusing someone is not a good way to help them be accountable for stepping on toes – if anything it prevents them from doing that, even if they might really want to! Lord knows I’ve said stupid things that hurt people because I was struggling to describe my subjective experiences of oppression, but the abuse that I got as a result keeps me from being fully accountable; I still talk around those incidents because I’m not eager to repeat the experience of spending a week crying in public washrooms while I read floods of messages about what a terrible human being I am.

Accountability can’t be a one-way demand imposed on a person with status by the community at large. It has to be a two-way conversation that acknowledges the harm that we cause in return, because these online dogpiles from social justice types are traumatizing. We have to learn how to ACCEPT NUANCE and HAVE EMPATHY for others when they talk about their subjective experience, or we’re just going to keep breaking ourselves down into factions and hurting the people we should be standing in solidarity with.

On cutting ties with predators and grieving someone who was never real

Twitter has been a pretty fraught place the last few days for anyone who pays attention to the world of indie videogame development, as the #metoo wave finally catches up with that industry. Women are finally speaking the names of industry legends (men) who abused them and it is a good and hard and sad conversation to watch. It is also a very fraught conversation, and one that requires a lot of support – but not always in obvious ways:

  • It’s obvious to say that the victims who are speaking their truths will need support to heal. Of course they will.
  • It’s also obvious to say that people who are reframing experiences that they didn’t realize weren’t okay at the time will also need support. Realizing that something that you had taken as benign or even funny was actually abusive is a hard and scary thing to process.

But what is maybe not so obvious is that the friends and close associates of predators being outed – those who don’t side with the predator by defending him or trying to muddy the waters – these people also need support, but will often find that support difficult to ask for. The friends who walk away are experiencing grief for a person who never actually existed – a person who was worthy of the love invested in that relationship. But so often for the friends who walk away, that grief comes with shame:

Shame for not knowing. Shame for feeling complicit, or maybe even inadvertently being complicit.

Lots of folks will write smart and good things about the people in groups 1 and 2. For myself as a nonbinary person, I tend to take the part of the overlooked and invisible. So today, I’m going to write something for folks in the third group (who may also be in the first and second group with regards to other people – this shit gets real messy). The people whose response to learning that someone they cared for was a predator was to walk away (and not pull this kind of shit). Listen up.

First: You did not ask for this

Image with two lists: This is NOT my responsibility: other people's words, other people's mistakes, other people's believes, the consequences of other people's actions, other people's opinions, other people's ideas, this IS my responsiblity: my words, behavior, actions, efforts, ideas, and actions

Grieving the loss of a friend who turned out to be a predator is a real mindfuck. You start going through the details of your relationship, looking for the signs that you should have seen, clues you should have picked up, chances to prevent harm that you ignored. You think about the times you promoted that friend or their work, or times when you introduced that friend to other people, and (if you’re not a monster) you get caught up castigating yourself for enabling that friend’s abuse or shielding them from criticism.

So here is the most important thing: you did not ask to be made complicit in their abuse.

Predators take advantage of the desire of good and normal people to believe the best of people and twist that to their advantage. The fact that you feel shame and anxiety about your part in their abuse is validation of the fact that you are a good person. It is not your responsibility as a good person to disclaim to everyone in your life that you do not want to be used as a shield against accusations of abuse. It is their responsibility not to fucking abuse people.

It is not your fault when someone you trust abuses people behind your back. Okay? Okay.

Second: You can still use this as a learning experience to avoid being used as a shield in the future

Predators operate from a common playbook, and while it’s important not to beat yourself up for the abuse someone else committed and hid from you, it’s still important to recognize that you can learn from this experience. And what does that look like? Well.

Everyone’s experience is sadly different. But I can tell you a story of my own experiences, and what I learned:

A boy named Steve

In 2014, I met a guy who changed my life. We’ll call him Steve (though that’s obviously not his name). Steve introduced me to a lot of people, and to a hobby which would become (and remain) a great passion of mine. He was dynamic and exciting and intelligent, and we became fast friends. He was one of the most important people in my life, and none of it was fucking real.

As it turns out, Steve was a serial emotional predator. He knew it was wrong to manipulate women he liked into touching his junk, so instead he would manipulate them into becoming emotionally dependent on him through love bombing, gaslighting, and avoidant emotional abuse. (Trauma bonding is a hell of a drug, y’all.) And then when he inevitably lost interest, he’d move on to the next woman who gave him pantsfeelings and do it all over again.

Steve had a type – loudmouth gender non-conforming feminist gamer women. And he knew all the right things to say – all the jargon, all the ways to perform wokeness without actually caring about women as anything other than props to gratify his desire for emotional dependence and validation. I wasn’t the first woman-appearing-person he’d targeted, and I definitely wouldn’t be the last.

At one point during our exhausting emotional boom/bust cycle, he took me out to lunch and held my hand as he apologized for all the ways he’d been mistreating me. And he told me the story of how he’d manipulated a woman into doing something he regretted later, but it was consensual at the time, only now she said it wasn’t and he knew that “believe women” meant that he couldn’t argue with her and, and, and…

Friends. I would love to tell you that I read him the riot act and cut ties. I didn’t. I was so caught up in the emotional abuse, the rush of his apology (which wasn’t real), and the belief that this time things would get better and that he really was the good, decent guy that I thought he was… I held his hand, looked into his eyes, and told him he was a good person, and what happened was sad and unfortunate but he was not a predator. And he proceeded to emotionally abuse me for another two years.

The woman from that story and I are friends now. I was profoundly relieved when she didn’t hold a grudge for me siding with Steve for two years, and we’ve talked about the ways that Steve manipulated both of us. But what I learned from Steve is this:

  • If someone tells you they are an abuser, believe them: I made the decision to believe Steve and validate his belief that he was not a predator because I had never experienced that kind of abuse before. But I know better now. Abusers will tell you about their abusive pasts, and then give you all sorts of reasons to believe that they are no longer abusers. They do this to spin the narrative in their favor and to make you more reluctant to cut ties with them by making you complicit, by making you a knowing party to their abusive behavior.
  • Don’t make excuses for someone else’s abuse: I’ve written before that not all abusers are monsters. Some people who abuse others really do learn to stop, to do and be better. But that change can’t happen as long as their behavior is excused. Real, honest reform begins with accountability and ownership of the harmful actions. And even if you sincerely believe that someone you care about is trying to turn away from their abusive past, you are doing them no favors by making excuses for them.I doubt that Steve would have changed if I hadn’t made excuses for him. But if I hadn’t made excuses and he remained committed to his abusive patterns of behavior, his reaction would have told me what I needed to know to get him the hell out of my life a whole lot sooner.
  • A display of emotional pain is not the same as actual contrition: Just because a predator cries and tells you they are sorry doesn’t mean they are sincere in their desire to change. Predators use their emotional pain as a weapon to prevent you from holding them accountable. They want you to think that they have changed because they feel bad, and really haven’t they been punished enough? But an apology without change is manipulation.Steve held my hand and cried about how sorry he was because he wanted me to cut him slack and to not leave. He used my empathy against me, to convince me to ignore my better instincts and remain in a situation that was bad for me – because I made his pain more important than my own needs. Which brings us to:
  • Believe patterns, not individual actions: Just because an abuser is nice one time or they do the right thing one time or they support you one time does not mean that they are not abusers. Steve did a lot to support me through some pretty awful shit. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was a fucking predator. Ultimately, being able to recognize the pattern of abuse helped me know that I had to get him out of my life. But that would have been so much easier if I had known to look for it in the first place.

Spiderman looking through a telescope with the caption: see that guy, fuck that guy

Lastly: Be gentle with yourself. It is okay to grieve.

Steve has been out of my life for two and a half years now, and even knowing that he’s a goddamn predator, I still sometimes grieve our friendship. Predators are often very charismatic, and he was energizing and fun to be around. My life is very much better without him in it, but that doesn’t keep me from missing the time we spent together. And it doesn’t keep me from wishing I could have that person – the person who was my friend who actually cared about me as a person – back, even if that person was never real.

If there is someone in your life who you have recently learned is a predator, it is okay to grieve the version of them that you loved – even if that version was never real. Love isn’t a switch we can turn off just because we learned something horrible, and having these feelings means that you are human. And that’s okay.

[From the archives] A short letter to men about female(ish) anger

[This was originally posted on G+ a couple of weeks into #metoo, but currently women in the indie video game scene are sharing some truly harrowing stories about “legends” of their industry – including Alec Holowka and Jeremy Soule – who have been credibly accused of sexual assault and rape. So it seemed timely to repost this. This post is addressed to men, from women and a woman-appearing person, but it’s important to note that any privilege axis could (and should) be substituted here: white people versus people of color, able people versus disabled people, etc.]

Men, I understand that you may find it difficult to deal with the level of anger coming out of #metoo, and that that anger may make it difficult for you to talk about difficult subjects relevant to this movement. But DO NOT turn around and blame WOMEN for being the problem in this conversation.

You’re right we’re fucking furious. And you’re right we’re difficult to talk to about this. But you know why we’re collectively losing our shit over this, and why we DO. NOT. HAVE. TIME. for inadequate male responses to this conversation?

It’s because every woman has a best friend or family member who has been raped. EVERY. WOMAN.

It’s because EVERY. WOMAN. has found herself in a situation where we have had to appease male anger for fear of physical harm.

It’s because EVERY. WOMAN. has had to deal with unwelcome comments about their appearance by men in positions of power over them.

It’s because EVERY. WOMAN. has spent YEARS learning how to look completely neutral when men in power are being stupid and/or offensive.

It’s because EVERY. WOMAN. has spent the last several months re-assessing things that happened to her and realizing that there are so many “jokes” or “funny stories” that are suddenly not so funny before. That there are entire relationships or eras of our lives that weren’t fucking okay and we didn’t let ourselves realize that at the time, because it was the only way we could get through.

And it’s because EVERY. WOMAN. has spent her whole fucking life knowing, KNOWING IN HER SOUL that there is always a price to speaking out. Always. And the fact that some specific shitty men are now starting to face consequences in some specific circumstances doesn’t change any of that.

So if you need to talk about how difficult it is for you to deal with this explosion of feminine anger? Great. But talk about it with other men, and DON’T. DARE. to say that the REAL problem is us angry women and our FEELINGS.

On forgiveness, and the messiness of who gets to access it

In my last post, I talked about the need to remove predators from communities, and how everyone benefits when predators are removed from community spaces. However, talking about removing people from communities ignores the important second half of the equation – how do people who have been removed from communities access forgiveness? What standards do we use for judging when forgiveness is warranted? And how do we reintegrate formerly harmful people?

But all of that is putting the cart before the horse. So before we get into any of that, let’s start with:

Abusers hurt people, so why should we forgive them?

When we talk about abusers, we commonly talk about them in black-and-white terms. We call them monsters, and use language that denies their personhood. And some of this, especially coming from victims of abuse is understandable! When people are hurt, the last thing they should be asked to do is center the feelings of the person who hurt them!

HOWEVER.

Speaking about abusers only as Monsters With No Humanity has two equally disastrous consequences:

First: The belief that only monsters can be abusers makes it far more difficult for people to believe survivors when they come forward with their stories, because people can’t reconcile the good they know of someone with the allegations of abuse. People are more inclined to believe their own personal experiences, so when presented with conflicting information, people often choose to believe that the person accused of abuse has done good things instead of believing that they abused someone. They end up saying things like, “well that person has done Thing X which has resulted in Benefit Y for [myself / a group of people / our community], so clearly they can’t be an abuser”. When the reality is that they both have done good things and have abused someone.

Second: The belief that only monsters can be abusers doesn’t acknowledge the messy reality of mental illness and trauma. Mental illness and/or trauma can cause people to become abusive – not because they want to hurt people, but because being abusive is the only way they can feel safe and in control of their environment. This creates situations that are messy when trying to assess culpability, because the reality is that things are almost never as straightforward as we would want them to be.

Our community traumatizes people. Full stop. It replicates patterns of abuse that follow the dominant white supremacist patriarchal narrative, and the people who are most often harmed are people from marginalized groups. As members of the community, we are at least partially culpable for the trauma that our community inflicts on others. And while it is never okay to behave abusively, how do we as a community sit in judgement of someone who is abusive because of harms that we have inflicted on them?

The messy reality of trauma is that people who are abused often react by being abusive in return. But should someone who is being abusive as a response to inciting incidents of abuse bear the full responsibility of the harm they are committing? And what do we do when there is a situation where two people with incompatible mental illness and trauma abuse each other? How, then, do we assign blame and decide who is culpable and who is not?

Before you answer that question, let me tell you a story.

I am not a monster, but I have abused people (and now don’t)

I sometimes joke about Pokemon-ing my way through the DSM, but the painful reality is that I have a lot of mental illness and trauma. My depression predates my involvement in games, but I developed anxiety and cPTSD as a response to the harassment and abuse I got for being a Woman-Appearing-Person With Opinions About Games On The Internet. And while I’d like to tell you that I dealt with the emergence of my anxiety and cPTSD in a healthy and responsible manner, that would be a lie.

I grew up in the Midwest, which means my family never talked about difficult emotions, no matter how bad things got. (And I had a pretty traumatic childhood, so things got really bad.) So when I first developed anxiety, I was completely emotionally illiterate. All I knew is that I was having too many feelings, but I couldn’t tell you what the feelings were or why I was having them. And cPTSD just made the whole thing worse, because it gave my anxiety the keys to the USE ONLY IN CASE OF BEARS panic button. I was miserable, not just emotionally but physically. I was trapped in an endless feedback loop that made me feel like I had the flu, only it never went away.

Unfortunately, getting treatment for severe mental illness is not fast. It took several attempts to find a medication that worked for me (one of the first ones I tried actually GAVE me panic attacks, which… you know… not helpful). It also took time to find a therapist who could help me and not tell me inane shit like ‘stay off the internet’ or ‘be tolerant of misogynists’. It took most of a year to get medication that worked and get enough therapy in me that I wasn’t actively in severe distress every single day.

And during that time, I abused people.

I won’t share details, not because I’m keeping secrets but because these are stories that ultimately aren’t mine to share. But the truth of the matter is that when I was rock-bottom and effectively untreated, I became emotionally abusive, because the things that my anxiety demanded that I do in order to feel even somewhat safe and secure were toxic. And sometimes I was able to fight down those impulses, but sometimes I wasn’t – because when you live with that kind of misery, misery that permeates ever cell of your being both emotionally and physically, you reach a point where you are willing to do whatever your anxiety demands in order to alleviate the pain, if only for a little while.

Importantly, I’m not that person anymore. I have medication that works. I’ve done, if not quite All The Therapy, then certainly a large portion of it. I’ve done EMDR to reduce my panic attacks. And I practice self-awareness with the zeal of a recovering addict, because I know that my mental illness makes me want to abuse people when I am unwell, and that impulse will never go away. However, while I accept responsibility for the harm that I caused, I also acknowledge that I was not fully culpable, because my abuse stemmed from my illness, which I have worked incredibly hard to address.

So. That’s my story. If you’ve gotten this far and believe that my past abuse means that I am not entitled to further empathy, then. Well. Here’s where we part ways.

However, if you would agree that I don’t deserve to be permanently exiled from the community for the sake of harm that I caused when I was ill and untreated, then let’s move on to:

The problem of forgiveness is that only people with the most privilege and status get to access it

To continue with the personal example, my abusive behavior wasn’t just in person. There was stuff I said online that I’m not proud of, things I would dearly love to address and make right – except I can’t. Because I’ve learned from painful experience that trying to talk about what happened only earns me more abuse. So I have to live with the fact that there is a not-insignificant chunk of our community that sees me as a Toxic Person. Hell, there’s a major TTRPG publisher that to this day names me on their company website as a Major Problem in our community because of the things that I said. (Again, things that I said because I was ill. Because I was not dealing well with being abused. And, non-trivially, because I was wrestling with internalized homophobia and accepting myself as queer and non-binary.)

I’m not the same person I was then! And yet, this very visible indictment from a major player in our community is going to hang over my head forever.

Contrast this with the experience of industry luminaries, usually white dudes, who do harmful things. All they have to do is issue an apology that sounds even halfway sincere and they are lionized for how brave and wonderful they are for being accountable. When you have power, privilege, and status, forgiveness is always accessible, even without a formal apology – because if enough time passes, a luminary’s fans will always be keen to tell you that you shouldn’t hold mistakes over someone’s head forever.

And yet, that is exactly what happens with marginalized people.

So what happens is the only people who can access forgiveness and restorative justice are the people who don’t need it. Which means that marginalized and other lower-status members of the community are one mistake away from being exiled forever.

And if that sounds like hyperbole, trust me. It’s not. I’ve seen people go out of their way to make it clear to a Formerly Harmful Person that they are not welcome and never will be welcome in the very same space where they themselves are ignoring someone known to be harmful, but who has too much social currency or status for them to do anything about. Because it’s an easy win. Because it makes them feel better about ignoring the person they know is harmful. And, going back to the points at the beginning, because when someone becomes An Abuser, they are A Monster Forever and are No Longer Worthy of Empathy Or Inclusion No Matter How Much Work They’ve Done Or What They’ve Done To Be Accountable.

So. Obviously, that’s really shitty right? Shitting on people who have Done The Goddamn Work to make space for People With Status Who Continue To Be Harmful is obviously bad and wrong, and we shouldn’t do it, RIGHT? So. You know. What do we do about it?

Let people who were harmful reintegrate with the community when they can demonstrate that they’ve done the work

Forget status. Forget privilege. Forget power. There are people with all of those things who have been given community forgiveness who frankly don’t deserve it, and many others who do deserve it but can’t get it because they lack status, privilege, and power.

Instead, look at the person’s record, what they did in the past and what they have done since then to become someone who isn’t harmful. Have they acknowledged that they harmed people? Have they apologized? Have they done anything to address the harm they created? Have they gotten treatment or support in addressing the cause of their harmful behavior? Most importantly: what have they done to ensure that they will no longer be harmful in that way again?

Sometimes, the remediating action is immediate and profound, and the Formerly Harmful Person can be reintegrated right away. Frex, the dude who sexually assaulted me at GenCon in 2011 – his apology was immediate and sincere. He changed the circumstances that reinforced attitudes that caused the abuse, changed how he participates in games events, and immediately went into therapy. I’ve never named him because I am satisfied with his response and don’t feel that it would be just to punish him further.

Sometimes the desire for remediation is sincere, but the capacity to Not Be Harmful is something that needs to be worked toward. This is frequently the case with people who become harmful because of mental illness and trauma. In this instance, we need to have empathy for the person and make clear that space will be held for them when they can rejoin in a healthy way, but we also need to give that person support in getting to that place. It’s not enough to say ‘come back when you’re healthy’ without providing support in becoming healthy, because otherwise you’re just kicking people out for being mentally ill.

Sometimes a Harmful Person will say that they are sincere about wanting remediation and reform, but use their status as a Person In Recovery as a shield to further harm people. These people are Real Actual Predators and actually do need to be exiled forever. Patterns of behavior speak louder than words, and forgiveness and reintegration should never be done on the backs of victims.

(And sometimes a person who has harmed others isn’t sorry and are definitely going to do it again. Fuck those people. Those aren’t the people we’re talking about here, and they can get into the goddamn sea.)

Of course, what that remediation and reintegration will look like is a huge fucking question that, frankly, I’m not qualified to address. But, as someone who has done Not All But Certainly A Lot Of The Therapy, something I am qualified to address is black-and-white thinking that causes harmful outcomes. So! Let’s end with a bit of homework.

Homework: Reflections on black-and-white thinking about forgiveness

If you’ve gotten this far, I’d like it if you spent some time reflecting on these questions:

  1. In what ways have I demonstrated forgiveness to people with status who have harmed others and who have not demonstrated sincere contrition or shown that they are working to prevent further similar harm?
  2. In what ways have I shamed lower-status community members who have harmed others without acknowledging their humanity or considering how their circumstances may have changed?
  3. Have I done anything to support people who harm others because of mental illness and trauma through the process of recovery and reintegration? If yes, could I have done more? If no, why not?

If these reflections prompt answers that you are unhappy with, remember to acknowledge that we are all works in progress, and holding ourselves to unattainable standards is actively detrimental to the process of becoming better people. Instead, have compassion for yourself while also acknowledging where there is room for improvement and what you can do to address that going forward. The path to forgiving others starts with forgiving ourselves.

GenCon 2019, learned community helplessness, and the benefits of actually banning predators

Important Preamble

Despite the fact that I have been attending GenCon every year for around fourteen years, I hadn’t planned on attending GenCon this year, and was sort of shocked when things ended up such that I was able to go. See, about four or five years ago was when Z, my long-time harasser and a huge part of why I shut this blog down in 2016, began attending GenCon. And despite being a known serial harasser who oozed toxicity and had been responsible for harassing dozens of people out of the games industry and community, for more than a decade people just sort of shrugged their shoulders and enabled his abuse by saying things like “you have to separate art from artist” or “removing Z would be censorship”.

That is, if they didn’t outright deny the reality of those who spoke publicly about Z’s abuse – a feat which required no small amount of mental gymnastics, given that even the people I met who described Z as a friend would always begin their descriptions of him as “sure, he’s an asshole, but…”

Anyway. So Z started going to GenCon, and worse than that, he started winning LOTS of Ennies for his games. (Ennies are like the oscars of TTRPGs, with everything that implies about awards handed out by a community of mostly old white dudes.) I started having panic attacks in the lead up to GenCon, panic attacks that got worse every year. In 2018 Z was nominated for (and won) four Ennies, and I had two weeks of devastating panic attacks leading up to the convention that only partially abated when I promised myself that 2018 would be my last year. I love GenCon more than I can possibly articulate, but the thing that I loved was harming me, and I needed to not repeat the mistakes I made in 2016 by continuing on a course of action that was harming me because of a misguided need to “win”.

So 2018 was the year I said goodbye GenCon.

From 2018: Goodbye you weird fucking UFO-thing. I don’t know why I love you, but I do.

Because it was going to be my last year, I made lunch and dinner appointments with various movers and shakers in the TTRPG industry outside of my usual circles and I told them my story. I told them about how I was being forced out of a community space that I loved because of someone who everyone knew was toxic and bad for the community. And universally, the reaction from the influencers I talked with was sympathetic but bewildered refusal to actually do anything or take a stand.

You see, my story was so sad, so sad. And obviously I didn’t deserve any of what happened to me, and clearly I shouldn’t be punished for my abuser’s actions. It’s just too bad that absolutely. Nothing. Could. Be. Done. Because what could possibly be done about someone like Z? What action could possibly be taken to protect the people he victimized in order to make them feel safe in existing in this community space? What a mystery. What a complete and total mystery. Truly a mystery for the ages that may never be solved.

…if I sound salty about it, it’s because I am.

But then February happened – and four brave women who should not have had to retraumatize themselves in public for us to do something bravely spoke out with credible accusations of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and rape. And finally. FINALLY. Z was canceled.

So, GenCon 2019 was back in the cards.

At the convention

Coming back after I thought I had said goodbye to GenCon forever was a wild ride. It was a bit embarrassing running into people that I had told about my situation last year, assuming that I wasn’t ever going to meet them again – especially those who weren’t familiar with everything that had happened with Z in February. I was a goddamn mess in 2018, and I even complained to (a really super nice and super decent) publisher from Korea who I met for all of five minutes last year – which made it all the more mortifying when he saw me this year and remembered who I was and was really very nice.

Social awkwardness aside, however, this year was an overwhelmingly positive and recharging experience, untainted by fear, anxiety, trauma, or panic attacks. Not having to worry about Z completely transformed how I experienced GenCon!

In previous years, I spent lots of time and energy making plans for how to avoid the places Z would be, and emergency plans for what to do if I ran into him. I made sure I had refills of my emergency meds for panic attacks. I made lists of names of friends, phone numbers, and where they could be found at the convention if something happened and I needed to be around someone safe. I made maps of the dealer’s room with the booth Z was working at so that I knew which section of the dealer’s room to avoid. All of this was important to help me deal with the anxiety and panic attacks that the idea of being in the same spaces as Z caused, and I got used to anxiety and panic attacks being part of my GenCon prep.

This year, the convention snuck up on me! I’d gotten so used to panic attacks being my “it’s time to think about GenCon GM prep” alarm that I didn’t do any of my prep until about two days before I left for the convention. Neither did I have a single panic attack, although I still had the usual anxiety dreams about forgetting to run my games and getting kicked out of the convention. (Anxiety is a cruel mistress.) And at the con the vibe was so relentlessly, uniformly excited and positive, without the usual undercurrent of simmering resentment about our community’s enabling of known abusers.

…seriously, the number of years I’ve gone to the Diana Jones Awards only to have 50% or greater of my conversations there be about how bullshit it was that Z had been nominated for so many Ennies… The dude occupied a lot of mental real estate!

But none of that was clear until Sunday of the convention, and a pithy observation made by a dear friend who happens to be a cishet white guy over lunch. He quipped that it was great that ‘the toxic cloud had lifted’, and that everyone he talked to had been having an equally positive experience of the convention. The metaphor was so striking, because it precisely described my experience. It highlighted the emotional reality of something that I had always known intellectually: when you remove predators from your community, the entire community benefits.

So why? WHY did it take so long for the community to act when the benefits were so clear and so widespread?

The learned helplessness inherent in “there’s nothing to be done”

There has been a lot of ink spilled about the problem of Geek Social Fallacies in geekdom, the first of which is that “ostracizers are evil”. And of course, the Geek Social Fallacies are still very endemic in gaming spaces. It creates a reluctance to remove people from communities, even for the best of reasons – because excluding people makes you a bad person. So the focus shifts from removing bad actors to reducing conflict, with the rationalization that conflict is the real problem.

However, this is the logic that inevitably sees abusers enabled, if not rewarded with status and position, while their victims – usually marginalized people – are run out of the community. This happens either tacitly, when marginalized victims “pro-actively” opt not to participate in communities that include their abusers. However, it also happens more actively – when victims of prominent abusers speak their truth and are actively run out of a community for creating conflict. When you make excluding people an unforgiveable sin, the only way to keep a community energized and active is to persecute people who question the unjust structures that protect abusers.

And of course, the people who are most vigorous in persecuting marginalized people who question the unjust status quo are those with the most privilege, who naturally don’t see anything hypocritical about holding the belief that “ostracizers are evil” while actively ostracizing marginalized victims of abuse. Because these “defenders of the community” are inevitably cishet white dudes with an extraordinary amount of unexamined privilege who have convinced themselves that the childhood bullying they experienced for their geeky interests is exactly the same as the experiences of marginalization faced by queer people, women, people of color, and people from other marginalized groups.

These assumptions calcify into immutable laws that create patterns of behavior, patterns that long-term members of the community have seen repeat endlessly, with little to no variation in the ultimate results. And this endless cycle creates learned helplessness even in those who are aware enough to realize the injustice being perpetrated, because it all feels too big to be changed. What could possibly be done that hasn’t been tried before? What could be done to make this time, this instance not another repetition in the endless cycle? People, especially people with privilege, become so mired in that sense of futility that they lose sight of the incredibly obvious answer, the answer that victims of abuse have been shrieking all along:

REMOVE. PREDATORS. FROM. YOUR. COMMUNITIES.

The inability of communities to see this solution is willful blindness. Because when someone is a known abuser, there are always people agitating for that person’s removal.

In the case of Z, we knew what he was. Dozens of people spoke about his abuse for more than a decade. We begged for the community to take us seriously and to stop empowering his abuse. But we were the ones who were prosecuted. We were told we were lying. We were demonized for not being “nice” about our abuse. We were told we were the real problem, because we were the ones creating conflict.

But when push came to shove, when the community finally, FINALLY came together and removed Z, EVERYONE BENEFITED. Not just his victims, not just marginalized people, but everyone. Even my friend, the cishet white guy who was never directly targeted by Z, could notice and enthuse on the new positive dynamic created by Z’s removal! Because removing predators from communities creates a space where people feel safe and included, and safe, inclusive communities attract enthusiastic participation. And when that happens, the community as a whole benefits. How could it not?

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