Not Here
Christina Wodtke
1K3

Still Here

I have some things I need to get off my chest. This is a ramble, but I’m in too much pain to tidy it up. If it’s too rambly, go to the final section about naming names at least, please.

Not Here was written in 2014, the year of #YesAllWomen. I might call it the moment I “woke” up, but like nested nightmares in which you you wake up just to find yourself in another nightmare, I keep waking up and it doesn’t look to be stopping soon.

Shortly after I wrote Not Here, I wrote “Tweaking the Moral UI” for A List Apart. I went through rounds and rounds with my editor. If we were going to write this for a very male developer-heavy audience, we were going to have an article that was airtight. The only time I’ve come even close to that degree of editing was when I wrote for a peer-reviewed journal and a panel tore apart every sentence. For the Moral UI, every sentence got torn apart twice.

Potentially angering men is a dangerous business if you are a woman.

A woman’s worst nightmare? That’s pretty easy. Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.” — A Women’s Worst Nightmare

If this sounds like hyperbole, I recommend you pay closer attention to the news. As well as death, we face rape, beatings, swatting, doxxing, threats to ourselves and our loved ones and more. Being an inconvenient women is a dangerous position to take.

I was lucky with that article. The worst thing that happened to me after the article was a couple men who I thought were friends demeaned me behind my back — subtweeting, as it’s called.

I don’t consider them friends anymore.

I probably shouldn’t have considered one of them a friend anyhow. When he and I worked together many many years ago, when I was a new designer, he used to text me messages saying, “fascinating article on CSS,” and it would link to goatse or worse, an image of some abusive porn technique, like a how to execute a donkey punch. Do NOT image search that, trust me. My stomach still clenches at that image, seared into my mind. I was young and naive and didn’t know anyone would do that to anyone, ever.

Now he’s a famous internet warrior for ethics. I hope that means he’s grown. I still feel ill. When I see his name, I only see a Donkey Punch.

Not Here led to a number of organizers inquiring what I knew. I had very clear documentation: police restraining orders, proof of falsified resume. I didn’t have proof of the worst of his crimes — my friend who was assaulted. She told me, “If I come forward, that’s all I’ll be known for.”

She’s right. We’ve seen it before. My friend wouldn’t be known for her brilliant work, she’d be only labeled a victim. Again, hyperbole? Read the news.

At one point, I actively reached out to a couple organizers who had him on their docket and gave them my documentation. One said, “It doesn't matter. He’s too important to our community.” Those words echo in my heart. “Your friend was assaulted, another was threatened and harassed every day until she got a police restraining order, he lies about his accomplishments but hey! He puts butts in seats so whatever.”

Another organizer was appropriately alarmed, and asked the individual if he’d mind clearing up some worrisome rumors. The douchebag in question flew into a rage, used some strong language to indicate his dismay and withdrew from the conference.

The organizer later said to me, “I feel like we a dodged a bullet. What if he’d done something while he was here?”

People: all it took was asking him about it.

But too many organizers won’t even do that. Men continued to rail against Codes of Conduct and worry about false accusations. I’d tell people I won’t use Uber because the CEO had harassed a friend until she quit, and they’d look at me like I was crazy. I got tired. I put my rage in a new direction, working on waking up the next generation with my teaching and on WomenTalkDesign.com. I’m not as tough as some people think.

Years passed, and the Not Here post was mostly forgotten. Then the Weinstein business unlocked a new round of fury. #MeToo is the hashtag this time and at that point I was too tired to participate. When #YesAllWomen occurred, I spent the weekend in tears, literally. I couldn’t do it again. I’d seen how little changed after the wave of outrage crashed on the sand of business as usual.

A friend asked if it would be ok to repost Not Here, in case anyone thought design was exempt from the whirlwind of accusations that had blown through entertainment, restaurants, politics and of course, tech. He asked first, in case it brought up any bad memories.

“Why not,” I replied. “It’s out there already.” I wished I’d listened to him, because I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

First, I just got a sprinkle of organizers reaching out to ask who it was. Sadly by then I had a list of names of serial harassers. In three years since Not Here, I had heard from a number of women who wanted to know if the person I knew about was the same who had harassed them. Sometimes it was, mostly it wasn’t.

One name that came up was a man who had harassed me. I know it feels weird not to use names, but I have a reason, which I’ll elaborate on later. For now let’s say Not Here was writing about Douchbag #1, and now I’m going to tell you about Douchebag #2.

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

A few years back, Douchebag #2 had given a talk, and quoted one of my essays. But he had edited it down to one line that was the opposite of the point I had made with my writing. I was furious, and came up to him after the talk. I waited until he was alone, because I didn’t want to embarrass him.

He kept standing too close to me as I spoke, and I kept stepping back, until I found myself against a balcony rail. He then moved in to kiss me, grabbing for my ass as he did. As he grew close, I could smell the liquor.

I wriggled away, and stormed off. I had waited tables for many years before I moved into tech, and knew how to ditch a drunk. I didn’t say anything at the time. As a former restaurant worker, I considered ducking assholes a job requirement. Maybe being a waiter prepped me for for my years in tech, where I had had to pull similar stunts innumerable times.

But a year later a women spoke to me about him. She was upset. He’d pawed her. Turned out she knew another woman who had been at the receiving end of his vigorous courting style. As well, he’d given offensive talks where he told women that if they want to be seen as professionals, they needed to not not to dress in baggy t-shirts and jeans and suggested the model themselves after Sheryl Sandberg (showing a photo of her in a skintight dress.) He was a pig.

Together we went to complain to a conference organizer who had hosted the events where this occurred again and again.

The conference organizer had a stern talk to with Douchebag #2.

Douchebag #2 still speaks at that conference.

Update: a friend just rescued a young woman from Douchebag #2’s attentions at a conference. He’s out there, people. Because someone let him off with a stern warning.

So here we are, caught up to the present.

I’m tired of tilting windmills and very busy with a new job, the next book, losing my home, consulting, and keeping Women Talk Design going.

The reposting of Not Here reminded some folks about Douchebag #1’s douchey behavior. They worried that they had not tried hard enough to get him off the conference circuit. They worried that he was still out there, doing whatever he was doing. This guilt-ridden crew banded together to get him disconnected from social media, because they theorized it was a sort of social proof he was acceptable — honestly, I didn’t participate so I’m not exactly sure what it was about.

I do know they linked to Not Here as a reason to convince people to unfriend, unlink, unfollow Douchebag #1.

Suddenly I was getting daily messages asking, is it true? I found myself telling the story of Douchebag #1, and Douchebag #2 and other stories. I found myself crying again.

Get email. Tell stories. Cry.

Because when people hear about Douchebag #1, it’s always: “He seemed off” “He seemed creepy” “I didn't like him anyhow.”

But when people hear about Douchebag #2, it’s always: “He’s just like that when he’s drunk.” “He’s a drama guy, they are very touchy.” “He’s just huggy.” “I hear he’s in therapy.”

Douchebag #2 is charming and Douchebag #1 is not. I’m not in favor of witchhunts (Especially after reading the wonderful So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) but…

This “charming” guy pressed me against a balcony with a one story drop behind it and pressed his body against me.

So what if I could handle it? He did the same to a younger woman and she stopped going to conferences, missing out on the learning and networking available there.

I can take it, but I shouldn’t have to.

No one should have to, ever.

As well, Tech — design and engineering— has so few women. Women are a brilliant resource of intelligence and insight. Even if you are the most capitalistic and least compassionate of humans (and I hope you aren’t) surely you’d want to protect the women who will solve the future's hardest problems.

So why don’t I name names?

  1. Sure, libel. Unlikely, but maybe.
  2. I don’t like witch hunts or mob justice. They do not end well.
  3. I want you to wonder.

I want you to be at a conference, and keep your eyes out. That guy leaning a bit too into that woman, who looks miserable? Step in. Spot the wandering hands. Listen to women’s complaints and take them as seriously as a heart attack.

There are predators in our midst. There are also “good guys” with way too much privilege who need to be removed so they don’t endanger women. I want you to open your eyes and keep them open.

We need you to put on your social justice warrior white hat and step up and ask, “Is this man bothering you, miss?” Don’t just fucking stand there, DO SOMETHING.

As I write this, my daughter is in the living room, making games on her iPad. Her favorite class is programming. She is getting an A in it.

Someday she’ll go to a conference.