Harassment and Inclusivity at XOXO
How to do a good job dealing with sexist jerks at a tech event.
XOXO is a festival/conference in Portland that is centered around the goal of creating a positive community for artists and makers working outside of mainstream publishing and distribution models. It is heavily curated by Andy Baio and Andy McMillan (lovingly called the Andys) as a place where smart creatives can come to be inspired by stellar talks and beautiful moments of serendipity. The speaker list was very much dominated by white men in tech, but I was happy to see that they were not the only ones talking. As a female independent filmmaker, I came across some hostility to my presence at this event. Despite all that, I had a fantastic time.
I was aware of XO last year, but because it was big on the tech and gaming components, I self-selected against the event and any of the fringe activities. The conversations about sexism and tech hadn’t yet blown up to the levels they have this year, but in 2012 anyone paying attention to the feminist internet knew that women had to fight to be present in these spaces. I have always been drawn to independent media and absolutely love KickStarter, but I was in a really shaky emotional space and the thought of fighting to be heard and possibly being sexually harassed sounded too exhausting to be worth it.
In the year that followed, I made the switch to full-time freelancing and have started shooting a documentary that I want to distribute independently. So, when I saw that I could get in as a volunteer, I jumped on it. I was still a little worried about not really being a member of the club, but whatever. If I’m going to grow an audience as an independent filmmaker, I have to speak up and be seen.
Turns out, it was a good thing that I approached this year with a stronger, more emotionally stable mindset because after being there for about three hours, I met a drunk guy who decided to sexually harass me.
Before anyone accuses me of being overly sensitive, I need to point out that it wasn’t harassment simply because the jokes were about fucking or dildos (I do play Cards Against Humanity). He also wasn’t trying to get me to sleep with him later and doing a piss-poor job of it. He was using sexually explicit language to get everyone in earshot to imagine me in vulnerable/exposed situations and then loudly laughing in my face. We had been having a normal conversation, but then he suddenly switched into harasser mode and all his body language made it clear that this was a conversation about me and all my attempts to respond to him directly were ignored. It was about his power to make me feel like shit and exclude me from the bro-time he was having.
I walked away thinking, “Fuck that guy,” but really I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t confront him directly. If I did it right then and there, that would definitely cause a scene. If I did it privately, he could easily ignore me. I didn’t want to say something publicly because that would bring a lot of attention and scrutiny down on me, and I just wanted the anger and resentment to go away so I could enjoy the conference.
Going to the organizers was the only other possible way to get a resolution, but, as anyone who’s been on the receiving end of harassment knows, people in positions of power around this issue aren’t always the most sympathetic. So,I did what any reasonable person would do and complained about the situation to a friend. After that, I had a drink and started resigning myself to pretending the whole thing never happened. Fortunately, my friend took it upon herself to go to Andy Baio and ask what he thought we should do.
Now, this is where the magic happens.
By the time I was talking to the Andys about what happened, I was terrified. I stood in a similar place once before, and that time I was told directly that being assaulted was my own fault and that I should know better than to talk about it. That experience was a seminal one in inspiring me to make the documentary that brought me to XO in the first place. And here I was, regretting every decision that brought me there, waiting for one of these men to stop being the amazing people they seemed to be and berate me for bringing this experience to their event.
And then… it didn’t happen. Slowly, I stopped feeling like a caged animal, and realized that yes, they were mad, but not at me. I was basically speechless and just said thank you. I was so grateful that I didn’t have to defend myself or withstand a bunch of weird questions that I wasn’t even angry about the harassment anymore. I wish it would have been ok for me to pull out my phone and take a picture of that moment because OMFG YES! it was horrible, it was inappropriate, and someone in a position of power understands! I was reliving the absolute worst things that had ever happened in my life, but this new ending was so different and so much better. People I didn’t even know were angry about my experience and talking about kicking the harasser out of the event (which they did). Even more confusingly awesome, they didn’t seem to be doing it as a capitulation to outside pressure, but because they thought that what happened was wrong.
My head was exploding, and I almost went home right then and there. I felt shaky and weird and way more emotionally vulnerable than I wanted to be in a room full of strangers, but I decided to stay. I joined a game of Johann Sebastian Joust and slowly started to feel giddy. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a big game nerd, the Andys had made it perfectly clear that I was welcome and allowed to have a good time. Later, I danced my ass off to Jack Conte’s set and basked in the joyousness of his stage presence and energy. I was at an event with tech and gaming people and found it to be a safe space. It was a more positive and welcoming experience than I was expecting and left me feeling really comfortable meeting people and listening to fantastic speakers share their stories.
As I’m writing this, I’ve just learned that an acquaintance of mine was arrested — and ultimately exonerated — for a domestic violence incident over the weekend. A completely unproductive and angry fight erupted over this event. He’s a man in the tech community who actively works to make his section of the world more welcoming to women. Though I don’t know him well, my heart is breaking for him. An exoneration doesn’t mean he’s totally innocent, but an arrest doesn’t mean that he deserves the level of hatred he’s getting from people who were not involved. He has posted on Twitter that he’s scared. Some of his defenders are denigrating the women who won’t take the lack of formal criminal charges as evidence of his innocence. Those women are coming from a place of fear and anger,where they are always threatened and always fighting. In some cases, they are coming from their own trauma and experiences with not being believed or supported in a time of crisis. My heart breaks for them too.
I have arrived at this place in my life after experiencing ongoing violence in my childhood. I was raped when I was 12 and lived with unresolved trauma for 15 years. I work in independent media because I want to tell my story in a way that is honest and can help people understand both sides of my friend’s situation. I find myself stuck in a place where everyone around me is saying that to be successful, I need to shout from the rooftops until someone hears me, follow my passions, and tell the story only I can tell. But the main thing I’ve done with my life is heal from trauma, and it’s a scary thing to go public with that. There’s no separation between my art and the most vulnerable parts of myself. I know that my work is incredibly valuable to the right people, but there’s a lot of static to navigate to connect with that audience.
I have heard many of attendees of XOXO talk about how thankful they were to be there, and I am too. I never thought I would be the asshole who walks away from being sexually harassed thinking it was a net positive, but experiencing that resolution was an amazing gift for my creativity. The Andys didn’t just send me the message that it’s ok for me to be at their event, they sent the message that it’s ok for me to be on the internet. As I keep talking and making, I’m sure to find people who are going to want to tear me down, but now I also have that moment of glorious confusion when I realized that without knowing anything about me, these two guys had my back. It was perhaps a dark serendipity that brought me to that place, but a profound one nonetheless. I can’t really explain it, but am extremely grateful for it. Hugs and kisses.
Ed note: Thanks for reading. I am currently fundraising for the film I mentioned making. Check out our KickStarter!