This summer has been surprisingly (and slightly thankfully) devoid of travel for me. I have, aside from one trip to visit family in mid June, stayed fairly well-put. I have been working, recharging my creative juices for the semester ahead. This is atypical for me, as I am accustomed to running about like a maniac during the summer months.
However, tomorrow I will be hitting the road, once again visiting family to the south, and then doubling back to attend the Secular Student Alliance's Annual Conference! This will be my third consecutive year attending, and I think I have been this nervous since my first year attending. I'm a fairly shy person around large groups of strangers. And the recent fallout of "ElevatorGate," as it has been dubbed, has left me slightly worried. Normally, the comments of strangers on the internet do not phase me all that much, as they are nameless, faceless strangers that I will more than likely never meet in person.
The problem is this: these people, the ones crying foul on Rebecca Watson for speaking up on unwanted approaches, the ones telling women (ironically) that they are "too dumb to recognize true sexism," and saying that all this hooplah is due to women being hysterical and irrational as usual.. they attend conferences. They attend gatherings. They go to groups and meet-ups and hang-outs and so on. I have interacted with these people in the past, under the assumption that my presence was respected as an equal at these gatherings, because I was surrounded by generally enlightened, well-educated, and rational people who knew better than to assume my only purpose to them was as a sexual receptacle.
Now, I am not so sure.
I was thrilled to attend the SSA's conference before the whole ElevatorGate debacle. Now, I am slightly nervous. How do I know that even if they do not approach me, my peers do not view me as an intellectual equal; rather, as simply a conquest to be made due to my mere presence and my being a member of the sex in which they are interested? In the past, I did not worry about such things at gatherings such as the SSA conference or Skepticon, because I was not approached in any unwanted manner. But now? Having seen people that I know attend conferences spout, through the courteous protection of the internet, truly worrisome and degrading opinions of women and how women out to be treated at such events? I think twice.
Recent comments made by an individual within my own student group also worried me. Prior to this, I had hoped that the majority of such outright sexism was more prevalent among the older generations. Now I find my views changing. And I worry. As a survivor of assault and abuse, having been subjected to unwanted grabbing and groping by complete strangers (including in, yes, elevators), I worry that my discomfort, my trauma triggers, are of no concern to (in particular) men who approach me in a sexual manner. This is not to say I dislike being hit on. Despite being off the market (I am very happy with Significant Other), I do find it flattering when a guy (or woman) shows interest in me... but only when done in a non-predatory manner. If nothing else, it makes for great stories later on.
Just the other night, while leaving work, I had an extremely uncomfortable encounter while leaving work. Two men, athletes judging by their attire, approached me in a slightly blocked off area. I do not presume they did this on purpose. However, one of them did make a pass at flirting with me in a very creepy manner (staring, unwavering off-putting smile). The encounter was brief, and nothing physical came of it. However, it was 2:30am, I was outside in a slightly blocked off area (building behind me, obstacles on either side of me), in a poorly lit area, alone, with two strange men approaching me fairly closely without introducing themselves. This encounter was enough to send me bolting back to my office and wait to walk out to my car with a coworker. It was enough to keep in a state of panic for several hours afterward.
I'm sure they meant me no harm, and the one that hit on me just found me attractive. However, their approach and complete disregard for the environment I was in was unsettling. I was gripping my self-defense tool for dear life should one of them get any closer. I know what happens when situations like that do turn sour, all too well.
I am hopeful that the conference will be as much fun as it normally is and will go off without any uncomfortable encounters or comments. And should something turn sour, I know the guys I am attending the conference with will have my back.
I am excited. I am nervous. I am pumped to show off a kick-ass dress I bought for the bar night (seriously, I could kill and get away with it in this thing). I get to see and hang out with people I only really get to see at these events. I get to hang out with the guys from the student group I attend. I'm hoping people learn from the mistakes of ElevatorGate and make the best of it all.