I was at a conference party this fall, and I had an interesting conversation that I wanted to tell you about.
First though, let me beg conference organizers — if we’re having an evening mixer, PLEASE explain to the DJ that people are going to be trying to talk to each other. The music was loud enough that I found an organizer to ask the DJ to turn it down and I still felt like I might lose my voice by shouting over people shouting over the music.
User story: As a conference speaker, I do not want any conference event to interfere with my ability to give my talk!
Content note: Rape culture
Ok, on to the actual conversation. I was talking to a couple guys, one my age, one shiny-new out of college. College Guy, hereafter known as Craig, said something about how free beer was good beer.
I shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter to me,” I said. “I’m only going to have one, and I’m not going to set it down, and I’m only having this one because the place is well-lit and I don’t have to worry about getting back to my room.”
Craig laughed awkwardly and asked if I was afraid of being hung over. I made eye contact with his co-worker mentor, and he gave me the nod that said, “Go ahead and disillusion the youth.”
So I said, “No. I’m afraid of being raped or assaulted. And every woman here is making a similar calculation while she drinks with her co-workers and compatriots. You see, we all know we’re outnumbered, and we know that almost everyone in this room is as nice as he seems to be, but we don’t know that for sure about absolutely everyone.”
He goggled. I was feeling both feisty and merciless, and said, “Look around this room. There are about thirty women here. Odds are, ten of us have been sexually assaulted and recognized it and told someone. Not one in ten. Ten. ”
“You’re kidding me!”
I’m really not, Craig. I’m trying to explain that most women are running a background process that you don’t even think about, and it affects our decisions. (I didn’t say that part)
So then I asked him if he was in a relationship. He said he was. I asked him what he would do if his partner told him she’d gotten raped when she went to a conference. At this point, older dude has his hand over his mouth so he doesn’t try to save poor Craig.
“I’d pound the crap out of that bastard!”
“She probably doesn’t know who he is, or if she does, she may not want him pounded. It’s hard on her career. What else can you do?”
“I’ll make her report to the police!”
“You know, police are not always the most sympathetic audience when you’re already freaked out. She may not want to report.”
“But she has to! I’d do everything in my power to persuade her that she had to!”
Older dude is looking for patterns in his drink and not making eye contact, but not abandoning this poor kid. I respected that.
“Craig, you’re telling me that after your girlfriend has a psychologically and physically horrible experience, you would pester and hound her to talk to strangers about it? Because if that’s what you’re saying, you can see why the women here are being as careful as they can, and if something terrible does happen, they don’t always talk about it, and even if they do talk about it, they seldom report it. Which is why you don’t know how common it is to be a victim.”
And then I lifted my drink in salute to the mentor, gave Craig a sad smile, and faded off into the crowd to go back to my hotel room and throw the lock and the hotel bar, like I always do when I’m alone.
Craig is not a bad dude, and I am mentally apologizing to his girlfriend when he gets home and tries to ask her about this. He’s smart, and he’s socially adept, and he’s probably quite nice. But no one has gotten through to him that some of us are living in parallel universes to his – darker, scarier places. Places where the cops aren’t always helpers, and co-workers are not always buddies, and the failure state of dates is death, not embarrassment. I hope he gets it. I hope I helped him along that path, but I am sometimes so exhausted thinking about how many people there are to teach — and I’m one of them.
Here’s to you, Craig. I hope your next free beer is uncomfortable, and you remember why.