Friday, October 27, 2017

Harassment: Should you ask that question on your mind?

Early this month a tweet sized anecdote was shared concerning a recent interaction with TSA. While traveling, the author smiled at an agent and was rewarded with a sexually loaded request for personal information. The resulting feedback from the Internet was... mixed. I used the moment to support the author's concern because of its intersection between abusive law enforcement and women's safety.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the original author has well over half a million followers. Since "woman with safety concerns" seems to be a favorite of toxic Internet trolls, the thread in question was visited with massive amounts of vitriol. I have not read through the thousands of replies to the original post, nor tracked down the thousands of retweet quotes, so I can only discuss the slice of the conversation after I posted. There is no amount of money that I would accept to have to read the full mentions of the author from that day though.
Among my replies and mentions there seems to be basically three themes: how can men meet women, who had power during the original interaction, and personal attacks against me. While the personal attacks were uncomfortable, I have no useful discussion for them. To quote Wil Wheaton... "Don't be a dick." Suffering through such attacks for supporting a woman online still doesn't provide me the perspective of the suffering required to be a woman online. Listen to them, read their accounts, and believe them. We can be better.

At 140 characters, or even at the future 280 characters, there is not much room for nuance in a tweet. That was discussed a bit in my replies and one user requested I expand on it. This is my wider post to add the nuanced discussion that was condensed into my Twitter post.

Questions that need to be asked

Positions of power exist because our society utilizes hierarchy and specialization to function as well as variations among people. All three of these points create fluid power dynamics between actors which change based on the context of the moment. A smaller, soft spoken man might be normally quite amicable, but intimidating and threatening when out with his three large bruiser appearing pals. Mobster depictions in media are great examples of this dynamic. Entrepreneurs are have a lot of power in their role as employer, even if they come across as unimposing in other relationships. Badges and uniforms tend to carry significant influence and discretionary impact.
Hierarchy and specialization necessarily brings about communication that is required by the roles and situations that they generate. As such, these roles generate questions that must be asked, even if they might seem intrusive and involve personal information. Recruiters and hiring managers have to confirm that applicants will be able to complete an I-9 form to demonstrate legal work status. For clearance jobs they must confirm US citizenship. Nurses will have to ask about medical history and family medical history. Police, when in the course of an investigation, will need to ask questions to advance the investigation. Questions dictated by law or by context are always appropriate: they can and should be asked.

Small talk

Small talk consists of light discussions that fill otherwise silent time typically does not involve soliciting personal information, interrupting activity, and can be between speakers of any level of familiarity. Discussions of drink choices, current weather, and not intrusive compliments or sourcing queries about clothing are rarely inappropriate, when short, nondisruptive, and amicable. "I like your shoes. Where did you get them?" keeps the conversation light. Further inquiry, like which specific building, whether it is in walking distance of their house or job, or sexual comments of where they could leave the shoes push the conversation into a place where the target is likely to feel pressured or threatened.

How might a power imbalance be detected?

Obviously this does not apply to you, but place yourself into the mind of the target and ask "What could they do with this information?" and "What could a vindictive person do to retaliate?" No matter who you are, information like where they keep security backups, like a spare house key, is a potential threat. Where their children are at when no family members are near is a potential threat. (Consider the movie Blow and when the pilot has to turn over information about his children) It really should go without saying, but making yourself a threat creates a power imbalance. Unless necessitated by the situation and context, do not solicit information that can make you a threat.
Moving away from how an information disclosure might make you a threat, we need to address how you may already be a threat. As a reminder, people cannot give free and open consent (to anything) under threat, which creates duress. Requests for favors, sexual advances, contract acceptance, or the like all need to take place while all parties are freely consenting. Any situation where you are requiring the other party to provide acceptance or rejection might result in you being rejected. You are a threat if it is possible to retaliate if rejected.

Retaliations that you would never perform

If you are…then you pose a threat of...
Physically imposing and there are not witnessesimmediate assault.
A stranger on the streetfollowing and delayed assault.
A local law enforcement officerabuse from behind the badge, targeted investigation, or sexual assault ("frisk" or "cavity search").
A TSA agentdetainment, arrest, and sexual assault ("frisk" or "cavity search").
An educatorderailing their educational goals.
A mentorderailing their professional goals.
A supervisorabuse through scheduling: spiteful shifts or lack of shifts, or even termination.
Well connected in their fieldblacklisting and other forms of derailing their goals.


Harassment, in general and sexual harassment specifically, can come in many forms and so this discussion alone will not keep you from committing it. This discussion will, though, help recognize interactions that are always harassment. Do not ask favors, including and especially related to sex, from a position of power. Just don’t do it, because the other party cannot provide free and open consent to accept. If there are potential repercussions to rejection, do not solicit it. That is harassment at best.

@LandryRobandry, please DM me to request my mailing address.

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