There’s been a lot of talk recently about sexual harassment at spec fic conventions, and in fandom generally. A case of harassment at Readercon and mishandling of it brought this discussion up from a simmer. There have been amazing related posts like Captain Awkward’s response to two letters about creepy acquaintances, which did a great job of explaining the links between seemingly innocuous creepiness and obvious sexual threat. Another great one was John Scalzi’s Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping, which tried to address the defensiveness from many male geeks on the topic and show that not being creepy isn’t rocket science. That defensiveness is predictable: it’s a dynamic I, and probably most geek feminists, are familiar with.
This is all happening against a backdrop of gender- and race-fail in fandom, backlash against women in fandom (have you heard of “fake geek girls”?) and of course, the charming War on Women in the wider world.
A long time ago, I used to hang out on a discussion forum for gamers, in the general geekery section. There were recurring discussions about geek gender relations — about straight male geeks’ sexual frustrations, and about female geeks’ profound discomfort in many situations. In short, the same topic online fandom is mulling over now, with the same cast of characters and list of motivations and conflicts.
This is the metaphor I came up with then, to explain why I (and other women) get creeped out, and how behavior some men think is innocuous seems creepy or even threatening to the recipient:
As far as they’re concerned, inside every woman, there’s a tasty Sex Treat™, and there’s some way to get it out. Some combination of words, of behaviors on the man’s part, some situation will pop that box open and the treat will be his!
Like every belief, this one has implications and consequences. A puzzler may continue to try and try and try to get a woman to sleep with him, testing different approaches and permutations, sure that the perfect solution exists — when in fact, he’s just being terrifyingly persistent in hitting on someone who he’s already completely alienated. He may learn generalized techniques from pickup artist websites or books, which make perfect sense to him because they use the same sort of puzzle/treat logic — and then find that real women he interacts with don’t respond as he anticipated, or even get offended, when he tries out his new techniques. A frustrated puzzler may stay in a platonic relationship with a woman hoping to stumble onto a way to get the treat, when he isn’t interested in the friendship for its own sake.
And here’s the thing. While she may not know what to call it, a woman can often sense that a man believes her to be a puzzle box. He’s breaking Rule #4 in Scalzi’s post, “Acknowledge that other people do not exist just for your amusement/interest/desire/use.” He is talking to her, but thinking about how to get her Sex Treat™.
There are two big problems with the Puzzle Box model of woman. The first one you can probably guess, and I’ve just implied it when I note that women can tell a man’s thinking of them that way:
Women don’t like being treated as interchangeable, or as the means to an end, or an obstacle in the way of someone’s desire, any more than anyone else would. Most puzzler-types would scoff at the idea that they’re treating women as interchangeable, but no, the fact that you value the sex treat or the victory more highly if the box has an attractive exterior, or if it hadn’t been opened before, or if it was particularly tricky, isn’t flattering. You are treating a sentient individual as an instance of a game. It’s disgusting.
The second problem is a little more subtle, but its power is why I like this metaphor so much (besides the precise way it describes the feeling I get when a guy is talking to me but his brain is obviously listening to imagined tumblers in my locking mechanism).
Sex is not a treat, it’s not a prize: it’s an activity people do together. When a man (or anyone else) focuses on it as an object to win, he is constructing his sexual world in a flawed and unethical way. If all that matters is that he wins, that he finds a way of getting that treat out of that woman, then the quality of her consent doesn’t matter to him.
I’m not trying to be hyperbolic here, and I’m not trying to be vituperative: but logically, the Puzzle Box approach is on a continuum with rape. Each puzzler has a toolbox they use to approach a new puzzle box. One has flattery, pokes at self-esteem, dares, intense eye contact. One also uses pushing of physical boundaries, false teaming, buying her a couple of drinks, telling her she’s leading him on and owes him sex. One also uses the implied threat of his large and imposing frame, isolating her, getting her drunk. One also uses drugs, and social threat, and his strength and greater weight… You get the picture.
When a woman senses a man sees her as a puzzle box, she does not know if he is a harmless guy with some stupid notions, or a self-taught pickup artist steeped in internet misogyny but who has a rudimentary ethical compass, or a guy who will rape her if he has plausible deniability but not otherwise, or that self-aware serial rapist who posted on Reddit.
She doesn’t know whether he’s just going to annoy her with a constant attempt to load his save-game and retry with a bunch of corny lines and pushy suggestions; or stalk her on the internet trying to figure out the cheat code to open her pants; or grope her in an attempt to break her boundaries; or rape her. She does not know what he’s willing to do to get the treat. All she knows is that he sees her as an obstacle and her sex as an object. And why the fuck would she want to spend any time with him, even if he’s harmless, knowing that?
If you’re reading this and you have a puzzle box mentality, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I’m not saying you’re a rapist when I say this mentality is part of a continuum with rape — I’m saying you’re part of a society which enables and includes rape. We all are. We don’t grow to adulthood in individual stasis boxes, creating all our attitudes ourselves. The idea of women as puzzle boxes — which is related to the ideas that women don’t actually want sex and just have to regulate men’s access to it, and to the idea of women as the sex class, the people whose bodies carry sex and mean sex — is embedded deep in our culture.
Stop thinking about sex as a prize. Start thinking about it as something fun you’re doing with someone else who wants to have fun too. Don’t think of consent as something you can win either — or as a lid you’ve managed to get open. Consent should be desire and enthusiasm. Consent should be active and joyful. It isn’t complicated. You’re not looking for a cheat code, or a combination, or a series of moves that reveal the shortest way to the end of the puzzle. You’re looking for a human who wants to have fun with you — which actually makes this way easier because you can have fun with people before sex ever comes up, so you don’t even have to focus on sex as a goal. Fun is your goal — your fun and other people’s, which can be mutual and amazing!
I think most of us would rather live in a world of people than of puzzle boxes, anyway.
Edited 9/16 to add: Comments on this piece are now closed due to the time constraints of my offline life. Thank you to everyone who contributed and shared!