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I am not a Puzzle Box

Monday September 10, 2012 @ 12:53 PM (UTC)


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:

Some men see women as puzzle boxes.

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 are people, not puzzle boxes.

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 an item.

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!

The Lay of the Wise Woman's Fire

Sunday August 19, 2012 @ 08:51 PM (UTC)

What ho, readers! I wrote something a little odd, so I thought I’d put it on, where the odd things go.

The Lay of the Wise Woman’s Fire
In a forest past a mountain
Where a gleaming birch stood bright,
Shrugged a tiny cottage doorway
Barely shutting out the night.

Low the coals burned in the pit there,
’Twixt walls pierced by draughts and cold
But the etched face of the bent crone
Showed a cunning smile, and bold.

“Come on in and sit, ye traveler!
By my dying fire you’ll tide
And hear a story or a puzzle,
A lie in which great truths can hide.”

In beside the soughing embers,
’Cross the fire from the old dame,
Lurched the third son of a warlord,
Fortune-seeker, Brait by name.

Long and far his path had ta’en him,
Or so it seemed to untried Brait,
Before the moonlit path had shown him
The way to this old woman’s gate.

“Fame do you seek, or glory?”
Asked the smiling glint-eyed crone.
“Bright-haired noblewomen’s daughters?
Magic? Treasure? Or a throne?”

“Any of these would I leap at!”
Said the boy, half-rising, awed.
“Sure you must know much, great wise one,
Sure the right path have I trod!”

“Tell me where my story takes me!
Give me clues to find my fate!
And your hands I’ll fill with silver,
After fortune makes me great!”

“Fortune’s fickle,” laughed the wise one.
“Many heroes have I seen…
Promised gold and promised silver
In the counting lose their sheen.

“Have you aught of honest value,
Son of mighty warlord’s halls?
For a treasure of your past, then,
I may share destiny’s call.”

Forth Brait drew his gleaming longsword,
Ruby-studded, rich in names.
“This I give to buy my future!”
Watchful Night heard him proclaim.

Through the dark he took her counsel,
Learned her riddles, drew her maps,
’Til one hour past the daybreak,
Brait strode forth to try his haps.

And when, one year hence, Brait returned there —
To the slope-roofed cottage old?
All he found was broken thatching,
Tumbled wall stones, fire cold.

For however dark the forest,
However wizened the dame may seem,
Not every old crone is a wise one —
Despite her knowing eyeballs’ gleam.

Rich the house and straight its timbers,
Warm and bright and great its fires!
Fat and happy on the sword’s price
Lives not a witch, but yes, a liar!

The 5 Stages of Street Harassment

Wednesday July 18, 2012 @ 09:08 PM (UTC)

1. Denial. Wait, did someone just say “PROSTITUTE!”? Was that the word? Was it that guy? Was it to me? No, surely I misheard. Let me just listen to the extremely disturbing replay in my head a bit, I’m sure it wasn’t that. Or to me. Shit, it really was.

2. Fleeing. Doooon’t look over your shoulder, fast fast walky walky fast, car around the corner, no one following me, it’s just nerves anyway. It’s a beautiful day, you’re no less safe just because someone reminded you it’s an ugly world.

3. Victim-blaming. Holy shit, is my bra showing? No, it isn’t. Also, what the what, Felicity, you’re a feminist. Cut that out. It’s about him, not you. [Ed: I bet you want to know what I was wearing. I would too. Because it’s how we make sense out of this crap, and unfortunately, shift the blame.]

4. Stubbornness. Stop, stop, stop looking in the mirror and checking your outfit for sluttiness, Felicity. You’re a feminist. You know that this is about that dude and his feelings about women, and the Patriarchy and its inability to allow women to just be, summer clothes and all, without carrying the signification of “SEX” around their necks like a burden and target. That guy is an enforcer. A creepy, crunkle-faced enforcer who wants you to be ashamed of wearing a tank top on a sunny day. He doesn’t get to win.

5. Blog fodder. Just another lovely reminder, folks! Patriarchy Makes Every Day Special!

"Long Night on Redrock" is on newsstands!

Wednesday May 09, 2012 @ 11:49 PM (UTC)

The July 2012 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction is out on a real or virtual newsstand near you! My novelette “Long Night on Redrock” is the cover story, with art by Tomislav Tikulin!

Note: The table of contents mistakenly lists “Long Night on Redrock” as a short story — it’s a novelette, I promise. A very long one, at that!

“Long Night on Redrock” is different from my previously published science fiction in many respects: it’s by far my longest published work, and it’s set on a different planet in the far future, just for starters. It was an enjoyable challenge to write, and I’m really excited for readers to see it. Please, get out there and read it! Especially if you love space marines. (What am I talking about, everyone loves space marines!) You can read a short teaser in this earlier blog post! Or if I had you at “space marines”, go get a copy!

Getting a paper copy: Traditional newsstands often carry Asimov’s. Many Barnes & Noble locations carry it, but it’s best to call ahead if you’ve never seen it at that particular store before. You can’t miss it, it’s the one with the awesome lion roaring, and my name on it!

Getting a paper copy in Portland: If you’re local, you can shop local at Rich’s Cigar Store, which carries Asimov’s in their extensive magazine collection. The main store on SW Alder has the most copies. Also, the main store will ship magazines to out-of-town customers — just give them a call if you’re in a fix.

Getting a digital version: Asimov’s is available in kindle edition and several other formats — in case you, like my characters, live in the future.

Remember my novelette, “Long Night on Redrock”, which will be appearing in the July 2012 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction? It is the cover story for that issue!

I discovered last week that science fiction and fantasy illustrator Tomislav Tikulin had done a painting titled “Long Night on Redrock” which was clearly an illustration of my story, and yesterday I received confirmation in the form of contributor copies in my mailbox.

July 2012 Asimov's contributor copies

If you’d like to see the full painting, take a look on Mr. Tikulin’s website here — it’s pretty gorgeous.

I’ve never had my name on the cover of a magazine before, let alone had my story named and illustrated on the cover. I’m over the moon! If not over the titular desert planet of Redrock. Which is in that painting. Along with my main characters. And certain other story elements. On the cover of Asimov’s. Sorry, still getting used to this!

The issue should be arriving in subscribers’ mailboxes or on their Kindles soon, and it’ll be on newsstands May 8. I’m really excited about this story, which is again a little different from most I’ve had published. Read the teaser in my original post and look for it in the July issue! On the cover!

I was asked to do an email interview about “Small Towns”, my novelette currently available in the January/February Fantasy and Science Fiction. Assistant Editor Stephen Mazur has posted the interview over at the F&SF blog.

I was really glad to have the opportunity — writing this one was interesting and unusual, and I hope readers are interested in the extra information.

Go and see!

My first published novelette, first published fantasy, and first published historical fiction are all out on newsstands today and they are all the same thing: “Small Towns,” published in the January/February 2012 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction!

I hope all my stories have their own flavor, but this one is particularly idiosyncratic and I’m quite proud of it.

Here’s the beginning, to whet your appetite:

Small Towns

When Jacques Jaillet was a small boy, he brought home a pocketful of sand from the seaside and dribbled it slowly onto the floorboards of his little room. He made long avenues and cottage roofs, rows of shops, garden walls, a church with a fragment of shell for the tower. Then, for no reason he could later recall, he took a deep breath and blew it all away, the shapes and the order, the grains themselves skittering under the baseboard, gone forever.

When Jacques returned to his market town in 1918, past his middle years, it looked as if here, too, a monstrous child had finished playing and had blown the town, the streets, the houses and shops from the face of the Earth.

I hope you’ll go out and buy the magazine at your local newsstand or Barnes & Nobles. Portlanders, Rich’s Cigar Store has copies!

Edited 1/13/12: F&SF is available for Kindle, as well!


Saturday December 03, 2011 @ 03:54 PM (UTC)
Polar bear cubs.

So Ryan and I have been watching Frozen Planet, and I realize I may be a little obsessed.

For example, when describing to a hapless class of high school sophomores the other day how language and the exchange of stories allows us to create continuous culture, I said otherwise we would have to learn everything from scratch, “like baby polar bears emerging from a snow den for the first time.” Because, you know, that was the obvious metaphor?

Or how I drive along thinking about narwhal traffic jams. Or I look at my friends’ dogs and think about how odd it was someone looked at those terrible wolves slavering along after caribou or bison and thought, “I want one of those in my house!”

I think it’s the focused nature of this special that makes it stick so much in my mind: not what it’s about so much as that it’s about one thing. The Planet Earth series was a collection of dazzling and fascinating sights, but so different they didn’t leave an overall impression save that of majesty and variety. This is a symphony with overarching themes. It leaves you looking about you for the cycles in your own life, in humans: the frozen winter that gives way, all of a sudden, to a brief, frenetic period of creation and growth. I think how important it is to seize those moments of sunwarmed opportunity and beauty; but also to know that they will, like the summer sun, always come again.

Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature...

Tuesday November 08, 2011 @ 10:22 PM (UTC)

Yesterday I found myself rubbing my cat’s tummy and telling her out loud a list of diagnostic anatomical features that convince me she can be classified as a felid.

I’m not sure what the implications may be for the famous xkcd Cat Proximity graph.

I am overjoyed to announce my second novelette sale! This one is far-future science fiction, and it will appear in Asimov’s Science Fiction.

Many thanks to my lovely readers! It wasn’t hard to find them for this piece, because it turns out everyone loves space marines. Even retired ones.

Here is a teaser of my novelette! You’ll know more about where to find the rest of it as soon as I do:

Long Night on Redrock

“If you’re exploring the town, you should stop walking,” Peder Finn called down from his porch. The stranger, a fair-haired man bent under a backpack, paused at the gate. Peder pegged him for an offworlder. A dozen telltales said as much; from his low-topped shoes, likely to let in sand, to his unshaded eyes, without tanned-in squint or sunglass marks. It was almost aynid harvest, a suspicious time for an offworlder to come visiting.

The man took in the dusty yard, where Peder’s children had lined and stacked rocks into an imaginary city and set a carved toy horse on an overturned bucket to reign. Finally his gaze settled on Peder, who had paused in carving another toy, a long strip of synthwood still hanging from his knife.

Peder produced a noncommittal smile. “Nothing that way you want to visit.”

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