DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I am a woman who was sent an article by a male friend about how the chess world is hostile to women. He asked my opinion and I replied “well, I wouldn’t say hostile, but I do routinely have to fend off a lot of unsolicited attention, nothing I can’t handle, it can be tiresome sometimes.” Discussion ensued with some specific examples given. Then, my friend looped in a mutual friend – a very high-level tournament director I will call MCO (Male Chess Official) – to ask how women should deal with unwanted attention as far as when to notify an official, and what actions the official might be expected to take. I was reluctant to talk about this with MCO, as I had specifically said I never even thought of lodging an official complaint over anything that had happened to me. However, I still got sucked in somehow and our exchange devolved into the exchange below. (Name changed, exchange distilled. Punctuation deliberately unedited!)
MCO: Some women want it both ways. They dress and act in certain ways to draw attention from the male species. Then they don’t like it when men they are not attracted to are attracted to them! Part of the price of casting the net wide is that you have to accept that you may get hit on by men you are not interested in. The female has a responsibility to politely decline (the male cannot reasonably be expected to read a mind) and the male has the responsibility to buzz off. Where that line is can be difficult. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories where the husband says I had to ask her out several times before she agreed and now they’ve been married 50 years!
ME: Women should be able to dress however they want without anyone assuming that they are “casting a wide net.” Maybe you should re-train yourself to think of it as “dressing how she wants to dress”?
MCO: I did say dress AND act. I am not going to fault a man (or try to retrain a man) for “taking the bait” even if that bait was not intended for him. And I am not going to say that somehow a woman who dresses to attract/impress has a right to be offended when the attraction picked up an unintended target!
ME: The picture you seem to be painting is that of a woman dressing and acting provocatively then taking offense at an innocent overture from a man. I don’t know that I have ever seen or heard of a woman becoming offended unless an overture was overtly crass or inappropriate – and even then, most women will not reply uncivilly. Have you had a different experience?
MCO: The short answer is that yes I have had different experiences. I also have friends who have had different experiences, so its not just me.
Doc, what are your thoughts here? I have a very high amount of tolerance (empathy even) for awkward nerdy guys who interpret fleeting, accidental eye contact as flirting, but I am at a loss as to how to respond reasonably to my friend at this point, other than to apologize for anyone of my gender who has been unkind to him or his friends… which I actually did but now regret, ugh…
All the best – love your column, never thought I’d actually write though,
Check Doesn’t Always Imply Mate
DEAR CHECK DOESN’T ALWAYS IMPLY MATE: There’s a lot to unpack here, CDAIM, but I’m kinda wondering if maybe the entire suitcase shouldn’t just be tossed out entirely.
What’s interesting to me – in an anthropological kind of way – is how the verses may change but the song stays the same. If I were to swap out the community – change “chess” for, say, Dungeons and Dragons or video games or comics or just “geek culture” in general – without changing another word, people would almost certainly have had the exact same experience, practically word for word. It all comes down to the same basic idea that X – where X = a particular community – is ultimately “for boys” and women who participate in it are not just intruding but have to expect a certain amount of mistreatment. In fact not only should they expect it but they need to respond to it gracefully because, at the end of the day, their purpose there is a thing to be consumed, rather than a participant and equal who has the right to be there on the same terms.
It’s also kind of telling just how ossified MCO’s beliefs are, seeing as he apparently can’t bring himself to believe that women don’t dress exclusively for men – even when they put on their favorite sexy dress and a full face of makeup. As hard as it may be to believe, sometimes women do stuff for themselves… including dressing up because it feels nice to dress up sharp and feel like you look like a million bucks. Just as importantly, however, much of what they’re getting from men isn’t attention so much as domination and intimidation and putting women in their place.
There’s also quite a bit of ego – call it “main character syndrome” – inherent in the idea that a woman choosing to exist in physical space, dressed in any particular way, is an invitation to a particular man or many. The same applies to the idea that he gets to decide what is crass, rude or unwanted; it’s a hell of a thing to say “You’re not allowed to be upset because I have decided that I was being a perfect gentleman and you are ungrateful for my attention.”
One wonders how MCO might feel if he were being inundated with offers and come ons from women he found unattractive, or from men, for that matter. After all, men dress and act in ways to cast a wide net and so you can hardly be surprised if a woman who repulses him or a man were to hit on him relentlessly and then tell him to quit working his pretty head into a tizzy over it. After all, if someone wants to tell him how nice his ass looks in those pants, isn’t it ultimately his fault for wearing those pants and acting in such a way that people took the bait? After all, you can hardly expect men to be mind readers. Really, the only way to know for sure is to invite him to some cozy corner or empty bathroom for a quick round of Sanz’ Shocking Endgame Sacrifice if ya know what I mean…
Though it’s also a sign of how little responsibility he puts on men in this, as opposed to all the onus on women. Apparently it’s ok for men to not be mind readers, to not put in effort to actually figure out if their attention is wanted or to, y’know. Keep it in their pants and let someone else make the first move. Saying he won’t fault or retrain a man for being obnoxious and intrusive and that women don’t have a right to be offended by boorish behavior because she should “expect” it is… well, that’s honestly not far off from “what did you expect when you were alone with him” and “what were you wearing?”
I also side-eye just how many different experiences he and his friends have had. While I do believe that people can make honest mistakes or misunderstand things in good faith, the amount of blame he puts on women and the excuses he makes for his friends make me question either his honesty or ability to accurately gauge what happened. Or, for that matter, to recognize that maybe, just maybe, he or his bros were dead wrong.
Unfortunately, as the saying goes, you can’t reason someone out of a position when reason didn’t get them there in the first place, nor can you expect change from someone whose self interest lies in NOT changing or progressing.
So what do you – and people in general – do about this?
Well… that part’s harder, because there’re no easy or simple answers. Part of the problem is that this is an issue of culture within the chess community, and changing a culture takes time. Not to mention, the suggestions I could come up with may not necessarily be useful to you since I have very little experience in chess tournaments. So take my suggestions with appropriate levels of salt.
My first suggestion would be to vote with your feet and your presence. If some tournaments or events are going to tolerate s--tty behavior or won’t act on complaints from women, then I would say to not go to those. However, that may not be feasible for you depending on how the tournament scene works. If you’re expected to progress through those specific events to get to higher tiers, then this would be a de facto penalty to you for not being willing to tolerate harassment and boorish behavior.
Another possibility would be to push for change – ideally from both the top down and the bottom up. A combination of women being willing to call out bad behavior for what it is in the moment, men calling out their bros and telling them to be better and the higher ups laying down the law goes a long way towards making changes in the community. And I want to emphasize the importance of having other men speak up and call out bad behavior, especially in the moment. Guys may not listen to you or other women, but they often will listen when men speak up… even if they’re saying the exact same thing you did. It’s s--tty and it’s sexist but it does make a difference.
Of course, this does require a perfect storm of those factors coming together as well as being willing to deal with s--theads pushing back or trying to turn changes in accepted behavior into yet another front of the culture war, which can be daunting. But then again, even making people more aware of the issue can make a difference; greater scrutiny brings greater pressure to improve.
One thing that might help would be to have a code of conduct ready to go, if only as a model for what you’d like change to look like. One of the favorite delay-until-people-look-away tactics that people like to use to stymie progress and change is to say “well, you fix it, if you’re so smart”. Being able to slap an example on the table and say “here you go” is a powerful riposte. In this case, you may want to look to how other organizations have handled similar issues. This is by no means a solved problem by any stretch, but many organizations and event-planners have started implementing stringent and detailed codes of conduct and acceptable behavior, including a chain of responsibility for both reporting violations and enforcing the rules. CONVergence, for example, is a general sci-fi/geek interest convention, but it’s widely seen as having a model for better codes of conduct and behavior. Similarly, Penny Arcade Expo has been quite good at making their cons a more inclusive space with uniformed PAX Enforcers who are easily identifiable, and taking bad behavior seriously instead of letting things slide because of an old-boys club and the like.
If the tournament that MCO was part of doesn’t have a similar code of conduct – or a tendency to let things go because “boys will be boys” and they don’t want to “ruin someone’s promising chess future” or whatever – then bringing this up to the tournament organizers would be my first stop. But if they refuse to take it seriously… well, unfortunately, then we’re back to “trying to change a culture from the ground up” without the support from the top down as well.
I will say that, absent a sort of sudden decapitation of the heads of any particular tourney, that change and improvement will likely be frustratingly, teeth-grindingly slow. The Titanic couldn’t turn on a dime, and it’s equally as difficult to get hidebound institutions to shift. But just because something’s difficult and frustrating doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing anyway. It just may be a case of planting a seed that you may never see grow into a tree in your time.
Oh, and one more thing: it’s not on you to apologize for your gender if they may have mistreated your friend. Your gender as a whole didn’t mistreat him, an individual did; it’s on her to make things right if necessary, not on you to do it for her. It’s not as though there’s a systematic, cultural problem of a majority of women mistreating or duping men at chess tournaments or what-have-you. If he’s capable of seeing the acts of other individual guys at these events as being the act of a single person and not the male gender as a whole, then he’s equally capable of giving the same consideration and individual agency to women too.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org