Another Women’s Center Director Confession: On Trolls and Harassment

Every once in a while on Facebook, I’ll post a “Women’s Center Director Confession” as a nod to truth, vulnerability, and my acknowledgement that I am always growing and learning when it comes to gender, gender equity, women’s issues and beyond. This confession needed more space than was Facebook-appropriate so I’m taking to the blog to write this latest reflection.
-Jess

***********

It’s been a year since the Women’s Center first started getting trolled on our Facebook page. In response, we created filters on our accounts to block those posts. The troll found a way around that by posting comments on photos. We created more filters and still the troll found ways to battle us. We blocked the accounts and new ones were created. Staff members were named and fat-shamed or slut-shamed in the posts. In the trolling posts, words were always spelled wrong and the grammar was worse so we did what we could do to laugh about it and find power in doing our own shaming of their editing skills in person together. We did inquire if there were ways to track IP addresses and see if the troll could be identified, but the quest seemed hopeless.

I wanted to share some of the trolling

I wanted to share some of the trolling “receipts” but they were too jarring to share on blog page that aims at being a safe and inclusive online space.

As summer turned into the fall semester, in addition to the online harassment, the Women’s Center staff also began to experience what I call face-to-face trolling. A group of guys would sit in the lounge area outside the Women’s Center front door seemingly not paying attention to anyone but themselves and their video games until individual staff members walked by. Suddenly, their conversations would shift to laughing about “wanting to f*** fat b******” or having threesomes or something transphobic. This was experienced in different ways by almost all the staff members in the Women’s Center and some of our regular community members, but it went on for several weeks without anyone bringing it up to each other. To each of us individually the comments were just odd and frustrating but not seen as a repeated pattern of harassment that needed to be addressed. Until one day, a staff member finally did mention one of these odd interactions during a staff meeting. Suddenly, all of us were sharing similarly weird interactions and comments made as we passed by the guys as well. In our ah-ha moment, we also began to wonder with each other if perhaps the online trolling and face-to-face trolling were somehow connected.

I reached out to others for help and while their responses varied, for the most part they weren’t as supportive as I thought they might be which led me to remain hesitant in pressing the issue further. So, I let it go on for far too long and with a laundry list far too long of various levels and examples of harassment. Looking back on the experience, I wish I would have called out (or called in, if you prefer) our allies to rally behind us sooner. I wish. Having had a lot of time to reflect on this, I’ve identified two big reasons on why I didn’t ask for help. 

The first. Pure and simple sexism that had manifested within me as a type of gaslighting. Was it really a big deal? Was I over-analyzing the situation? Was I being the stereotypical crazy** lady who just is too damn sensitive and needed to lighten up? I thought, probably, maybe, yes???

Second, we were the Women’s Center. The Women’s Center is supposed to be the office helping others experiencing harassment and not necessarily the other way around. I needed to fix this. It started to feel like a dirty little secret. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I felt like it was my fault. (For a more in-depth read on internalizing victim-blaming, check out this post shared on our blog).

The situation culminated with a pumpkin. Yes a pumpkin.

During a Women of Color Coalition meeting, a loud bang was abruptly heard outside the Women’s Center outside exit. When staff members went outside to inspect where the noise came from they found a pumpkin smashed to pieces on the sidewalk and exterior of the door. A sense of panic overcame them thinking the trolls had taken things to the next level. We later found out the pumpkin accidentally fell out of the window two floors above us. No foul play. While I was thankful the situation wasn’t what we initially thought, it provided an opportunity for me to hold up the mirror for myself and look at the reflection. What did I see? My staff was tense. I was tense. We felt unsafe and it didn’t matter if a true threat was there or not. It was our lived-reality and I needed to get my butt in gear and demand help.

We Hollaback at UMBC! event... Thanks to Shawna and Mel for the validation, empathy, and support!

We Hollaback at UMBC! event… Thanks to Shawna and Mel for the validation, empathy, and support!

So fast-forward to the start of the spring semester when I invited Hollaback Baltimore to the Women’s Center to give us a boost of confidence when it came to addressing street harassment, especially as it related to the work place. As we explained the events that had unfolded over the past semester, the facilitators, Mel and Shawna, listened in solidarity and without judgement. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much I needed someone to empathize with us (because that hadn’t happened yet). I needed someone to say they were sorry for what had happened (because no one had). With their empathy and support a weight felt lifted off my shoulders. A wave of healing came over me in a way I never knew I needed to be healed.

Addressing harassment is easier said than done. I now know that to be true. I’ve been quick to respond and move into action when others have shared experiences of trolling, harassment, and assault. I’ve created plans, put on my ally hat, and raised some noise. When I’ve been asked to take action, I’ve never thought, well this person is exaggerating and this really isn’t a big deal. I believed, supported, and validated with feminist rage. What I’ve learned from this experience is to allow others to do the same for me and my spaces and community. Asking for help is a strength not a failure. In fact, I’ve learned from this experience the importance in demanding for help.

Add this to my list of Women’s Center director confessions. It continues to grow as I learn more from my feminist community of students, friends, and colleagues. I am humbled. It’s vulnerable to share these failures, but I know I’ll do better next time… because sadly, I know there will always be a next time.

** Yes, I know I’ve promised to drop crazy from my vocabulary. This was an intentional move to highlight the experience of gaslighting.


Author’s Update: 

Since sharing this reflection, the Women’s Center has received a great amount of outreach and support. Thank you. This further proves the power and importance in naming our experiences, sharing our stories, and asking for help.
I also wanted to share an important part of this story that may not be as clear to others who were not closely connected to the experience. Through the help from other UMBC offices and departments, the issue has been resolved and we are okay! Thank you to all of those who expressed their concern and shared their ideas for “next steps” and how to help. Moreover, If you or someone you know on campus is experiencing harassment or unwanted behaviors, UMBC has policies and support people in place to help you. So, when you’re ready to ask for help, here’s some great campus resources.

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