Georgia Weidman attended an Infosec conference in Poland and was sexually assaulted. It’s a very strange story, not because there’s any ambiguity — she was simply attacked by an acquaintance, and fought him off — but because she lets us in to all the tangled confusion going on in her head about this attack. It’s not just a physical event, dealt with and done, but a threat to her role in the community.
First, she builds up to the story with a lot of concern about “grey areas”. These “grey areas” are pretty damn sad in themselves, and I think it’s a symptom of her efforts to understand what happened to her that she’s discussing all this. The attempted rape wasn’t grey at all.
The third grey area for me is what constitutes rape. A lot of my fears in writing this post stem back to this post from Norin Shirley about being attacked at a conference. Reading the comments makes my stomach turn, knowing that the same thing is about to happen to me. “She’s a slut,” or “she’s making it up for attention,” sort of things. It makes me feel bad and like an anti-feminist to say this, but some guy putting his hands down my pants when I don’t want him to, while I certainly don’t condone it, sounds a bit more like life than rape. It’s just a sad fact. If you are female from time to time you will be touched without permission. Not too many years ago marital rape didn’t legally exist, and in the middle ages knights at arms were encouraged to practice chaste courtly love with the queen while gallivanting around the country forcing their lust on peasant girls. Sometimes it just sucks to be female you know. Then again sometimes it sucks to be male too. False rape accusations do happen. If I was a guy, I think I might be afraid of that. Luckily Norin Shirley was able to get away before her attack escalated, as was I.
I’ll skip over the actual account of her attack. It’s the usual sordid nastiness by an abusive guy, with the good news that smacking someone really hard in the temple with a coffee cup will terminate their arousal. But then there’s the aftermath. She calls the hotel staff, the conference organizers, works her way up to the Polish policy and the US embassy, and then…all the second guessing begins.
Conference staff was originally very supportive. But then they went to hear his side of the story and they suddenly wouldn’t even look at me. I realize it’s a complicated situation, but what I hit myself in the eye? I asked an organizer point blank if he believed me, and he said he didn’t know. I don’t know what the guy’s story is, but from the police and the conference’s refusal to act, I assume it’s pretty convincing. Hotel staff pulled the security tapes. Someone I thought was a friend of mine watched them with hotel staff. The general jist I got from the interaction was because I was on the tape letting him into my room, walking in the hallway with him, etc. I must be lying. Where in any of that did I consent to unprotected sex, being hit, etc?
The interesting stuff is the reactions. The people who say things like, “This isn’t what I think of course, but I bet a lot of people don’t believe you because you flirt on Twitter,” or “Everyone saw you kiss so and so at this party, so of course no one believes you didn’t want to have sex with that guy.” The implication is I think a bit disturbing. If I pursue a relationship with one guy, I have now consented to sex with any guy? I realize the typical argument is that a girl wearing a short skirt is asking to be attacked. But this seems to go a little further than that even. Because I from time to time express myself in a provocative manner, there was no attack at all. I have consented to any sexual thing any human being wants to do to me ever. Of course reasonable people should see that this is complete nonsense. “I watched the security footage. You let him in your room. How can I believe your story?” I never said I didn’t let him in. While in hindsight this was ultimately a bad move, the real irony is the author of the quote above invited me to hang out in his room alone at an event a couple months ago and have a few drinks. I accepted and we hung out and had a great time, alone. At no point did I feel threatened. The number of times I have hung out alone with another conference speaker are too many to count. I just want to be one of the guys you know. I want to be invited into your exclusive little groups of infosec rockstardom. I want to be good enough to be friends with you guys. I want to be invited to be on panels. I want to coauthor some research. Good luck having any of that ever happen for me if I have to hide in my room alone.
She was the victim, and what’s her concern? That she won’t be able to express herself sexually. That she will be locked out of the professional interactions needed to advance her career. We’ve seen that over and over, haven’t we? If a woman flirts at any time at all, it will be thrown in her face repeatedly if ever she tries to set boundaries. If she dares to protest casual sexism, she is going too far and must be silenced, or kicked out of the community.
That’s what I took out of Weidman’s story. The attempted rape was terrifying, but she was strong (but why does she have to be strong?) and handled that well. It’s the repercussions that bounce back and slam women over and over and over again afterwards that are really chilling. I’ve known people who were robbed, and no one afterwards questions their competence or the appropriateness of their activities at a conference; no one blames the victim. Why is rape different?
And she lost friends and reputation over something that was not her fault.
So do what you want to do infosec. Say that Georgia is a big whore and got what she deserved. Say that it wouldn’t happen to any other girl in infosec because no one else would be stupid enough to let a guy in her room. Say I’m making it up to further my feminist agenda and I’m secretly in league with Ada Initiative. Believe me, you aren’t going to say anything I haven’t heard already, and from people I thought were my friends. Do your worst. You can’t hurt me anymore than you already have. The people who were kind to me will forever have my thanks. Some of you really saved me that night. Some of you really saved me in the days after when I was alone in a foreign country and no one wanted anything to do with me. And some of you have hurt me. Some of you have failed to be there for me when I thought we were friends. Things like this have a way of clearing that up.
This is the last thing I have to say about all this. My duty is done. I don’t want to be the poster girl for infosec feminism. I want to be a researcher, and a trainer, and a speaker, and an icon. There’s a bad guy out there who has no remorse. I have reason to believe he was behaved badly towards women before at conferences and will do it again. The Polish legal system, while they have a report refused to take any action on the grounds that I had no proof, I had been drinking, etc. The US Consulate in Poland also has a record of it. But that’s it; it’s over and done with. I gave a talk the next day, I taught a class the next week. You aren’t going to get rid of me that easily, and I’m not going to stop expressing myself because someone can’t behave. If I want to show you my “I Love Joe McCray” sharpie tattoo on stage, I’m going to do it. If I want to say something silly on Twitter that could be construed as sexual I’m going to say it. The last thing I’m going to do is stop being myself because of this. Then he wins. And he didn’t win. People have offered to beat him up for me. I already did that. I’m not asking anybody to do anything for me, I’m asking you to do something for the next girl. This guy is dangerous. I was lucky. She might not be.
Is her attempted rapist now wrestling with his conscience and wondering whether he’ll be able to interact appropriately with his professional peers now? I doubt it. That anguish is left to his victims. He apparently has no worries that his fellow security consultants might reject him for his behavior…and he’s a goddamned rapist.