On Being a SFWA Member With Ovaries


Honestly I never cared about this cover. At least not in the negative sense. I’ve been collecting Red Sonja comics for years. And I have also been studying arms and armor since my first visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, when I was six years old. Yes, I’m aware that chain mail bikinis are silly and always have been, so far as real fighting goes; they are not fightingwear, but fetishwear–clothing designed to provoke a sexual response. And for the record, I’m not particularly interested in the whole debate about whether provoking a sexual response with an image or a piece of clothing (or having the desired sexual response to such clothing), is valid or not.

My take on fetishistic clothing AND sexual responses is that they’re fine, so long as we recognize that there is a time and a place for everything. Including your boner. Perhaps the PTA meeting to discuss your son’s behavior problems is not the best place to wear your black latex catsuit. And perhaps the cover of a trade journal for genre writers is not the place for a chick in a chain-mail bikini, in Ye Grande Olde Year of 2013.

Sometimes whether you have a legal RIGHT to wear a piece of clothing (or display a certain image) doesn’t necessarily make it appropriate for a certain occasion. It’s not always an issue of censorship; sometimes it’s an issue of context and social skills.

In any case, I didn’t have a strong enough opinion about this cover to be willing to fight about it, pro or con. I like Red Sonja, but I”m not willing to shout down and refuse to listen to people who find this image inappropriate for SFWA’s Bulletin.  I was willing to accept that they had objections to the image in the context of a professional trade journal, and I could let them make the case against covers with women dressed in fetishwear.

What really did bother me in that issue was actually what went on between the pages, in terms of real written content. There had been a chatty discussion of “lady editors” and “lady writers” between Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg which was ongoing for more than one issue. And here we had a REALLY inappropriate place to intrude a sexual response, folks. This is a professional magazine for a guild of people who pay dues to have their best interests as artists and professional businesspeople defended. And these were two highly decorated professionals in their field, talking about a woman who should have been respected as a professional peer.

It was a really bad place and time for locker room talk about her appearance.

In general I was really uncomfortable with having a woman’s professional contributions framed by any discussion of her sexual desirability or appearance. No, contrary to what people may think, the fact that the comments were generally “positive” did not make a lick of difference. Judging a woman by her appearance and validating her as a professional in a field like writing or editing based mainly on her sex appeal is just a gross, ugly thing to do. Honestly, it doesn’t matter whether your boner gives her a thumb’s up or a thumb’s down–there’s just a core flaw in the logic of intruding Mr. Boner into the discussion at all.

And for the record, this criteria isn’t even great for people who depend much more on their visual appearance in their professional lives. Even actresses, dancers, models would prefer to be praised for their professionalism and achievements, rather than be validated solely in terms of blood flow to some stranger’s genitals. Even sex workers often prefer to be praised for skill, personality, professionalism.

So…for the record, although I didn’t squawk a lot about it at the time, I was one of those people who thought those comments were rude, unprofessional, inappropriate, and the sort of talk that creates a bad atmosphere for the profession of science fiction writing. I didn’t take to the blogosphere to yell about about it in 2013 for three reasons:

1. I was reading the comments and posts of many other professional writers and editors at the time, male and female. I thought they were probably saying anything I would want to say about the issue, and handling it quite well.

2. I had no intention of abandoning SFWA as an institution without giving the leadership and membership a chance to hash things out.

3. I honestly was having trouble coping with my own personal and professional issues at the time, and I cannot tilt at EVERY. SINGLE. WINDMILL.

Sexism is a very big problem. Yelling once in a while is certainly part of the solution, and everyone should take their turn both yelling and taking productive action whenever they can. But no one can yell every time. Everyone gets tired of yelling once in a while.

Anyway, the situation at the time was hashed out to a significant degree, and a lot of changes were made. In the end the Resnick-Malzberg column was terminated,  after Resnick and Malzberg had reacted to criticism by claiming they were being censored and essentially doing a lot of sticking-fingers-in-the-ears and shouting LA-LA-LA-LA-LA until the bad bad feminists went away (except they didn’t).

The editor of the Bulletin stepped down and resigned her membership to SFWA. The President of SFWA took responsibility for the lapse of professionalism of the Bulletin under his watch and a new President took over the helm. The new leadership promised to put together a task force and create a better Bulletin for all.

And honestly I wish that had been the end of it. But unfortunately, that couldn’t be the end of it. Because this is not the French Revolution, and we don’t cut off people’s heads when they are resistant to necessary social change. We leave them alive, to stew in their own bitter juices and retire to their echo chambers to validate their errors of social skills and judgment. And thus emboldened by the chorus of approval for this kind of sexism in public, the Old Guard decided to strike back.

And now we are dealing with the fall-out. AGAIN.

I’m not going to summarize everything that’s been floating around the SFWA community for the last couple of weeks. If you’re a member, or a professional science fiction writer or editor–you already know. And you already know what side you take in the whole controversy. If you’re NOT a professional, and just a reader or fan of science fiction and fantasy…quite honestly I don’t want to be the one who drags you head-first through this embarrassing mess. If you want to catch up to speed, here are the links you need.

Truesdale Petition Summary

The Actual Petition (scroll to the end for the deeply saddening list of signatories)

The Forum That Was the  Breeding Ground for This Petition

Silvia Moreno-Garcia on the Sexist Bile Directed Against Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal Responds to Fodera

There are plenty of other links worth following, but I think these pretty much summarize the events and the kind of misogynist rage that is floating around the professional space of SFWA right now. I can say with certainty that seeing some of the names on that list was one of the saddest and most discouraging moments I’ve ever had as a feminist science fiction writer.

I was particularly hurt to see the names of people who had been mentors to me personally (Gene Wolfe). Or who had been enormous influences on me as a younger reader (Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Larry Niven). Or people that I regard as role models for outstanding contributions to the field by women (C.J. Cherryh). Or people whose contributions to science fiction media and to political awareness within the science fiction community stirred much admiration (David Gerrold).

Am I going to lay down and die over this? Will I stop believing that science fiction and its community and professional spaces should be inclusive, progressive, respectful to people of any gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, whatever?

Nope. Here’s my face while I’m reading all this nonsense.


It’s depressing, yes, but it’s not the end of the world.

At the end of the day, I’m just going to keep paying my dues, doing the best work I can, and trying not to let this crap drive me into a life of crime. I see no solution other than to write, read, review, buy and vote for the science fiction that I think is the most beautiful and meaningful, regardless of the skin color and genitals of the author.

I’m sorry that I can’t be more help in resolving some of these conflicts. And no, for the record, I do not believe that raising the editorial standards of the trade journal of a professional writer’s guild is “censorship”. And no, I will not appreciate people who frame my professional contributions in the future with a discussion of whether I was Hot or Not, even if the verdict is “Hot”.

And no, I do not want to think that 50 years from now, two old guys who should really know better may actually publish their locker room talk about how I looked in a bathing suit, when what they SHOULD be focusing on is the quality of my professional work.

Because I find that thought incredibly depressing and demeaning.

Especially since I’m pretty sure that when I’m leaning on my own cane in a couple of decades, no one is going to want to read a column that consists of me and one of my fellow Lady Writers going on and on about which of the male editors and writers of my own generation were Bangworthy Studs Back In the Day, Hubba Hubba.

Naming no names, of course. Because that would be unprofessional. 😛

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About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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15 Responses to On Being a SFWA Member With Ovaries

  1. Trevor Williams says:

    The Tower of London is a great place to go if you want to study arms and armor, they have the biggest collection in the world

  2. It wasn’t the cover or the idiotic banter inside. It was the defense of the cover and the idiotic banter inside. And the fact that I paid money -even one red cent – to support the cover and the idiotic banter inside.

    • Arinn says:

      I hear you. We all draw the line somewhere. I just wish that some people were able to accept new boundaries with more grace.

  3. Pat Murphy says:

    Excellent piece, Arinn. Thanks so much for writing it. It’s depressing and annoying and I constantly have to fight the urge to say, “Why do we have to deal with all this crap AGAIN.” Thanks particularly for posting your expression while reading this nonsense. You captured so much in those four frames..

  4. Laurie Mann says:

    Perfect. There is a HUGE difference between putting that kind of cover on a book/comic and putting it on the cover of a professional journal.

  5. Jacob Angel says:

    The cover was a poor choice for a professional magazine, and Malzberg and Resnick’s column was severely out of touch. But the way this latest kerfuffle was handled by both sides was and is utterly stupid. The internet mobs rose up to attack two out-of-touch old men who have a venerable history in the genre. This does not excuse their crude behavior, but in my opinion the community was and is overreacting. And the way the editor of the Bulletin was forced out of the organization is shameful. This all stems from a lack of real leadership in SFWA. Without clear direction and leadership from the top, SFWA is now ruled by the internet mobs. This is not to say that the mobs aren’t often right, but who the hell wants to live under mob rule?

    • Arinn says:

      Mr. Angel: I understand your distress.I don’t disagree with you that this situation is depressing. And I can see the appeal of real leadership, if you believe that “real leadership” means that some single authority figure can make everyone love and respect one another, and behave as they should.

      Unfortunately, my view of reality is different. To me, “real leadership” does not mean that you can solve every problem before it exists. It just means that you care about the people you lead and you respect them enough to know that you cannot always anticipate their needs before they express them, tell them what to think and say to one another, or control everything they say and do out in the community at large.

      As a real leader, what you CAN control is the publications and standards of behavior that are permitted by those who operate under your own organizational umbrella. What you CAN do is establish a standard of civility, common decency, and mutual respect that will be maintained WITHIN the hallowed halls of the guild, and by those who wish to remain members.

      What professional writers and editors do and say out in the wildnerness, in our own forums and blogs..? Well, we need to take responsibility for that ourselves. Like responsible adults.

      Regardless, I don’t think you can call the rank-and-file membership of SFWA a “mob”. You may not like our values and the way we exercise our real rights to free speech in our own blogs and social media…but most of the people you see speaking up around the Net are actual DUES-PAYING MEMBERS of this organization, myself included.

      We ARE the Science Fiction Writers of America. And we are making ourselves heard.

      As to whether the response of the community is stupid…honestly, having read the text of that petition (especially the original version), and the level of the dialogue in the forum that spawned it…I really don’t think that the negative response from the rank and file membership is stupid at all.

      It’s not stupidity that we’re expressing; it’s outrage. And pain.

      These people are the men and women we look up to and admire, the writers and editors we have revered and put up on pedestals. They are using that position on the pedestal to be abusive, disrespectful, manipulative and petty.

      Claiming that applying higher editorial standards to the Bulletin is “censorship”? Is perhaps misguided. Hurling misogynist epithets at Mary Robinette Kowal in public? That was stupid. Calling feminists and people who value diversity in SF “liberal fascists”? Was beyond stupid. Calling all of the new generation of science fiction authors “insects”? That was stupid to an exponential degree.

      if you think that people are obligated to take this kind of abuse from “out of touch old men” (or women), I’m sorry. You’re mistaken. I wouldn’t take this abuse from my own parents, much less a fellow author.

      • Jacob Angel says:

        Real leadership from SFWA would mean the president and board would stand up and say clearly, “This is our policy, and anyone who does not abide by this policy shall be unwelcome here.” It would stop all this back and forth. Instead they sent out a survey. I’m sure that if you’ve ever worked in a large organization you know that nothing ever gets done if you ask for everyone’s opinion before taking action.*

        I agree that the hateful remarks against Mary Robinette Kowal and others are reprehensible. It’s disgusting. But one should not equate a few ugly loud voices with the entirety of the “Old Guard,” as I think the community is doing. It creates an “us” vs. “them” mentality which helps no one. It also doesn’t help that Ms. Kowal and Mr. Scalzi are posting comical pictures of “insect armies” on their blogs. If these are the new generation of leaders, it doesn’t give an appearance (to me at least) of much professionalism. I understand these are responses to the attacks, but from an outsider’s point of view it looks like two school children trying to out rank the other.

        Yes, you are the members of SFWA speaking out, but you are not making yourselves heard, not in the way you think you are. You may hear a lot of noise and think that equals being heard. But right now everyone is shouting, and the real thoughtful discussions of how best to change the organization are buried under comical depictions of insect armies and downright bigotry.

        The problem is that SFWA is broken, which ultimately stems from a lack of direction and leadership.

        Lastly, I’ll say that if you consider calling a former editor “attractive” an abusive statement, then you and I disagree sharply on what abuse is.

        * I think it’s important to know what the SFWA community wants, but that should only be a guidepost to decision making and not how the SFWA leadership actually makes decisions. Since I am not aware of the SFWA board and how they run the organization except what I see from the outside, all I can say is that it seems there is no one at the top.

        • Arinn says:

          Mr. Angel,

          While I appreciate your spirited defense of dictatorship as a form of governance, I disagree with you that it is always superior to democracy. The Survey that you decry was an attempt at a democratic solution to an obvious problem of differing values within a community. The goal was to find out what the values and needs of the MAJORITY were. The Survey achieved that goal. Steps were taken.

          If you believe in actual democratic institutions and ideals, this would have been the end of the story. It wasn’t. Instead, people who regard themselves as elite and above the rules that govern others have tried to re-assert their privilege and made a deliberately anti-democratic move to subvert the democratic process via a “petition” signed by those who are willing to abuse their authority for that purpose.

          This is not proof that SFWA is “broken”, as you claim. It proves that some of the Old Guard are broken people, however, and are more than willing to destroy and break SFWA rather than part with even the tiniest portion of the privilege to which they feel entitled.

          Their actions say nothing about SFWA. These actions say a lot about narcissism and inflated egos, and the perils of old age and laurels to one’s mind and soul.

          I disagree with you on a number of other points. In no particular order:

          – I disagree that Scalzi, Kowal and other leaders of “The New Guard”, for want of a better term, are in ANY way morally, intellectually or aesthetically wrong to use humor as a weapon.

          You may disapprove of the Insect Army meme and find it lacking in gravitas. But the Insect Army gag is not there to impress the Old Guard. It is there to mock the Old Guard. And to alleviate the pain and distress caused by the verbal abuse of the genre’s elders, and simultaneously create a sense of solidarity and identity in the new generation.

          Gravitas and dignity are fine in their place, but some of us find it much more appealing and empowering to seize the reins of these grotesque insults and make them into jokes and calls for hard work and optimism…rather than trying to combat the pompous narcissism of “the Old Guard” on their own terms.

          – I disagree that the thoughtful or passionate commentary of the New Guard in a variety of media deserves to be condemned and dismissed as “noise”. For the record, I also disagree that we are “rabble”, “insects”, “angry dogs”, “a mob”, etc.. I reject every demeaning, repulsively condescending label that you want to lay on me, or anyone else who believes in equality and diversity in science fiction.

          The elections and the survey prove the truth: we are the majority in SFWA. We are the People. If you view us and try to treat us as garbage, it says MUCH more about you than it does about us.

          – I completely reject the right of the Old Guard to deliver nuclear weapons like this petition, and to engage in viciously insulting rhetoric in public forums, and then accuse their opponents of creating the “Us and Them” problem. There is most definitely an Us and a Them in this community. They are the ones who have repeatedly torn the community apart, they are the ones calling vicious names and trying to assert elite privileges and countermand the will of the majority via their backroom Good Old Boys Network and privately circulated petitions.

          They are the instigators and the abusers. Stop trying to “solve the problem” and “stop making SFWA look bad” by silencing their intended victims.

          – Calling a lady editor “attractive” is abusive, yes. It is an abuse of male privilege.

          If she was a stranger that you met at a bar and you wanted to ask her on a date, calling her a “knock-out” might be appropriate. But commenting on her appearance and her bathing suit pictures is COMPLETELY INAPPROPRIATE coming from her professional peers, in a professional context, in a professional trade journal.

          So try to get this through your head, if you can.

          I am a feminist.

          This means that I completely reject traditional male privileges.

          I do not and I will never agree that every man in this world is entitled to pass judgment on every woman, in every context, by “rating” her on a scale of sexual desirability,

          I do not agree and I will never agree that a woman’s physical appearance is the sole criteria by which her worth is judged, or that it should be the paramount criteria for measuring her worth. The bloodflow to a stranger’s penis is not something that a working woman should EVER have to worry about, unless she is a sex worker.

          I do not agree and I will never agree that every man is entitled to hold an opinion on the physical attractiveness of every woman who is a professional acquaintance, and to VOICE this opinion whenever and where he wishes.

          So in this context? Yes. Engaging in an extensive public chat about the physical charms of a “lady editor” IS abusive. You don’t get that? Then yes, we have very different values. I’m a feminist. You aren’t.

  6. Nunyaz Bizness says:

    Perhaps a way to let the magazine know that you and others are not happy is to have several (say 1,000 or so) of your fellow dues-paying members not give them money for 2 months while letting them know WHY you are suddenly not paying them. Sometimes people listen better when there’s money involved.

    • Arinn says:

      Just FYI – dues are paid by SFWA members on an annual basis, not a monthly basis. Many people did cancel their memberships in 2013, for a number of reasons. Personally, I choose to remain a member for the present, because I think that the organization can have a bright future if we give it one.

      At the end of the day, I’m an optimist.

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