Attention tax

One of the things that has been making me furious about sexual harassment lately–secondary to all the other things that make me furious about it–is the attention tax it imposes on women. The time spent figuring out whether there’s enough evidence for us to be taken seriously this time, whether the people who were in the “surely you misinterpreted” and “that doesn’t mean what it blatantly means” camp last time will finally take us seriously, the time spent recovering from someone shouting in our faces and someone else grabbing our asses, the time sharing stories and pooling information and cleaning up messes and figuring out what to do, what we can do, what we have the power to do. That is time not spent on other things that are frankly a whole hell of a lot more interesting.

When it’s in convention terms, the time spent discussing who did what and what to do and letting the adrenaline settle and coping is time not spent on ideas for books and stories and where to go with them. It is very directly a tax on attention that could and should be going toward work. And it makes me exhausted and resentful, and then I try to corral my attention back to my work, because that is a far, far better place for it to be. I have directly observed that when I am at a con where people are dealing with an ongoing situation of this type, I come back with far, far less in the way of inspired notes for new projects–not just coming away drained instead of energized, but the specifics of what business are we doing here, where is our attention going.

I’m lucky. I know a lot of good men. I know a lot of good straight, white men. One of the benefits of this is that when a straight, white dude is an asshole, I am clear that it is artisanal assholery that he is hand-crafting by choice, not a trait he can’t avoid by his demographics. And a lot of good straight, white men have been stepping up to share the work of dealing with sexual harassment on a community level. I appreciate it. I do. But that is a choice they are making. Statistically, on average, the nonconsensual part, the part where you have to cope with the fallout of being harassed again, the part where it happens several times in a row and then it’s on your mind and you go into the next professional situation having to have a plan for how to cope–that’s a drain on your time and attention that you cannot have back, that other people can help with structurally but not in the moment. They can donate their time but not hand you back yours, not give you back those hours and days of working on the situation and processing and coping. It can happen to men. It does happen to men. And as one woman I know never loses an opportunity to point out, it does not happen to every woman. But statistically, on average, it is an attention tax that falls much, much more heavily on women, for things that we did not ask for and cannot change.

It’s not just sexual harassment. This is not the only attention tax, and I don’t mean to talk as though it is. Racist bullshit and the people who visit it upon people of color? That is, among other worse things, an attention tax on those people of color. Having to cope with accessibility issues and prejudice against the disabled? Attention tax. Homophobia and other forms of anti-queer assholery? Attention tax. Navigating the world while neurodiverse, even in ways that do not feel like a disability internally, among people who are going to be utter jerks to any hint of non-neurotypicality? Attention tax. And while I’ve talked about men and women above, the amount of attention tax that falls on gender-nonconforming and non-binary people gets mind-bogglingly larger the more gender-policing the subculture they’re interacting with gets. One of the fundamental questions is: how much jerkitude are people going to blithely shovel on you for being you and then skip along with their day, and how much will that pull away from the focus you need to do your stuff that you do.

Do I imagine I’m the first to observe this? Hardly. But “show don’t tell” is hardly new advice, either, and writers get blog posts out of that several times a year. What I’m saying to you is: this is affecting the work of people you know and care about. All the time. It doesn’t have to. It is literally all entirely voluntary. The thing I said above about artisanal bullshit: last month I got very tired of people saying “so that’s a thing that happened” when they were describing a choice someone made. So let’s not do that. Let’s not ascribe to fundamental forces things that are actual bad choices people are making.

And also: people who are doing work through all these attention taxes, who are managing to push it aside and fight their way through to focusing on making something awesome: I see you. I appreciate you. I’m sorry it’s like this. I keep hoping that some of the draining work will gain us some ground and it will be long-term less necessary. But in the meantime, thanks for clawing back some of your own in the face of it. It’s so hard, and it matters so much.

One thought on “Attention tax

  1. The attention tax (I like that term), a kind of emotional labor, reminds me of Devin/Jeremy’s theory about how *having* to expend emotional labor is like a debuff, and the debuffs stack. And if they stack enough, then you get people who pay so much in taxes that it’s not worth it to participate in the community.

    This is to say, yup. And sigh.

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