The Eighth Rule of Fight Club
It arrives at midnight on a Friday.
a couple folks mentioned your name in the list of people who made them feel uncomfortable.
they didn’t provide details
another member left the group voluntarily earlier this year, citing concerns with you
I wait. There’s no more.
It’s me. I’m the witch.
What is it about you? An seesaw from reassurance to self-reprimand. Why do you do this? I am angry at myself. I know why people are uncomfortable with me, and I know why I was informed of this in this manner by someone who’d known me for thirteen years. I know why the message had been written using that phrasing, ‘you made them feel uncomfortable’, rather than putting the state of feeling uncomfortable on them, a reflection of what they’d done, or indeed what they had failed to do. He knew my tendency to internalise guilt, to feel dirty. He knew that I was sensitive to shame. He knew, from having known me since the age of twenty-two, that I let shame grip me by the throat and squeeze, even if I am also aware that I have done nothing wrong. But I am not twenty-two anymore, and I know how this works.
In tech, you can wear a WonderWoman outfit to the office and reclaim the word cunt and talk about your period on Twitter but if you ask a hard question and don’t let it go, you will be caught and tried and burnt. From my very first days as a recent college grad, I couldn’t abide by the misogyny and the violence, and I’ve never lived it down.
I’ve written about abuse and objectification so many times that it feels embarrassing and old. It became my thing, a personality I never meant to adopt. However, people would still send me messages when something happened. Did you see this? And often, I had. I was drawn to it like a moth, not because I found it titillating, but because I felt I’d failed. Frustration, every time one of those messages arrived. Anger, every time.
I began my career in the space between marketing and technology in the autumn of 2006 having recently graduated from Washington State University. Not six months had passed since I’d downed a pint of Mac & Jacks at the Coug in Pullman, removed my graduation robes and driven out of town, and there I was: a woman in tech. During my time at college, I had been a member of the WSU women’s swim team, an endeavour that both brought me to the United States and paid for my education. The majority of the people I knew were tough, able women, including my two coaches. I knew very little about feminism because for twenty-two years, my life had roughly fulfilled the goals of the movement and not included many poor experiences on account of my gender. Perhaps an earlier awakening would have been useful. I entered the professional world at a time when women were supposedly liberated from the constraints of decades past; a lie of appeasement to satisfy contemporary demands. As industries, marketing, advertising and technology were extremely male-dominated, and both my femaleness and the burgeoning mid-2000s culture meant that I was noticeable in a way I had never experienced before.
During its peak, the first decade of the twenty-first century held itself up as a period of victory for women. While still under-represented in many professional spaces, it was at least becoming slightly less acceptable to question why we were there at all. We were allowed to exist, and exist outside the narrow tropes of decades past. At home, my television was perpetually tuned to MTV and VH1’s reality offerings, where streaky-haired girls fought with each other for praise, validation and fame. Their personalities and eventual downfalls were a staple of the cultural diet whose food pyramid layered over-sexed female naivety and conflict as its foundation, but granted these female characters stardom nonetheless. It had been ten years since the Spice Girls’ rise to “power.” We had been liberated from the trials of our mothers. What was left to achieve?
In the public-facing industry, my young, female contemporaries were placed in a similar position as the women on the TV in my apartment: we were allowed to be there, but there were trades to be made in return. In the throes of Facebook’s roll-out to the public, countless men who only knew me as a new hire at my company added me as a “friend.” Until that point, Facebook had been a platform used only at universities, and I had never met any of the people who now sent me requests and made comments, some more suggestive than others. Many had unsolicited advice, professional or otherwise: a man I didn’t know saw a joke I had posted on a colleague’s Facebook wall and admonished me for it, telling me in the middle of a long-winded diatribe he was going to “slap my wrist.” There it was: the first mention of physicality. I couldn’t smell it yet, but a representation of the stench that passed for networking in the days of early-2000s tech started to emerge. Greasy and confident, patronising and familiar. Laced with violence.
In reality television, happy people make terrible entertainment. Drama sells, and reality TV culture prized the exploitation of other people’s pain above all else. Work ethic, professional output, decency: none of this mattered. Conflict was currency. It still is, of course, but it is clear now that the trend of real-life television drama found a home for regular people on social media. Many of the interactions I had with members of the digital marketing community were not only inappropriately familiar and flirtatious, but fit neatly with the zeitgeist of the time, salivating for the salacious.
To my discredit, I was happy to play the part cast for me: the party girl, the snarky girl, the twenty-two year old girl with the foreign accent who was married. If I had been older, I might have wondered why my marital status mattered to men twice my age who only knew me through blogs and social media. I might have asked why a personality that I did not naturally possess had been cut out for me by the same people, and why I was happy to adopt it as my own. Instead, I let it wash over me. I had a good job, which was becoming less of a given and more of a scarcity as the 2008 economic crisis loomed.
The closest I’ve ever come to self-loathing was after two years of this. I realised with a growing dawn of self-aware horror that I had become someone I did not recognise or like. I had become a pathetic reality TV show character, providing bites of scandal whilst bickering with similarly typecast characters. We were the streaky-haired girls on the television, only we were playing our roles via message boards, blog comments, and Twitter. We were entertainment, sugar and sherbert and fondant icing, a distraction while the grown-ups, almost all of them men, did the real work.
Young women in tech were identified for our social media extroversion and pitted against each other for sport. I wrote off men who sent lewd messages like wanting to see a “cat fight” between another woman and me as losers and perverts, but the objectification still wore me down. Those men were not isolated in their thinking or reasons for approaching us. They operated in the same cultural reality as we did, one that promised female entertainment, conflict, suffering and eventual misery. During the same year as Britney Spears shaved her head and attacked a paparazzo with an umbrella, many women were looked upon to provide tiny versions of Spears’ story to assembled audiences: be hot, be naive, be the centre of attention, make a spectacle of yourselves. I harbour shame for how easily I fell for this exploitative version of fame: on a fairly clear intellectual level, I knew that I had been a more mature version of myself eighteen months earlier as I had competed in my last national championships, completed my final university papers, flat-hunted in Seattle and begun my job search. I had regressed behaviourally, and I knew it. Totally at the mercy of serotonin and with no understanding or tolerance of its effects, this was also the only professional reality many of us had known. In general, we were well-raised, intelligent young women, but we were also coaxed and encouraged by a pit of cheering onlookers who loved the show and, while telling us off, encouraged us to keep it up. Britney and the umbrella, the razor. You crazy bitch! Do it again.
All the same, I was shielded from this breaking all my boundaries and invading my life. I was married, and my husband did not work in technology. He didn’t engage with social media at all. When my marriage ended four weeks before my twenty-fifth birthday, this turn of events piqued the attention of men in my industry who maintained an interest in the personal lives of the industry’s young women.
It was January in Seattle and I was sitting in the tired light of our Capitol Hill office. Going home had become even less appealing than anxiously twirling on my swivel chair until bedtime. A man I only knew from our blog messaged me, prying for information about my break-up. He wrote screeds, instructing me on what I should and shouldn’t do, demanding insight into my life. It was three years later, in a pub underneath my London flat, that I learned this individual was apparently responsible for curating and distributing a list of women in the industry that he and his friends wanted to “photograph naked.” A campaign for revenge porn before it had a name, covert, upskirt, violent. I had been off-limits when I belonged to another man. But in the midst of a break-up! Now we have a mark on our hands. Smudged stamps not yet dry on my divorce papers at the courthouse down the hill, I had been added as a target. Inquiries were being made. Plans were drawn up. He visited London for a conference shortly after I moved there a month later, and he requested a private meeting with me. I didn’t reply. A twenty-five year old’s brain is completing its final stages of maturation, and for me, this came with an alarm system common to most adult women. When it came to this man, the alarm had gone off. I made sure not to meet with him, years before I knew what he really wanted. Later, I was told by a friend that she had lunch with him that week, frozen in terror as he stroked her thigh under the table. Only three years earlier, I couldn’t have told you much about feminism but by the time I was twenty-five and living alone in London, I fucking knew.
But we––mid-twenties women coming to terms with the fact that our empowerment and exaltation had actually been exploitation and objectification––we were never going to be enough. We had enough agency to back out of situations that became dire; we reported our assaults, even as I came to understand that those reports fell on deaf ears no matter the job description of the woman making the allegation. We were presented in the fashion of entertainers but we were not actually being paid for our performances. The industry hungered for more flesh and fewer repercussions. The first time I went to a conference and was presented with a group of hired models as entertainment, we stared at each other with the deadened fatigue of incompatible hardware, software programmed in different languages, a diesel engine looking at a petrol pump. We had no use for each other: they had not been hired to entertain me, and I did not wish to be entertained by them. They perched awkwardly beside male conference attendees, bony relics of the equally toxic nineties/early-2000s era when women were not only meant to be pleasingly dramatic, but excruciatingly thin. I started asking, why are they here? and learned with speed about the existence of weaponised sex positivity.
Do you hate them because they’re beautiful? It was an absolution from criticism, casting me as sex-negative and jealous. It was very effective. Yet again, women were pitted against each other: models from an agency, hired to populate an tech event, and the rest of us. Hate each other, please! Who’d be interested in a cat fight between Jane and Rebecca? asked a man on Twitter who’d also messaged me repeatedly about the end of my marriage. We need to make this happen! another replied. Let’s get it on! They suggested mud wrestling. “Who isn’t interested in that? Does it really matter who wins?” asked a man who, years later, would sheepishly visit my office in London and try to look me in the eye.
There it was again: violence. A request for gendered violence, and one on which they were publicly getting off. A reply, five minutes after the cat-fight request: “I want $5K on Rebecca.” Someone I knew through work was putting money on the table to see me beaten up.
It wasn’t just a joke. It’s not just banter. It’s a scale, a slope, a continuum. Invoking us in relation to sex and violence, over and over again, had consequences. When a group is objectified, disrespected and joked about for years, eventually that treatment becomes normalised and expected; the social blow of real violence is softened by the effect of continuous rhetoric. When a woman is actually beaten, raped or worse, it is just the far end of the continuum from a wager, placed on Twitter, to see us punched at the hands of our colleagues.
That smell, the high-whine of tension and extreme discomfort. It frustrated me to my soul. I knew that if I complained too much, I would be abandoned. I’d no longer be invited to speak at conferences, I would no longer be asked to contribute to articles or studies. Referrals would stop coming the way of my agency. And if people avoided my employer because of me, my job might be in jeopardy. I berated myself: why can’t you just go with the flow? Why can’t you just ignore the semi-naked models, the obscene requests, the hands on your skin? Why do you do this to yourself? Women around me ignored them and were rewarded for their efforts. Why couldn’t I? People noticed my discomfort. Men grew defensive before I’d said anything. One accosted me in a corridor to complain about my feminist leanings, towering over me, shouting. Two years after moving to London, I’d lost my patience.
I wrote a blog post that tore the collision of objectification and harassment apart and I left it in my WordPress drafts for a year. My palms broke out in sweat whenever I thought about the post and the Publish button. I knew that publishing it would be a moment of enormous change. I would lose professional opportunities. I would lose friends. I would lose business. During 2011, I came close to posting it a number of times.
Backed into a bar after an industry event with a hand slithering down my back, finding my low-rise jeans and beginning to rub, I pushed him away and ran, and I thought of that post. Photographs emerged from a conference that hired “nine former Playmates” as entertainment. I thought of that post. I travelled: seminars, networking events, training days. People hugged me too tight, squeezed what they shouldn’t, asked for too much. My female colleagues and I traded intelligence: who was safe, who was not, who had been assaulted and by whom. I thought of the post, sitting in drafts. At a conference in Poland, I was repeatedly taunted by two male speakers about the arrival of yet another hoard of hired models as soon as the event was over and the drinks began. A Twitter discussion about “booth babes” took place a year to the day after I’d written my article, and I was overcome. I had to let it out if I were ever to shake the aching frustration about what I thought I wasn’t allowed to say. At 9:42pm on a Wednesday evening in late December, I clicked the Publish button I’d feared for a year, tweeted the link and turned off my laptop. I turned off my phone. I went to bed.
By the next morning, I had comments to wade through from everyone from my parents to the then-head of SEO at Google. I had indignant, mean, mocking comments to field from men whom I’d upset. It was a few days before Christmas, and in the rush to leave for the holiday I only read an email from my line manager three days after he had sent it. I was, he said, treading on dangerous ground. Some of the men whose behaviour I had criticised were important. These were people we really couldn’t afford to piss off, or so the legend told. You could, he reasoned, make your point without identifying the people who’d perpetuated the culture, who’d shouted the insults, who’d emailed you the requests, who’d grabbed your flesh, who’d left you powerless and afraid. In my second act of defiance, I decided to simply not reply to his message. At that point, firing me for what I had written would have placed him on more dangerous ground than the shaky copse on which I stood. He never mentioned the piece to me again, but I never trusted him again, either.
If I were to spell out the incidents that followed, all the attempts to take back the scrap of power I’d scavenged, it would deteriorate into a laundry list of humiliation that wasn’t dissimilar to the treatment I’d had in years past, but at least included less groping. All the same, I noticed that most of the industry started to clean up its act. At the time, digital marketing was a much smaller community than it is today and it was clear that an industry whose origins were piecemeal and fairly wild-west, was growing up. I took pride in having played a part in this maturation, even though it had earned me all the stigma I’d feared.
The stigma didn’t disappear, but it morphed, and it was rendered somewhat toothless by the mid-2010s and the #metoo movement. Weinstein’s shaming, arrest and imprisonment took the gusto out of every old boys’ club. Quietly, the people who’d bragged about their terrible behaviour not five years earlier, cleaned up their public perceptions. They began to deny they had ever acted in the way they’d previously loudly advertised. I was branded again, but this time as a liar rather than a harpy. The narrative changed from “what we’re doing is fine!” to “we never did that!”
When they tell you the word “gaslighting” has been misused out of any meaningful existence, remember that this is what it originally meant: the things you remember aren’t real. The things you saw weren’t there. The words in your email or chat records, or even the tweets you can still look up? It’s you, you’re the liar. You’re the witch. By 2019, a full gaslighting campaign had come and gone to obfuscate the past. My former boss, not the one who’d warned me via email but the man who’d employed me straight out of college in Seattle, had tried to start an initiative to curtail the inclusion of abusive people at tech events but had abandoned the project due to legal concerns. He was billed to headline an event in the Netherlands. The event was run by a man who’d mocked me about feminism, and who’d sent a number of questionable tweets to both me and other young women. My boss’s wife, a feminist author, also spoke at the event, delivering a presentation on navigating online gendered harassment.
As the week began, historical images and video content of the event’s host and a number of other largely reinvented men flooded the conference hashtag. Not many years earlier, the host had appeared rather proud of the almost-exclusively male industry parties he attended with “playmates”, and video evidence of this had been easy to find, and to share. While it had been lauded on social media as impressive and fun in the time period between Spears’ torment and Weinstein’s downfall, it hit the ground like a sack of wet sick in 2019. The change I had tried to start almost a decade earlier had materialised. It was wild to watch. I was transfixed by the spectacle of an industry forest fire where my little matchstick had once been. The host of the conference publicly apologised for his poor behaviour in years past, remaining the only person from that era to have done so. Well-known as an activist whose primary bugbears were now receiving their proper cancellation, I was naturally blamed for a lot of this publicity and embarrassment. If I had only kept my mouth shut in 2011, and 2012 and 2013 and onwards, they could have had their champagne and drunk it too. The hypocrisy of quietly putting debauchery to bed and capitalising off feminism instead could have gone unnoticed.
A couple of months later, a different conference circuit stalwart climbed on stage at one of Europe’s leading marketing events and presented a slide that showed the silhouette of a man slapping a woman, the woman reeling backwards. I had fallen foul of this particular speaker in the past because I found his much-touted work with the far-right wing tabloid and network TV press reprehensible. Noting negative reactions to his violent image, he took to Twitter after the talk to claim that the slide had been included solely as “bait” for certain people. Including, presumably, me.
There it was again. A slap. A fight. Violent imagery. He was admonished, but at the same time, his “frustration” with people like me was offered by sympathisers as a point of note. This was more cryptic than in years past; in 2007, someone would just have said that I’d asked for it. He wrote an apology post on Medium, deleting both the post and all his apology tweets at some point after they had received numerous shares and much praise. In the midst of this, I was called “Queen of the trolls” in a large industry Facebook group by a regular keynote who had once taken me aside on the Brighton pier to tell me I was “getting a bad reputation as a feminist.” The picture being painted was that my concerns about misogyny and violence were nothing but trolling. Again, the narrative shifts: from prude to liar to subhuman. Weeks later, I received a message from my first boss about the email network he maintains between industry professionals. It arrived at midnight.
a couple folks mentioned your name
concerns with you
you’re the witch
It starts with a grope, a slur, the acceptance that “she”, whoever she is, doesn’t mind or doesn’t matter or was asking for it. It makes hurting us that little bit more okay. The people whose imagery slapped wrists and faces, or others who asked for sex, others still who leant over me screaming, whose hands slid over my body, who stroked thighs, typed threats: their credibility remains. When millions of women flooded social media in 2021 to say, stop placating and protecting bad men, people looked on in shock, unwilling to recall those emails they received or conversations they had in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2017, with you, trusting them with your story. It’s the first email every time, slate clean. No history, only you: a problem to be solved. A woman who doesn’t know her place. Again.
Jane Copland’s work has been published in Witness Magazine, The Independent, Newsroom New Zealand, Identity Theory, Litro, JMWW, Hayden’s Ferry Review, trampset and other publications. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her stories have also been finalists in the Brick Lane Bookshop Prize, the Fresher Prize, New Millennium Writing, and the Nobow Press short story competition. She is from New Zealand and lives in Oxford, England.
Bryan Lurito: In your piece “The Eighth Rule of Fight Club,” I was particularly interested in the line “I’ve written about abuse and objectification so many times that it feels embarrassing and old. It became my thing, a personality I never meant to adopt.” Could you expound upon your personal experiences with this line a bit more? If you could go back in time, would you change anything so as to not obtain this affiliation, or do you feel what you write is important enough that you would still do it all again? How come?
Jane Copland: I think it’s a fact that my life and career in technology would have been easier had I never said anything about these issues. That said, if I were given the chance to choose, I would do it again. I started talking about these issues in around 2009, so while I wasn’t the first person to bring them up, this came a few years before #metoo became a phenomenon. By that point, my activism and the work of several others had already made a difference, albeit a small one when compared with the progress made later in the 2010s. That head start was important. Almost fifteen years later, it’s also helpful to be able to look back on the evolution of the movement. In some cases, progress has been made. In others, as I speak about in the essay, people have tried to obfuscate the origins and realities of these problems. My early adoption of this cause helps keep those attempts in check, and provides context for when something damaging or regressive happens. I wouldn’t change this, because I know this work had a positive impact on what was a really grim environment fifteen or twenty years ago.
BL: You have found yourself successful with quite a few literary magazines and short story competitions. What advice would you give to people wanting to break into the writing industry? How did things change as you gained experience within the industry?
JC: As repetitive as this may sound, practice practice practice. Write and read as often as possible. My most recent publication was in a short story competition’s anthology (the Brick Lane Bookshop prize here in London). I wrote the first draft of the eventual published piece four years ago. After the book launch this November, I found the first draft in my files and re-read it. It’s not nearly as strong a piece as the final copy; the difference is incredible! It was long-listed (but not published) once in a 2019 competition, but it failed to go any further. I edited it many times over the years, and even filed it away as a publication failure for quite a while, only deciding to try submitting it again this year. Four extra years of practice and experience gave that piece what it needed to earn publication.
It’s also true that for every good story, I’ve written thousands of extra words for the piece that end up getting cut. Those words aren’t wasted. All that “extra” writing solidifies the story in my mind: I know the entire universe inside out by the time the story is complete, and that knowledge comes across in consistency and confidence with place, characterisation, tone and storyline. I used to worry when a story I intended to be (let’s say) 6,000 words was making its way up to 8,000 or more. Now I don’t; I know this is a good thing, so I’d encourage young writers not to worry about this. Write 15,000 words! Maybe it’s actually a novel in waiting! Maybe you’ll find a brilliant 5,000 word piece in there. Just keep writing.
BL: What gives you inspiration when beginning a new story? How much of your work is translated directly from personal lived experience?
JC: Some pieces I’ve had published are very thinly-veiled creative nonfiction! In fact, most of my early published flash fiction pieces were like this: translations of personal experience. Only after a while, you run out of good stories from your past to mine. Most of what I write is at least sparked by something I’ve seen or experienced, although it’s normally just a fleeting inspiration. For example, my work-in-progress is about a professional rugby player who finds himself set upon by a tabloid journalist in a lounge at Singapore airport, after the player has suffered a catastrophic knee injury in an international match. I got the idea while sitting in a lounge at Singapore airport with a badly injured knee (suffered running down hospital stairs in New Zealand, not while playing rugby against England!). The sense of place and conflict was so strong, I knew I had to use it. Similarly, my story “The Angel, Islington” was published in Witness Magazine earlier this year. It is about a teenage lifeguard at a central-London health club who is bullied by one of the club’s managers. However, due to circumstances entirely of the manager’s making, the lifeguard ends up saving the manager’s life. This is almost pure fiction. However, I started writing about the fictitious bully manager after watching a woman let her children behave badly at a swimming pool, and claim “my mother works here!” as her defence. They’re small sparks of inspiration, but they can grow into entire worlds.
BL: You repeatedly use the word “witch” to describe yourself throughout the piece. Why did you choose this title specifically? I have noticed there has been a cultural movement in recent times reclaiming the idea of a witch as something positive, however the use of the word within the text appears to be more negative in nature. How did you decide to use the title of witch to depict a form of negative othering?
JC: The choice of the word “witch” as a negative wasn’t a literary decision. It was a word that popped into my mind when I received the message from my old boss, telling me I had been named as someone who made others uncomfortable in his email group. “Burn the witch” came to mind due to how I was clearly being blamed for post-#metoo negative publicity. I had done absolutely nothing to make anybody uncomfortable besides tell the truth about women’s treatment in tech. Those truths were the actual source of the discomfort, and I was being lined up as the scapegoat for the ensuing embarrassment. However, just as you say, I found myself internally reclaiming the title over time. A different person called me “the queen of the trolls” during the same period, which I didn’t hesitate to ironically claim as my own (aside from to say that if we’re doing the Tolkien universe, I’m clearly an elf, and my Legolas costume is flawless).
BL: I enjoyed your first-person style, which read like a dialogue or chain of thought rather than a traditional narrative. What made you decide to write in this unique format? How did the writing process differ when compared to writing a piece with a more traditional structure?
JC: This was such a personal story to me, and I think the style reflects that. I’m not sure I would be able to write this any other way. Before writing this piece, I had only ever told this story verbally or via emails to friends, which clearly had a huge influence on how I was able to tell it in an essay. It’s a complicated piece in that regard, because it combines memoir with cultural criticism and facts of the period: my personal story is offset against the early 2000s in entertainment, technology at large, and the smaller industry of digital marketing. It’s also a style I like reading.
BL: Your piece is particularly empowering towards female readers while at the same time highlighting some of the issues they may face in the world. What advice would you give to young women transitioning into the workforce?
JC: The workforce, including in tech, is a much friendlier place for women than it was twenty years ago. That said, some of these problems remain and, in fact, are just better hidden than they were before. This may sound cynical, but I don’t mean it that way. I think this is just good knowledge; a “trust but verify” prudence when it comes to professional interactions and relationships. People will tell you that they are on your side: that they would never again work with or support someone who abused you, or engaged in gross behaviour. But some people will let you down. I am certainly not saying not to make friends through work: I’ve made so many, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have met so many wonderful folks through work over the years. But especially with people who are purely professional acquaintances, it’s wise to have healthy reservations and internal boundaries. I did not do this. I believed shallow words from people who were not actually good friends, and allowed myself to feel let down by the things they went on to do. This is unhealthy on my part. Tech can easily foster this sort of failing, because it makes us feel very closely connected to people who are, in fact, nearly strangers. It is also a field that can attract people who are very good at leveraging this false sense of community for personal gain. Be mindful of that, and balance the creation of true friendships and professional networks with your own physical and emotional protection.
- The Eighth Rule of Fight Club: An Interview with Jane Copland - November 13, 2023