Drawing the Line: Harrassment at Conventions

Lately the phenomenon of men misbehaving at conventions has been getting some press. Events at Readercon have spawned a flurry of opinions, but it’s far from the only, or most outrageous, instance of harassment at a con.

Lately the phenomenon of men misbehaving at conventions has been getting some press. Events at Readercon have spawned a flurry of opinions, but it’s far from the only, or most outrageous, instance of harassment at a con.

  • In the Anime community a fan was recently approached with an invitation to be a stripper, apparently because having a reputation for elaborate costumes means a woman would welcome the opportunity to strip off those painstakingly created costumes before an audience.
  • At a SkeptiCamp a speaker was propositioned by a couple who handed her an NSFW business card inviting her to join a threesome — in the middle of what was, for the speaker, a professional engagement.
  • This falls close to the one year anniversary of “elevatorgate” in Dublin, an incident that demonstrates the importance of context: What might be an innocent invitation to coffee takes on a completely different tone when delivered by a stranger in an enclosed space at 4 a.m.

While there has been an outpouring of support of Readercon’s ultimate decision, there has also been pushback about attendance banning and strict policies being a kind of blunt instrument used on the undeserving as much as the deserving. The argument is made that there are accidental creeps who are misguided in addition to actual creeps who mean harm.

John Scalzi has covered how not to be a creep with his usual wit and clarity. It would be great to imagine that with his guidelines available for the whole Internet to learn from, there will be no incidents of creepiness at any future cons. Con goers can rejoice in their welcoming communities and organizers can dispense with their anti-harassment policies.

But we know it isn’t as simple as that.

Part of the appeal of cons, beyond the celebrities and panels, is the joy of being surrounded by people who share your interests and passions. Being among people of your cultural enclave offers the freedom to express your fandom and enthusiasm without fear of the judgment you may face outside of a con. In that way, cons are a great place to let some of the constraints of other social situations go. Use genre slang (and be understood)! Dress up like an alien!

However, even at cons the basic social norms that make society work are still required. Your fellow fans may welcome a different spectrum of behaviour than society at large. It is precisely because conventions often shift the distinctions between what is encouraged and what is frowned upon that cons need strict anti-harassment policies.

One argument that has been given against strict policies is the idea that we should give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to bad behaviour. The truth is you get the benefit of the doubt by being let in the door. Being admitted to a con is a statement of trust by the hosts and the other participants that you will be well behaved and respectful instead of a creep or an asshole. Any antics once you are inside demand a strong response from both the organizers and the community.

Another common reaction to incidents of harassment is dismissal on the grounds that the observer would not find the behaviour harrassing, and may even welcome it. After all, the golden rule says “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But this is a case where it’s important to recognize the specific preferences of the recipient of the behaviour, whether they match up with your own — and to be sensitive when someone is giving off cues that say “no.” “It wouldn’t bother me, so it shouldn’t bother anyone else” is a social fallacy. When a certain behaviour makes someone feel uncomfortable and unsafe, it’s not up for debate.

I want to approach this from the idea that no one wants to make people feel bad or scared. When I witness or hear about harassment in the SF community, I prefer to think that the perpetrator had bad role models. Too much Heinlein and Captain Kirk can teach some bad lessons on how to interact with women. The idea that a perpetrator simply does not know what behaviours are appropriate is preferable to the idea that they do not care about how other people are feeling, or that they believe that their desires for sexual contact are right, and a person’s rejection of them is wrong.

However, it is important to acknowledge that some people are not socially awkward, they are socially predatory. These are people who know better. They recognize and understand the cues that mean “no” but they ignore them when a “no” does not line up with their own desires. Unfortunately, these people go to cons specifically for the accepting environment. They go to cons because they think they can get away with harassing behaviour. This is why cons need to take a hard line on this issue. That is why fandom needs to take a hard line on this behaviour. If we are constantly forgiving of those who misbehave under the auspices of “social awkwardness” we are also giving a free pass to those who use it as an excuse to harass and mistreat other fans.

Readercon’s lifetime ban is a totally appropriate response to sexual harassment, which at its base is dehumanizing and abusive. I am glad they decided to stick by their own rules. Ultimately fandom needs to send the message that unacceptable behaviour is unacceptable. That way everyone can enjoy an environment that is welcoming and safe.

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