Most of my columns have been fairly fluffy, but now and then I have to address something I cannot make light of. This is one of those times. The topic is harassment at science-fiction and related genre conventions.
In several of my past columns, I’ve commented about the ratio of male-to-female fans at regional and world science-fiction conventions back in the good old days when I was young. Men far outnumbered women. I’d say the ratio was about 90 percent to 10 percent when I first attended conventions. Apparently, I am good at being intimidating (I’ve been told that several times recently) and nobody sexually harassed me. I won’t say there weren’t people who made sexual comments to me, but nobody made me feel threatened. If someone expressed interest in me that I did not want to encourage, I told that person it was not going to happen and that was the end of it.
This was not always the case for others I know. A Florida woman was sexually harassed by a Worldcon committee member in the early ’90s. She reported the incident to the con committee, but they didn’t want to do anything because the person in question knew a lot of important people. They thought he could hurt their convention effort if he were called out.
This kind of thing has happened on more than one occasion. In August 2012, the Internet blew up over sexual harassment incidents that occurred at Readercon, a convention focusing on writing science-fiction and related material. Readercon had a lifetime-ban policy it modified to two years for the offender, ostensibly because he was a an author and big-name fan who had been on high-profile convention committees in the past. You can read all about it at The Daily Dot.
At the center of a current Internet storm is John Scalzi’s posting of Elise Matthesen’s account of sexual harassment at a publisher party at a convention. Her harasser was a well-known editor at Tor Books. He has since been fired from Tor.
Scalzi and several other authors have said they will not appear as guests at conventions that don’t have clear-cut policies about how victims of sexual harassment can report and get something done about incidents. The Mary Sue.com has a good, reasonably concise history of Scalzi’s position and actions.
You may know that Scalzi was also involved in a foofaraw involving the Science Fiction Writers of America. Allegations of sexism and racism have been made and this happened while Scalzi was president of SFWA. There were no intimations that Scalzi was sexist or racist, but he saw it as a failing on his part that some ugly things happened while it was his watch. If you are interested in getting the whole story, you can read about it at S.L. Huang’s Time Line.
Some people are linking the SFWA problems with the general problem of sexual harassment. While I think the behavior of some people in SFWA has been deplorable, I don’t think you can actually name it sexual harassment.
Women who have spoken out publicly about these and other incidents in science-fiction fandom or in the professional arena have had harassing emails, some going as far as to suggest the women should be raped. That is sexual harassment.
I’m not a professional writer and I’m completely on the outside of SFWA doings, but as a convention planner I’m going to have to deal with the problem of defining what is not to be tolerated and how victims can get help at future sci-fi conventions my club hosts. We’ve always had a no-bad-behavior policy, but, as is happening at other conventions, we will have to deal with the specific behavior of someone being harassed by one or more people.
First, we have to determine what constitutes harassment. I don’t think it’s necessary to separate sexual harassment from bullying or stalking. All of these behaviors are harassment and all are subject to the individual’s perception. Any behavior toward you that makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable and does not end after you have said “Stop,” “No” or “Don’t” is harassment.
Second, we have to decide to whom victims should report incidents and how we will deal with finding the offender. This can be a big problem. With people in costumes, constantly moving around and many fans fitting a general description (5′ 8″, dark hair, glasses, black T-shirt), how do we find someone who does not want to be found? If the victim has a name from the badge, that’s helpful, but the situation could be so disturbing that the victim can’t recall details clearly. If there are witnesses, that’s good, but there won’t always be people who were paying attention.
One woman I know said that she was bothered by a creeper (a term now frequently used because of the advent of people going to anime cons just to ogle and stare at the lovely young people in costumes) and her friends took no notice of her trying to signal them that she needed help. They thought she liked the guy.
Third, assuming we find the offender, we have to get that person to consent to facing the situation and telling the other side of the story. What if he or she just lams it? What do we do then? We could hope that would solve the problem, but unless you know the person has left the convention for good, that’s not reassuring to the victim. So you are left with a person who is uncomfortable and one who got away with something.
It’s been brought up that there are people who will report someone just because they don’t like the person. This probably happens occasionally, but we can’t use that as a working assumption. We have to assume that reports are based on actual harassment and not some vendetta being carried out.
The best suggestion I have seen is for conventions to have people who are designated advocates. These people would listen to and believe victims and be able to implement some strategy for dealing with the situation. I like this idea, but it still leaves me with concern.
What I’m not seeing among all the posts on the Internet is anyone with a legal background telling us how to protect our attendees and ourselves. Just what are victims’ and their advocates’ rights under the law? I know we can eject someone from the convention and ban him or her from attending in the future, but whom do we call if we find the person and he or she refuses to leave the premises? How do we deal with that without running afoul of the law? So far, I have found nothing helpful concerning such a situation and I think that’s a shame. I know it’s tricky, but someone must have some good advice about this.
When asked by the woman who was harassed at a Worldcon party if convention hosts choose to cover their behinds or protect the people who attend, my answer was that you have to do both. That is why conventions need legal advice on how to do those two things. If you end up with a litigious harasser who drags you into a legal situation, the victim will be dragged into it as well and will end up feeling harassed again. We need to know how to avoid such an occurrence.
I wish that conventions could be completely safe for everyone, but the sad truth is that no place is completely safe. There are bullies and sexual predators in every facet of society, and science-fiction fandom is no exception.
Since several of the incidents of harassment I know about have happened at con parties, my advice to anyone who is being cornered and harassed is don’t be afraid to get loud. Yell if you have to. This will most often get you an opening to get away from the person and it will let others know that something wrong has happened.
If you are harassed in any way, go to someone involved with the convention. If you get no response or an inadequate response, go to someone on staff at the venue, and if that is not effective, call the police. Don’t stand for being mistreated and don’t keep silent. Tell convention staff if you see someone at the con who is a creeper or in some other way harasses people. Tell your friends. Word of mouth is a powerful thing. Use it.
All most of us want is to be safe and to have a way to address a bad situation if one does occur. That really isn’t so much to ask is it?