I love going to geek conventions. They’re a great way to meet favorite authors & artists, participate in awesome fannish and/or academic discussions and find nifty, nerdy knick-knacks. I’ve started organizing panels at conventions, something I’ve come to deeply enjoy because of the people I’ve been able to meet and it’s a way for me to share my nerdy passions with like-minded enthusiasts. And all of this happens in the company of hundreds of other nerds of varying stripes, interests and areas of obsessive expertise.
Which is why it infuriates me to no end that in 2013, we’re STILL having debates about the utility of comprehensive, clear-cut harassment policies and codes of conduct, and fighting to have them visibly published and easy to find on con websites, at convention halls and in program material. I know people who have experienced harassment at cons at varying levels – they’ve been followed, touched, had their requests to be left alone ignored and their personal space violated. Some of them have been scared for their safety. Some of them have had their experiences ignored, or worse, belittled and accused as outright fabrications. More and more women are sharing their stories about experiencing harassment at cons (and while it shouldn’t have to be said, it’s not just women who encounter harassment at cons, nor is the harassment problem limited to sexual harassment – it’s a problem that applies to everyone).
This doesn’t concern me just as a con attendee – as a panel organizer, the safety and comfort of my panel participants and the people I invite to attend my panels are paramount (especially since some of the topics we tackle can generate strong reactions). I want to know that should we need help or need to make a report, cons will take our problems seriously. Of course, we can’t ask for help or make a report if the con we’re at hasn’t made any effort at letting us know who we need to go to in the first place.
Which is why I’ve been heartened by Hugo award-winning author John Scalzi’s pledge to decline attendance at any convention that doesn’t have a clear-cut and visible harassment policy or code of conduct in place:
[M]oving forward from this very instant, the following will be a hard requirement for my being a panelist, participant or Guest of Honor at a convention:
1. That the convention has a harassment policy, and that the harassment policy is clear on what is unacceptable behavior, as well as to whom those who feel harassed, or see others engaging in harassing behavior, can go for help and action.
2. That the convention make this policy obvious by at least one and preferably more than one of the following: posting the policy on their Website, placing it in their written and electronic programs, putting up flyers in the common areas, discussing the policy at opening ceremonies or at other well-attended common events.
3. In cases when I am invited as a Guest of Honor, personal affirmation from the convention chair that a harassment policy exists, that it will be adequately publicized to conventiongoers, and that all harassment complaints will be dealt with promptly and fairly, with no excuses or rationalizations for delaying action when such becomes necessary.
Why? Because I want my friends and fans to be able to come to a convention and feel assured that the convention is making the effort to be a safe place for them. I want my friends and fans to know that if someone creeps on them, there’s a process to deal with it, quickly and fairly. And I want my friends and fans to know that I don’t support conventions that won’t go out of their way to do both of these things. I want them to know that if I’m showing up as a guest, it’s at a convention that has their backs.
So, that’s my plan. If you’re running a convention and you want to have me show up, now you know what you have to do for me to consider your invitation. I don’t think it’s too much to ask. If you think it’s too much to ask, you can go ahead and skip the invite. We’ll both be happier.
Scalzi’s posted a straightforward explanation of what many of us who support his move are looking for in con harassment policies. (Geek Feminism’s wiki has an excellent set of templates/sample policies, and both WisCon and WorldCon are examples of cons with good harassment policies.) Currently, over 700 authors, artists, speakers, fans, con organizers, and volunteers have co-signed Scalzi’s pledge. Including me. (Update 7/8/13 8:23pm - there are now over 800 signatures on the pledge.)
Predictably, there’s been push back against Scalzi’s pledge and mischaracterization of what he’s trying to accomplish. Scalzi’s retort to those criticisms pretty much covers the bases (he also has a good script to use when contacting a con to ask about non-existent harassment policies) but as someone who is co-signing this pledge, I’ll address what I suspect is the most common criticism lobbed at those who are doing the same: “You’re just doing this because Scalzi is/so many other people are!”
The short answer to that is: “No.”
[NOTE: Trigger Warnings for some of the following links for harassment, assault, victim-blaming]
The long answer is that I’m co-signing the pledge because I’m tired of this. I am tired of having to fight for the events and spaces I and countless other fellow fans attend to make it clear that our safety is important.
I am tired of being told that having clear cut, publicized harassment policies (much less talking about how harassment happens at cons and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed) are “bad for business” because they’ll “scare people away” or “make cons look bad.” I’m tired of being told, “Who needs a harassment policy when ‘it’s just common sense’ that harassment is wrong?” I’m tired of the excuse that “this sort of thing just happens” and the best way to deal with it is ignore it, learn to live with it or even worse, figure out just what it is that I’m doing to cause my own harassment. I’m tired of wondering if a con is going to take my problems seriously and help me if I’m harassed.
I’m tired of hearing that having a harassment policy will make cons into places where “weirdness won’t be celebrated anymore” by making cons hostile places for anyone who “doesn’t fit into mainstream society” – as if “being a harasser” is synonymous with and automatically follows “being weird,” as if people who “celebrate being weird” aren’t already experiencing hostility in these spaces because they’ve been harassed.
I’m tired of people hiding behind faux concerned handwringing about how harassment policies are unfair to people with autism, as if being autistic precludes any ability to learn social norms and socializing with neurotypicals is nigh impossible (seriously, this attitude is highly insulting to people who actually live with autism and learning disabilities – it cheapens the efforts of autistic people to communicate and interact with others, as most of the time, they’re the ones putting in the bulk of effort toward making that communication work).
I’m tired of the comfort of harassers being taken more seriously than the safety of victims.
I’m tired of stories like Elise Mattheson’s and Ursula Vernon’s being something to cheer about because they’re not the norm and not what we expect to happen when people report harassment. I’m tired of hearing about cosplayers being treated like objects, groped, assaulted, stalked, having their breast size commented on or subjected to inappropriate sexual comments by reporters, or even having their images shopped onto body pillows without their express permission, to the point where a project like “Cosplay =/= Consent” has to exist and gets more submissions than it knows what to do with. I’m tired of posts listing resources for reporting sexual harassment in the SF/F community, including how to report to publishers, SFWA, conventions, etc., being necessary. I’m tired of expecting another Readercon 2012 style scandal.
I’m tired of the endless litany of “how not to be a creeper” posts because of how often this crap gets excused and enabled, because of the absence of well-defined harassment policies and codes of conduct at cons contributes to an atmosphere where personal boundaries and autonomy are ignored.
And I’m tired of wondering whether or not I’m contributing to the problem by attending cons without a clear-cut, publicized policies, because why would I attend, unless such policies were not priorities in considering attendance?
Having a harassment policy that is clear, comprehensive and firm about what is considered harassment, what recourse victims have and what the consequences will be for harassers, a policy that will be enforced, an advantage for a convention. A policy/code of conduct that is well-publicized and enforced isn’t what will “scare away” attendees or give off the impression that attendees “should be scared” that harassment happens at a con. Not having a policy/code of conduct is what scares away attendees because of what not having a harassment policy says to con-goers: That the con prioritizes the needs and attendance of potential harassers over the needs and attendance of potential victims.
That last part is a huge contributor to victims and witnesses deciding not to report incidents, which exacerbates the problem, because if there are no complaints or reports of incidents, how can the con know that there’s a problem? If cons want victims and witnesses to report incidents, then they need to create an environment in which victims and witnesses know that they don’t need to worry whether or not they’ll be taken seriously or told they’re “over-reacting” or even that it was their own fault. Further, having a clearly spelled out policy/code of conduct will help avoid genuine misunderstandings and help organizers on the ground determine what reports are valid or not and how to handle them.
A con that has a harassment policy but makes little effort to publicize it or make people aware that it exists is functionally no different than a con that doesn’t have one at all. And if that policy exists but isn’t publicized, it makes me wonder just how committed the con is to enforcing it should I make any complaints or reports. It definitely makes me wonder how I’ll be treated if I need to make a report (either as a witness or a victim) and if it’s worth taking that risk.
Does this mean that there are cons I’m going to miss out on? Probably. Some of them may even be cons I’ve enjoyed going to in the past. Some of them may be cons that I’ve really wanted to have a panel at. That deeply disappoints me, but the bottom line is that I no longer feel comfortable or safe at a con that isn’t making an effort to make sure its attendees, staff & vendors know what kind of behavior is acceptable, what the consequences are for violating their code of conduct, and what resources victims have available to them at the con. I’m also no longer willing to let my attendance at a con that doesn’t have well-defined policies in place to protect victims be tacit acceptance that this is the way this con works and it isn’t going to change anytime soon. And I sure as hell don’t want to invite anyone to a panel – whether as participants or attendees – at a con where I don’t feel safe or comfortable.
And actually, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that I’m co-signing Scalzi’s pledge “because other people are” – I want my voice to be added to theirs. There are a lot of people who are working very hard at cons – as volunteers, organizers, staff – to make these changes happen, so my hope is that efforts like these will help them accomplish those changes. At the end of the day, cons are businesses and people like Scalzi are the draw these businesses have, and if they won’t be there, their fans have less incentive to overlook the lack of a publicized harassment policy as a barrier to attendance. And while the absence of an average fan like me may not have as much pull, it’s also average people like me who keep cons going – by participating as presenters, by attending as fans, by giving time as volunteers – so maybe my absence as one more amongst many will add weight to the message that ignoring this issue is just too high a cost.
If you feel the same, I urge you to co-sign this pledge as well. Share this with your fellow fans, nerd groups and cons. The more voices heard in support of this, the better. (Update 7/8/13 5:08pm – Since apparently it wasn’t clear, I also highly suggest letting a con know how the lack of a visible, comprehensive harassment policy has influenced your decision not to attend.) If you want to encourage cons to adopt & publicize harassment policies but don’t think co-signing is the right move for you, that’s fine, too – there’s no one strategy or path toward making this happen and everyone’s allowed to do what’s best for them.
But if you’re one of those chuckleheads who thinks that having a harassment policy will ruin cons forevermore or that having one is part of some “oppressive overly politically-correct, liberal hippie feminist communist agenda” – well, why not put your money where your mouth is and refuse to attend cons that have harassment policies since they’re so oppressive? As far as I can see, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.