What Conventions Are and Aren’t

A glossary moment before I begin: In this post, I use “harassment” as a catch-all term for one person deliberately inflicting unwanted touch, commentary, or intense attention upon another. In the real world things are considerably more complicated than that, and I’m not for a moment advocating treating all harassment incidents equally; but I do think it is worth addressing general cases before moving on to the specific. English doesn’t have good one-word terms for people who have been harassed: “harassee” and “victim” define a person by something that’s happened to them, and “survivor” is wonderful but only for those who survive. Throughout this post, I use phrases like “people targeted by harassers” to emphasize that these people are people, putting them front and center in their own stories and counteracting the tendency in this culture to dismiss and objectify them.

A disclaimer moment: I volunteer with Readercon, and have volunteered with other conventions in the past. The following post expresses my personal views only.

Finally, please read Genreville’s comment policy before commenting, especially if you would like to comment anonymously or pseudonymously, and be aware that ALL comments are held for approval. I will go through them as quickly as I can, but that may not be very quickly over the weekend.

There has been a lot of conversation lately about harassment and other reprehensible behavior at science fiction conventions. As the program chair of Readercon, I’ve been following that conversation with considerable interest, not least because the latest round started when one Readercon attendee harassed another at the convention and the convention’s governing body did not handle it well. Discussions about building and enforcing safety policies have encouraged me to think very hard about the philosophical approaches that those policies might be founded on, and my personal conclusion–which, I would like to stress again, is mine alone–is that the following words do not belong in any such policy, nor in descriptions of how those policies are implemented:

  • punishment
  • consequences
  • reprisal
  • deterring
  • ostracizing
  • apology
  • recompense
  • redemption

Conventions are not communities in the traditional sense of the word. They are not townships. The conchair is not the mayor; the head of safety or security is not the chief of police; the concom and the board are not tribunals or juries. The organizing bodies are not directly or representationally elected and are almost never demographically representative of the convention-attending population. I think that treating conventions as in some way parallel to real-world communities governed by law is a really bad idea, especially when we get into these crime-and-punishment discussions. Conventions are not in the business of dispensing justice. They aren’t designed for it or equipped for it, and no one–especially not anyone involved in running a convention–should behave as though they are, even for a moment.

What conventions are designed for and equipped for is helping people to have fun. That’s the business model! And I think that is what conventions should stay focused on when someone pops up and starts making their spaces less fun for their customers.

Take a moment and look back at that list of words. What they have in common is that they are focused on perpetrators. We do this all the time. All the time. When someone does something we find noxious, they become the focus of attention: how will they be punished? Will they apologize? Can they be brought back into the fold? Meanwhile, the person they targeted with their noxious behavior is forgotten, dismissed, or scorned. Harassers are often charismatic, which is how they get close enough to harass, and they often target the shy and vulnerable, who are that much easier to ignore if they manage to speak up at all. We are all intimately familiar with the narrative of sin-repentance-redemption, and it’s startlingly easy to try to follow someone through it while all but forgetting that they wouldn’t have even started down that road if they hadn’t treated another person badly.

As for popular, commonly understood narratives for people who have been targeted by harassers: well, we don’t really have any. We notice them only long enough for them to accept an apology or teach the transgressor a lesson. The closest we get to a complementary narrative to sin-repentance-redemption is victimhood-struggle-triumph, and that still focuses the person’s entire story on the perpetrator’s behavior: experiencing it, coping with it, learning from it, being made stronger by it. These are all just different kinds of objectification, of the person as acted upon rather than active.

It’s clear that cultural programming teaches us to minimize and ignore people targeted by harassers at conventions (and elsewhere, but conventions are my focus here). I believe that the most immediately effective way of overcoming this programming is to focus on conventions as businesses providing services, and on convention attendees as customers. Specifically, conventions are in the business of providing safe, enjoyable environments where fun things happen and people have a good time. And that means conventions need to feel entirely free to oust any individual customer who’s causing problems for others, without focusing on where that person will go or how they will feel afterwards. (It also has implications for other aspects of convention-running, such as selecting sites and designing spaces and materials to be universally accessible, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

The narrative that conventions should care about is not sin-repentance-redemption or victimhood-struggle-triumph. The narrative is purchase-enjoy-repeat: that is, “I went to a convention, I had a good time, I plan to go back.” It is the narrative of a satisfied customer, which makes for a healthy business. Anyone who perpetrates harassment at a convention is disrupting that narrative, and convention organizers should not hesitate to write them out of it.

That’s the business side. Now for the personal side.

It’s very easy for the organizers of an individual convention to dwell on how someone might feel to be denied access to that particular space, because when you run a convention it becomes your world. I know that feeling well; I am passionately devoted to Readercon, which is why I put endless hours and effort into helping to make it happen every year. If I try to imagine what it would be like to be kicked out of an individual instantiation of Readercon, much less banned from it for life, it’s absolutely devastating. But we need to step away from that habit of putting ourselves in the harasser’s shoes (and what does it say about our culture that we do that more easily than putting ourselves in the shoes of the person they harassed?).

Taking the broader view, every convention is just one convention that happens one weekend a year. There are hundreds of other conventions, just like there are hundreds of other stores. There are online communities as well. (And let’s be honest: rape culture being what it is, in the vast majority of those conventions and communities, harassment and even rape aren’t going to be seen as good reasons to kick someone out.) And there are a billion other ways to spend a weekend. So quit worrying about the poor harasser! They have lots and lots and lots of options.

I have seen occasional concerns that if we kick out everyone who behaves badly, there will be no one left to come to conventions. This is farcical and insulting. The vast majority of congoers comport themselves well within acceptable parameters. Many people stay away from conventions for fear of being harassed; oust one harasser and you might get ten or twenty new attendees who want to show their appreciation or simply now feel safe enough to attend. Thoughtful, well-behaved fans are really not in short supply.

What is in short supply is safe space for people who have been harassed. Again, rape culture being what it is, in the vast majority of both online and offline communities, speaking up about being harassed only leads to being harassed even further. Making a safe space for someone who’s been harassed, and pledging to them that within that space they will never have to encounter the person who harassed them? That is a big deal. That is an amazing thing to do. Offering any kind of help at all to someone who’s been harassed, even a moment of listening and support, is a glorious bounty of kindness compared to what they get from most people. Going a bit out of your way to make a little oasis of safety for them is pretty high on the mitzvah list.

So to run the cost-benefit analysis from this perspective, with all numbers on a scale from 0 to 10:

Cost to the ostracized harasser: .0001
Cost to the convention (investigating and verifying the accusation, having the awkward “you can’t come back and this is why” conversation, making sure that person really stays away, one fewer attendee to contribute funds or volunteer time): .01
Benefit to to the convention (knowing they’ve done the right thing, making the space safer, promoting the convention as a place that takes harassment seriously, gaining attendees who feel safer): 4
Benefit to the person who was harassed: 1000

The conclusion is obvious.

“The customer is always right” obviously is not 100% true, but it’s still a useful starting point because it reminds businesses that customers are people, not just sources of funds. Well, if there’s any situation where we need to be reminded that certain people are people, it’s the situation where those people have been harassed. Imagine the cultural shift if we started from “the person who has been harassed is always right” instead of “the person who has been harassed isn’t worth thinking about, or is probably lying, or was asking for it”. Just take a moment to sit with that. I don’t know about you, but I get a little teary-eyed trying to imagine that world. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be so much better than what we have now.

I know conventions have decades of history as people throwing parties for their friends. I know it’s hard to make the shift from that mindset to the mindset of being a business and offering a service. But it’s worth doing, and it’s necessary if these businesses are going to survive. “I went to a convention, I had a good time, I plan to go back”: let’s write those stories, hundreds and thousands of them, every weekend around the world. And let’s not let a little nasty cultural programming and a handful of creeps get in our way.

 

(Thanks to Marie Brennan for starting a conversation that helped to crystallize a lot of these thoughts, and to the many people who have discussed these matters online and off. It is tremendously heartening to see so many people taking harassment seriously and working out ways to decrease it in fan spaces. We may not be a formal incorporated community, but we are a community and I’m proud to be a part of it.)

29 thoughts on “What Conventions Are and Aren’t

  1. Hannah

    I have never been seriously harrassed AT a convention (being backed into a corner and threatened doesn’t copunt, I’ve been told, if the person never actually carries out their threats), but I have seen it happen to others, and I have avoided attending several conventions simply because a person who HAS harrassed (and physically assulted) me is a frequent attendee of those conventions and I do not trust the people in charge of those conventions to DO something if I or anyone else were to be assulted by that person. I’m all too aware of the likelihood that I’d just be told, ‘Well, you knew he’d probably be here, and you chose to come to the con anyway, so what did you expect?’

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      Being backed into a corner and threatened absolutely does count. I am so sorry people have treated you that way, and others have dismissed your complaints and concerns.

      I really hope conventions put in the work to gain, and regain, the trust of their current and potential attendees. You’re not the only person who stays away because of feeling that the people in charge can’t be relied on.

  2. Rachel Kadel-Garcia

    Very well-said. An aside on this point: “I think that treating conventions as in some way parallel to real-world communities governed by law is a really bad idea, especially when we get into these crime-and-punishment discussions.” True. Conventions do occur *within* real-world communities governed by law, and it’s important for people to remember that going to law enforcement as well as, or possibly instead of, convention security remains an option. Not always a good option because the police have systemic problems too. But an option.

  3. Liz Williams

    I have been fortunate in never having been harrassed at a con, but I know people who have. If it did happen, I’d have no issue about taking legal action if I thought it was appropriate: hotels and convention centres are public spaces, and subject to the law of the land. At least one person has been sectioned under the Mental Health Act from a UK convention.

    Outside conventions, I run shops, and have no compunction about ejecting or banning people from my premises for abusive behaviour. I don’t have any issue about how this makes them feel – why should I worry about an abuser’s feelings? My duty of care is to my staff and my other customers on my premises, and it stops there.

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  5. Emmzzi

    My thoughts on banning people aren’t “Do I feel bad for not letting this person come” but “Am I going to get dogpiled by their supporters and then verbally beaten into submission.” Given UK cons rarely have a seated comittee/ continuity long bans are problematic also – there is always an element of hearsay for concom to concom.

    The narrative I see for the harrassed is “got harrassed, took action, people were weird with me, then they expected me to stop being angry and get over it before I was ready.” So trigger event – complain – time limited support – exclusion – learn to pretend all is well again. I think it’s pretty well understood. At least in the UK, the country of not making a fuss.

    There’s also something about litcon versus mediacon. Sweeping generalisation with no actual facts alert – media cons have a younger attendannce, and they have grown up more empowered and with higher expectations for themselves. So take less crap.

  6. Scott Edelman

    Thanks for this, Rose. It will help me stay focussed on pushing to create safe places, rather than talking about punishing and/or redemption, which I keep getting suckered into discussing because the apologists continually ask, “Well, what does the guy have to do to make it right?”

    The only correct answer, I guess, is — I don’t really care, as long as he does it far away from those who just want to enjoy science fiction without getting harassed.

    Thanks again!

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    1. Andrew Porter

      Discussions of actual persons could lead to legal action. I suggest leaving names out of this discussion.

  8. Kari Sperring

    Thank you!
    I’ve had far more experience of being harassed in fannish spaces than I like to think about, and I kept quiet for years, because, culturally, it was unacceptable to make a fuss. It’s good to see this changing.
    I am also, however, a con-runner (though not a smof) and a serial volunteer at cons, and much of the harassment I’ve received has been around that. Volunteers — and especially female volunteers — can be particularly vulnerable, as they are perceived as being there solely to provide a service to others — we become a function rather than a person and, as such, are expected not to talk back, be stroppy or, sometimes, say no. I’ve been bullied, verbally abused, pushed, groped and solicited for sex by attendees because I’m there to work (apparently) not to enjoy myself, and thus have fewer rights. (And the person who expected sex was a professional writer, which was also an abuse of a power relationship. He got a ‘No,’ but I was very shaken by the experience.)
    It’s a two-way street: certainly attendees should be provided with as safe an environment as possible, but so should volunteers. We are people too.

  9. Paul Riddell

    Rose, truthfully, it’s about high time that someone stood up and pointed out that conventions should be run as businesses, for a lot of reasons, but the biggest is to have a way to get rid of people who take advantage of fan communities. Harassers are at the top of that list, but this also applies to anybody else who hides behind community when they’re called on their beastly behavior at conventions. As someone who slogged through customer service for years, I note that “the customer is always right” is ALWAYS invoked when said customer has gone way over the line, and the response “We reserve the right to refuse service at any time” doesn’t get used anywhere near often enough.

  10. Michael Giltz

    Thanks for publishing this piece and highlighting an issue that gets little attention but clearly touches a nerve among readers, as evinced by the comments. Changing the attitude from crime and punishment to “this is a business” and keeping the unhappy customer satisfied and removing someone who is endangering the happiness of your customers is a good example of how reframing the argument makes decisions clearer and easier. As a minor aside, this comment — And let’s be honest: rape culture being what it is, in the vast majority of those conventions and communities, harassment and even rape aren’t going to be seen as good reasons to kick someone out — seemed bizarre to me. Really? An individual rapes someone at a convention and most places wouldn’t think to kick them out, much less call the police? I can’t imagine indifference goes that far. Society may be clueless but not quite that clueless. If there’s even an accusation of rape, I hope conventions realize they need to call in law enforcement and let the authorities take charge.

  11. Kevin J. Maroney

    Rose,

    I absolutely agree with the need to show that science fiction fandom stands against harassment. But I have a question about one of your points here.

    What do you see as the advantage of a “focus on conventions as businesses providing services, and on convention attendees as customers” rather than, say, the model of a convention as a party, at which all of the attendees are welcome guests? A party host needs to design the party to allow/assure the happiness and safely of all of the guests, both in the hopes that they will be happy and in the hopes of having them return to the next party. I don’t see that the model of business/customer is any more likely to assure equality of concern for the happiness of all present than party/guests would.

    Quite the contrary, in fact–I think that a business/customer model would tend to leave conventions in the habit of valuing the “customers” they already know and ignoring the customers they don’t know. Well, tend *even more strongly*–conventions do that already. You know, the way that businesses do. Think about how bars fight against smoking bans, because they are only aware of the customers who were willing to put up with smoke and are unaware of the customers who want to find a smoke-free environment.

    Party hosts will favor the people they know the best. Businesses will favor the customers they value the most. If William Q. Professional is harassing the “paying customers”, as a business owner I’m going to have to make a calculation about whether Bill attracts more “customers” than he drives off. Sometimes I’m going to make that decision wrong. But if I’m a party host and one of my closer circle of friends harasses someone I don’t know as well, I don’t have to think about what’s best for the business; I have to think about human decency.

    I say this not as someone who knows the answers. You think this change in perspective would be helpful, and it’s something you’ve obviously put some thought into. I’m wondering what I’m missing.

  12. Andrew Porter

    Paul Riddell, if conventions are run as a business—not by fans, with hundreds of volunteers donating their time—then you won’t be able to afford to go to any.

    1. Kevin J. Maroney

      I was thinking of making a response like that myself, except there’s the counter-example of Dragon*Con–which is a for-profit business but which attracts literally thousands of volunteers.

      Of course Rose’s post wasn’t advocating *actually* running conventions as for-profit businesses but rather was using the business/customer model as a guide to keeping conventions safe.

    2. Paul Riddell

      I don’t have problems with conventions being run by volunteers, Andy. My beef is with the number that are run with all of the professionalism of a group of seven-year-olds who want to hold a parade. With a few I’ve attended, that’s an insult to the seven-year-olds.

  13. Bernard Peek

    One point I haven’t seen mentioned in any of the online discussions is a legal one. Depending on the jurisdiction cons may not be able to “ban” a harasser. If the con is a public event some jurisdictions will give them access as long as they pay the price of a ticket. In reality a concom can politely request that someone does not return but compliance with that request is quite possibly entirely voluntary. If the person chooses not to comply the concom can do nothing. If the person registers under a false name and pays cash the concom might never know.

    If anyone wants to prevent someone else from attending a convention then the proper response is to go to court and take out a restraining order.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      My understanding (and I am not a lawyer) is that since cons are membership organizations, they have the right to refuse membership to anyone for any reason. They can’t stop the person from entering the hotel premises without a membership, but the hotel can likewise deny them entry; hotels are not public spaces.

      1. Paul Riddell

        Rose, having been caught in the middle of such a situation (I was working security at a convention where a Cat Piss Man tried to confiscate what he considered illegal material from a dealer, and the dealer’s room manager kicked him out of the convention when he refused to give it back), most hotel managers are perfectly happy to defer judgment to the convention. In most cases, getting kicked out of a convention also gets the individual kicked out of the hotel if the offender’s room was reserved at convention rates, and the hotel will generally NOT allow that person to reserve a new room afterwards. In extreme cases, usually involving the attendee sitting on the floor screaming “I DON’T WANNA GO, AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!”, the hotel gets involved, either by hotel security removing the individual or by calling the police. Naturally, this depends upon state law and local ordinance. In the vast majority of cases, though, the call still lies with the convention, and the hotel management is glad to let the con take over.

  14. David Dyer-Bennet

    I think you have a very different conception of “community” than I do, and that I understand is meant when people talk about fan groups, individual conventions, and fandom as a whole as communities. The word is certainly used both ways in general discourse, but I absolutely do NOT mean a geographical region governed by laws. I mean the same kind of community some people get from their church, their neighborhood, their lodge membership, their old hunting buddies, their sewing circle, or whatever — the chosen community of like-minded individuals.

    I’m also quite disturbed by your urging conventions to think more along business lines. To me this leads to the end of conventions as I know them, because if you actually think about it that way, you realize you’re wasting your time. The only way I can justify my work on conventions (which has been extensive over the years) is as my contribution to the communities I value that intersect there.

    None of which is directly relevant to handling harassment issues, I don’t think. But it does mean many of your arguments for why it’s beneficial to do better are like fingernails on a blackboard to me — when I generally agree with you that we haven’t historically been that good at handling it.

    One point where we DO agree and that I think is VERY important is that we are not well set up (and, I might add, not legally authorized) to perform investigations, “trials”, and so forth. And we shouldn’t be; we should instead avoid that, taking administrative actions on memberships where necessary but leaving the heavy lifting to the legal authorities.

  15. Christine Middlemass

    I am truly appalled to hear of this kind of behavior at cons. Having said that I feel Worldcon needs to make some significant changes in order to stay relevant. The excusionary fan culture allows bizarre behavior that transgresses social and sometimes legal norms. Not trying to expand and welcome new attendees is a death sentence in the long run. I’ve watched the crowds become older. And in some cases even more socially awkward. I had a conversation with another woman at Chicon who had noticed generally rude behavior as well. We agreed there is a fine line between fun eccentricity and out of line behavior. Which is a very long winded way to say I totally agree cons need to be run as business.

    1. Paul Riddell

      Sadly, Christine, I don’t expect things to get better soon, if only because of the number of oldtime fans who don’t want new blood. Several friends asked me recently if I was interested in driving down to San Antonio for WorldCon next year, and my basic response was “If I wanted to waste a weekend listening to a gaggle of embittered seventysomethings whining about how the world was changing without their written permission and consent, I’d go to a family reunion.” And yet the WorldCon partisans can’t figure out why Dragon*Con pulls in three to five times as many attendees on the same weekend.

      1. Bernard Peek

        The SMOFs list does on occasion discuss how to bring new people into fandom. I made a proposal a few weeks ago to help do that. But it’s important not to get carried away with the idea that larger conventions are somehow better.

        I’m not actively involved in running conventions any more, although I do still volunteer. When I did run conventions I made it clear that the conventions I ran were for people who liked the sort of conventions I ran. If you like my conventions you are welcome. If you don’t then please stay away and make both of us happier.

        If you want to run a convention as a business then feel free. The solution to getting the type of convention you want is to run it yourself. Existing conventions are under no obligation to change to suit your tastes. You aren’t paying the concom, money actually flows the other way – unless the con really is run as a business.

      2. Kevin J. Maroney

        Paul,

        Direct comparisons between WorldCon and Dragon*Con strike me as beside the point. Dragon*Con is at least five different conventions at once–a comics con, an anime con, a film & TV pop-culture con, a gaming con, and, deep down the chain of interest, a fannish f&sf convention. Now, as a gamer and a comics fan, I have no objection to those–my first real convention was a GenCon, and my second was a HerosCon–but they’re very different animals from fannish f&sf conventions. The question on the table is not, I think, “How do we make fannish f&sf conventions bigger?”, but “How do we make them safer and more inviting to the people who want to attend fannish f&sf conventions?”.

  16. Colleen Lindsay

    As a publicity/marketing person for several large publishers specializing in pop culture, I’ve worked many genre conventions. At most of these conventions, at least one of my female booth staff members was made to feel extremely uncomfortable by the persistent unwanted attentions of a fan or an attending professional. It’s creepy and it’s dangerous and it absolutely *is* an issue for those con organizers who want to have a good business relationship with their customers.

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  18. Ginny P

    Excellent essay, thank you!

    One quibble: Even if one continues to think of conventions as a party for friends, throwing out someone who is harassing other guests — or starting fights, or breaking house rules, or otherwise ruining the good time that was to be had by all — remains the sensible, rational, reasonable, proportional response.

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