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:
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.)