I was a guest of honour at a large convention when a drunk con-goer grabbed my arse as I exited the elevator. By the time my brain got past "Wait, did that just happen?" the elevator had closed. I told myself it wasn't a big deal. It's not like I'd been in real physical danger. This was just one brief interaction… but it soured what should have been a wonderful event. I kept looking around to try to spot my harasser so I might be able to identify them. I spent the rest of the weekend feeling angry and on edge. Illustration by: Angelica Alzona.
But sexual harassment is a big deal. It's a huge problem in general, and at science fiction, fantasy and comics conventions in particular. An informal 2014 survey found that 13 per cent of fans and professionals had been on the receiving end of "unwanted comments of a sexual nature" at conventions. And a horrifying eight per cent said they had been "groped, assaulted or raped at a comic convention".
This is obviously and patently unacceptable -- nobody should have to face harassment and assault in order to come to a convention to celebrate their favourite books, series, heroes and hobbies. But for far too long, our community has looked the other away, as if ignoring these problems meant they didn't exist.
This is not a new problem
While it may seem that reports of sexual harassment are a relatively new phenomenon, this is unfortunately not the case. That people feel free to speak out about these problems is what's new, not the problems themselves.
In the 1960s, fandom agonised over whether to ban known paedophile Walter Breen from conventions, despite multiple eyewitness accounts of his sexually assaulting children. Meanwhile, author Isaac Asimov's proclivity for groping women was so widely known that in 1961, the chair of Chicon III wrote a letter inviting him to give a lecture on "The Power of Posterior Pinching".
Marcus Ranum recalls confronting Asimov at a Worldcon some 30 years ago, after Asimov groped his girlfriend in an elevator. The convention kicked Ranum out. In their view, the true crime wasn't Asimov's harassment, but Ranum's complaint about it.
Even today, many conventions are still eager to sweep these complaints under the proverbial rug. Just last year, an acquaintance of mine named Jon (name changed for privacy), who is a Michigan fan and conrunner, attended ConFusion with his family. His daughters, one pre-teen and one teenaged, volunteered to check badges at the con suite. When one attendee arrived without his badge, the girls asked to see it.
The man leaned in, grabbed one of their badges and threatened to spank them. He repeated the threat a moment later, saying he was strong enough to spank them both, and "to make them like it".
Earlier in 2015, writer Mark Oshiro was harassed at ConQuesT, where he was a guest of honour. He reported what happened to the convention staff.
[N]early eight months after I'd reported… ConQuesT and Kristina Hiner had done absolutely nothing with my reports. No one was contacted. No one was spoken to.
I will not be attending ConQuesT this year or for the foreseeable future… I don't feel safe there, and ultimately, that's why this bothers me so much. There are people who are part of that community who were actively hostile to me, and when I reported them, the message was sent loud and clear: We don't care about you.
Accepting harassment is unacceptable
Harassment is driving good people from our community, and those who choose to stay often have to develop strategies to protect themselves. Here is author Carrie Cuinn on what she's experienced while attending genre conventions for 20 years:
I've been groped, fondled, kissed, physically picked up and carried off, licked, shoved into corners so I can't escape, hugged, propositioned, wrestled into a submissive position to "prove a point", and actually thrown on a bed, by men who didn't have permission to do any of that...
Cuinn discusses how she began bringing trusted male friends, to ensure she would never alone at room parties -- as well as speaking out publicly so would-be harassers knew she would talk about it.
Obviously most people agree that con attendance shouldn't require a self-defence strategy against harassment and assault, and many conventions have begun to create, publicise and enforce harassment policies. Such policies clearly lay out unacceptable behaviours and consequences; they give the convention a process to follow when harassment occurs, and they send a message to attendees that the convention values their comfort and safety.
Hope and help
A 1997 study by Herff Moore and Don Bradley on sexual harassment policies in manufacturing firms found that the existence of a written harassment policy resulted in a 76 per cent reduction in one year's reports. Simply announcing that harassment will be taken seriously can reduce incidents of harassment.
It also helps when guests of honour and others with large platforms in the sci-fi/fantasy community lend their voices. Bestselling author John Scalzi announced in 2013 that he would no longer attend conventions that lack such a policy. More than a thousand fans and pros co-signed that pledge. "When I would talk to friends who were women, friends who were minorities… every one of them had a story of either harassment or their concerns not being taken seriously," said Scalzi. Within a month of his pledge going live, multiple conventions were asking him to share their new or updated harassment policies.
Of course, these policies must be enforced to be effective. At the 2012 Readercon, an active fan and conrunner named René Walling was reported for harassment. Readercon had a zero-tolerance requiring a lifetime ban for harassment, but the board decided to issue a two-year ban in this case.
"The board members who had made the decision included the convention's founder and others who had been involved with Readercon for decades," said Rose Fox, who was Readercon's program chair at the time. When the convention committee reviewed the decision, it was "one big emotional maelstrom… Some people were vehemently in favour of the decision, others vehemently against, others uncertain or somewhere in between. It was clear we were in a moment that would significantly shape the future of the convention one way or another."
This decision led to widespread backlash and public debate. To its credit, Readercon listened. In the end, the convention changed its decision and followed its posted policy, issuing a lifetime ban. The organisers also improved their policy and processes, including the establishment of a reporting hotline staffed by a local rape crisis centre.
"All the criticism of Readercon from its members came from a place of love for the convention, and terror of losing it," said Fox. "That was what really brought the concom around in the end -- understanding that we all shared a passion for Readercon and wanted it to continue in a way that let people feel welcome and safe there."
Reaction and action
In 2014, despite serious and admitted mishandling of the situation the year before, the feminist science fiction convention Wiscon banned book editor James Frenkel from their convention for harassment. Meanwhile, grassroots groups like the Backup Ribbon Project and Cosplay is NOT Consent continue to grow and fight back against harassment.
In working on this article, I spoke to other con chairs about recent incidents of harassment that weren't publicised, specifically because they were handled well. Here are just a few examples of conventions responding effectively to stop harassment and protect fans.
- At one Midwest convention (which requested to remain anonymous), an adult male physically harassed a minor male in the ConSuite. The con chair comforted and listened to the victim, consulted an off-duty police officer and banned the offender. The minor has attended the con several times since, and has begun to volunteer as well.
- An individual at a certain California convention was told his verbal and physical attentions were unwanted, but refused to stop. He was ousted from the event. For several years he attempted to return. The convention turned him away each time. They also kept his victim informed as to what steps they were taking.
- At a recent Arisia con in Boston, a woman reported a man for repeatedly touching and stroking her. The con took her report, investigated, flagged this individual in their database and also communicated with another local convention to give them a heads-up about what had happened.
And remember Jon's daughters, who were threatened and harassed at ConFusion? There's more to that story, too. The girls realised this was exactly what the convention's no-harassment policies were supposed to deal with. They reported it to the Operations staff, who immediately escalated it to the con committee and the chair of the convention. They investigated and ejected the harasser from the convention, and helped Jon and the girls file a police report.
The harasser was kicked out of the hotel. The next day, the board officially banned him from future events. When the harasser attempted to return the next year (under a different name), the convention kicked him right back out the door.
No more looking away
We might not ever be able to completely eliminate harassment and abuse, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. We can make it clear that such behaviour is unwelcome in our community. We can listen to victims. We can take steps to remove abusers and harassers.
As Charlie Jane Anders said, "Science fiction is for everybody. Science fiction is for anybody who cares about science and futurism, and wants to imagine how the world will be, or could be, different."
If science fiction is for everyone, and I believe it is, then the sci-fi/fantasy community is for everyone. Likewise, cons -- the ultimate expression of our community -- must be as well. That means making them both welcoming and safe, which in turn means making sure those who would harass, assault and endanger women, men, children, anyone and everyone, are not welcome... and will be punished for their offences.
The first step: No more looking away.