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Ending Sexual Harrasment at cons - Zer Netmouse
January 31st, 2010
04:48 pm

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Ending Sexual Harrasment at cons
Jer has made a pretty darn decent post on sexual harassment at cons and since it occurs to me that people who might ought to read it probably won't click through (not that I know if any of them read this blog), I thought I would post this quote and ask everyone to read it please:

Let me say this in no uncertain terms: there is no manner of dress or flirtatious activity that gives you the right to initiate unwanted contact with another member of the convention! This is behavior that is unacceptable, period. Full stop. End of sentence. No mitigating factors needed or even allowed. I don't care if you have watched a young lady kiss every single person in the lobby on her way to you, when she gets to you, you do NOT have implied permission to initiate contact. You don't get permission to touch, hover over, leer at, or otherwise harass her. I don't care if a guy has been talking suggestively with you for the last hour, you don't get to grab him without explicit permission.

And that, really, is what it comes down to… explicit permission. There is no such thing as implicit permission at the local conventions. No clothing choice or activity implies that you have any permissions that have not been explicitly stated. Silence in no way implies consent, silence is dissent. Silence means NO!

These events are billed as a safe place for a normally ostracized group to be able to “be themselves” and “feel safe” in their geeky, crazy, often socially unacceptable interests… and it is high time to make that true for all of its members.


I want to emphasize that whole list of what you should not do without explicit permission: touch, hover over, leer at, or otherwise harass someone. I believe we should have a community culture where, if you see someone doing this to someone else, if that person complains or asks for help, you should take them seriously, and respond with support. Even if someone is not complaining but looks distressed, it is all right to check with that person to make sure they are ok. And someone who persists in harassing behavior or is snide or disparaging about having it pointed out (as opposed to apologetic) should face anything from a stern talking to to removal of their membership by convention ops. But also, as Jer points out, possibly a more significant thing they should face is vocal intolerance of such behavior by the community. In other words, we should all work on speaking up when someone does or says something inappropriate.

A friend of mine recently recounted to me a situation that happened to her within the past year that involved a sudden, uninvited come-on from someone leaning into her in such a space that she was trapped. There was no doubt she felt assaulted. At "How to flirt" panels at cons we specifically counsel against "trapping" someone you're interested in as well as getting close into someone's personal space without invitation, but thinking back on it I think we've tended to emphasize the "this is not a way to make friends or flirt with people" aspect of it, not the fact that once you are physically trapping or intimidating someone, if you touch them in a way that they have not given you permission to, you are over the line from "stalking" to "assault" and you might cross the line into harassment earlier than that depending on what you are saying to them.

It will be interesting to see where this project goes in terms of defining behavioral boundaries. It's interesting for me to think about, for myself. Often comfort with one sort of behavior depends on the situation. For instance, I have a number of people I enjoy giving a quick kiss hello or goodbye - it's something my family does, among ourselves and with some extended family, and some of fandom is my extended family. Yet, if someone gives me a hug, and holds me in that hug, without relaxing so I could easily step back out of it if I wanted to, and when I look up at them, goes to kiss me, it's not ok. Because I'm trapped. Sure, I could get out of that hold. a) it's not particularly tight, just firm, and b) I know martial arts. But it's taken me some contemplating to figure out exactly what bothers me about this sort of situation. Kissing the friend doesn't bother me. Feeling trapped (physically and socially) does. The psyche is an interesting thing. (When I was in junior high I wouldn't let any but the closest trusted friends put an arm around my shoulders, because that was too close to having an arm around my neck. I've come a long way since then, though anyone who knows me well might note that I still pretty much avoid clothes and jewelry that come tight or close around my neck. People might have buttons you don't even know you could push by touching them in certain ways. So check.)

I believe full contemplation of eliminating harassment at cons should include harassment on the basis of race, religion, sexual or gender identity, size, age, and disability. But that doesn't mean effort on any one of those fronts is not worth doing in and of itself. Please participate.

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From:markiv1111
Date:January 31st, 2010 10:17 pm (UTC)

Harassment

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When I was living in Los Angeles (January 1976-May 1977, August 1979-August 1980) there was a male fan who kept giving people unasked-for backrubs. (No, I don't remember his name.) The thing that strikes me as unusual and "just plain wrong" 27 to 29 years later is that it caused as little trouble as it did; there were a few comments, but not the outrage that I believe the same behavior would be likely to elicit (and should elicit) today. Another thing to note: I think most of my fan friends know this and don't need to be reminded, but one should *never* hug me from behind, i.e., when I didn't see you coming. I'm not entirely clear why this behavior in particular is problematic. (I was seriously battered as a child -- canes and belts, including around my head -- but not at a time when I didn't see my father coming.) But it is, and I will freak out. I've reacted almost as strongly to hands on my shoulders with only one or two seconds' warning. And I do have one woman friend who has similar reactions. So even fans who have no tendencies in the "stalking" or "harassing" direction at all need to become very, very solid in the ground rules; you can have no ill intentions at all and still inadvertently cause trouble. Just a word of warning to a bunch of good people out there, including some I may very well never meet.

Nate
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From:netmouse
Date:January 31st, 2010 10:37 pm (UTC)

Re: Harassment

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Nod. That's a very good point. Good intentions don't necessarily prevent bad touch.

I have a friend who almost always says hi with a hug that turns into a backrub and I noticed at the last con that I was avoiding him because I didn't want a backrub (or a tight hug). I have also, at other times, willingly gone over to greet him because I really needed my back tended to. Ideally, those things would not be so closely linked that I would act in this strange way towards a person I otherwise like talking to.

so... Unsolicited backrubs continue in some circumstances, and I agree, they are problematic.
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From:netmouse
Date:February 1st, 2010 07:05 am (UTC)
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Thanks for the comment, and the links.
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From:apostle_of_eris
Date:January 31st, 2010 10:36 pm (UTC)

Silence means NO!

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Great takeaway.

Personally, even with a somewhat fannish/Aspergerish social tone-deafness, when I'm conversing someone into a potentially ambiguous situation, I try to put MY back to the wall, to display no obstacle to just walking away. I'm gratified to see implicit recognition. (That is, if the opposite is bad, then it's >OK.)
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From:kreie
Date:January 31st, 2010 11:13 pm (UTC)
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Yes! You might be the only other person I've heard talk about not wanting your neck touched in any way, even with clothes and jewelry. I have several reasons for that, but kissing the front of my neck, even when you had permission to kiss my face, is liable to get you pushed away.
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From:secretrebel
Date:February 3rd, 2010 06:13 pm (UTC)
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You are not the only one. Any attempt to touch my neck equates for me to a strangulation attempt. I am not a violent person but I would react very negatively to any attempt to grab me and could well interpret sudden unexpected grabbing (especially from behind) as an active threat and respond to it that way.

Excellent post and I will click through to the one that prompted it after reading through the comments. (Here via metafandom.) Thank you for posting,
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From:parsleigh
Date:January 31st, 2010 11:37 pm (UTC)
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What I find interesting is that when I first started going to cons, late 70', we were having the same issues. Gay Haldeman and Rusty Hevelin did a panel, early morning because they figured only new con goers would be up that early, called What to expect at your first convention, or something like that. Sometimes I filled in for Gay when she wasn't there. Basicially, we talked about how not to behave....just because you saw that attractive woman (usually) hugging and kissing everyone else in a group did not give you the right to do or expect the same treatment. Don't touch, ogle, make rude noises or whatever, anyone that you were not already intimate or friendly with, without permission. I take it the How to Flirt panels are something similar. The point is, that fandom still hasn't learned. I'm sure some people have, and the idea is to give new con goers a general idea so that they don't immediately get ostracised, but we are still dealing with the same issues, just like we are in society. We need to be continually aware of this because I don't think it will ever go away, just maybe kept in check.
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From:dd_b
Date:February 1st, 2010 12:29 am (UTC)
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I suspect that nearly all of the people who were in fandom in the 1970s (I came in in 1972) have learned -- but a lot of new ones have shown up, too. And I have noticed that on societal issues focused on women (which are not just women's issues), there has been as much regression as progress since then, so the people coming in, raised in what general society has become, are not necessarily any more aware of these issues than many people were in the 1970s. Which is not intended to excuse anything, but to place the blame more back towards where I think it belongs; fandom has not failed as signally as the current situation suggests, because we are not isolated from society, and have high turnover.
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From:voidampersand
Date:February 1st, 2010 12:48 am (UTC)
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Fandom is wonderful because of its acceptance. That acceptance works because fans can expect that other fans will be aware and caring and not cross boundaries without permission. The alternative is not revealing who you are so you won't be disrespected. It's putting up artificial barriers to keep other people away so they don't find the real boundaries and cross them. There is too much of that outside of fandom, and funny how it doesn't prevent harassment very well. I'll take the fannish approach. More discussions like this, please.
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From:pure_doxyk
Date:February 1st, 2010 02:26 am (UTC)
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Awesome post, thank you!
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From:atdt1991
Date:February 1st, 2010 03:24 am (UTC)
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Please keep in mind that I'm not bringing this up from a personal viewpoint, as I have trouble convincing myself it's okay to ogle even when given explicit permission.

That said, I think the "leering" thing is a difficult road to hoe, without other behaviors involved. Difficult both because it can be hard to discern what someone is looking at (especially from a third party's perspective) and difficult to prove.

You start getting into issues of "is the exact same look 'leering' if it's done by someone you aren't attracted to?"

I'm not at all saying that leering doesn't make a person feel gross - trust me, I've definitely had people I've found unsavory spend too long contemplating my package at a con. And I'm not saying that it shouldn't be counseled against in flirting panels and in the program book. I am saying that it is difficult to prove, difficult to combat directly, and even, without other factors, difficult to know for certain is happening.

All that said, we know that most of the time, leering comes with someone getting too close, or saying something inappropriate, or trying to make unwanted contact. Those situations are pretty straightforward, as I see it.

I was originally thinking I would say something about significant social outliers as far as touch go are hard to predict, but then I thought about how one shouldn't get into the personal space/touch someone when you don't know them well enough to know how they will react, and that kind of solves that.

By the way, I was out to dinner with five other people and a stranger in the group (friends with one other) asked if we were huggers, and that reminded me that that exact question seems to have made it into my life because of con and con-goers, which is a very good thing.
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From:netmouse
Date:February 1st, 2010 08:09 am (UTC)
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Yeah, that's a good point re: leering. I have this clear memory of someone I didn't know looking me up and down in a bus station when I was young and having a totally negative reaction to it, and when I glared at him, he was all wounded and defensive, like he was just being flirtatious and appreciative (I was not dressed provocatively). The feeling I had was of being treated like a piece of meat. I guess to me when I'm a recipient the (very subjective) difference between a leer and a truly appreciative look is whether or not I feel like I (the person) am being respected and seen.
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From:todfox
Date:February 1st, 2010 10:02 am (UTC)
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This has also been a serious issue in the Burning Man community, with various solutions tried. One camp at the national event tried to organize against harassment but their ideas of how to handle the issue were kind of unrealistic for the communtity they were trying to serve (I can give more details if you are curious). As a result they seem to have been removed from the debate (i.e. I no longer see them listed in directories sex-positive themecamps, for example).

Burn events are extremely sexually frank and open environments. They have a lot of burlesque, sexy outfits, and open expression of lust and sensuality. There have been a lot of problems with, among other things 'well she was kissing those 10 people, why not me?' and other things you describe here. There are obviously similarities and differences between the events (more actual nudity and non-alcoholic substance use at Burns for example of a difference).

Anyway this .doc has been circulated extensively at the regional events since it was created a few years ago for Burning Flipside, the Texas regional, and has had a lot of success in raising awareness. We also always have a section in our events' 'survival guides' about boundaries and acceptable behavior.

I hope it helps to hear about how another subculture has handled this issue; it's still an ongoing one for us as new people join and old ones leave.

Edited at 2010-02-01 10:03 am (UTC)
From:jer_
Date:February 1st, 2010 03:39 pm (UTC)
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Oh my god, I want to steal so much of that document for local conventions!!
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From:cannibal
Date:February 2nd, 2010 04:51 am (UTC)
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Hey, were you at the con? We didn't see you! Maybe you weren't awake by the time we went home, around dinnertime, I know when I saw R as we were getting ready to leave she had just gotten up.

A asked if I saw this, in an amused way, and I told her about when you and L introduced yourselves to me... what was it, Windycon? Of course, L immediately took the bait and tried kissing with a mouthful of scotch whiskey, and you didn't... but I wonder, was I harassing the two beautiful blondes I had my arms around for that hour, or were you two harassing me?

My first thought was that I know a bunch of pros were well-known for really rude sexually harassing behaviour... hell, at the second con I was ever at in Baton Rouge, the GoH groped my girlfriend. One pro I was guest liaison for basically put my girlfriend at the time in a position where she was cornered and she was afraid he wasn't going to stop if I hadn't come back into my hotel room at the right time. Asimov was well known for going after young girls and trying to kiss them, or worse. The Ellison incident doesn't show Ellison was bad, it just goes to show how a lot of pros wouldn't even think twice about grabbing a woman's breast. How many times have pro GoHs gotten away with rape, basically because they got drunk away from their wives in a hotel full of young girls who were afraid to say anything?

We certainly have fans who grope girls while giving backrubs... and fannish girls must be more willing to forgive that kind of crap, or they expect it, because none of my fannish girlfriends mentioned it, but I heard about it after I brought a mundane date to a Stilyagi party. Lecherous fans are usually smarmy and annoying, sometimes more to the boyfriend of the object of their lechery than the object... at least one or two attractive exes of mine actually thrived on the attention.

But what are you supposed to do when you're a young kid and someone you idolize does something like that? To me, that's the responsibility of the con, could the con get sued over the actions of a GoH? I think the pros go a lot further, and do a lot worse stuff, than the fans. You can talk a big story about what you'll do to fans, but do you kick the GoH out of the con, take his badge and hotel room away, and take away his plane ticket home, for groping a girl? (you probably should, at least some of those things, for some offenses) What about when he corners a girl in his hotel room and coerces her into having sex? Who on the concom has the responsibility to call the police and have the GoH taken away?

Fans should not, in my opinion, be ostracized for being idiots with no social skills. Hell, that's why we're in fandom. Most of us didn't learn this stuff in HS, so fandom is a safe place to learn. The whole point is to be accepting and to help teach them some social skills. A lot of fandom is probably borderline autistic. I can think at least one instance when a girl licked the sweat off my chest at a dance and a male fan stuck out his tongue and had to find out what my chest tasted like too. "whoa. what on earth where you thinking?" I don't think he was taking it as permission, or sexually harassing me, I think he simply didn't have a clue. Fans are kind of like toddlers, sometimes, they haven't quite figured out how the world works, yet.
From:thatwordgrrl
Date:February 3rd, 2010 06:33 am (UTC)
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No, the Ellison incident DID show his behavior as bad. Bluntly, the only reason fans got their knickers in a twist was because it happened to a fellow well-known pro rather than just a con attendee.

It may have been a fortunate thing that I was not sitting in the Big Fannish Chair at that Worldcon because I would have been the one on the phone to the cops. Pro be damned -- that's still assault.

Furthermore, I am sick to HERE of rude fannish behavior being handwaved away due to lack of social skills. That is precisely the attitude that allows for the sort of unwarranted behavior we're discussing: "Oh, Fanboi doesn't mean any harm by hugging women from behind. He just doesn't have the social skills to know any better."

My social skills work just fine, thanks, and I've been in fandom for about 25 years now.


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From:blackjackrocket
Date:February 3rd, 2010 05:45 am (UTC)
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I feel pretty lucky. I can't concieve of a con where this WOULDN'T be taken seriously, on the off chance that it happens (which is pretty damn rare at the ones I go to).
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From:anarchicq
Date:February 3rd, 2010 05:57 am (UTC)

Just for curiosity's sake...

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...What if someone's dressed as, say, some barely dressed chick, say Felicia from Darkstalkers, and another person is dressed as Jan Valentine from Hellsing. "Jan" is being totally in character (as some are wont to do at cons...) and makes rude, rude, vile comments at "Felicia", but keeps his hands to himself?

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From:blienky27
Date:February 3rd, 2010 09:02 am (UTC)

Re: Just for curiosity's sake...

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I... don't know how I would feel about this. I think it might have to fall under the 'if they ask you to stop, do' heading. Because, for example, I have no idea who 'Jan Valentine' is, so if I were dressed up in a scanty outfit and someone dressed as this person threw some rude, rude, vile comments at me, I'd probably be fairly offended!

So, there are angles to consider.
From:thatwordgrrl
Date:February 3rd, 2010 06:14 am (UTC)
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These events are billed as a safe place for a normally ostracized group to be able to “be themselves” and “feel safe” in their geeky, crazy, often socially unacceptable interests… and it is high time to make that true for all of its members.

Can we just please, for the love of ghod, figure out that no con is a "safe space" for every attendee. Neither should it be considered a place where people can just "be themselves" with no social constraint whatsoever. Attempting to make it that will just lead to frustration and polarization.

Different people need different things to feel safe (or rather, so that they can make themselves safe, as I am firm in my belief that nobody either can, nor should be obligated to provide safety to anybody else out of whole cloth). What (generic) you may need to yourself safe may be the very thing that sends me screaming into the night.

Furthermore, as the OpenSourceTitGrabbingProject so expertly proved, a place where Person A can "be themselves" may well prove to be quite harmful to people around them. If some fanboi's definition of "being himself" is stalking female con attendees, that rapidly becomes problematic.

Honest to the SweetBabyJeebus, the sooner fans figure out that even at a con they are part of a bigger world whose constraints must sometimes be enforced, the better off everyone will be for it.



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From:mireille719
Date:February 3rd, 2010 02:35 pm (UTC)
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Can we just please, for the love of ghod, figure out that no con is a "safe space" for every attendee.


True, but there's a difference between a "safe space" and a place where people can be (reasonably) sure of being safe from being sexually harassed and/or assaulted.

I may not feel "safe" at a particular con, for all kinds of reasons that are not the con's responsibility. (Quick off-the-cuff example: I wouldn't feel "safe" at a con in a particular city, because my abusive ex-partner is likely to be there. Even if she and I avoided one another for the entire con, I wouldn't feel safe. That's not the con's problem, that's mine.) Therefore, that con definitely wouldn't be a "safe space" for me. Nobody can do jack about that, and while it may mean I choose not to attend, nobody should have to deal with that.

OTOH, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that at a con, I should be "safe" in the sense that sexual harassment and/or assault is not accepted or tolerated, and that at the very least, if it's reported to the con staff, it's taken seriously and not brushed off as "no social skills."
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From:blienky27
Date:February 3rd, 2010 09:10 am (UTC)
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I just wanted to jump in really quick with another viewpoint. I've never experienced the sexual side of this harassment, but I have definitely been on the receiving end of some intense appreciation harassment, which is a different sort of behavioral boundary.

You see, I usually wear costumes that are not so form-fitting, because it just doesn't interest me, and most tend to block my view at least partially. One in particular is my Totoro costume, where I can only see through an 8"x4" square of mesh in front of my face. This makes walking very, very difficult, especially since my feet are encased in giant blocks of foam.

Now, my difficulties are very apparant when I wear this suit: my max speed is about 20 feet a minute, and I can hardly fit through doorways. And yet, people still think it is ok to sneak up on me for a hug, to poke the mesh I see out of, to touch me and my outfit without asking, even to jump on my back with absolutely no warning (which almost knocked me down a flight of stairs).

Now I'm not saying that everyone should telegraph every movement they're going to make around a cosplayer, but asking permission for things like hugs, inspections, etc seems to me like it would just be common courtesy. And this almost never happens when I wear more standard costumes - ie, ones that are just clothes on my human form. I'm not sure what to make of that.

Sorry for the threadjack - I just had to get that out.
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From:thatwordgrrl
Date:February 3rd, 2010 04:16 pm (UTC)

Re: Via Metafandom

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Not just you. I have chronic pain issues that can sometimes make a hug -- even from somebody I know and like -- problematic.

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