Content warning for discussion of sexual assault and harassment.
Last month, DC Comics was in the news about long-time editor Eddie Berganza, who works on Superman. Berganza was disciplined for sexual harassment back in 2012, but it sounds like that was one incident among many. For a while, there was even”an informal policy in place that no female staff would be assigned to the Superman office, and no female freelancers would be hired.” (Source)
In other words, in an attempt to avoid further incidents of sexual harassment, DC kept the harasser on staff and chose not to hire any women to work with him.
Way to punish and exclude women because of a man’s abusive behavior!
Over at the Mary Sue, Teresa Jusino brings us an update on the comic Rat Queens. Artist Roc Upchurch was arrested for domestic violence back in 2014, and Rat Queens co-creator Kurtis Wiebe wrote at the time:
“As of today, Roc Upchurch will no longer be illustrating Rat Queens … I am committed to Rat Queens, to stand by what it has always been praised for and to prove to the fans that they weren’t wrong in loving it.” (Source)
Fast forward to 2016. Rat Queens is going on hiatus, and artist Tess Fowler will no longer be involved. Weibe claims this is because the collaboration “wasn’t working out.” Fowler claims she was being pushed out so Wiebe could “bring in the original artist.”
Nothing has been announced publicly about whether Upchurch will be involved when and if Rat Queens comes back from hiatus, but Weibe has recently begun promoting Upchurch’s art on Twitter and the Rat Queens Facebook page. At the very least, Weibe is once again promoting a domestic abuser in connection with Rat Queens.
Then there’s Kukuruyo, the Hugo nominee for Best Fan Artist, thanks to Theodore Beale’s Rabid Puppy slate. Kukuruyo has done a number of adult-oriented and sexually explicit works, one of which was a drawing of the 16-year-old character Ms. Marvel, naked from the waist down. (
He’s since taken it down. Never mind. I had read that the drawing was taken down, but he still has it posted on his website, along with a long post about how “it’s just a drawing,” and so on.)
Theodore Beale also championed a blog post about pedophilia and sexual abuse in SF/F circles for the Best Related Work Hugo, which makes his defense of Kukuruyo all the more fascinating. Among other things, Beale argued:
- “The age of consent in Spain is 16. Kukuruyo is Spanish, lives in Spain, and US law is not relevant to his activities.” Which he immediately follows by trying to argue about what US law says…
- “The drawing cannot be child pornography regardless of what age the fictitious character is supposed to be. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that drawings and computer representations are not child pornography.”
- In the comments, Beale refers to a Supreme Court decision striking down provisions against “virutal” and computer-generated images in the Child Pornography Prevention Act.
- When another commenter pointed out that Congress later passed the PROTECT Act, which “makes it clear that obscene child pornography in any form — including cartoons — is still unlawful and not entitled to any First Amendment protection,” Beale dismissed this as “irrelevant.”
- And my personal favorite, “I am reliably informed that Ms Marvel was 16 when she was introduced in 2013. That makes her at least 18 now, possibly 19.” Just like Superman debuted in 1938, which is why he’s now portrayed by actors aged 95 and up.
What I find interesting is that in all three cases, we have people and organizations who have stated their opposition to sexual harassment, domestic violence, pedophilia, etc. We also see the difference between abstract statements and real actions when it comes to their friends and employees.
- DC claims they won’t tolerate sexual harassment, but they’ve protected a known harasser for years.
- Wiebe spoke passionately about the evils of domestic violence, but at the very least, chose not to fully separate his creation from an abuser.
- And Beale is working awfully hard to explain why it’s okay that one of his Hugo nominees drew and sold a sexually explicit drawing of a 16-year-old girl.
I highlighted these three examples because they’re such clear cases of crap we’ve seen again and again. It’s one thing to stand up and say sexual harassment and abuse are bad things. But if you’re talking the talk and then turning around to defend or protect people who cross the line because they’re your friend, or because you think it’s easier? Not only are you not helping the problem, you’re making it worse.
I think we’re doing a better job of talking about stuff, of creating harassment policies and discussing issues of harassment and abuse. But we need to do a better job of walking the walk, too. Step one of that walk? Stop excusing gross behavior just because the perpetrator is a friend or employee.
I get it. It’s one thing to write up policies on harassment and appropriate behavior for a convention. It’s another to find yourself in the midst of a mess where you have to enforce them.
Emotions are running high. The person accused of violating the policy isn’t a mustache-twirling villain, but someone who’s been attending your con for years. They’ve got a lot of friends at the con — possibly including you. If you enforce the consequences spelled out in your policies, someone’s going to be upset. Someone’s going to be angry. Someone’s going to feel hurt. It feels like a no-win situation.
And it is, in a way. There’s nothing you can do to make everyone happy. But we’ve seen again and again that there’s a clear losing strategy, and that is to do nothing. To try to ignore your harassment policy and hope the problem goes away on its own.
It won’t. As unpleasant as it is to be dealing with a report of harassment, doing nothing will make it worse. Here are just a few examples from recent years.
ReaderCon: In 2012, a ReaderCon attendee reported ongoing harassment by René Walling. Readercon had a zero-tolerance policy for harassment. Whatever you might think of zero-tolerance policies, this was the promise the con had made. The board ignored its own policy and instead issued a two-year ban.
This generated a great deal of anger and backlash. In the end, the entire board resigned. ReaderCon issued a formal apology and voted to reverse the board’s decision and enforce a lifetime ban against Walling.
World Fantasy Con: In 2013, WFC chose not to have a harassment policy at all, saying in part, “…it is extremely unusual for this kind of behavior to take place at a World Fantasy Convention, as it is largely a professional-oriented event.” (Source) Multiple people ended up reporting multiple incidents of harassment. The convention did…pretty much nothing.
One of the effects of this and other harassment-related mistakes has been long-term damage to the reputation of the convention. I know professionals who refuse to attend for this reason.
WisCon: In 2013, at least one person reported Jim Frenkel to the convention for harassment at WisCon. This was not the only report of harassment WisCon had received about this individual. The convention later said they misplaced at least two complaints, and Frenkel showed up again in 2014.
Frenkel was “provisionally” banned for four years in July 2014. At least one member of the concom resigned. In August 2014, the con voted to permanently ban Frenkel from the convention. Natalie Luhrs has a roundup of some of the reactions and negative press that came about as a result of the slow and inconsistent handling of harassment.
ConText: In 2014, a consuite volunteer named Jeffrey Tolliver was banned from Context following multiple complaints about this individual’s conduct. However, this process involved a great deal of internal conflict over the enforcement of the harassment policy, to the point that several volunteers resigned because they did not trust the convention to take harassment seriously. There were also statements defending Tolliver as a long-time volunteer, a friend, and someone who was being attacked for being old/clueless.
In addition to the volunteer resignations, the ConText board was (I believe) eventually dissolved, and ConText was cancelled for the following year.
ConQuesT: Mark Oshiro just talked about the racism and harassment he experienced as Fan Guest of Honor at ConQuesT. He followed the convention’s processes in reporting the incidents. Eight months later, after multiple follow-ups, he discovered that nothing had been done.
At this time, one member of the concom has resigned, and it feels like most of the SF/F internet is discussing all the ways ConQuesT dropped the ball and screwed up.
These aren’t the only such examples, but I hope they’re enough to see the patterns.
Again, I’m not trying to pretend that enforcing such policies is easy. It’s not. We go to conventions to have fun. Volunteers pour countless hours of work into the events, trying to host a successful weekend party for everyone involved. No one wants to have to deal with confrontation. But choosing not to deal with it is almost universally worse for the convention, leading to things like:
- Resignation of volunteers
- Negative publicity, including people publicly stating they won’t be coming to your convention
- Cancellation of the convention
- Feelings of anger and betrayal from attendees
- A lot of broken relationships
And in most cases, the convention still ends up having to follow through on its harassment policies and deal with what happened.
The logic seems pretty simple to me. It makes a hell of a lot more sense to just follow through on policies in the beginning. It sucks to have to do it, but it sucks even more to be dealing with all the additional consequences of not following through.
ETA: On 10/28, the following was posted on the WFC2015 Facebook Page:
On reflection, and with guidance, we have realized that our sincere attempt to do the right thing in this regard was inadequate. We focused too much on complying with the legal advice of Saratoga authorities and not enough on making certain that our members feel confident in their safety at the Convention. Since last year’s WFC policy was considered satisfactory and is considered to be comprehensive we are adopting it as an addition to the policy developed with the legal advice of the Saratoga authorities. The World Fantasy Board is reviewing the language for comprehensiveness. The corrected policy will be posted here and on our website as soon as that review is completed. We apologize for the misstep and are doing our utmost to make WFC 2015 both an enjoyable event and a safe environment.
The 2015 World Fantasy Convention starts in just over a week, and they’ve just mailed out their final progress report. Natalie Luhrs was one of the first to note the inclusion of a harassment policy that manages to be, in my opinion, worse than no policy at all.
Here’s the policy in question:
Let me note up front that I don’t have experience running a convention. I do have experience dealing with sexual harassment and violence, and in working with conventions to build harassment policy. My guess from reading this is that the people who created this policy have conrunning experience, but don’t know a lot about dealing with sexual harassment. At least, I hope that’s the case, since the only other possibility I can come up with is intentional maliciousness. Because…
…this policy actively discourages people from reporting harassment.
- Victims of harassment and sexual violence should have the choice whether or not to report to the police. The convention has taken that choice away.
- This policy requires victims to trust that the police will take them seriously and respond to their complaints. Historically, police departments are not known for treating victims of sexual violence with respect. In addition, while I as a white male might feel relatively comfortable interacting with police, many women and people of color do not, and with valid reasons.
- The police will be determining if the conduct meets the legal definition of harassment to charge the offender. (I’m not a lawyer, but I thought that was the prosecutor’s decision.) What about behaviors that are clearly unacceptable, but might not meet the legal standards and be severe enough for the prosecutor to invest the time and money and resources in pressing charges?
- “No one wants to behave in a manner that draws Police attention.” I assume this was supposed to be a warning against would-be harassers, but it also feels like a warning to victims not to make a fuss and attract attention. Maybe that’s not the intention, but there’s a long history of silencing victims, and of attacking them for attracting attention.
But what about libel?
On Facebook, Chuck Rothman notes, “In New York State, ‘harassment’ is legally defined. Most harassment policies (including Comic Con’s) punish people for actions that are not harassment under NYS law. There is no doubt the NYS law needs updating, but the convention is not going to risk a libel lawsuit.”
This is, in a word, bullshit. To me, it smells a lot like Wikipedia lawyering. Has anyone ever filed a libel lawsuit over a convention’s harassment policy?
Even if this were a legitimate concern, which I don’t believe it is, then the solution is to take 30 seconds and rename this a “Convention Safety Policy.”
Dear WFC: Do you want to fix this?
Your convention starts in a week. I’m guessing your program books are already printed, and you’re scrambling with all of the last-minute work it takes to make such a huge convention happen. You’re stressed, overwhelmed, and everyone’s running on caffeine and adrenaline. And now all anyone is talking about is how messed-up your harassment policy is.
I figure you’ve got two choices here. You can double down and ignore the complaints. This has the advantage that you don’t have to do the work to fix the policy. The disadvantage is that it would feel like a big old “Fuck you” to a large number of people. It also puts any victims of harassment in a very, very bad spot. Keep in mind that, as Natalie Luhrs pointed out, “three of the last five World Fantasy Conventions had harassment incidents that were publicized: 2010, 2011, and 2013.” This doesn’t include incidents that weren’t publicized.
The other choice is to try to fix this. I know which choice I’m hoping for.
Can this actually be fixed?
Well, no. Not completely. You’ve pissed off a lot of people, and you’ve got nine days before the start of the convention. You can’t fix it. But you can work to make it better. Here are my suggestions, for what they’re worth.
- Listen to what people are saying. I know you feel defensive and attacked and unappreciated, but right now, you don’t have time for that.
- Find someone who has experience working with sexual harassment and conventions, and deputize them to get this mess fixed. Talk to conrunners from other conventions who’ve done a better job on this front.
- Grab a sample harassment policy from the Geek Feminism Wiki. If you’re worried about the boogeyman of a libel lawsuit, tweak the wording so it doesn’t say “harassment.” Get this posted to your website and printed up as an addendum to your program book. Send out a follow-up email/progress report with the new policy.
- Make sure all con staff are aware of the new policy and trained on how to respond. (Draw on the experiences and knowledge of the person from #2.)
- Apologize. Not a mealy-mouthed “We’re sorry you people chose to be offended,” but an apology that draws on #1 and recognizes why people are upset. You screwed up. Own it.
I’d also refer you to the Sexual Harassment Policy Starter Kit I posted a while back, with help from several experienced conrunners.
I hope you’ll listen to the concerns and complaints of the community and take steps to try to make World Fantasy Con a better experience for everyone.
A friend of mine posted something about catcalling and street harassment. To the absolute shock of … well, pretty much nobody, the very first comment on her post was a guy explaining why women shouldn’t be afraid of catcalling, and isn’t it funny how the women complaining aren’t the ones experiencing the “privilege” of being catcalled in the first place? Also, women wouldn’t be afraid if they carried guns, and the real threat are guys “in a dark van with no windows parked next to your car in the Walmart parking lot.”
His suggestion? “Now what would happen if a woman who’s the center of the cat call took the power back, walked up to the offending rake and asked for his number and told him to show a little respect and maybe if he was lucky she’d let him earn the opportunity to do some real cat calling?”
This is the point where I facepalmed so hard I gave myself a concussion.
Guys, is it really that hard to shut the hell up and listen instead of immediately trying to tell women why they’re wrong about their own lives and experiences?
It’s pathetically predictable.
- Woman complains about harassment.
- Dudebro feels uncomfortable.
- Dudebro tells woman why she’s wrong to feel that way.
Because Dudebro’s discomfort at women complaining about harassment is somehow more important and valid than women’s discomfort about actually being harassed.
The CDC put out a report this year about sexual violence, after completing more than 12,000 interviews. They found that one in five women have been raped in their lifetimes, and 99% of those rapes were committed by men. (The report states that about two percent of men were raped as well, which I strongly suspect is an underestimate. They also found that approximately 80% of those rapes were also committed by men.)
“But I’m not like those other men,” says Dudebro, waving the “Not All Men” flag with righteous pride.
Then stop acting like them.
- When a woman says she’s uncomfortable with something and wants you to knock it off, stop arguing. Stop telling her she’s wrong, and stop making excuses to keep doing it.
- Stop pretending it’s about complimenting women. (Here’s a tip: Compliments don’t go from, “Hey baby” to “Fuck you, you stuck-up bitch” in the blink of an eye.)
- Stop treating women as objects you’re entitled to instead of people.
You seriously want women to believe you’re not an asshole and a potential threat? Start by shutting up for a minute and actually listening to what women are saying.
Related to the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment in SF/F…
From Bitch Magazine, survey data about sexual harassment in comics:
As a comics editor, writer, and fan myself, I got interested in how often people at conventions experience harassment. So earlier this year I conducted a survey on sexual harassment in comics, receiving 3,600 responses from people that varied from fans to professionals. The survey was distributed and conducted online, with people sharing it via Twitter, Facebook, and especially Tumblr and self-reporting all information. Of the people taking the survey, 55 percent of respondents were female, 39 percent were male, and six percent were non-binary (see the raw survey data here).
Out of all respondents, 59 percent said they felt sexual harassment was a problem in comics and 25 percent said they had been sexually harassed in the industry. The harassment varied: while in the workplace or at work events, respondents were more likely to suffer disparaging comments about their gender, sexual orientation, or race. At conventions, respondents were more likely to be photographed against their wishes. Thirteen percent reported having unwanted comments of a sexual nature made about them at conventions—and eight percent of people of all genders reported they had been groped, assaulted, or raped at a comic convention.
The one weakness of the study that I can see is that respondents were self-selected, as opposed to this being a truly random sampling. It’s the same issue I ran into with my survey of first novel sales a few years back. But even taking that into consideration, if you can take 3600 fans and pros, and a quarter of them have experienced sexual harassment in the industry, then we have a huge problem here.
Game designer Brianna Wu wrote an article called “No Skin Thick Enough” about the daily harassment of women in video gaming. Warning: some of the examples and quotes in this article are truly abhorrent.
My name is Brianna Wu. I lead a development studio that makes games. Sometimes, I write about issues in the games industry that relate to the equality of women. My reward is that I regularly have men threatening to rape and commit acts of violence against me.
Wu provides four case studies illustrating the types of harassment women experience, and examining myths and realities about the gaming industry. Their stories are powerful, important, and eye-opening.
I strongly recommend reading both articles.
On Friday, WisCon posted a statement that read in part:
The WisCon committee has completed our harassment review process with regard to Jim Frenkel, who engaged in two reported violations of WisCon’s general and harassment policies at WisCon 37, in 2013 … WisCon will (provisionally) not allow Jim Frenkel to return for a period of four years (until after WisCon 42 in 2018). This is “provisional” because if Jim Frenkel chooses to present substantive, grounded evidence of behavioral and attitude improvement between the end of WisCon 39 in 2015 and the end of the four-year provisional period, WisCon will entertain that evidence. We will also take into account any reports of continued problematic behavior.
Natalie Luhrs has posted a roundup of some reactions. There’s a great deal of anger and frustration over poor communications, procedural failures, and more. I’m still reading, but my initial reaction is that the whole thing has been a mess that went rolling down a hill of mistakes, snowballing into a giant boulder of crap.
I’m still catching up on the conversation, and a lot of people have weighed in more thoughtfully and eloquently than I could. (See Natalie’s roundup for links.) One thing I wanted to talk about, however, was the “provisional” aspect of WisCon’s statement. Because my initial gut-level reaction was that it seemed reasonable to allow for the possibility of growth and change.
A little while back, I responded to an article titled, “The Naive Idiocy of Teaching Rapists Not to Rape.” The thing is, rapists can learn not to rape. People can and do change, especially when they’re confronted with consequences and forced to look at their own actions.
I’ve worked with college students, mostly men, in an early intervention program where we tried to help people recognize and change their own aggressive, boundary-crossing, harassing behaviors. I’ve sat in on batterer’s groups. I’ve spoken with pedophiles after their release from jail. My wife has designed and run domestic violence groups. My father spent much of his life working with juvenile offenders who had committed assault, robbery, rape, and more.
People can change. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Our behavior changes throughout our lifetime. We learn new habits, new values, and new choices. I’ve said and done things in the past that I wouldn’t dream of doing today, because I’ve learned better. We all have.
Does that mean all rapists and harassers will come to see the error of their ways if we only give them another chance? Of course not. Some people go right back to the same pattern of hostile behavior. But others can and do come to recognize the harm they’ve done to others, and find a new path.
I believe very strongly that there should be consequences for our actions. But I also believe in education and rehabilitation.
I don’t know if Jim Frenkel will ever truly accept responsibility for what he’s done, or if he’ll change a pattern of harassing behavior that goes back decades. He seemed genuinely remorseful when he spoke to me about this several years ago, but his behaviors didn’t change.
I hope this time is different. I hope the consequences of his loss of employment and being banned from his local convention force him to confront his choices, and that he comes out a better man.
The problem is when we choose to make his growth and change more important than the safety and security of his victims and potential victims.
When you’ve wronged someone and they throw you out of their life, you don’t get to force your way back in to prove that you’ve changed. You don’t get to violate their boundaries because you want to apologize. If the wronged party chooses to forgive and to allow you back into their lives, that’s one thing. If they choose not to, then you need to accept that loss as a consequence of your actions.
WisCon banned a known serial harasser on a relatively short-term “provisional” basis. While I share the same philosophical hope and belief for change, they’ve taken the choice away from his victims.
WisCon is not a judicial body. They are not a rehabilitation program. In my opinion, they are not qualified to judge the sincerity of serial harassers, many of whom have spent years or decades learning to hide their behavior behind the mask of the “nice guy.” Their job is to investigate complaints, and when those complaints are found to be valid, to take steps to protect their membership.
Protection for Frenkel came in the form of WisCon’s investigation process. I believe every complaint should be investigated and decided based on evidence and testimony. In this case, there have been multiple people reporting incidents, with multiple witnesses backing them up. According to the WisCon Harassment Policy, Frenkel also has the right to appeal the decision. Again, I think that’s reasonable.
But throughout this process, despite what I believe to be the best of intentions in a difficult and ugly situation, WisCon has failed to protect its members.
This comic was inspired by a number of conversations I’ve had online.
Look, it’s not that men don’t get harassed or threatened. But for guys to go around stating that they’ve had people talk crap about them online too, and using that as the basis to declare that women are too thin-skinned and are overreacting to harassment and threats, is just overflowing with wrongness. Not to mention an utter lack of sympathy, and a profound ignorance of the very real epidemic of violence against women.
Trigger warning: the comic’s final panel includes graphic threats of rape and violence.
After I posted my Convention Harassment Policy Starter Kit, I learned about a study Nicole Stark had done about harassment policies at fan conventions. Stark’s article is available on Google Docs, here. I’ve seen a fair amount of discussion on harassment policies and why we do or don’t need to worry about them, but this is the first example I’ve seen of a more rigorous academic survey and discussion of harassment policies. Stark gave me permission to link to her paper, and to discuss some of the highlights.
ETA: Stark is a M.A. student studying sexual harassment. She asked me to share that her email address is NicoleStark@knights.ucf.edu, in case anyone wanted to follow up with her about her work.
From the abstract:
This study uses content analysis to evaluate a sample of 288 fan convention websites. These conventions took place within the United States from March to November 2013. The analysis was used to determine how common sexual harassment policies are and their characteristics. This study examined both frequencies and descriptions of codes of conduct, including promoted and prohibited rules, sanctions, reporting guidelines, and the existence of a sexual harassment or general harassment policy. Less than half of the sample contained any behavioral policy at all. Those behavioral policies that were present were found to be generally informal, unstructured, and devoid of a sexual harassment policy. However, many policies contained rules that could be used in the prevention of sexual harassment. These rules, when made clear and recognizable, may work as effective policy in informal spaces. (Page 2)
Stark opens by discussing an instance of sexual harassment from New York Comic Con, and goes on to note that:
A study on sexual harassment policy in manufacturing firms revealed that an available written policy resulted in a 76 percent reduction in one year’s reports (Moore and Bradley 1997).
In other words, to anyone arguing there’s no need for a sexual harassment policy, there is actual research showing that such a policy can significantly reduce sexual harassment.
I expect some people to protest that a convention isn’t the workplace, and that’s true. There are likely to be some differences in the dynamics and effects of a harassment policy in a convention space vs. a workplace. But the underlying premise and conclusion here is pretty straightforward: “We created a written policy on sexual harassment, and sexual harassment decreased significantly.”
I assume most people would like to see sexual harassment at conventions decrease significantly as well. Ergo, creating a written policy seems like a really basic and obvious first step.
Stark’s sample comes from the costume.org website’s list of upcoming conventions. The cons were all from 2013, all located in the U.S., and included media, anime, literary, gaming, comics, relaxicons, and more. So what did she find in her study?
Of the 288 convention websites, 59.38% had no listed policy on their website in regards to behavior or code of conduct. Less than half of all websites (40.62%) had at bare minimum, a behavioral policy explaining acceptable or unacceptable actions while at the convention. These rules ranged from a basic ‘be polite’ to lengthier explanations and examples of what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Of the total sample, only 3.47% used the phrase ‘sexual harassment’. However, 13.88% used the word ‘harassment’, not detailing readily available distinctions between harassments, whether sexual, bullying, or annoying otherwise.
Fewer than half of conventions have a posted policy about acceptable behavior, let alone harassment. And the policy is only the starting point; what about instructions on reporting harassment and other unacceptable behavior?
Only 15.27% (44) of the 288 convention websites contained guidelines on reporting. Of the three conventions participating in Project: Women Back Each Other Up, only one employed the use of purple ribbons to indicate female staff members who were prepared to intervene and handle potential sexual harassment. Several policies listed that if there were emergencies, to dial 911 or building security. This left 84.72% (244) of the convention websites devoid of response or guidance to potential victims.
Stark goes on to recommend:
…in evidence of the language and audience in these informal spaces, the following are suggestions for a comprehensive policy at fan conventions. The policies need to be recognizable and readily available (Moore & Bradley 1997), properly enforced, include and define sanctions, train employees for prevention and response, (Harmus & Niblock 2000), detail complaint procedure (Fowler 1996), and define sexual harassment in terms that the audience understands. (Emphasis added)
I have very little to add beyond Yes. That.
I recommend anyone interested in the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment in fandom read the full study. And my thanks to Nicole Stark for letting me link to and chat about her research here.
I’ve written many times before about reporting sexual harassment in SF/F, and about the problem of harassment at SF/F conventions. While I think it’s important to talk about the problem, and to hold conventions and individuals accountable when they mess up, it’s also important to recognize the things folks do right, and to help groups improve. To that end, and with the help of some friends, I’ve tried to put together a “starter kit” for conventions wanting to create or improve their harassment/safety policy.
1. What’s the goal of a convention harassment policy?
- To help all attendees and staff feel welcome, valued, and as safe as possible.
- To define and discourage harassing, abusive behavior.
- To make it as safe and simple as possible for people to report harassment, if necessary.
- To clearly establish for staff and attendees how reports of harassment will be handled.
- To set fair consequences for such behavior.
The existence of a clear, published harassment policy sends a message. So does the lack of such a policy. Harassment is a real and ongoing problem, whether you’re talking about a huge media-oriented con or a smaller “professional” event. Choosing not to publish a policy on harassment can suggest that your event doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously, and may turn a blind eye to such incidents.
Defining harassing behavior sets a clear expectation of what will and won’t be tolerated, and can help to prevent common excuses like, “He’s just socially awkward and didn’t know he was harassing her.”
A sexual harassment policy lets attendees and volunteers know how seriously your event intends to respond to incidents. Having a written policy in place beforehand also makes it simpler for people to know how to report, and gives staff the information they need on responding to reports.
2. What should a convention harassment policy include?
The Geek Feminism Wiki has several sample harassment policies that may be helpful to review. No one policy is appropriate for all conventions, but typical policies should include:
- A definition of harassment.
- A clear statement that harassment is not tolerated at your event.
- Instructions on how to respond to and report harassment.
- Information on how staff will respond to reports of harassment.
- A statement of the potential consequences for anyone choosing to harass others.
Cheryl Morgan suggested the following, which I hadn’t considered, but agree with: “The policy should make it clear that the victim’s wishes will be respected. It is better to have incidents reported and to take no action, than to have the incidents not reported because the victim has reasons not to want action taken.”
From a sample policy at the Geek Feminism Wiki:
“Harassment includes offensive verbal comments [related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, [your specific concern here]], sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.”
ISFiC’s harassment policy includes the following statement of potential consequences:
“Windycon and ISFiC reserves the right revoke the membership of anyone failing to conform to the letter and spirit of these policies, those of our hotel, and the laws of the City of Lombard and the State of Illinois.”
Readercon’s website includes a list of possible consequences, up to banning the harasser from the con and from future events. The same page provides information on how to report harassment, as well as a link to their internal procedures for handling reports.
3. Where and how should the harassment policy be published?
- On the convention website.
- In the program book.
- At the event.
- In internal (con staff) material.
The nice thing about a website is that you have more room to work with. You can lay out the full details of your policy, as Readercon has done. Many people will check out your website when deciding whether or not to attend your event. As many in the SF/F community saw with the run-up to the 2013 World Fantasy Convention, if your website lacks a harassment policy, people will notice.
The program book should also include your convention’s harassment policy. If you don’t have as much space, you might choose to print a summary with a link to the website for more information. But the program book should include the main points.
Of course, lots of people don’t read the program book, which is why it’s a good idea to mention the harassment policy elsewhere. Reference it during opening ceremonies. Post flyers at the convention. (There are some slightly blurry sample flyers from CONvergence here.) Include a copy of the policy at the registration desk
If you have a central phone number and/or email address for reporting harassment, make sure that’s publicized as well.
4. What should the convention do if someone reports harassment?
I’m not a conrunner, and have less information about the behind-the-scenes operation of conventions, so I’m drawing heavily from the Geek Feminism Wiki’s page on how to respond to reports of harassment and input from friends for this section. (Any mistakes or omissions are my own.)
Before the Convention Even Starts:
- Arrange for convention staff to be trained on how to handle reports of harassment. If only certain individuals are trained to respond to these reports, make sure all volunteers know who those people are and how to contact them.
- Establish a clear chain of communication up to the person in charge of safety concerns (usually the safety chair or convention chair).
- If possible, plan to have at least two people on call at all times who are able to handle reports. This allows one person to focus on helping the person who was harassed while the other addresses the needs of the convention as an entity and the other attendees.
- Make sure staff and volunteers are easy to recognize (most cons have badge ribbons, staff T-shirts, and/or other identifiers), and that they know what to do if someone reports harassment.
- Respect the reporting individual’s needs and wishes.
- If there’s a risk to anyone’s physical safety, consider contacting hotel security or police.
- Find a relatively safe and private place to talk to the reporting individual.
- Document as much as possible, including the time of the event, names and badge numbers, location, etc.
- Share the information with the convention’s powers-that-be.
- Investigate quickly, and follow up with the harasser.
- Enforce any appropriate consequences.
After the Convention:
- Solicit feedback. Ask attendees and volunteers what worked, and what problems they encountered.
- Follow up on any unresolved reports.
Some of this seems obvious, such as finding a safe place to talk. But there have been had instances where someone was assault at a convention, and the con staff basically interrogated her in the middle of the lobby. Don’t do that.
If there’s a problem with a particular individual, the con staff need to be aware of this. If additional reports come in while an incident is being investigated, the fact that this isn’t a first report can affect how staff respond.
Finally, if you have a policy, follow it. Many of you are probably familiar with the incident at Readercon where they received multiple, verified reports of an individual harassing others, but responded in a way that ignored the consequences set out in their own policy. This damaged the trust of attendees and resulted in the entire Readercon board resigning. (Readercon has since done a great deal of work to try to repair the damage done by this decision.)
5. Where can I find examples of convention harassment policies?
- Geek Feminism Wiki Sample Anti-Harassment Policy
- Readercon Code of Conduct and Policies
- Wiscon Harassment Policy (Under “Legal Matters”)
- Con Anti-Harassment Project Database
- San Francisco Science Fiction Conventions, Inc. – Code of Conduct/Anti-Harassment Policy
- Windycon/ISFiC Harassment Policy
- FOGcon Harassment Policy
- Continuum Code of Conduct and Harassment Policy
- SFWA Statement on Sexual Harassment (Not a convention policy, but related)
There are many more conventions with good harassment policies out there, and more groups are creating and publishing such policies each year. But these should be enough to get you started thinking about how to write or update your own.
6. Do harassment policies really work?
It’s true that publishing a policy doesn’t guarantee your event will be harassment-free. Just like laws against theft and vandalism didn’t stop someone from smashing the window to my wife’s van a few years back and stealing everything they could grab. However, the existence of those laws sends a clear message about what will and will not be tolerated in the community, and establishes consequences for anyone choosing to violate those rules.
Creating and publishing a harassment policy for your convention will help reduce the behavior, let your members know you take harassment seriously, and help you to respond more effectively when it does happen.