The Importance of Having and ENFORCING Harassment Policies at Cons
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.
February 23, 2016 @ 6:04 pm
Has anyone addressed the mistreatment Oshiro received from the con committee itself (like being seated separately from the rest of the guests of honor at the dinner for them, etc.)?To me, this seems so egregious, yet I haven’t read of anyone from the con apologizing or contradicting or anything.
February 23, 2016 @ 6:09 pm
A code of conduct policy is a promise from the organization to its attendees that they will do their best to create an environment in which you can feel safe.
Not following through on that is breaking your promise.
Conventions are obliged to determine the truth of the matter to the best of their ability, but it is only reasonable to be upset when the convention agrees that a violation happened but refuses to follow through with consequences.
As you might imagine, this topic is very important to me. I intend to do my very best to make sure my convention does rightly, starting with training for staff in advance of the event.
February 23, 2016 @ 6:51 pm
Wow. I remember every single one of those instances from when they were actually going on and being discussed in every single one of the corners of the Internet I frequent. It’s always a big deal when something like this happens, but I’d say it’s obvious the more problematic conventions–and possibly new conventions–aren’t getting the message. Because these things keep happening.
February 23, 2016 @ 7:03 pm
Excellent summary, Jim. It’s necessary to point out the straight up business sense in having good policies and competent follow-through. This goes hand in hand with getting rid of gatekeeping fandom – only “allowing” a small subset of the population to be “real” fans does not a good business make. This is not only happening in fandom circles, but also in academia, which is good to see. Now if only big corporations (like Sony) started to feel some consequences for their screw ups.
Jim C. Hines
February 23, 2016 @ 7:45 pm
Thanks, Scott. I really appreciate that the conrunners and fandom in the Michigan area take this stuff seriously, from everything I’ve seen.
Jim C. Hines
February 23, 2016 @ 7:45 pm
Yeah…I’m kind of hoping that maybe if we put all these examples together and point out the pattern, other folks might start to get the hint.
February 23, 2016 @ 8:16 pm
Jim, I read an account of RainFurrest in Washington state, which decided not to have a CoC and as a result there was sexual assault, regular assault, drug overdoses and major property damage.
For some reason, the con is now unable to find a hotel to host them, even when they tried the other side of the state. Gee, I wonder why?
I haven’t read the direct report, but it’s online somewhere. Might make a good addition to your list here.
February 23, 2016 @ 8:28 pm
James Nicoll’s Livejournal has a link to the full account of the RainFurrest disaster.
February 23, 2016 @ 9:54 pm
Yes, and here’s a direct link. Note that this report is BY A BOARD MEMBER, so it’s not from someone who was against the con.
February 23, 2016 @ 11:23 pm
Wow, I haven’t seen that person’s name in a number of years. Glad to see she’s still writing, and involved with the fandom. Sorry to see she was stuck treading water in hip-waders there.
February 23, 2016 @ 11:25 pm
I feel dumb asking this, but are there any examples of conventions handling harassment correctly? All I can think of is cons that appear to have good policies… and have never had to use them.
February 24, 2016 @ 3:41 am
As far as I’m aware, Nine Worlds (in the UK) does pretty well. At the very least, they go out of their way to advertise themselves as a diverse and inclusive convention, with a CoC, and things like pronoun badges. They also seem to succeed at getting appropriate diversity on panels – I can’t think of any panel I’ve attended which had the typical unbroken line of white, straight, able-bodied, men that I’ve seen a lot of at other cons, and the panels on diversity seem well thought out.
I’m lucky enough to not have experienced any harassment there myself, although I’m aware others have. The two incidents I know of were handled well, and in keeping with the advertised policy, and I haven’t heard of any other incidents where this was not the case (though, I’m not omniscient, so I wouldn’t necessarily know!) and the convention is moving to a different site this year, after problems were reported with the hotel, including staff ignoring pronoun badges and misgendering guests.
This comes with all the usual caveats, that nothing is perfect, and I only see the small parts of the con that I personally attend, but there certainly doesn’t seem to have been the same sort of public outcry that other cons have seen.
February 24, 2016 @ 6:59 am
My impressions of Nine Worlds were coloured by the frankly terrible hotel experience, where the hotel seemed to be deliberately misreading the accessibility policy in order to give all members a shitty experience. Case in point, there was a traffic light badge system for people who wanted to communicate if they were open to casual conversation or really not up to talking to people at the moment (also a chill out room; very thoughtful). The hotel when challenged about long lines at the bars, bars being unattended and waiters not serving people who were clearly waiting for service said that the con was giving mixed messages and that their staff had decided it was best to err on the side of caution rather than accidentally talk to someone wearing the “no communication” badge. This was obviously disingenuous, but I think shows how badly communications had broken down at the venue. However, I did have to report someone who I felt was using the accessibility policy as an harassment tool (basically policing restroom access under a guise of compliance with policy), which led me to suspect that there might be a grain of fact behind the hotel’s allegations.
Jim C. Hines
February 24, 2016 @ 10:03 am
There’s a statement at http://kacsffs.blogspot.com/2016/02/for-record-statement-from-kacsffs-board.html from the KACSFFS, which sponsors the convention.
Jim C. Hines
February 24, 2016 @ 10:07 am
A mid-Michigan con had an incident about a year ago that involved someone harassing two underage girls. It was handled quickly, with the individual booted from the con. I believe other conrunners in the area were also warned about this individual.
The thing is, when it’s handled well, we’re less likely to hear about it. I wouldn’t have known about this one at all except that I’m friends with one of the folks who helped to handle it.
February 24, 2016 @ 10:23 am
Well, is it just me, or did they not really address anything? Well, I mean, sure, they said they were sorry, they said they’re going to give the committee more oversight. But they didn’t say what they were sorry for, or mention Mark in any way, or even exactly what “these issues” are. For all we know, they’re talking about someone else who reported harassment and the concomm never did anything. Unlikely, but possible. Because they never actually what what “these issues” are.
Jim C. Hines
February 24, 2016 @ 10:57 am
I take it as acknowledgment and a statement that they’re looking into it. I wouldn’t necessarily expect anything more right away. I know it can take time to investigate and figure out what the heck happened and where the ball got dropped.
A lot will depend on the follow-up, and what comes next.
February 24, 2016 @ 11:47 am
I’ve been thinking about why the emotional reaction to this topic seems to have such a wide spectrum even among people who agree in principle that harassment of various kinds should not happen and that we want diverse and safe conventions.
I think that at least part of the problem is that some people focus on how ‘blameworthy’ the individuals doing the harassment are, and others are focusing on how ‘damaged’ the individuals experiencing the harassment are. The problem is that the two metrics are not coextensive. Someone being excluded, harassed, insulted, discriminated, etc. can injured even if the person doing the exclusion, harassment, insulting, discrimination etc. is not doing it on purpose or with ‘evil’ intent.
There is no real agreement, however, by which metric various Con policies *should* orient themselves. A lot of the time, they seem to be thought of as something like criminal law. They are not. Criminal law specifies when a person is blameworthy for a certain behaviour. A Con anti-harassment policy specifies when a behaviour is not acceptable at an event; it has nothing at all to say about the particular motives for this behaviour.
Therefore, if somebody does act in a way that is against the anti-harassment policy, this does not *automatically* imply that they are or are not an evil person, a racist/misogynist/ableist or any other such thing. It merely implies that their actions, intentionally or unintentionally, were among those specified by the policy as not accepted at this convention.
This, it seems to me, has a few important consequences:
– The anti-harassment policy needs to be formulated in a way to make it as clear as possible going in which actions are not acceptable. It cannot directly police motives or attitudes unless motives or attitudes are then also a ‘defense’ against ‘accusations’ of violating the policy.
– The response to violations of the anti-harassment policy needs to be designed to fulfill the purpose of the policy, i.e. prevent that behavior from happening again and making those who were negatively affected feel comfortable. It does not primarily need to be about, and can’t really be used for, evaluating or assigning blame.
An honest mistake is obviously something very different from a purposeful insult – but an anti-harassment policy should be designed to prevent and deal with both. In the former case, an ‘I’m sorry, I did not realize, please explain to me how I can improve this’ could be enough to solve the problem, and enough to make it clear that the behaviour itself is not likely to recur. But even if something is an honest mistake, if the person who made that mistake is not capable of changing whatever misconception led to the mistake and therefore not likely to change their behaviour, a more extreme remedy like barring them from the con may be the only reasonable way to prevent recurrence.
I think the point that I am trying to make is that the consequences of violations should not be dependent on the motive of the violations, but on the likelihood of their recurrence – and yes, I know that this, too, is often hard to measure. But at the very least we can be sure that not responding at all to violations is not going to accomplish this.
Telling someone, or being told, that certain behaviour is unacceptable is, of course, not a pleasant thing – but it CAN, and in this context, should be done in a way that does not automatically impute ‘evil’ motives; conversely, having good intentions cannot ‘cure’ a violation when the issue is *whether* something happened or will happen again, not *why* it happened.
The other issue is, of course, how to make sure the injured person feels comfortable again – and here, I think there is a problem with enforcement action, because ‘feeling comfortable’ is a very, very subjective thing. I am not trying to say that that makes it unimportant – this is an argument that is traditionally used to privilege the dominant group’s perceptions. But I do think it involves an element of case-by-case negotiation that is very difficult to standardize. It seems to me, though, that the mere fact that there is regularly an ‘official’ response to a conflict of this kind would go a long way in making people feel comfortable. In other words, we need to become better at acknowledging that conflicts do happen, that they can be talked about and dealt with, and that this does not mean that we have, as a group, somehow failed – quite the opposite.
All that was a very long, rambling, and abstract way of saying that we can’t effectively follow through on policies and any enforcement is likely to generate more controversy than resolution if we don’t have and make public a clear idea what we are trying to accomplish by following through on them. And I think that will require a great deal more transparency and honesty that we are currently collectively capable of…
February 24, 2016 @ 11:49 am
ok, I apologize – that ‘comment’ was even longer than I thought… Feel free to delete or ignore my soapbox moment here…
February 24, 2016 @ 1:54 pm
I would think *some* of this could be alleviated in part openly sharing best practices. Not via listservs, blogs and groups (which you kind of have to know are there) but concerned folks can start a wiki or something that groups can just post their policies, procedures and “what we learned.” Don’t try to re-write the wheel and transparency actually makes things better.
Jim C. Hines
February 24, 2016 @ 1:59 pm
February 24, 2016 @ 3:18 pm
Oshiro mentions a few, like Arisa (sp?) and PenguinCon.
February 24, 2016 @ 3:28 pm
This: I know of cases of people who deserved it being quietly booted from cons or bans being put in place, but they don’t get the attention and notice, and I’m leery to name names in case someone else says “Actually, I was at that con at this other time, and X happened, and they did nothing when it was reported.”
February 24, 2016 @ 5:27 pm
Even if ConComX does the right thing, they often feel that they can’t share what happened with other ConComs. So the person gets a freebie somewhere else — until they act out again.
We have had someone who bothered another member, who properly filed an incident report. He was talked to by exec staff, told that he was unwelcome in the future. So when he showed up the next year, tried to get in to an event (without a badge) and tried to harass the same person, he was promptly escorted off-site by a Board member and another staff member. And we notified other events in the area.
It *can* be done. It doesn’t have to be loud or argumentative. And if done well, most folks won’t even realize it happened.
February 24, 2016 @ 5:45 pm
That’s helpful. The only one I don’t quite agree with is this one, in the definition of what harassment is:
“Verbal comments that reinforce social structures of domination [related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, age, religion, [your specific concern here]. ”
I think I get at what they are getting at, but it is kind of hard to parse what they exactly mean by it.
February 25, 2016 @ 2:17 am
The problem they’re seeking to address in four words: “Make me a sandwich.”
February 25, 2016 @ 2:49 am
I am sorry if this sounds naive but why are harassment policies needed?
From what I have read/heard the instances of harassment people(mostly women) are complaining about are criminal actions in and by them-self. Wouldn’t the right course of action be to file a report with the police instead of a complains with the convention?
February 25, 2016 @ 6:48 am
Speaking as a lawyer who has had some (limited) input into harassment policies for various cons and engaged in quite long on- and off-line discussions with various conrunners and people involved in devising and getting harassment policies adopted and advocating for them: no, not necessarily; even if they are criminal offences there is also a wider dimension which requires convention and venue involvement and de-escalating Situations and potential Situations before they require direct police involvement is usually seen as a public good, so I’m frequently baffled as to why harassment at cons is seen differently.
February 25, 2016 @ 7:50 am
It is naive.
As legionseagle above said, not all harassment is necessarily criminal in and of itself (whether or not it should be is another discussion), but that doesn’t mean they are acceptable, or aren’t harmful.
And even if an action is criminal, something needs to be done immediately to protect the victim and other potential victims at the convention, and that is where convention harassment policies come in. They protect the innocent before the police arrive, or in cases where the police will be unable to do anything because the action wasn’t criminal, but was still harmful.
It would be nice if harassment policies weren’t needed, but not having one assumes that every single human being on the planet has an interest in behaving themselves. Unfortunately, not everyone does.
February 25, 2016 @ 7:58 am
Most of the ones I have heard about (groping, upskirting, etc.) are at best borderline criminal and open to interpretation. You’d have to convince the police that the behavior crossed the line and that it was serious enough for them to “waste their time” with dealing with it. When you consider that most police departments can’t be bothered to pursue even reports of rape (and sometimes will use threats to get victims to withdraw their complaints), how likely is it that they’ll even show up to deal with “some drunk” groping “some crazy broad” at a convention full of “weirdos”?
And even if you do get the police to get involved, just doing all the stuff you have to do when filing a formal police complaint will pretty much kill your participation in the con. And you — and your witnesses — have to go back to the city where it happened weeks or months later when the case goes to trial. You’re victimized either way. And there’s nothing to prevent your harrasser from returning to the con right after being booked, or from coming to next year’s con after or even during his (or her) 30-day community service sentence, and harrassing you again in retaliation.
Bringing in the police to deal with an instance of harrassment is like calling out the National Guard to deal with a parking dispute. Better to simply kick the harrasser out and ban them, which any con is legally allowed to do for whatever reason the con organizers think appropriate. (“We don’t like your haircut” is AFAIK a perfectly legal reason to ban someone.)
February 25, 2016 @ 12:32 pm
Our first event was last month. We were VERY upfront about our expectations from our guests and attendees: http://orcacon.org/
We had additional safe spaces, pronoun ribbons, and every volunteer had to take anti-harassment training. For year 2, we’re focusing on race & accessibility in tabletop games.
There were many folks in the tabletop arena who volunteered, but we declined due to past behavior at other cons.
OrcaCon was founded (by me) as the games con I have always wanted to attend. My board and staff all believe that games are for everyone, and went out of our way to make folks feel comfortable and welcome.
February 25, 2016 @ 12:33 pm
I believe that at least part of the apparent problem — and this is an explanation, not excusing any of the myriad missteps — is that there’s a huge difference between an aspirational policy with clear objectives and messy, incomplete, no-time-to-really-reflect, not entirely clear facts of actual behavior… combined with the self-justification by those engaging in harassment (some of which may even be relevant to determining appropriate consequences). It’s one thing entirely to say, in the abstract, that “Behavior pattern X is defined as harassment, is not acceptable at this convention, and has the following consequences.” It’s another entirely to be presented with messy interviews, usually involving at least one distraught information source who is not communicating as clearly as any statement of behavior found in the policy, and making a decision on the spot.
This is even more of a problem when the decisionmaker is, him/her/itself, actually experienced in and competent to engage in such a process. Most ConCom members aren’t… and it’s really not a job qualification for them, and shouldn’t be. More to the point, most people who have experience and competence in helping victims have a well-earned mindset that gets in the way of properly meting out consequences that implicate the vengeance/retribution aspect of behavior-correction systems. I would even suggest that “care for the victim” and “dealing with the perpetrator” need to be two entirely separate sets of decisionmakers at the con, but that is at best a bureaucratic third-best solution… in the context of a leisure activity we’re supposed to be enjoying.
In short, it’s hard. We shouldn’t be surprised that there are disjunctures. We also need to work together to reduce them, and recognize that they cannot be eliminated (except, perhaps, if every harasser turned out to be Snidely Whiplash… and remember that we only have that from Dudley Do-Right’s perspective…). This is not a defense of egregious, apparently systemic problems like that at ConQuest; it is a warning that expecting perfection WILL lead to disappointment, if only because human beings are involved.
Links for your weekend reading 26/02/2016 | stompydragons
February 26, 2016 @ 3:25 pm
[…] Jim Hines is as sensible as ever on this, too, and includes summaries of just a selection of harrassment incidents at other cons: The Importance of Having and ENFORCING Harassment Policies at Cons […]
February 26, 2016 @ 6:40 pm
Tipsday: Writerly Goodness found on the interwebz, Feb 21-27, 2016 | Writerly Goodness
March 1, 2016 @ 6:46 pm
[…] Jim C. Hines discusses the importance on not only having anti-harassment policies at cons, but also of enforcing them. […]