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The Safety Dance
Helping End Sexual Harassment at Conventions

I was sitting down, tonight, to do a little writing about the recent ConFusion convention from the perspective of a con-runner; but the more I pondered how best to kick things off the more I realized that there is something else I would prefer to address. Sexual harassment.

The Problem

Recently, I was talking about the convention with a young lady who related to me the story of a “a guy being inappropriate” with her. In this story, she was quick to point out at the onset that she was dressed somewhat sexier than normal—in pajamas that were a bit more risqué than those in which she is generally seen around con—so that, as she put it, is was a factor. She was standing, talking with two gentlemen (but, she points out, not flirting or anything, just talking) when this third person approached her from behind, grabbed her in a “grabbing, pinching, kind of tickling motion” on the ribs immediately below breast level, then continued on his way. This is not “a guy being inappropriate” for the record, this is assault.

As it happens, one of the two gentlemen she was speaking to was her fiancé, so he immediately confronted her attacker at a fairly significant volume and was just shrugged off. The fiancé yelled that this behavior was not accepted, not okay, and wouldn't be tolerated and was again shrugged off.

My problems with this are many:

  1. The young lady felt the need to point out that she was showing more skin than normal, as if this was in some way a mitigating factor.
  2. She further felt the need to point out that she wasn't being flirtatious, as if flirtatiousness would have indicated that she, in some way, deserved it.
  3. An individual felt that in the middle of a crowded convention full of people, it was a safe space for him to grab some woman without permission.
  4. That a woman in the middle of a crowded convention full of people is not safe in assuming she won't be manhandled.
  5. That in a crowded convention full of people, this can happen and only one person wandered over to see if everything was okay. Only one.
  6. Finally, that the young lady and her fiancé were busy and didn't want to deal with looking like “the people who were causing trouble at the convention”, so they didn't address it at the time.

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.

An Incomplete Solution

So, by my reckoning, a few problems have to be solved:

  1. We need to know what is and is not acceptable behavior.
  2. We need to make unacceptable behavior explicitly obvious.
  3. We need to be aggressively intolerant of unacceptable behaviors.
  4. We need to do all of these things as a community.

And to help solve them, I am going to launch a project—a small sub- community in fandom—to help resolve some of this as best we can, and here is what I want us to do:

Defining the Behaviors

To help define these behaviors, we need input, and that comes from all of you. Consider the commentary of this forum a jumping off point for discussion, for outlining behaviors that are and are not reasonable, acceptable, harassing, or uncomfortable. Discuss methods. Anything goes as long as you aren't being abusive or attempting to shut down conversation. If you aren't comfortable slugging all of your thoughts out here on the Internet, please feel free to send me them via email using jer before the at sign and ibloviate.org after it. As things progress, meetings will be scheduled where we can discuss this in an open way and solidify a unified set of behaviors to target so that we can take the next step…

Making the Behaviors Obvious

Among other things, I want to work with the local conventions to ensure that a specific and action-oriented policy toward sexual harassment is a part of the planning. A policy that addresses what is not acceptable, and outlines very specific actions that can and will be taken toward transgressors. We will ensure that these policies are expressed in the program book, on the website, and prominently around the convention in the form of signage and apparel. But that is only a start.

Additional action that we can work toward would include running panels discussing the topic at the convention and training concom and staff in how to deal with the situations that can and will arise.

The convention committees, however, are less than half of the problem. The far more pervasive (and more difficult to approach) issue is that of acceptance on behalf of the attendees. As evidenced by a number of stories I've heard in the past week, we are collectively turning a blind eye toward these things. This isn't a problem that we turn over to Operations or the con staff, these are behaviors that we have to refuse to accept; instead we must meet them with scorn and derision.

Becoming Intolerant

We have to become intolerant toward these behaviors, and unfortunately, this is a slow, painful process. It begins with a few bold individuals who are willing to risk embarrassment, awkwardness, and making a scene to create a safe place for others. It works like this: If I am at a convention or party and I see someone making sexual advances toward someone else without explicit invitation, I will intervene. I will ask if the advance is welcomed. I will get involved if the advance is not.

Act as a Community

But it's not enough that I do it, we all have to. I further vow that if I am at a convention or party and I see someone intervening in a situation, I will back them up. I will wander over and stand by and see if things are okay. I will not mock if it was a misunderstanding, but I will point out that we are better safe than sorry. I will not just act, but I will support the action of others.

A More Complete Solution

This is nowhere near a complete manner of dealing with so complicated an issue, but it is a start. It is a launching point…and we need one, because if we never start, we will never finish. If we never try, things continue as they are.

The way things are is not good enough.

So I ask that you all join me as we start this bumpy road to safety. Share with me your thoughts, your views, and ways that this endeavor can be made more successful as we grow and change. The complete solution begins and ends with each of you joining together to perfect this, to improve this, and to create an atmosphere that is more perfectly safe for all of our various members. I invite you to join us.


[Edited 2010-01-31@1052] I have posted some thoughts about the message traffic received in the 12 hours following this post. They can be found right here if you are so inclined.