Sexual Harassment at Cons, Part 2: How to Stop It (and other thoughts)

On Sunday, I wrote about sexual harassment at genre conventions. By the time I sat down to write this, Tuesday morning, that post has had over 5,400 views. I expected a few hundred. Instead, everywhere I go online, there it is. I’ve spent the almost 48 hours since dealing with the reactions to it–good, supportive, confused, and trolling. It’s been pointed out to me that it’s the most personal thing I’ve ever said in public, and that’s true.

It’s probably for the best that I didn’t expect such a big response. I’m not sure if I would have lost my nerve. I often point out that I’m an introvert, because online you can’t really tell, but when I say important things, personal things, I always have to hold my breath before I hit the button that makes it visible everyone else. I rarely do it. The more my writing and other work gets known, the more I have to take a deep breath and push forward, though my natural tendency is to hide under the covers until everyone goes away. I love the majority of the interaction I have with people, it just takes energy that is only replenished by quiet time, without the majority of the interaction I have with people.

But this needed to be said. And it’s telling, to me, that I honestly didn’t think me sharing those moments would be a big deal. There are a couple of examples from that list which are unusual, horrible, and clearly harassment, obvious to pretty much everyone (including me, at the time) but most of it is the little things, the everywhere-you-go, background radiation of attending a genre convention. It’s there, and we all see it, we all experience it, and we’re so used to it that it’s the accepted price we pay for being women in genre. I stopped going to cons for several years, put my nascent career as a writer on hold, just to get away from it all. I came back because I love writing. I love writing science fiction specifically… and going to cons is part of the work we do as writers to get our stories out there. I wonder how many women leave genre, never to return, because of incidents like these. How many fans do we lose? How many go to a convention and never come back?

We can’t let that stand. Fixing it, though, seems so hard. As I said in my quick update this morning, “The power needed to break free from the gravity of this mess is astounding.” It is exhausting. But there are ways to stop it, and that’s what we need to do next.

1. We need to recognize that there is no “rule” of who gets targeted. 

I mentioned in my post that I don’t dress provocatively at cons, don’t cosplay, and at times during the past 20 years I’ve been overweight–100 pounds, which isn’t a small number. I’ll be 40 in November, so I’m not a young woman. I’ll go further and say that I tend not to post “sexy” pictures of myself online, and I don’t have “single” in my relationship status anywhere. NONE of that has saved me from getting harassed. I pointed out all of those factors, not to say that I shouldn’t have been harassed, as if not being conventionally pretty (aka, having “model good looks) or being a certain age or weight or race makes you unattractive, and therefore safe. No one is automatically safe, which is what I was trying to say.

Here’s why: for every guy that will seek out the thin, busty, woman in the low cut top and tight skirt, with the excuse of “She was asking for it”, there is another guy who will seek out the woman he thinks won’t object. Women who are a little older, a little overweight. The woman who’s standing alone at a party. Those women, this kind of creeper thinks, are more accessible. They must be grateful for the attention.

There’s a third kind, the woman who looks like a victim. That means different things to different men, but some examples are: a woman alone in an elevator, in a hallway, in a dark corner of the room–women in a space where there is no one to help them if they need it. Young girls, women with disabilities, women who are physically small, even women who seem shy or confused about how the hotel is laid out–also potential targets. Women who are in service positions, like dealer’s assistants, who can’t walk away. It all boils to power–some guys get off on forcing themselves on women who (they assume) can’t defend themselves.

The fourth kind, which is rare in terms of physical harassment but commonly verbally harassed, is the woman in power. A writer with a good publishing records. Guests of Honor. Well-known editors. Women who appear physically strong, or who have taken the place of a man on a panel… women signing autographs in the dealer’s room. There’s a kind of guy who resents women having that power, and will make sexist, abusive, derogatory, and sexually suggestive comments as a way to put us “in our place”. (Sometimes this happens with women who aren’t “feminine enough”, or people who identify as something other than a woman though the creeper expects them to be “real women”, and gender-neutral folks; ie. “corrective rape”) We often think of them as trolls, but it’s another side of the same guy. They harass angrily because you’re no longer available to them as a potential date/fuck/target. They harass because they feel their losing what they’re “entitled” to, and they’re afraid.

There are all kinds of creepers, drawn to all kinds of women, and knowing the full spectrum gives us a chance to make all of this stop.

2. Some women defend the culture of sexual harassment, and we have to ask them to stop.

You’d think all women would stand for up for each other, but we’re individuals. Occasionally, what’s standing in the way of progress and safety is other women. They’re usually older, and the rational goes something like this:

I had to put up with and I didn’t complain so why do you think you’re so special that you get to demand we change?

Sometimes, they’re worried that the move toward a safer space will take away from them the chance to cruise conventions for their own hookups. So, how do we remove these women from our list of problems? To the women who use cons as a place to meet new mates, assure them that no one is trying to take sex away from consenting adults. Consent is sexy, I think. By making the convention safe for women to say no, we’re also clearing up whether that comment a guy made to you was friendly or flirting. We’re making it easier for you to say yes, if you want to.

And to the women who have been told for decades that this is just how things are? Tell them you’re sorry that they had to deal with that, and you want to make a safe space for the next generation, who shouldn’t have to be treated as an object instead of a person. They were strong, they survived decades in genre when other women couldn’t, and that’s to be respected, but we don’t have to emulate it. We can make a better future for the young women who are coming to genre now.

3. Say no at the time. It’s okay for you to do that.

The argument I hear a lot is, “She didn’t say she objected.” And it’s true, we usually don’t. But because we–men and women–often don’t  speak up, it’s easy to attack the ones that do. When we do object, we’re told we:

  • are ruining the event
  • are taking the fun out of everything
  • don’t understand what the guy “intended”
  • are being mean
  • don’t appreciate a compliment
  • must not like men
  • are overreacting
  • must have been abused in the past and so we can’t tell when someone’s harassing us now
  • etc

All of that is just another way to say, “You’re objecting to something that I want, and I don’t care how it makes you feel, so stop talking.” The solution is to keep talking. Make it that so many of say “No” the ones who want us silent will have too many voices to shut down.

If a guy you don’t know grabs your ass as he walks to the bar, say, “Hey, don’t do that again,” or “I don’t know you, don’t touch me,” or “If you do that again, I’m going to report you.” If someone you don’t know hugs you and it bothers you, say, “Excuse me, I don’t like to be hugged by people I don’t know, so please don’t do that again.” If you see this happening to someone else, say something. “Dude, don’t do that,” is a short, clear, message that what he’s done was noticed, and not ignored, dismissed, or approved.

You don’t have to physically confront a creeper. Most of them will slink away the moment they realize that the fantasy in their head–the one where the woman is flattered by their bold moves and pulls them into bed, and later all the guys in the room high-five him for his prowess with the ladies–isn’t going to happen.

4. Report it to someone else.

Even when we do object to the incident when it happens, we almost never report it to the convention staff, or talk about it again to anyone else. Of course we don’t. Look at the consequences for speaking out. I write one blog post about it, and I’m getting “are you sure that’s harassment” alongside “you must think you’re so hot” and even statements that I must have written the post for attention, because I’m trying to enhance my reputation by doing social activism instead of actually writing (for the record, I published a new collection last week, of my own writing that I actually wrote so, no you jackass, that’s not why I’m speaking out.) I have plenty of attention–more than I’d like sometimes, because see above: introversion. I have lots of sex, too, and it’s damn good, so I’m happy there. And yes, I’m certain that the things I listed in my first post are actually harassment.

Hmm.. why do I have to defend myself? I didn’t name names, so I’m not attacking anyone specifically. I didn’t even name the West Coast cons where the worst stuff occurred, though people who know me a little have guessed. All I did was say, “Hey, this happened to me.” Here’s another example:

At WFC Toronto, a guy rubbed up against me as he walked past me in a hallway, even though he had at least a foot of space behind him. It wasn’t a crowded area, he was just taking advantage of the party and the excuse of a smaller space to act in a way that he shouldn’t. He grinned and was gone a moment later. The woman next to me watched him leave, looked at me, rolled her eyes, and turned to get a drink. She obviously knew what he’d done was wrong, but didn’t say anything to him or me. I’m not at all blaming her for his actions, but it’s another example of having a witness who’s used to that occurring and doesn’t think to stop it.

And it’s my fault, too, because I didn’t say anything either. I walked back to my friends, back to at least one man who’d have defended me if I asked (and knowing my friends, more than one) and I didn’t say anything to them either.

Don’t just accept that these things are done. Be polite, be angry, whatever you feel, but use your words. If you don’t feel comfortable contacting security or the con staff, tell someone else. A friend, your publisher, anyone who’ll be there with you so you don’t have to report it alone if you don’t want to. If you can’t talk about it at the time, go home and write a blog post, put it on Facebook, tweet about it. Let people know.

No one has the right to tell you that you have to put yourself in a position of possibly getting further harassed because you spoke up. I’m asking you. Please. Please say something. We can’t make this better if we don’t let everyone know how pervasive the problem is. If you say something, maybe you’re going to stop that guy from doing the same thing to someone else at the next con. Maybe you can help stop a guy who’d otherwise escalate to worse and worse, because he thinks he can get away with behaving that way. Or perhaps the guy was always going to be a low-level creeper, who never did more than fondle women at parties, but isn’t that worth stopping, too?

5. Don’t creep.

Not sure if you’re flirting or harassing? Ask yourself if you’d be talking the same way if the woman were in a position of authority. If she were a police officer, who you knew had a gun and a badge, and happened to be off duty, at a bar, or a convention… You’re free to flirt, since she’s not working, but if you cross the line into harassment, she could physically stop you, even arrest you. How do you tell her that you find her attractive?

With your words, not your hands. You introduce yourself. You talk. You tell her you find her attractive. You wait for her response, and if it goes further, you ask for permission to touch her. Simple. Now the same thing with every other woman.

And if you’re not sure she’s available, and you’re a little shy, you can ask one of her friends. Do not say, “Hey, can I hit that?” as if she’s a receptacle for your penis that no one else happens to be using at the time. Say, “Do you know if X is seeing anyone? I like her and I’d like to ask her to spend time with me, but I don’t want her to feel pressured if she’s not available.” You know. Like’s she’s a person.

That’s all we want. Keep talking, keep flirting, keeping finding us attractive, but act like we’re people, who might want a conversation, or at least to be asked before you touch us. No one wants to make conventions a place where we’re all afraid to talk to each other, but at the same, we’d also like to attend without being afraid for our safety, or afraid that when we say “No” it won’t be respected.

That’s not too much to ask.

I regret not speaking up sooner. I should have. I am now, and I hope it helps. Late is better than nothing. And it isn’t too late, not to make our community safer, not to say you’d like genre conventions to catch up with the rest of 2013 in accepting that women are people, not only, “Woman you’d like to fuck: yes/no”.

Thank you all for reading, for thinking about these two posts, and for sharing them. I appreciate it.

(Running update: I’m still selling books and editing/book packaging services to pay off my recent medical bills. If you haven’t seen it yet, please go here to view my work, and vote for which story I’ll put online–free to read–next. I’ll remove this note, and that post, when I’ve met my goal. Thank you.)

One last bit: For everyone who’s said that the solution is to protect your daughters from harassment at cons by any means necessary, including violence: your daughters will be much safer in the long run if you teach them how to recognize harassment, ask for help, and say, “NO!”, than teaching them that you’re going to protect them. They may not, then, learn how to protect themselves, and the culture of making women into princesses who must be rescued from the dragon is as much to blame for taking away our power as the con creeps are.

Of course, we have to teach men not to harass women, too (see item #5). Your sons, nephews, cousins, friends, even your dad… Tell them this is not okay, this is not how we treat women, because women are people, just like men. We have to come at this from both sides: understanding why it happens, who allows it, who needs to speak up, and who needs to stop doing it.

Edited to add No one has criticized me for this, so this is my statement, not a defense: this is a very binary post. It breaks us into two categories, men vs women, and that simply doesn’t cover the variety of human gender and expression. I mean it as a broad discussion, a general overview of a problem that is usually described in terms of “man creeper harassed woman victim”. So, I’ve written in terms of the perception of the problem, to talk about people who identify as male acting sexually aggressively toward the people they identify as female (and, therefore, an appropriate target). Anyone being sexually harassed has a right to defend themselves, and if they want it, the defense of others. No matter how you identify yourself, you have the right to feel safe.

This isn’t meant to be the whole conversation. This is meant to be a signpost along the road, moving in the right direction.

16 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment at Cons, Part 2: How to Stop It (and other thoughts)

  1. Thanks for posting this and the previous essay, Carrie. Well said.

  2. How to Deal with Harassment/How to Not Harass could be a bit a programming at cons. A panel a day to show con-goers that 1) this con knows and cares about you; 2) we’ve got our eyes on you creepers and we’re teaching everyone else to watch for you, too; 3) put the learning right up front instead of in the aftermath (especially for all those kids growing up in the cons).

  3. Fantastic essay, info and posts! It’s a great thing that you’re sharing your experiences with everyone and I’m glad to hear that Readercon has started to do what Miranda suggested. Thanks for posting!

  4. This is absolutely bad-ass. I’m thrilled at all the wise things people are saying on the subject, but this is one of my favorite posts so far. I particularly am glad to see someone ask people to speak up. Of course no one should be forced to speak up, but that’s how we change this culture. So I’m also begging people: be loud about this. If you have to, be rude about this. You’re not the jerk–the harasser is the jerk, and you’re defending EVERYONE’S con experience by making these boundaries clear.

  5. Thanks for keeping this conversation going. I’m not a huge SFF person, but this applies equally to so many types of communities and certainly to the gaming cons I go to. I hope it makes its way around to all these populations. And I’m hope I’m brave enough to answer your call and say something in the moment.

    I’d maybe add to #5 (Don’t Creep): If someone seems nervous (even in a giggly way!), intimidated, uncomfortable, or unhappy, dial it back. If she’s interested, she’ll keep talking to you, and she’ll like you better for it.

    But the key is all over your post: let’s all treat each other like people, people! Maybe we should make t-shirts.

  6. “No matter how you identify yourself, you have the right to feel safe.” That is really the essence of all this, the thing that some people just can’t seem to grasp.

  7. On the non-binary note, most of the same things apply to non-binary people. The big issue comes in reporting, because it can be turned against us. “I thought you were non-binary. How can you be harassed for being a woman?”

    And the answer is harassers don’t care about identity, because they don’t see their targets as people with thoughts and feelings. If they perceive a woman, they treat the target as a woman. (The same goes for general sexism in the field… my own identity doesn’t really come into it, because sexist treatment is based on how others perceive me, which is in turn based on my body shape.)

    So if anyone is in the position of hearing an account from someone non-binary, don’t dismiss it based on how that person identities or how you perceive them. If the harasser misgendered them, it means the harasser did more things wrong. It doesn’t mean the harassment can be dismissed.

  8. Thank you for #5, Carrie. If the victims change their behavior we may gain something modest, but only the perpetrators can actually bring an end to this awful problem.

    And yes, this is a problem for all of us. If even one genre story went unwritten due to harassment then all fans, writers, editors, film producers, every corner of our culture has lost something. If even one woman has avoided one convention to avoid harassment then the entire genre community has suffered.

    I suggest that many well-meaning genre fans have no innate skills at human empathy or non-verbal communication*. If they were given some basic knowledge of human interaction these fans might gladly intervene. So perhaps a good convention panel might be “How to Come to the Rescue at a Convention: Recognizing Sexual Harassment.”

    * I am 100% serious about this.

    • Thank you for pointing out the common problem of many other attendees lacking comprehension of non-verbal communication. The creepers take advantage of this atmosphere. In my younger days, I stopped attending and creating in the SF world because of both creepers and the lack of awareness of the problem. Many, many women in my age group (40’s) were turned off by the genre because of the atmosphere. I’m glad to see some light shone on the harassers, and happy to be tougher now to return to the big Con in July.

  9. I hope this isn’t spammy, but a few days ago I thought of an interesting social media-based experiment for offering backup at cons to people who didn’t bring friends or whose friends are too shy to offer the kind of support that is sometimes (unfortunately) needed, especially if official channels aren’t fixing the issue.

    So far, responses to have been positive, but there aren’t many of us actually “signed up.” The only way to make this kind of experiment roll is by involving more of us. Your comment section seems full of people who might like knowing it exists and possibly helping to give it the mass it needs to be a potentially useful tool.

  10. Thank you so much for this, Carrie. This is a fantastic post.

    I especially appreciate the way you contextualize “the woman who looks like a victim” such that you are not victim-blaming.

    I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve heard “If you’re unable to keep from being somewhere dark late at night by yourself, don’t look like a victim! Walk with your head high, look like you know where you’re going, exude confidence!” Like most “How not to get raped” advice, it has a certain limited usefulness on the individual level which is outweighed by the implied accusation that “if only you’d Followed The Rules, this horrible thing would not have happened to you.” Which is itself another lie, as we all know; Following the Rules doesn’t guarantee safety, but it does guarantee a lot of stress, limited movement, and all-in-all a less full life for women. Also, as others have said before, focusing on what an individual does to keep from being a victim is just another way of saying “Make sure he harasses/assaults/rapes someone else.”

    That you contextualized “looking like a victim” from the harasser’s perspective, making it clear that, like looking “sexy,” it’s a judgement call that the harasser makes, not one that the victim can control. And you put it in terms of whether the harasser thinks he’ll be able to get away with his behavior. This is huge. Thank you.

    I’d also like to amplify everything said so far about having each other’s backs. Very recently, I was subjected to some “minor” sleaze on the part of someone I had to sit with in a communal dining situation. I’m getting more comfortable with saying in a dead-serious, this-is-not-a-joke way, “That sounded really creepy. Don’t do that again,” which necessitates my getting more “comfortable”–which is to say “uncomfortable but willing to go through with it anyway,”–with the inevitable result that as far as everyone else at the table is concerned, I’m the bitch who rudely ruined everyone’s evening when he was only making a joke. I’m just going to have to expect the gaslighting attempts, I’m just going to have to accept that I’m not going to make any friends this way. I’m simply resigned to this being a necessity of getting through social situations with my self-respect intact.

    And then, as I was leaving the table, the woman serving our table came up to me and said, “Did he say what I thought he did? Honey, you know you could have asked to be seated elsewhere, right?”

    I was stunned by what a difference that made to me, to have it confirmed by someone else that “Yes, that was harassment, and you had every right not to experience it.” To know I wasn’t alone.

    I had forgotten that having someone back me up was an option.

  11. My own experience of harassment was that it was when I was dressed most “modestly” that I looked like a victim to the put-the-wenches-in-their-place brigade. Long sleeves, long skirts, baggy trousers, high collars, the whole nine yards (of fabric.) I looked like a timid, sheltered little schoolgirl, which I was, and they scented blood.

    When I stopped giving a fuck and wore whatever I was comfortable with, including, gasp! some collarbone-showing and form-fitting clothes (as much garb as I could get away with under the school and parental dress codes, IOW), because I no longer believed that being “modest” would make a bit of difference, I stopped being so attractive to them. I didn’t read “helpless prey,” or even “too sexy to resist”, I read “confident enough to be wary of,” instead.

    It was very strange to realize that my elders were so clueless about how the whole sexual harassment thing worked, and that a boned bodice over fitted jeans and leather boots was NOT actually the Gilt-Edged Invitation To Lech that I was told, any more than the sack-like skirts and blouses were the Adamant Shield Against Lechers. It was, in the end, about power and social dominance and what the boundary-breakers think they can get away with, just as you said.

  12. Thanks for posting this. I’m a man and wasn’t aware that things this bad were going on at SF cons, at least not regularly. This is bad, and needs to stop, and I think Carrie’s suggestions are a good way to get things moving in the right direction.

    There is some sort of non-obvious dynamic going on here, though. My wife is under 5′, way overweight, and we are often separated by some distance at cons (even in different rooms). But she doesn’t seem to get this kind of treatment. I suspect that she projects some sort of “I’m capable of taking care of myself, so don’t bug me” aura. But I don’t know how to make that happen for a random person, so a general social atmosphere of “that’s not acceptable” is needed.

    I hope we can build that.

  13. Cons have always been a family outing for us. I would grab the kids (both late teens now) and we would go see the stars of their favorite shows, or the authors of some of their favorite books. For the last few years it’s been a point of pride that we were in on the whole Con scene before ‘Big Bang Theory’. I never knew about this problem was before reading your article. I think it was probably because I am not a small person and look like I could cause signifcant damage to anyone who looked cross-eyed at my kids.

    Luckily they know how to handle this kind of situation and don’t put up with it at all. It’s better that we’re all aware this is such a problem, I can’t be next to them all the time.

    Thank you for the reality check.

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