What can Men do about Sexual Harassment at Cons?

While it’s currently a topic getting a lot of traction on social media, harassment at conventions is hardly anything new. It’s one of those perennial subjects that comes up every so often, is discussed, but never goes away. However, this time around there seems to be a degree of openness and community engagement that goes beyond anything I have seen in my admittedly limited experience, and one can only hope that it translates into real change. Because, when I read the accounts of people’s experiences (for a good roundup that will just get you started, go here), all I can think is that the status quo is simply unacceptable. In a community that prides itself on being progressive and inclusive and generally pretty intelligent, how can these things still go on? How can the same language that was being used about women by Harlan Ellison in his introductions to stories in Dangerous Visions almost half a century ago still be cropping up in industry publications today? How can people use ignorance as an excuse when a hundred blogs or a thousand tweets lay out what is not okay every week?

Whenever this topic comes up I feel a lot of conflicting emotions. The first one is anger. I have a mother, a sister, a wife and I imagine some of these things happening to them and my blood boils. I have female friends in the community who this could easily happen to, or has happened to, and it makes me furious. But, to be honest, it also makes me very uncomfortable. I start asking myself all sorts of questions that, if I am honest here, I struggle with. I have to ask myself, what role do I play in this state of affairs? What should my response, as a man, be? I don’t feel qualified to talk about it, and I wonder whether I should just keep out of it. I don’t want to be one of those people who simply echo what all the cool people are talking about in attempt to look good. So, I sit here and stay quiet. But, then I realise that like in most things in life, when faced with something I don’t want to do, if I feel I should be doing something but am trying to find reasons not to then that’s a good sign that I should do it.

But, what can I do? I’m only one person, and fairly insignificant in the scheme of things – I am not a publisher, an editor or a big name author. It’s hard to believe I can effect major change in our community, or in the world. So, all I can do is control my own behaviour, and change how I act, or don’t act. But, what are the things I am doing, or trying to do? I’ve made a little list, but first, a disclaimer. I don’t claim to be in anyway an example of how men should be, or to live up to the things on the list or to be anyway trying to come from a position of authority on this. Like anyone, I fall short, am a hypocrite at times, and generally have no idea how to go about most things in life. I guess this post is not “What can men do?” but “what can I do?” This is simply stuff I find useful , maybe it will be food for thought or encourage someone else to make their own list.

1. Empathise

Often when something is outside our own experience, it is hard to understand how it can matter so much to someone. I’ve been to about six cons now, and at every single one I have experience behaviour, that if you sat down and described it, could be considered sexual harassment. It’s pretty easy for me to simply laugh it off, or even to be flattered by it, but I need to understand not everyone can do that, or should do that. I am 6’3” and I can’t remember the last time I felt worried for my physical safety. Sexual harassment is not constant background noise in my life, if it happens, it is an aberration. And, fortunately, my worth as human being is not judged by my appearance or my physical attributes. Thinking about what it would be like to have to worry about all those things, constantly, is a sobering experience.

2. Self Examination

It’s human nature to be able to see the mote in our neighbour’s eye while ignoring the beam in our own. We don’t want to believe that we might be part of the problem; it’s much easier to blame it on “other men”. What I try and do is be willing to take a look at my own behaviour. Every time this issue is raised, or I read a blog post that gets me thinking, that should be an opportunity for some self examination. Am I doing some of the things that people are talking about, or that I condemn in other people?

3. Being willing to be called on your behaviour

No matter how hard we try, we all make mistakes. I don’t think that is unforgivable, it’s how we deal with it. Last year, someone whose opinion I trust told me they felt I had crossed a line. I was mortified, I am still embarrassed to think about it. But, the truth is that I would much rather be told so I knew and could avoid doing the same thing again. If I had reacting with hostility, or dismissively, then that person would probably not feel comfortable talking to me about it the next time I stuffed up. If it is a choice between being a guy that people will tell to his face when he makes a mistake, or the guy that women talk about when handing out warnings, I know which one I would rather be.

4. Realise it is not about you

Sometimes when people talk about instances of sexual harassment, or tell you that something you did was wrong, it is hard to understand what the big deal was. You might think that was just flirting, or they are being over sensitive, or whatever. But, that is to miss the point. Everyone has their own triggers and boundaries, and crossing those is what makes it harassment. It’s not about what you think is acceptable, it is what they think that matters. Whether you think something is harmless or not, if you know it is going to upset someone and you still do it that makes you a bit of a dick. No one has a right to force their own standards of behaviour on someone else, and act like they are the one with the problem if they get upset. But, as I said, it is easier to blame someone else, than blame ourselves.

5. Erring on the side of caution

As I said in the point above, people have different ideas of what is okay. Like many other people in our community, I am not really good at the whole social interaction thing, or reading the signals and cues that people give. I often don’t know what the appropriate response or action is in a given situation so I can understand how some men are genuinely confused about what is okay (though I do think some men use that as an excuse). My solution is to err on the side of caution.

As an example, I am perfectly fine with being hugged. But, no matter how well I know someone, I try not to be the person who initiates a hug because for some people being touched is not cool. If they make that decision, though, that is fine. Obviously, once you know someone and they regularly hug that is different because you know what their boundaries are, but that initial call is up to them. That way, even if I am not sure how they would feel about it, I know I am not going to inadvertently cross a line.

I think this lends itself to lots of situations. Some people would be happy having you compliment their outfit, others would see that as sleazy. In some scenarios, offering to buy someone a drink is okay (even welcome – writers love to drink!), in others it would be threatening. If you aren’t sure how it will be taken – don’t do it.

I am lucky that I am married and therefore don’t need to worry about trying to flirt with people, but I would assume the same rules apply. If you aren’t sure whether someone is interested, I would see it as better to play it safe.

As I said, I suck at social cues but I still try and be observant. If I am having a conversation with someone and they keep looking at their watch or around for other people, that’s probably a good sign that I need to change the topic or move on. Again, I think it better to leave people wanting more of your company than insisting on hanging around even when you aren’t sure if they want you to.

6. Keep your eyes and ears open

Since I have become a little more aware of some of the bad things that happen at cons, I have tried to be a bit more observant about what is going on. I can be very oblivious to social undercurrents, but I try and keep an out for things that aren’t what they should be. It might be someone getting a bit loud or aggressive, or a bit too touchy, but if you spot a problem early enough you can often head off trouble before it happens. It might just mean keeping an eye on them, or making sure that they aren’t alone with anyone, or even just hinting they should settle down. But, if you don’t pay attention to what is going on around you then you can end up getting a nasty surprise.

7. Be willing to act

This is the one that I struggle with the most. I live in constant fear of committing some social faux pas and looking stupid, or interfering in something that is none of my business. The fact that I am relatively new on the scene doesn’t help, lots of people have known each other for years, or even decades, and often I have no idea of their history with one another, or the dynamics of their relationships. This means it is sometimes hard to work out whether people are messing around or not. But, the alternative to perhaps embarrassing myself if I get it wrong is turning a blind eye and allowing harassment. Inaction is a form of complicity, after all.

So, what I try and do is give some the option of an out from a conversation or situation and leave it up to them whether they take it. As an example, I was at a con and I saw what seemed to be a situation where a female friend was looking very uncomfortable and seemed to be cornered by a very enthusiastic male conversationalist. He was someone I am friends with, so I really didn’t know what to do, or whether I was imagining things. But, I didn’t think it would be right to abandon her and that it would be better to feel foolish than find out later I had stood by. So, I simply wandered over and, without interrupting, joined the conversation and gave her an out if needed. It really was much harder in my mind than in reality.

It might not even be direct intervention, it might just be that keeping an eye on someone or making sure you are present and in between them and your friends. Whatever it is, you need to be willing to put yourself outside your comfort zone if that’s what it takes.

There will be times when it will be hard, especially for someone like me who hates confrontation and wants to be liked. But, you can talk all you want about wanting to end harassment, but unless you are willing to act you are part of the problem.

8. Engage with the issues

What little influence I have I need to be using to try and change the community I am in. I was really proud to be part of the committee for Continuum 9 because that was a convention that was trying to bring about social change and that’s the sort of thing I want to be giving my time to. But, I can also do it in an unofficial capacity, I shouldn’t be clocking on and clocking off. I can try and influence the groups I am part of by making it clear that I don’t condone certain behaviours or language, and by acting in a certain way no matter who is watching.

9. Be a safe space

What I want is to be someone that people know will be there for them if they feel unsafe or threatened. It is not about “rescuing” helpless women, it’s about understanding I am operating from a position of privilege (big, white, male really helps) and using that privilege to help others. I have mainly talked about the treatment of women, but there are other groups who experience similar harassment and I want to do the same for them. To do that, I need to ensure that when people do express concerns I listen and don’t be dismissive, and that I make time for them, whether I am busy or partying or whatever. It also means sometimes being in conflict with others, and maybe losing friends.

10. Speaking out

Ultimately, harassment in our community will not end while people sit by and say or do nothing. As well as the women and other groups who are experiencing this, men like myself need to be standing up and speaking out against this behaviour. There is no middle ground, you are either against it or you are complicit in it. Whether that is through your actions or inactions is irrelevant.

I really didn’t want to write this post, and I am sure I have made a complete hash of it, but this is me saying that I have had enough of seeing my friends feel unsafe and unwelcome in our community. If they can’t find a home here, I don’t want to either.

11 thoughts on “What can Men do about Sexual Harassment at Cons?

  1. Helen Stubbs

    Thanks for writing this blog, David. It’s interesting for me to examine my reaction to your crossing someone’s boundaries. I actually feel really defensive on your behalf, because you’re always so considerate and nice. I find it interesting that I’m so driven to defend my friends.

    I guess it points out that any of us might accidentally cross anyone’s boundaries, and I totally agree that it’s up to others to decide what is okay behaviour towards them, and we need to respect that and encourage people to voice their feelings.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and conduct guidelines!

  2. Sean the Bookonaut

    It’s interesting as Helen states, I felt the need to defend you from yourself, but I think you make a good point. All of us can cross boundaries.

    I have mentioned on other blogs that a big thing here is getting everyone on the same page Attendees, Con Committee and Volunteers and maybe even hotel staff. There needs to be explicit understanding that the responsibility lies with all of us. And that everything will be taken seriously and that you will be supported if you intervene or report or are a target.

    Two significant factors we fight I think are the Bystander effect and our own social confidence that is hampered by ingrained cultural habits that facilitate the discounting of what we witness.

    I think if we work toward a culture where I can go and interrupt a situation that I think “might be harassment” and not be laughed at or told to piss off by people that were just enjoying a quiet chat in a corner, that would be great. I think you need everyone on board for that.

    To be confident to just go up and so “Just checking your ok” and to be met with “thanks for asking, we are fine”.

    I suggest a kickstarter to fund an educational video that could be used by all con committees something starring Patrick Stewart, and other well known geek folks. Something that could be linked to con materials, shown at sessions at the con etc, Something that as you sign up to attend the con you agree to be part of?

  3. David Post author

    Hi Helen,

    Thanks for popping by and taking the time to read, and for your (very) kind comments. It’s nice to have friends who want to defend you!

    But, yes, I think it shows that anyone can make mistakes and it is what we do in response to our mistakes that is really important. And, making sure people always have a voice is vital, too many people feel disenfranchised and powerless far too often.

    Thanks again for reading, and commenting! 🙂

  4. David Post author

    One of the things I loved about the Continuum committee was that making sure the con was a safe space was a huge priority. While for them it was a moral choice, I also think we are starting to see that more and more cons realise that the community has expectations that such concerns will be addressed, and that market forces are going to ensure that gradually everyone does it. Things like Scalzi’s policy will make a huge difference if enough of the big names get on board.

    I think if we work toward a culture where I can go and interrupt a situation that I think “might be harassment” and not be laughed at or told to piss off by people that were just enjoying a quiet chat in a corner, that would be great. I think you need everyone on board for that.

    Yeh, that’s where I really struggle – the whole social confidence thing. I agree, it would be great to have a culture where both parties you interrupt could just smile and say “all good here, but thanks for asking!”

    I love your idea of the Kickstarter!

    Thanks for dropping by and for your comments, Sean – appreciate it 🙂

  5. Sean the Bookonaut

    I think that we also have to be wary of the tendency to leave it up to just the committees or the organizers, feeds into the bystander effect – that someone else will do something, someone official.

  6. David Post author

    I am a firm believer in the idea that change starts at an individual level

  7. Pingback: Linkspam, 7/5/13 Edition – Part 2 — Radish Reviews

  8. Jebus

    I’m curious about the incident where you were pulled up, did you see it from their standpoint? Were they just being a busy body? Did you follow up on it in any way and if so what was the outcome?

    Great post by the way, many good things there for con attendees to think about.

  9. David Post author

    Hey Jebus,

    Thanks for taking the time to pop by and read the post, and for your kind words – much appreciated. 🙂

    It wasn’t a major incident, but it was something I hadn’t even realised could be a problem. Once it was pointed out I completely understood where they were coming from, and once I got over my embarrassment it was all good.

    I’ve been more careful about it since, and there have been no lingering issues. I think that with most people, it’s only if you refuse to see their POV that it becomes a problem. It helped that I was good friends with the person concerned, and still am.


  10. Nichole Giles

    Pineapple! Pineapple! Pineapple!

    Thanks for creating a safe space for me and my friends at LonestarCon. Who knows what our experience would have been like had you not stood between us and the creepers. All of them. You are 100% gentleman.

  11. David Post author

    Hi Nichole,

    I am so glad to hear that I could be of some help. Obviously, it would be better if people didn’t have to worry about creepers at all, but until then I will keep trying to do whatever I can.

    Lovely to meet you, btw! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *