While I’ve been away over the weekend there has been much chat online about an incident of sexual harassment at Readercon and how it has been handled by the convention. If you need to catch up on things there is an excellent links round-up available here. As someone who runs conventions, incidents like this are of interest to me because I want to know how we can do better in future, hence this post.
Before I say anything else I should note that I am not coming to this incident neutral, because the perp in question is well known to me. I have worked quite a bit with René Walling in the past, but more importantly he was one of the people who had me thrown off the Hugo Award Marketing Committee. I have a great deal of respect for the work he has done, and I know he has helped Kevin out a lot, but I am deeply unimpressed with some of his behavior.
That caveat aside, here are a couple of headline thoughts.
Firstly, if your convention policy says that a certain type of behavior will result in a lifetime ban, then it should result in a lifetime ban. Not a two year ban. Not a ten year ban that gets rescinded for good behavior after a few years. A lifetime ban. As Farah noted, it doesn’t matter if the person in question is a friend, or is well respected in the community or is a “nice person”. On the latest Coode Street podcast Gary Wolfe talks about having to deal with a very high profile author who had been pestering young women. Policy is policy, no matter who breaks it.
Having said that, as various people have noted, if the only choices that your policy gives you are a lifetime ban or letting the perp off without punishment, then you have backed yourself into a corner with no room to maneuver. Draconian punishments inevitably result in a tendency to let people off if there is any doubt at all that they deserve such treatment. Also, given the way that convention staffs change with time, I suspect that a “lifetime ban” would be highly likely to be rescinded if the person involved really wanted to get back. If you can’t, or don’t always want to, enforce a lifetime ban, don’t have it as your only disciplinary option.
These things, I am sure, have been said in very many blog posts about the incident, but what I want to concentrate on is how we can do this better. What should a convention anti-harassment policy look like? How should we punish unacceptable behavior if the convention is a one-off? Can we put measures in place that enable us to crack down on bad behavior at the con before things get out of hand?
Let’s start with a few objectives:
- We want all attendees to feel and be safe at conventions.
- We want a policy that is seen to be fair.
- We want a policy that can be implemented easily and effectively.
- We need to be aware that there will always be exceptions to simple rules.
That last point is important. René’s case appears to be cut and dried in that there were repeated offenses with plenty of witnesses and he admitted his guilt. Other cases may not be so simple. And there will be outliers. As a bizarre but entirely plausible example, what happens if you have both hard-line Radical Feminists and trans women at your convention? As far as some RadFems are concerned, the mere existence of trans women is an act of sexual violence against them. If they encountered one in a women’s bathroom at a convention I’m pretty sure an official complaint would result, regardless of how the trans woman behaved.
Some degree of flexibility in the policy is doubtless a good thing, but at the same time it has to be administered fairly, not used as an excuse for favoritism. Much of the problem with Readercon is due to the fact that their policy said one thing and they did something different. If people think that the policy is being applied unfairly then they will not feel safe.
In addition you have to be able to implement the policy. There’s no point in making the lifting of a ban dependent on good behavior if you have no means of checking on how a person behaves in between conventions. And it would be unwise to promise 24-hour rapid response to incidents if you don’t expect to have enough staff to provide such a service.
In the spirit of the “If I Ran The Zoo” Worldcon training game I have a few scenarios I’d like to throw out for consideration, but as they are all based on real events I’ll need to ask permission first. In the meantime I would appreciate your thoughts on what a good convention anti-harassment policy should look like. Please try not to derail discussion by getting into specifics about the rights and wrongs of what Readercon as done, or trying to understand RadFem theory.