Convention Safety

This year’s World Fantasy in San Diego seems to have been very successful, and I for one was delighted with the award results. However, there has been one very unpleasant story emerging — one about sexual harassment.

I first heard about the goings on via this post on Alisa Krasnostein’s blog, but judging from this post by Stina Leicht the problem went on much longer and was much more serious, including physical harassment.

Obviously everyone wants conventions to be safe places for attendees, and that extends far beyond sexual matters. Convention behavior policies should address other issues such as weapons, theft, and probably even people who make a nuisance of themselves in panel audiences. However, Stina and some commenters make specific complaints about the effectiveness of the convention committee in dealing with this, and I’d like to address those issues as they are not as clear-cut as they might seem.

If an individual misbehaves in space rented by the convention then it is relatively easy to chuck him out. That’s especially so at Worldcon because the venues are generally convention centers that won’t let you in unless you have a convention badge.

A convention in a hotel is somewhat more difficult to police. If the perp is a guest in the hotel it may be difficult to bar him effectively from convention spaces unless something like an entire floor has been rented. When I used to go to WisCon I recall that we had the entire 6th floor to ourselves, and were allowed to restrict access. This was necessary as the hotel was often used by wedding parties over the weekend, with the result that drunk young men often tried to gatecrash our events. But it is not always possible to reserve space like that. Sometimes convention events even take place in public spaces in the hotel, and anyone can walk through.

The events at World Fantasy, however, appear to have all taken place at parties, and here the situation is even more complicated. While most conventions are happy to publicize the fact that parties are taking place, those parties are not normally staged by the convention. They are put on by private groups: publishers, other conventions, fan groups and even private individuals with something to celebrate.

In some cases the convention will book the party space and sub-let it to interested groups. In such cases they can lay down policy, and insist that parties are restricted to convention members. However, it is quite normal for the party holders to contract directly with the hotel. In those cases those responsible for the party may well decide to let in people who are not convention members, and there’s nothing that the convention can do about that.

As I recall (and I’m going from memory on running one in 2009 here, but I may be wrong, or out of date), World Fantasy is one of the events that books the rooms on behalf of party organizers. I believe that’s true because I remember having discussions with potential party hosts who wanted to restrict access to their events to a subset of convention members. We wouldn’t allow that for a party that we helped organize. So my guess is that WFC 2011 did have a fair degree of control over party space, but I don’t know that for certain and the same is certainly not true of all conventions.

Obviously, if someone wearing a convention badge behaves badly towards other convention members at a private party, you can still complain to the convention and expect him to have his badge taken away. But again if he is a guest in the hotel he still has a right to his room there, and to be in the hotel’s public spaces.

The key here is good communication and cooperation between the party throwers, the convention staff and the hotel. If someone has to be thrown out of a party at a convention (and that should be done by the people running the party, though they may ask the convention for help) then the convention staff should be informed so that they can warn other party hosts. And if the perp continues to be a problem, hotel security can be brought in to deal with the guy. Once they are involved, there is a possibility of him getting ejected from the hotel, and he’s much less likely to try to sue a hotel than a convention.

Hopefully it goes without saying that punching the guy out, no matter how gallant and well-intentioned, is not the right way to go about things.

As we all should know, conventions are put on by volunteers. Those people do have a responsibility to put on a safe event, but equally we all have a responsibility to help them out where we can, not just assume that someone else should deal with any problems. That’s particularly the case if you are running a party at a convention, and even more so if you are serving alcohol. If someone is causing problems, throw them out of your event, and make sure everyone else gets warned.

Finally, this shouldn’t stop when the convention is over. The perp in question apparently claimed to be representing the Canadian small press, Edge. As Jaym Gates lists Brian Hades, the boss of Edge, as one of the people who helped sort things out, I am sure that is not true, and that Brian will already have taken action to ensure that this guy can’t embarrass his company again. But in other cases it may be necessary to report people to the company they work for, or are published by. Jim C. Hines has a helpful guide as to how to do this.

And if anyone happens to have a sample behavior policy that other conventions might want to copy, please let us all know.

Update: Jaym Gates has also blogged about the situation. I note that it was finally resolved when the perp misbehaved in a room rented by someone prepared to do something about it.

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20 Responses to Convention Safety

  1. Harry Markov says:

    It’s peculiar how these things are overlooked. Could it be the fact that this will probably not happen to a man, cause such a lax control over this particular type of behaviour? Assuming that the people in charge also male. Perhaps I’m being rather cynical on this matter.

    Also, am I the only who thinks that this is weird to happen on a SFF convention? I always assumed that they gathered intellectuals with a leash over their instincts.

    • Cheryl says:

      Speaking as a shouty feminist, I find your cynicism entirely warranted.

      As to SF&F conventions, remember that they are also frequented by Libertarians who believe that they should be free to behave in any way that they see fit. What I find disappointing is that this should occur at World Fantasy, a convention that prides itself on keeping out the fannish riff-raff so that respectable industry professionals can discuss business in a refined and congenial atmosphere.

      Oh dear, there’s me doing sarcasm again. Sorry.

      • Harry Markov says:

        Eh, let it drip. I’d add a monocle for further effect, if I had one. I do agree that World Fantasy is crème de la crème as conventions go; from what I understand from the scene. After all, I am isolated way to the East. This is why this incident stands out.

        From what I have read complaints have been made by the right people with the management of the hotel [if I followed the logic right] not taking further action. This puts profit before people, if I have to use current hot phrases and diminishes the importance of the misdeed. It’s as if it’s totally fine if a woman is objectified in the crudest way.

        PS: I do believe in self-indulgence, but not in disrespectful gluttony thereof.

  2. Andrew Trembley says:

    Even in the cases where party hosts make reservations and pay for their hotel room directly, they do so under the terms of the con’s hotel contract. If the con’s hotel contract didn’t have terms allowing parties, the hotels would not allow them.

    Public spaces aren’t really that public, if the hotel is willing to exercise its rights.

    WFC likes to believe itself a genteel environment that doesn’t need much security or operations staff, and in most cases this is true. When that’s wrong, you see what happens.

    • Cheryl says:

      Useful clarification, Andy. Thanks.

      The main issue I’m trying to clarify here is exactly what power the convention has to enforce behavior outside of actual convention space. I don’t think it is as simple as people would like it to be, unless the convention can count on the hotel to back it up.

      I also suspect that a major publisher could, if it wanted to, arrange for a private party to be held in a convention hotel. I think that if anything happened in such a party the convention would be powerless to act, though attendees at the party might think they were at a convention event.

      • Andrew Trembley says:

        It’s conceivable anyone could book a room outside the convention’s room or party block and do whatever they want.

        Individuals without hotel liaison experience rarely know what additional agreements they need to put in place to protect themselves or their interests, though. I’ve seen hotels shut down parties outside the block while hosts complained loudly about their rooms and rights.

        And, if the convention is on decent terms with the hotel and doesn’t care about the rogue hosts, they can often improve their relationship with the hotel by asking for help to shut down unauthorized and problem parties.

  3. Seth says:

    The convention can (usually) remove someone’s membership for bad behavior, no matter where it takes place.

    Anybody can hold a private party in a rented hotel room or suite. While the convention has no direct control over what happens there, it does have control over the membership decisions it makes based on what happens there.

    • Andrew Trembley says:

      The operative word is “private.” Hotels have their own rules.

      In most cases, that means no signs, no open or propped door, no spilling out into the hallway, no support in case of noise complaints and an artificially low limit on people in the room.

    • Cheryl says:

      Exactly. So it is reasonable to expect a convention to take action if evidence of misbehavior at a party is brought to them, but it is not necessarily reasonable to expect convention security to turn up at a party if trouble happens.

  4. I think the convention should absolutely have policies in place, and that staff should know what those are or who to ask.

    That said, I have personally ejected harassers from a space I was in charge of, it’s not that difficult and if you are hosting a party you should be prepared to do this. Sorry to sound judgmental, but I get a little tired of all the hand-wringing and buck-passing that follows these sorts of situations. We need to watch out for each other, individually and as a group.

    • Cheryl says:

      Entirely agreed.

    • Leigh Ann Hildebrand says:

      I’d like to second Espana — I have thrown people out of parties for this behavior. I have reported them. Of course, that’s in part because I come from a con culture in the South that had a zero tolerance policy for harrassing female fans. Cons need to have a clear policy and be up front that party hosts should be empowered to do this.

      By the way, the last time we had a round of these discussions (after the Willis event), I talked about having been harrassed at a well-known fan group’s party space at Worldcon. I ended up being harrassed online, called names, and generally get a lot of shit for having been willing to talk about it. Anyone who knows me in fandom knows how much that experience has colored my perception of that writer and his fandom. It’s also made me pretty reticent to share stories of sexual assault and harrassment at cons — because I’ve gotten villified for “overreacting” while everyone still loves the Bullies in question. *grumble grumble*

  5. Val Otell says:

    I want to commend Cheryl on her even-handed report of what happened. As Chair of this year’s WFC, I can tell you that we did our level best to deal with the problem once we knew about it. When we got the complaint, we notified as many of the committee and staff as we could to be on the lookout for this person. We also checked and found that he was not a hotel guest, thus making finding him more difficult. It was the following day before anyone spotted him. Once we did, four rather large men had a talk with him (5 foot me going wouldn’t have made an impression) and warned him that even the slightest complaint would result in immediate ejection from both the convention and the hotel (we had contacted hotel security, so they were aware of the situation). That night (since the word had gone out via the various electronic media), when he again became a problem, hotel security was called, we took his badge, and he was escorted off the premises. It was done quietly and discreetly so that others would not be disturbed. At the time, we got thank yous for the way we handled it from some of the ladies involved and others who were present. Had he been a hotel guest, the process would have perhaps been faster, but given the circumstances, I believe we handled it in the best way possible.

    • Cheryl says:

      Thanks Val. Obviously we need to ensure that conventions learn from this, but also party throwers and convention attendees need to learn what they can do to ensure that the problem is dealt with swiftly. Ultimately we are all in this together.

  6. My SO used to be part of a crew that did security for several different cons, so I ran this scenario past him and asked what they would have done. His answer is that if there were incidents reported, but no one on the con staff witnessed them, and the accused wasn’t a troublemaker they had previous experience with, most likely someone would be assigned to follow him around. At the first sign of something actionable, the offender would be politely asked to leave the convention or be removed. Possibly by the police, if whatever happened was egregious enough.

  7. Andrew Porter says:

    I’ve done a brief report on this with various links, plus Val’s comments, and sent it out to my e-list of Usual Suspects, plus Val herself.

  8. Darrell Schweitzer says:

    It seems to me that the WFC perp WAS dealt with very efficiently as soon as they found him. On Saturday night I found myself briefly in conversation with someone I didn’t know, but who seemed to know who I was, on the porch area outside the hospitality suite. Suddenly two guys came up from either side and said to him words to the effect of, “You’ve gone too far, you have to leave.” Off they went. I was left standing there, wondering what THAT was all about. This must have been the person in question. It was handled so discreetly that I don’t think anyone else noticed.

  9. James Worrad says:

    I work nightshifts at a hotel. I’m going to speak for the whole of my profession and say don’t deliberate over sexual harassment: come right to us. You are not wasting our time in the slightest. Its why we are there.

    We are more than happy to show someone like this man at WFC the door. In fact I’ve done it at least twice now and will continue to do so. We’re on very safe legal ground doing so and, more than likely, have a good relationship with the local police should things come to that.

    Your safety comes first.

  10. Rina Weisman says:

    The person in question was able to offend people for four nights running before he was ejected permanently from the convention. At one point he was told if it happened again his membership would be revoked, and he promised to behave. That night, Sat., well, security was called, he was escorted off the premises, the con chair then went and took his badge, and the situation with this particular person was ended. The trick now is to make sure – really make sure – a situation like this doesn’t happen again at WFC, much less any other con.

    At no time should any concomm member confront a troublemaker without hotel security in tow; as Cheryl rightly points out, that takes the onus of the blame from the convention, and trained professionals can deal with the person if they get rowdy.

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