Further Thoughts on Harassment

The thread on anti-harassment policies is collecting some useful ideas. This post is not about that. It is about illustrating some of the complexities of the issue.

I’d like to start by addressing the idea, expressed in many posts on the subject, that people, specifically women, have the right to feel safe at conventions. I certainly support that, but at the same time I’m rather sanguine about it as a target because, to a certain extent, I stop feeling safe when I get outside my front door.

I say “to a certain extent” because as trans women go I am very lucky. I’m not pretty enough to have ever suffered from sexual harassment — I’m much more likely to be told I shouldn’t be allowed out without a paper bag over my head (and indeed have had comments of that type from men) — but at the same time I’m not often followed down the street by people yelling “freak” and “weirdo” at me, though it has happened. I’ve never had any trouble using public bathrooms, or changing rooms in clothes stores. I do tend to avoid places like pubs unless I’m with friends, which is true for many cis women as well. But I do have specific events that make me nervous.

Ironically the worst types of events for me are public LGBT-focused events such as Pride days. That’s partly because people tend to go to them hoping to find some freaks to abuse, and partly because people seem to think that Pride is an excuse to ask people all sorts of intrusive questions about their private lives. Conventions, in general, are not a problem, but fear for my personal safety is the main reason why I have never attended the SFX Weekender.

As I noted in my previous post, there is a potential issue with RadFems. I didn’t stop going to WisCon over that. While there are (or at least used to be) people who attend the convention who hold such views, the WisCon committee generally gives them short shrift. If I had any qualms of that sort it was more along the lines of not wanting to be the person who was the cause of Great Drama at WisCon, even if things turned out in my favor.

A more pressing issue for me was potential trouble with trans activists. WisCon has many of those attending, and it became clear that some of them felt that I was Doing Trans Wrong. I had no particular desire to spend my convention being lectured by such people. Judging from what I have seen online, at least one person of that ilk now attends Eastercon, which is one of many reasons why I no longer go to that event.

Of course being lectured on one’s lack of gender correctness is a minor issue compared to sexual harassment or fear of being beaten up. The reason I bring it up is to illustrate that there are things that might make me uncomfortable at a convention, even to the extent of causing me to stop attending, that don’t amount to abuse and shouldn’t result in anyone being disciplined. If Kevin had been able to attend WisCon with me, rather than needing to be at BayCon that weekend, I may have kept attending as I would have had emotional support.

In a way this is a type of cultural issue. There was a prevailing culture at WisCon that made me feel uncomfortable. But even greater cultural issues can arise when you travel to non-Anglo countries.

Finncon, as you should be aware by now, has a sauna at the dead dog party. The Finns, as is traditional, do sauna naked. Most of them have been doing so with their families for years, and are very used to mixed gender naked sauna. For Finncon, because of the presence of foreign guests, a slightly different pattern has been adopted. There is a women-only sauna, followed by a men-only sauna, followed by an open period when anyone can go in. This allows foreigners to enjoy the naked sauna experience without being exposed to mixed-gender groups.

This year one of the Finnish men managed to miss the instructions and joined in the women-only sauna. Most of us were in the lake swimming when he arrived. I wasn’t, because I would have been bitten to death by mosquitoes had I gone outside, so I saw him walk in. He looked harmless to me, so what I did was wait in the ante-room for the others to come back and let them know what was going on. No one had any objections, so we got on with the sauna.

I want to stress that there was no question of any voyeuristic intent on behalf of the interloper. He sat there and chatted amiably with us, then went on his way. Most of the women involved were Finns and unfazed. Liz Williams is a practicing druid and probably used to mixed-gender nakedness elsewhere. And speaking for myself I’m just hugely grateful that I’m allowed in, rather than have someone complain that I’m “really a man” and should be excluded from the women’s sauna.

Sometime later Finncon staff had a quiet word with the interloper who was mortified at having made such a mistake. At the post-con debrief a new policy was adopted to make sure that, in addition to announcements at the event, notices would be posted on the sauna door making it clear who was allowed in and who wasn’t.

Of course it could have been very different. There might have been women involved who objected to a male presence, in which case I would have let my friend Karo quietly take care of the matter. She was head of convention security, after all, and she was right on the spot. And had it not been a mistake on the bloke’s part I have no doubt he would have been dealt with sternly.

So culture and intent play an important part on what can and can’t be done. The important part is that people should agree on what is acceptable behavior, and that those limits should be enforced. Where things go wrong is when one person engages in activities that others find threatening, and when that person is allowed to continue with their behavior despite clearly stated desires and rules to the contrary.

8 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on Harassment

  1. Still another set of reasons why Finncon means so much to you. My first ever sauna in Helsinki was on a boat after the end of the Sillakamarkinat. I was sitting with 2 female friends when a strapping blond 18year old young man entered, complaining that he needed someone to wash his back. Someone – not me – did. No problem, but I had grown up with mixed gender saunas.

    What occurs to me reading the various Readercon reports and your comments above is that different countries have very different attitudes to the treatment of women. While far from perfect, the countries where the status of women is higher (mostly Northern or Nordic) regard a woman’s right to feel safe at public events as axiomatic. Societies with a high degree of ambivalence or woman-hatred show a pattern of transferring those attitudes to women at conferences and public events.

  2. Well said, Cheryl. I myself have not done mixed sauna for two decades or so, just because I am so much more shy nowadays than before…wait…now when I think I actually have, some times. Hups. I had forgotten. You are right, it is all about the situation, about the people and sometimes even about full moon and whisky. But first of all it is about can you feel yourself relaxed and safe among friends.

    Now I also see new good feature of mixed sauna 🙂

  3. My American brother-in-law had a similar culture-difference incident with nudity here in Finland.

    He went with my dad to our family countryside smoke sauna which we heat up on special occasions. The sauna is on bit of a hill at a riverside, the river being only about 20–30 meters (70–80 feet) wide at that point. After sitting around for a while in the pleasant smoke-tinged warmth with a couple of nice cold beers, my dad suggested they go down to the riverside pier for a bit of a swim. As they ran buck naked for the river, he spotted on the opposite bank of the river another sauna. At that moment, the door of the other sauna opens, and a family of four (our neighbours from across the river) came running out, heading for their own pier. Also buck naked.

    My brother-in-law froze. Here he was, running naked in the middle of a foreign countryside towards a bunch of people, also naked, whom he’d never ever seen before. My dad had now reached our pier, looked back, realized what happened, and shouted to him: never mind, they’ve seen it all before!

  4. Of course being lectured on one’s lack of gender correctness is a minor issue compared to sexual harassment or fear of being beaten up. The reason I bring it up is to illustrate that there are things that might make me uncomfortable at a convention, even to the extent of causing me to stop attending, that don’t amount to abuse and shouldn’t result in anyone being disciplined.

    I relate very much to your experiences around this sort of thing. The last couple of conventions I’ve been to have all involved discussions around gender that were attempting to be inclusive of transgender and transsexual experiences. Far from being harrassment, these discussions were deliberately attempting to be sensitive and inclusive. And I’m glad they’re happening and wouldn’t wish to stop them.

    However, the discussions have also included no voices from transgender/transsexual people themselves, that I’m aware of. And I also felt that most of the discussions have been vastly unrepresentative of my own experience. They make me feel acutely uncomfortable for a variety of reasons: not wanting to have to talk/think about such things because they’ve formed an acutely painful part of my life experiences, feeling uncomfortable that people I know and like will be listening to these discussions and believing (wrongly) that they’re an accurate representation of me and my experiences and needs, feeling burdened with an obligation to represent not only myself but also other transgender/transsexual people and feeling guilty that I’m unwilling/unable to step forward and do that.

    So yeah, discomfort. To the point where I think I’m going to have to actively avoid panels and discussions that look like they might touch on such issues. Which essentially means avoiding any discussions relating to gender and feminism and similar. Which is a real shame, because these are issues I care about and want discussed.

    1. I avoided this sort of thing for a long time. Then I won a Hugo and got outed very publicly, so now I do my bit talking about it. Even so, being on trans panels makes me very nervous, because I never know when I’m going to get someone in the audience who is going to put forward a hardline opinion and denounce me.

      Of course we don’t make it easy. There are so many different ways of being trans that it is pretty much impossible for cis people to get a handle on the issue without immersing themselves in the trans community for a while. And those who put themselves forward to speak on our behalf are all too often people who have a “one true way” attitude.

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