On Harassment Policies

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 Not a ten year ban that gets rescinded for good behavior after a few years.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given the way that convention staffs change with time, I suspect that a “lifetime ban” would be highly likely to be rescinded if the person involved really wanted to get back.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:

  1. We want all attendees to feel and be safe at conventions.
  2. We want a policy that is seen to be fair.
  3. We want a policy that can be implemented easily and effectively.
  4. 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.

30 thoughts on “On Harassment Policies

  1. We could start with: no Board, required to execute a convention’s policies between conventions, is allowed to over-rule a policy set by the wider committee (and may only recommend such to the committee). [And that’s true of any policy by the way. As a bit of a bureaucrat, I’m as much shocked by that.]

    1. clear penalties
    2. clear definitions (I looked up the UK, Protection from Harassment Act, 1997, and it seemed reasonable.
    3. clear involvement of the victim/engagement with the victim.

    1. The Board point is actually very relevant. It applies both to BristolCon and to Westercon 66. BristolCon is responsible to a Foundation, and Westercon 66 is responsible to SFSFC (as its corporate parent) and LASFS (as the owners of Westercon).

    2. Farah:

      Actually, the idea that a convention committee, which in my view is junior to a board of directors of the corporate entity, could trump the Board is surprising to me. For example, ConFrancisco and ConJose (the 1993 and 2002 Worldcons) were committees established by San Francisco Science Fiction Conventions, Inc., a California non-profit corporation (also tax-exempt under IRS 501(c)(3) and the California state equivalent, but that’s not relevant here). The committees are chartered by the SFSFC board. The Chair of the committee reports to the SFSFC board. The SFSFC board can remove the Chair of the committee at its discretion. And the board can establish policies that committees must follow. The converse is that the board of the corporation could (but never has in SFSFC’s case that I recall) order one of its committees to reverse a policy decision. To me, the board of directors of an organization is senior to any committees established by that organization. Readercon may be organized differently, and we may be using the term “Board” in different ways.

      1. Boards are there to execute policy, but if the ConCom is the one that makes policy, it should also be the only one that can over turn it. The Board is elected from within the ConCom.

        I think it is the difference between corporate governance and voluntary governance. Your position makes sense to me when the concom are effectively employees of the board (WFC is a good example).

        1. Putting this in terms Kevin is familiar with, you are talking about a membership-based organization where an AGM of the members can set policy and elect a Board (or in the case of BristolCon Trustees). The situation with Westercon is more like the corporate model.

  2. This is simply from following recent online discussions. The recent Conference Code of Conduct put together by ‘American Atheists‘ seems reasonable. Although it does not seem to have any policies in place once people have been removed. link at skepchick

  3. My SO used to be part of a crew that did security at several conventions a year. This was in the early ’90s, before harassment-specific policies were on the radar, but nevertheless creeps could get themselves banned, and he’s done his share of escorting them out of con spaces. When the Readercon reports started emerging, he mentioned a couple things that I haven’t seen in the online reaction yet.

    One was preemptive banning. In his experience, if a person made trouble at a multiple conventions, they would start finding their membership checks to cons they hadn’t even been to yet returned with a note saying, in effect, “Your money is not good enough for us.” All harassment-specific policies that I’ve seen seem to assume a blank slate for every convention.

    The other was the frustration that security people feel when there are rumors circulating at a con, but there’s been no formal complaint and security hasn’t directly observed the behavior, so no action can be taken. Is there anything a harassment policy can do to help encourage reporting? Promising not to reveal the identity of complainants springs to mind, but so many of these incidents happen in well-populated public spaces and there’s no way a con can put a gag order on all the witnesses.

    1. As one of the co-chairs of Westercon 66, I can say we are taking this quite seriously, including the question of preemptive refusal to admit. I *think* this can be covered by a clause something like the Convention reserves the right to refuse admittance to any individual. In the event of such refusal, recourse shall be limited to a refund of any fees paid to the Convention for an attending membership
      But it’s going to require careful consideration to try to get it just right.

    2. Reporting fail is a vicious circle. If reports are made and are dismissed, people don’t bother to report anymore. But if reports aren’t made, action can’t be taken. We need to establish trust.

      I can understand the concern about witnesses talking about an incident. But that’s better than having no witnesses. It makes it much more difficult for a harasser to downplay his or her actions (yes, I know it’s mostly “his” but I’ve also seen “her”). It makes it much more difficult for a harasser’s friends to deny what happened (yes, I know there are friends who are also harassers who won’t see anything wrong to deny).

      Preemptive banning is a tricky thing, but sometimes it isn’t as preemptive as it looks.

      Preemptively banning someone based on gossip because you’re worried about what he might do, well, that’s politically risky. Yes, I know, until something actually happens because you didn’t. But “innocent until proven guilty” is part of American culture.

      Preemptively banning someone based on reported incidents that resulted in bans at other conventions? That’s not so shaky, particularly if there’s a relationship between the organizations running the cons.

      Preemptively banning someone based on observed behavior at other events connected to the con? Totally clear, and not even preemptive. They violated convention rules and standards, and it doesn’t matter that it’s not within the scheduled dates of the convention. Committee meetings, parties and promotions at other conventions, it’s all part of the convention.

  4. Not part of drafting the policy, and somewhat tangentially related to ReaderCon, but something to think about is that the people deciding these things have in place a plan for public relations when they have to enforce the policy or dismiss a complaint. I can’t imagine the Readercon board thought they would have as much backlash as they’ve gotten. And they are also receiving lots of criticism for not responding to the backlash faster. The reality is they can’t respond in internet time.

    In any case, I would think it would behoove any con to be prepared for dealing with public reaction they don’t expect. There are likely to be supporters of anyone a con takes action against. There are likely to be really pissed off people if a complaint is dismissed, even if it’s a justified dismissal (such as your RadFem complainant example). Assume the Internet will get pissed off and plan for it.

    1. It is a difficult business. Once the Internet gets hold of something, as it has done in this case, there’s really not a lot you can do. One of the things I would like to do is point at a few instances where conventions have dealt with such issues well, but I’m reluctant to do so because I suspect it would only lead to complaints that the convention hadn’t been tough enough on the perp. ReaderCon, I suspect, has no choice but to kick out their Board and start afresh, and even that won’t be good enough for a lot of people.

      Having very clear policies which you stick to is the best way to avoid having things go viral. Had ReaderCon enforced their stated policy they would not be in this mess. But even that isn’t a guarantee. Rene is certainly in a privileged position because of his reputation in fandom, but imagine what would be happening if, instead of being a big name fan, he was a big name writer with a legion of adoring fans.

      You are absolutely right about not being able to respond in Internet time. Farah has a good post about that here.

      1. I think the board of Readercon has let its committee down in a big way, and anyone who supported the slap-on-the-wrist decision ought really to resign.

      2. Even if you have a clear policy things could still go viral. Point being, a con should have a plan for that eventuality. I certainly don’t have the knowledge to suggest how, but there are people who do. This occurred to me because I just read the Freeh Report on Penn State which, among a lot of commentary on the failure to protect young boys from being raped, criticized their board for not being prepared for the public controversy and making things more difficult for themselves. The Freeh recommendations to remedy that won’t work for a con structure, but I think the principle holds.

        1. As I understand it, the problem with Penn State was that they repeatedly turned a blind eye to and/or covered up the problems, so of course they were unable to deal with public controversy. If you have good policies, abide by them, and are transparent about the process, then you are as well prepared as you can be to deal with a public outcry. And if you don’t then no amount of preparedness can save you.

          What you do need to do, however, is have a formal process of dealing with such things. It does not help to deal with complaints via a blog post written when you are angry, tired and drunk, as I believe the BSFA found out earlier this year. If that’s what you mean by being prepared then yes, I’m all for it.

          1. With PSU the criticism in the report directed most of the failure to protect young boys at administrators. The criticism directed at the board was broader and included not managing risks to the university, so that when administrators assured them the investigation of Jerry Sandusky didn’t implicate Penn State, they didn’t have any structure or procedures in place to independently evaluate that.

            With respect to cons, I’m thinking of things like having someone not involved with the decision (perhaps local harassment victim’s advocate) review statements and decisions before release, informing the public of appeal and commentary options (“while we will look for commentary online, to be sure we will receive your feedback, do X”), when discussions will take place (“the board invites comment and will consider it at our next meeting on MM/DD/YY”), etc. It may include procedures to directly inform the offenders and victims (i.e., so that the first they hear of it isn’t via the internet). There may be a lot more; this isn’t my area of expertise. Some of it may seem like common sense, but having that stuff written down somewhere for people doing that can help people do it well when stuff happens unexpectedly.

            And yeah, it should include directions to board/concom members to avoid hastily posted drunken responses.

  5. One additional thing that people running conventions need to come to terms with is that we now exist in an era in which the community thinks that you individually are completely disposable. No amount of good Karma in the past will save you if the community turns on you, which can happen in 15 minutes.

    This is in contrast to a community in which we took a much more live and let live attitude. Certainly there were fannish feuds and attempts to exclude or ban people from conventions (the latter has a long and ugly history). But a lot was forgiven.

    We did not join the SF community because we delight in following rules. Well-known authors have thrown rolls at banquets, have squirted me with squirt guns in the halls (without asking), have scaled the outside of the hotel to get from one party to another to avoid the elevators . . . and I could go on.

    Certainly, there are people who need to be excluded. But the Internet has made the process of exclusion much too easy, much too vicious, and much too arbitrary.

  6. What does an anti-harassment policy need to be? Clear, widely published, with list of consequences, and it needs to be enforced fairly.

    It should be on the con’s website, in the program book, and posted in large type at Reg, and perhaps also on the backs of people’s badges (space permitting).

    CONVergence did this right, by posting humorous signs throughout the con.

    Another way to approach the issue is by educating the attendees. After several egregious “that person” (as in, “don’t be ‘that person'”) encounters at a particular con earlier this year, friends and I–some of us conrunners with decades of experience, others are area fans and pros–got together and started a movement called Nerdiquette 101. We’re based in North Carolina and have done Nerdiquette panels at several cons in NC and a couple in Virginia. Almost all of us in the group, which includes men, have been raped, or assaulted or groped.

    We take a multi-pronged approach. On one hand, we realize that some (a few) people honestly may not realize that they’re being creepy or harassing. Those, we can educate. On the other hand are the predators. We can’t fix those. What we can do, however, is give people some tools for responding to them.

    We encourage people who’ve been harassed to report to the concom, and if it’s escalated into illegal actions, to call the cops. With the awareness, however, that it’s always the victim’s choice whether or not to report, because we’re fully aware, sadly, that reporting can just re-traumatize the victim (because, among other things, you don’t know if you’ll be believed).

    We also encourage cons to develop solid anti-harassment policies, and no, having a cutesy “Let’s all be nice to each other!” midway down a list of rules like “Always wear your badge” really-o, truly-o, doesn’t count.

    Along with that, we encourage concoms to respond appropriately to reports of harassment, and “But s/he’s so niiiiice! S/he’s harmless, really. You must be overreacting.” is NOT appropriate.

    We may be the newest kids on the block trying to tackle the harassment issue, but we’re not the only ones. There’s the Convention Anti-Harassment Project, and the Back Up Project. An offshoot of the Back Up Project, the Back Up Ribbon project, had shut down, but has now reactivated specifically because of ReaderCon.

    In sum: clear policy, clear consequences enforced equally, and education of attendees.

    Thanks for starting this discussion.

    1. With the awareness, however, that it’s always the victim’s choice whether or not to report

      How would you handle a case where multiple witnesses come forward to report something clear and actionable, but the victim doesn’t want to talk about it? How do you balance the protection of potential future victims against a present one?

      1. It’s still the victim’s choice.

        Some people have seriously odd relationships, and are clueless (or willfully annoying) in exposing the folks around them to it. I may see “victim” and not know they feel “normal.”

        Granted, that’s an edge case, and might even be masking real harassment or abuse. If we’re serious about respecting the victim, we have to respect their decisions about reporting and whether or not they’re really being victimized.

        1. Well, the scenario I’m suggesting would be pretty unusual, too. I’d expect any halfway competent harrasser to pick sufficiently noisy/crowded/badly lit conditions that their actions would appear ambiguous to witnesses.

      2. If there are eyewitness reports of clear and actionable behavior, wouldn’t the concom be able to enforce the consequences of the policy without naming the victim?

        1. If there are witnesses there’s a good chance that the name of the victim will leak out anyway. A major reason for not wanting to report harassment is fear of reprisals, and those may happen in places the con can’t control, or even affect.

    2. Thanks, that was all very useful. It also makes it clear that there’s a lot more to a good anti-harassment policy than just a paragraph telling people to behave.

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