Having a Sexual Harassment Policy is not Enough

The topic of sexual harassment, in general and specifically at science fiction (SF) conventions (cons), has been discussed online at length lately, due in part to the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) controversy (for a timeline of events, go here: https://www.slhuang.com/blog/2013/07/02/a-timeline-of-the-2013-sfwa-controversies/).

In response, John Scalzi, former SFWA president, has developed his own convention harassment policy (https://whatever.scalzi.com/2013/07/02/my-new-convention-harassment-policy/), which has been cosigned by more than 1,000 people.* Scalzi essentially says that a con must have a clear harassment policy, that the policy be well-publicized, and that complaints be dealt with promptly and fairly. But is just having a policy enough? I have worked in federal government contracting for 17 years, and although a con is not the same as a work place, following similar anti-harassment guidelines would not be a bad place to start. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” (https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/fs-sex.cfm). While the subject of filing a complaint has been addressed by Scalzi’s policy, the subject of sexual harassment training has not, which is an action the EEOC encourages. There are free online training courses that cons can make available on their website to those interested in taking them, or even as hard copies at the site of the con. One of these online courses (University of North Carolina [UNC]: https://freedownloadb.org/ppt/sexual-harassment-training-2006513.html) has a specific policy for not using “dangerous words” when addressing sexual harassment complaints:

  • “It’s just teasing. No big deal.”
  • “I know he/she didn’t mean anything like that.”
  • “It’s your fault for dressing so provocatively.”
  • “Just ignore it.”
  • “He puts his arms around everyone.”
  • “We’ve never had a complaint, so we don’t have a problem.”

These phrases should be avoided at all costs. However, similar phrases have been offered as excuses or justification when discussing sexual harassment at cons. If nothing is done to proactively change the culture of “business as usual,” then it will remain the same, or change too slowly. Ultimately, sexual harassment prevention should be a goal of any con, not the parsing of fine distinctions of how many times a person has to initiate unwanted behavior before it’s considered harassment. UNC has a handy checklist of self-reflective questions to ask before initiating any questionable behavior (some are listed below):

  • Does this behavior contribute toward achieving our goals?
  • Could this behavior be sending out signals that invite harassing behavior on the part of others?
  • Would you say it in front of your spouse, parent, or child?
  • Would you say it if you were going to be quoted on the front page of a newspaper?

And some general tips:

  • Keep your hands to yourself.
  • Keep compliments casual and fairly impersonal.
  • Avoid jokes, words, phrases, and gestures with sexual meanings.
  • Don’t assume that a friendly woman/man will be willing to go to bed with you. Assume only that friendly people are friendly.
  • Respect a person’s personal space.

These lists can be posted around a con site, on the con’s website, and/or discussed at a panel or opening ceremony. I personally believe that since unwanted behavior seems to be pervasive at cons, every con should have at least one panel on sexual harassment. In such a venue, the topic could be discussed civilly, with a moderator, and perhaps even with limited roleplay to instruct participants in how to recognize sexual harassment and decide how to react to it. Changing a particular culture is not easy, but it can be done, with time and effort. So let’s put in the effort to make cons fun and safe for everyone. *[Ed. Note: Including signed by the publisher of Amazing Stories.]

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  1. Sylvia, a good suggestion but one that conventions have been so far unwilling to implement in one form or another.

    I have unwelcome and vast experience with injury waivers from the sport of paintball; over the course of three decades paintball fields learned (mostly by being sued successfully) that abrogating their responsibility by having a customer sign a piece of paper was not anywhere close to enough to protect the field from both legitimate and non-legitimate claims of injury and negligence.

    Ultimately the legal protections for fields adopted a suspenders-and-belt approach: the customer had to have the waiver (of responsibility) read to them; they had to indicate that it had been read and explained to them and they had to sign it.

    Everything Ceres calls for is needed, but when it comes to a convention, the publication of a policy and signs admonishing proper behavior will ultimately not serve the purpose of protecting the convention. I’ve called for (and been shot down by cons) a system whereby the policy is read, out loud, to every attendee (and the presenters instructed that they are not to let anyone register without hearing the whole thing). This, accompanied by a registry of those who have received the instruction at one convention would allow those who can prove that they have already read and signed to skip that at other conventions down the road (and even there, I know liability lawyers who would say “must be read at every individual convention – otherwise they can say they forgot all about it”.
    I’m not suggesting that the primary issue is protecting conventions from lawsuits (justified or otherwise), but one way to insure a uniform policy (which is one step towards helping to eliminate bad behavior) is to show a con what they must do to eliminate their exposure as much as possible. That means not only having a policy but also in implementing that policy in a manner that insures that everyone attending KNOWINGLY is aware of that policy and the consequences of violating it.

    1. When you say, “protecting the convention,” do you mean shield from lawsuits? Can one sue the convention if they’re subjected to harassment? I’m not an attorney, so I wouldn’t know. But if so, it would only take a few lawsuits to force cons to adopt a uniform policy. I’m just wondering why this issue hasn’t been effectively dealt with years ago.

      1. Well there are three things going on here. First of course is the reality that “anyone can sue anyone for anything”; someone with an axe to grind (a perceived slight) can (and do) use the legal system to harass. Just as one small example: suing someone out of state in small claims court, knowing the other party will not show, obtaining a default judgment and then using such to screw with someone’s credit worthiness.
        That aside (and I’m not a lawyer either so – this is not legal advice, merely opinion), the other two issues are:
        2. having and implementing a policy that is legal, fair and as unencumbered as possible and
        3. how someone might attack a convention over harassment issues
        Taking 2 first: Since the convention is developing, implementing and enforcing its own policies (as opposed to an outside entity doing that for them), IF an issue involving the convention and the policy find their way to court for whatever reason the defense’s attorneys are going to look for ANY weak link. If they can demonstrate that the policy was not equally enforced (or perhaps enforced in a discriminatory manner), it may very well affect the outcome. Even if they can’t prove that, if they can show negligence on the part of committee personnel (being lax on enforcement, not handing out flyers to everyone, etc) again, the outcome may not be favorable to the convention.

        Many liability-related issues that companies go through are done not necessarily to enforce a particular policy so much as they are done to maintain whatever legal protections exist from having the policy.

        For example: a paintball field doing a safety briefing, getting acknowledgement of what safe behavior is, getting the customer’s signature is still not protected if, during play, a game official encourages the players to engage in unsafe behavior. A field owner who doesn’t take action to correct the officials is compounding the problem.

        A convention that puts a policy in place, offers recourse for those wishing to lodge a complaint and one that formulates a policy for handling such and then doesn’t enforce it is also compounding the problem. (Better off to have no stated policy that they can get hung on at that point.)

        By not acquiring positive (demonstrable) proof that every member attending the convention is aware of the policy and the consequences thereof, a convention is leaving a hole open.

        How could a con get sued? An attendee pays good money to attend – money for product/services. If they are kicked out of the con for alleged improper behavior, they could turn around and sue – for the return of a portion of their membership fee and the other expenses incurred while attending and attorneys fees; if the accusations and result are made public, there’s a whole slew of other things the convention could be sued for. If the person derives the majority of their income from business related to attending conventions, there’s another can of worms.

        If the convention’s policies are not rock-solid and not administered in a demonstrably fair, balanced, legal manner in-line with the published policy then in effect….

        How else could the convention be sued? Perhaps a stretch, perhaps not, but victims of alleged harassment who do not get treated the way they think they ought to can also sue, and for many of the same things mentioned previously.

        Either party could also shotgun their suits; sue the hotel, the caterers, the company hosting the party the alleged incident took place at, each individual member of the convention committee and staff….

        I think conventions as a group ought to consult with an attorney on this, but I’m pretty sure that they’ll be told that IF they implement a policy, it needs to be publicly distributed and available for all potential attendees well before the event; it needs to be provided to and explained to each individual attending in a demonstrable manner and it needs to be enforced to the letter of the published policy (which means be very careful when writing it) in each and every case.

        That won’t prevent a convention from being drawn into lawsuits resulting from an incident, but it is the only way (other than 3rd party administration or a policy of no policy) to minimize the risk as much as possible,

        And I think the only way to avoid a crush at registration is to allow regular con attendees to take a class (properly designed) and “register” that fact somewhere (accessible to all conventions participating in the program) that they have done so. After that they only need check off and sign on the line that says “I have read and understand the convention’s anti-harassment policy” and they can skip the briefing (except they’ll need refreshers every X year (5?) and every time there is a change to the policy.

        It’s a pain, I know. To this day paintball fields will not hire licensed medical technicians for officiating staff because of the potential attendant liability issues: hiring EMTs means (at least to a plaintiff’s attorney) that the field anticipated life-threatening injuries, ergo the need for EMTs on staff. (Totally effed up thinking fer shure, but reality nonetheless.)

  2. At the Hoosiercon I attended, there was a bed with a girl in it above the convention suite, and the possibilities involved there might have included blackmail. I went up and took a picture of her and published it in my fanzine. However, there were no consequences and that’s as it should be; I wasn’t harassing anyone, just doing photos for a conrep.

  3. Hm, well, there is sexual havoc at conventions. I know at the Chicon in ’92 I was harassed by a trio of apparently underaged girls who were behaving the same way Anna — and CD — had with Buck Coulson at an ISFA meeting I was at. Coulson could take it and fend for himself and so could I, but they were doing the “badger game” bit in both instances. The badger game is an attempt to instigate sexual behavior with the misbehavior being blamed upon the person originally assailed. Nothing could more qualify as harassment. The points in the article above are ones which are usually brought up where badger game behavior is involved. (Aside from taking a literal doll to a dance at that convention, I did no misbehavior, and I don’t think I could be accused of misbehavior with a doll, or at least there would not be a plaintiff. I did let a few other people dance with her, but they had requested to do so.

    1. John,

      I appreciate the commentary, but it risks edging over into blaming the potential victims. I don’t believe that was your intent at all, but felt it necessary to mention it. I think the real lesson to be learned from “badger games” is that adults ought to behave as adults all of the time, which includes being aware of time and place and circumstance and not allowing oneself to be caught in potentially compromising positions. Kids, of whatever sex and motivated by whatever crazed thoughts enter their unformed brains are placed in a special category of non-responsibility because we recognize that they are not adults and can’t be held accountable for the same things a fully-formed adult is held accountable for. This means: don’t allow an under-aged person into your hotel room without an accompanying adult caretaker (eg – their parent or guardian); don’t invite an under-aged person into the hotel bar to sit at your table; don’t volunteer to “watch the kids” for your friends – even for a moment and don’t take a job at a daycare center where they practice satanism.

      While at AT&T in the 80s, (when I and many other people still had offices with doors that closed), it was strongly recommended by the HR department that when a female worker had a meeting in an office with a male worker, the door of the office ought to be left open. And vice versa. The ranking worker had the responsibility of making sure that this was carried out. (That was of course well before harassment issues involving women taking advantage of men or same-sex harassment was even thought of as a thing, but the general principal ought to apply across the board.)

      The adult is responsible – always. If that means modifying behavior to avoid an accusation, so be it – especially in this day and age when it’s easy to get a witch hunt started. Paranoia is your friend.

  4. I think that’s a great idea. I’m not a Web person by any stretch of the imagination, so I don’t know if adding that to the registration page and scoring it would be an undue expense. Perhaps someone could code a quiz and make it freely available online.

  5. Having a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment is a good start. Forgive me (I don’t know about all the references you’re making), but if we’re talking about conventions, would it be terrible to have a sexual harassment quiz a mandatory form people need to take in order to register for the show?

    My Big is a high school teacher, and she needs to take a sexual harassment quiz every new school year. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt, and it does raise awareness.

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