Sexual Harassment at Science Conventions: Who Let the Dogs Out?

rodneyThis is partially in response to K. Ceres Wright’s recent blog entry, “Having a Sexual Harassment Policy is not Enough”, but from an entirely different angle. I think that what’s happening at science fiction conventions (the rise in sexual assaults, rude behavior, and general predation) is the product of something the future created: Facebook.

I won’t go into the intricacies of K. Ceres Wright’s essay or any of the replies to the essay’s ideas and analyses. But the essay comes to me today as I am turning in my grades for the second summer session at Arizona State University, where I teach (drum roll!) science fiction online. It’s a very popular class and generally fills at 20 students. (Summers much less–about 15.)

Grades were due today at noon, and the class closed last Sunday at midnight–all papers due, all assignments turned in. Case closed.

Today I posted grades. About a third of the class failed, having not turned in their final paper. An hour ago I got six e-mails from those students telling me that they’re taking “no” for an answer and will be turning their papers in later this week. (Grades were due at noon today, by the way.) I told them all that the class was closed.

One kid said that wasn’t true; that I could accept his grade any time. I said no, that’s not how it works. He fired back saying that he was going to do it anyway. Two students turned their papers in immediately, but I told them they didn’t count. Both announced that they were going to talk to the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts about my behavior because (as one said) I was unfair or didn’t make the assignments clear (which, of course, they were as clear as any metaphor you can apply to clarity).

Mostly, the six responded to me as if I were just someone who posted a Tweet or an opinion on Facebook. This is the future coming home to roost. No one foresaw the way in which users of social media talk to one another. Everyone is treated like an equal regardless of age or expertise. If you have an opinion, it’s just your opinion and any other person’s opinion is just as valid.

The point is: They aggressively make sure that you accede to their point. This is new to me. I’ve written some blogs here that are victim of this change in how we view each other on social media. There are no rules, really, and very little respect. When I’ve posted an opinion, I am attacked personally–not my argument, which I usually try to back up with logic, reason, and quotes. This is what I teach my students. They won’t have it, though, because they think I’m a schmuck.

It’s this kind of behavior that has flowed over into the incidents of sexual aggressiveness at various conventions. Something has changed in our culture, particularly among males. (Did I tell you yet that all 6 of my failing students this semester are male? Well, they are.) I am trying not to be too generalizing here. Not every male is a Neanderthal, either in person or online. But when I read the blog, “Having a Sexual Harassment Policy is not Enough,” I realized that something has changed in a lot of people: it’s a new way of treating people like they were still on the internet. They’ve somehow allowed themselves to think of women as objects to be manipulated. This is, as I say, new.

It’s also the future. I cannot believe how many times I’ve been flamed online–even in my own classes–for just having an opinion. But when I’m in a face-to-face class or at a convention human interaction tends toward civility. Not anymore, I guess. I don’t attend conventions, for reasons I won’t go into here, so I’m not witness to what happens there. But I do have students who do, and their stories are appalling. It’s as if there aren’t any rules any longer. I know this is true in politics. Maybe that’s where they’ve learned this.

But it speaks poorly of young men who, from my experience these last three decades, aren’t doing well in college, are the angriest I’ve ever seen, and in some cases, profoundly disrespectful of anyone beyond their sphere. I have a Ph.D. Doesn’t matter to them. Taught for over 35 years. Phoo. Published eight novels–published in Japanese, German, Portuguese, and Italian. Boring! But if I give them a bad grade, I get my ass dragged in before the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts who demands to know why special genius-child Johnny is being picked on by such a schmuck and dimwit such as myself. It’s like I’m Rodney Dangerfield. I don’t get no respect.

And, apparently, neither do women at science fiction conventions.

Welcome to the New Civility. Thanks abunch, Facebook.

–Paul Cook

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  1. I see two problems.

    Online commentary is voyeuristic. It’s not real dialogue. Consequently, posts are always one sided. The lack of interaction means the writer has to envision responses as they write. Like K. Ceres Wright says, most face-to-face communication is nonverbal and I’ve heard that’s as much as 90%. So interaction with people is on a delayed response. Often times, this leads to enpassioned responses that aren’t thought out because readers just don’t grok the original intent that they’re responding to. I think social networks can actually make some people social nerds; undeveloped social skills because they don’t actually practice live interaction. The lack of live human interaction leads to frustration when confronted with “real” dialogue. Thus the disrespect runs rampant, particularly with younger people.

    A second problem is that people in positions of authority, like Paul’s Dean, should really learn to back up their people. After all, Paul’s an expert. That’s why they hired him into his position. Too many bureaucrats are folding under pressure from frivilous complaints. Admittedly, it seems that a larger segment of the population now beleive that all they have to do is whine and they’ll get what they want. They don’t care that their position is ethically bankrupt, they just want what they want.

    And that sucks!

    Having taught a few semesters under a mentor professor that frequently flunked 50% of his freshman students, I sympathize with Paul because to many students think they are being treated unfair when in fact, they are unfairly accusing others of abusing them when they are actually the guilty party. Stand your ground Paul. If you’re right, your right and the Dean just needs to respect your authority.

  2. We have two sort of harassements:
    – the innapropriate fan behaviors. It’s not Facebook the problem. The behavior on social network is a symptom. The problem is pornography banalization, real TV, the violent urban culture around rap music. All of this “cultural” phnomenon contribute to banalize misogyny and sexism and disrespectfull behaviors.
    – The harassement by edotors and agents. The MBA and business school are to blame. This cursuses teach predotory attitudes. And publishers are wanted to recruit MBA graduate.
    In France we haven’t this problem. Editors know to keep a respectfull attitude with authors and people. The problems with fans are very minor.

  3. I definitely think you’re onto something here! And now I’m going to be especially alert at Worldcon…. I wonder how the panels are going to go, assuming anyone shows up to be in the audience, young or old 😉 But it’s more than just “facebook”. Or lack of respect. Or even miscommunication owing to the paucity of contextual clues. It’s the entire F’in medium, which compels casualness and informality, while celebrating speed and efficiency. I get personal emails from high level corp execs riddled with misspellings, and typo or grammatical errors – the kind they themselves would never tolerate from their secretaries – although I know few people occupy such positions anymore. They’re now all admins. LoL (!) It’s all short-hand now, a kind of new-age Pittman designed for those without the capacity to read more than a paragraph or two before being distracted (attention spans of fleas, right? for anyone under 30). I recall….When advertisers were just beginning to wrestle with “direct e-mail” (to distinguish it from “direct mail” marketing by snail mail) back in the early 90s – when I was still keen on doing linguistic research (my PhD, 1990, analyzing sales letters!) the first formats were almost 1:1 copies of traditional direct mail letters including the salutation (“Dear Home Buyer”) and the obligatory, often multiple “PS:” Within a very short time they realized that the audience would not tolerate, let alone read, what they so willingly had found acceptable (and could be persuaded to open) when it came in a sealed envelope. The medium matters. The net arrived without giving us the time to develop “new rules” – for a form of communication that didn’t fit into established verbal/non verbal, written/oral, interactive/non-interactive categories. Hell, with only the printed word to be seen (even telcons are being replaced by texting), it’s also “goodbye” cursive writing: only private schools here and there are still teaching it. Conventional norms are breaking down, not just for teacher/student communications but all superior/subordinate roles and views toward authority. Cynicism is replacing respect. You’re seeing it with online classes, I’m seeing it in “wiki leaks”. The problem is not change: it’s the rate of change. Things are just moving too fast for us to find good ways to deal with it – and there’s no way it’s gonna slow down.

    1. I absolutely agree that it’s more than Facebook. I’ve been running into this when I reply to various articles on the internet. There, it’s much worse. You’re attacked for no reason at all. Or someone makes fun of your sentence structure, spelling, or handle. Whatever. But it’s flowed over into civil society. I don’t go to cons because I have found traditionally more rude behavior in authors and guests than in the fans. Two years ago I ran into an author, whose name shall not be mentioned, who was a monster. Just published a best-seller and it all went to his head. He dismissed me like I was a fly even though in our argument, I had the better of him. SF writers have done this for years and I won’t go just because I’m tired of rude behavior. Cons should be fun for everybody, but when women are assaulted (regardless how sexy their cosplay costume is), there is no excuse. But it’s come from social media and the internet and it’s the younger men/males who’ve been infected with this. And it is happening faster and faster.

    2. wow Jane, that really adds some weight to the argument – it distances it from that argument summed up by the t-shirt that denigrates youth by quoting from Socrates or Aristotle and then pointing out the quote is 2,000 years old. Old man stick waving. (Come to think of it, I need a picture of me doing that.)
      Anyway – here’s a quote from Socrates: “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

      Well, that may be true, or it may just be an old man waving a stick, but I takeaway two things: one – cliches often reflect the truth and two – maybe they were going from clay tablets to scrolls back then, but that can’t possibly have had as much of an impact as going from analog to digital nearly everything in the space of a generation.

      I suggest anyone who hasn’t ought to read E. M. Forester’s The Machine Stops. It’s online.

  4. Paul, I agree that social media are part of the problem, but I wonder if they’re an enabler, not a cause. There’ve always been those among us (maybe a subspecies) who are bullies, predators, bigots, sexists, harassers, stalkers, or just plain churlish, rude and self-entitled. In the past they may have had a degree of social isolation or sometimes even group reproach. But with social media these people can readily befriend and be empowered by others of their ilk; and so the numbers of their public outrages are growing. The immediacy and near anonymity of these outlets provide a largely penalty-free forum. For much of what they say they have neither personal risk nor responsibility at stake, and so they come to believe there is never one. I think the only effective weapon against all this is to ensure that the consequence of their behavior comes down on them, and I sincerely hope your Dean supports you on this one.

  5. Excellent article Paul. I noticed some of this behavior at last year’s Worldcon, especially during the panels. People would just interrupt panelists with questions and comments, regardless of the number of times the moderator asked people to wait until the end.

  6. You’re absolutely correct, Paul. I hadn’t thought about boorish behavior from this angle, and I find it intriguing. Here’s a quote from an article titled, The Lost Art of Face-to-Face Communication: “If you become overly dependent on e-mail or text messages, you focus on the object, but not the person” ( A lot of communication is nonverbal, dependent on body language, which is lost over the Internet. Thanks for this post!

    1. Yes. We need some kind of markup language, better than smileys, that conveys the emotional content of words; a sentence marked “serious” has an entirely different meaning than the same sentence marked “ironic” (one kind of states a position, the other comments on someone else’s).

      I’m pretty good at live, impromptu, contextual comedy; I can always come up with a funny remark, be it telling, or sarcastic of self-deprecating or whatever. You can imagine the trouble I got into when we all first went on the web; I was always having to re-explain myself.

      Part of our online communications issue is that we are also dropping our statements and comments into someone else’s context. This rarely happens in F-to-F communication as we pick up those local cues and modify our remarks accordingly. Not so on line. Every remark someone makes on line is not received in the context within which it was written, it’s received in the reader’s context. Major opportunity for lost information there.

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