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I get it. It’s one thing to write up policies on harassment and appropriate behavior for a convention. It’s another to find yourself in the midst of a mess where you have to enforce them.

Emotions are running high. The person accused of violating the policy isn’t a mustache-twirling villain, but someone who’s been attending your con for years. They’ve got a lot of friends at the con — possibly including you. If you enforce the consequences spelled out in your policies, someone’s going to be upset. Someone’s going to be angry. Someone’s going to feel hurt. It feels like a no-win situation.

And it is, in a way. There’s nothing you can do to make everyone happy. But we’ve seen again and again that there’s a clear losing strategy, and that is to do nothing. To try to ignore your harassment policy and hope the problem goes away on its own.

It won’t. As unpleasant as it is to be dealing with a report of harassment, doing nothing will make it worse. Here are just a few examples from recent years.


ReaderCon: In 2012, a ReaderCon attendee reported ongoing harassment by René Walling. Readercon had a zero-tolerance policy for harassment. Whatever you might think of zero-tolerance policies, this was the promise the con had made. The board ignored its own policy and instead issued a two-year ban.

This generated a great deal of anger and backlash. In the end, the entire board resigned. ReaderCon issued a formal apology and voted to reverse the board’s decision and enforce a lifetime ban against Walling.

World Fantasy Con: In 2013, WFC chose not to have a harassment policy at all, saying in part, “…it is extremely unusual for this kind of behavior to take place at a World Fantasy Convention, as it is largely a professional-oriented event.” (Source) Multiple people ended up reporting multiple incidents of harassment. The convention did…pretty much nothing.

One of the effects of this and other harassment-related mistakes has been long-term damage to the reputation of the convention. I know professionals who refuse to attend for this reason.

WisCon: In 2013, at least one person reported Jim Frenkel to the convention for harassment at WisCon. This was not the only report of harassment WisCon had received about this individual. The convention later said they misplaced at least two complaints, and Frenkel showed up again in 2014.

Frenkel was “provisionally” banned for four years in July 2014. At least one member of the concom resigned. In August 2014, the con voted to permanently ban Frenkel from the convention. Natalie Luhrs has a roundup of some of the reactions and negative press that came about as a result of the slow and inconsistent handling of harassment.

ConText: In 2014, a consuite volunteer named Jeffrey Tolliver was banned from Context following multiple complaints about this individual’s conduct. However, this process involved a great deal of internal conflict over the enforcement of the harassment policy, to the point that several volunteers resigned because they did not trust the convention to take harassment seriously. There were also statements defending Tolliver as a long-time volunteer, a friend, and someone who was being attacked for being old/clueless.

In addition to the volunteer resignations, the ConText board was (I believe) eventually dissolved, and ConText was cancelled for the following year.

ConQuesTMark Oshiro just talked about the racism and harassment he experienced as Fan Guest of Honor at ConQuesT. He followed the convention’s processes in reporting the incidents. Eight months later, after multiple follow-ups, he discovered that nothing had been done.

At this time, one member of the concom has resigned, and it feels like most of the SF/F internet is discussing all the ways ConQuesT dropped the ball and screwed up.


These aren’t the only such examples, but I hope they’re enough to see the patterns.

Again, I’m not trying to pretend that enforcing such policies is easy. It’s not. We go to conventions to have fun. Volunteers pour countless hours of work into the events, trying to host a successful weekend party for everyone involved. No one wants to have to deal with confrontation. But choosing not to deal with it is almost universally worse for the convention, leading to things like:

  • Resignation of volunteers
  • Negative publicity, including people publicly stating they won’t be coming to your convention
  • Cancellation of the convention
  • Feelings of anger and betrayal from attendees
  • A lot of broken relationships

And in most cases, the convention still ends up having to follow through on its harassment policies and deal with what happened.

The logic seems pretty simple to me. It makes a hell of a lot more sense to just follow through on policies in the beginning. It sucks to have to do it, but it sucks even more to be dealing with all the additional consequences of not following through.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 66 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 23rd, 2016 11:21 pm (UTC)
First : you make a policy, enforce it. Don't want to or want exceptions? Don't write it. It's time to stop making apologies for this kind of thing, if you're an adult and consider the work you're doing professional: do it or don't set up the guidelines.

Second : Again with the stop making apologies. If someone does something bad? Someone has done something bad. EVEN IF the situation is "accused" and not "proven". Enough with this hopping around the issue. I don't care if you like them, they're awesome or George RR Martin... if they're accused you do right by everyone and do your damned job.


This whole thing that we allow "but I know X" or "they've always been (Y)..." into these conversations is beyond asinine. I. Don't. Care.

"Oh, he was always such a nice neighbour... before he stored men's heads in his fridge."

I just do NOT care.

Do the damned job. Investigate and APPLY your own damned rules. If you can't do it or want to give preferential treatment to your friends, to ignore things or mitigate them due to your FEELINGS... get the hell out of the way and let some one who can do it step up. Recuse if you have to. Protest, even. Within the confines of your system.

But to block, to cherry pick the rules and when / how you'll apply them?

Yeah. No. If you have more than one person coming to this, corporate deals at any level with businesses or hotels... then you're putting yourself into the world as a service provider for people. Be a damned professional about it.


Edited at 2016-02-23 11:24 pm (UTC)
Feb. 29th, 2016 12:41 am (UTC)
There's a quote from a police procedural TV show (I think Brooklyn Nine-Nine) that my fiancee likes: "Nice motive. Still murder." This is, I think, fairly relevant when it comes to harassment cases. Whatever motive, reason, or intent the person had doesn't matter; they still harassed and hurt someone.
Feb. 23rd, 2016 11:58 pm (UTC)
Context is completely gone. Unless a new entity wants to try and revive it, it's done. :-/
Feb. 24th, 2016 12:06 am (UTC)
There's another side to this too. I have a friend who was a volunteer for years at a convention. He ended up being called on the carpet by the woman who was in charge of the volunteers because of a vague complaint by another volunteer--who happened to be her teenage daughter. The guy (who I know to be a gentleman) explained the situation and the misunderstanding that ensued. I believe his explanation. I think it was--at best--a misunderstanding. At worst, the girl was enjoying some power and drama. [I wasn't in the room at the time, so I don't know.] Nonetheless, he was told he would probably not be allowed to attend again.

I agree with the no harassment policy of cons. I agree with everyone who says those policies must be enforced, and that folks with repeated history must be banned. But I also know of one situation where this attitude backfired. It's a tough thing, with no easy answers.

Feb. 24th, 2016 12:13 am (UTC)
Actually my point still stands. If a person makes a complaint, due diligence should be done. Your friend should have been given a fair chance. The part of this that, absolutely I agree with you, bothers me is the line of thinking that "if some one files a complaint the other person should be booted".

No. There should be a process in place to protect everyone. The problem I have with a lot of these examples that Jim put up is that it's not even about whether or not the complaint was valid. Several conventions simply say "nope, I knew this person, not possible" without following their own rules.

Which should include not only how to file a complaint but how to exonerate one's self - as applicable.
(no subject) - deborahblakehps - Feb. 24th, 2016 12:14 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Feb. 24th, 2016 12:48 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 24th, 2016 12:50 am (UTC)
I can add one to this: an Arisia security staffer harassed members of my team when I was an Arisia volunteer, the head of security dismissed it as not a big deal, we filed reports and followed protocols, and it took years for anything to be done at all. By that time Arisia had permanently lost me and J as volunteers--and we were the sort of incredibly dedicated volunteers who got our div head to sign off on a timesheet that said "ALL THE HOURS" because he really couldn't argue--and we haven't gone back as civilians either. Taking so long to decide what to do about a very clearcut case of harassment sent the implicit message that they didn't want us there. So we don't go.

A code of conduct MUST include rules for how the concom will handle reports, or it's worthless. "Here's how attendees have to behave, but we get to behave however we want" isn't safety. And the concom and board MUST be prepared to deal with reports about misconduct by those who are relatively powerful: staff members and their friends, longtime attendees, big-name fans and writers. If you go in thinking that outsiders are the ones most likely to cause problems, you don't understand how power dynamics work.
Feb. 24th, 2016 12:53 am (UTC)
And one more: RainFurrest. "We had become a 'safe' space to violate the rules, because we had a long history demonstrating that there would be no consequences." A long read and very worth reading for any convention organizers.

Edited at 2016-02-24 12:59 am (UTC)
Feb. 24th, 2016 10:43 pm (UTC)
Another good post: On Bad Cons & How You Kill An Event in Advance by Mikki Kendall:

Your con is going under and you can’t figure out why the kids today won’t attend, won’t volunteer, won’t put up with the bullshit? The answer isn’t that they are lazy, oversensitive or whatever other excuses you might be making. The answer is that your con sucks, it’s full of adults who skipped all those kindergarten lessons about not touching strangers, not calling people names, not expecting people to be your friend when you’re not a friend to them. And now, as you con runners sit around trying to figure out what went wrong, you’re seeing other cons…cons where young people might have staged coups or created new cons entirely prosper. The secret, the big amazing secret to their success is that they did all those things you’re complaining are too hard. They made their spaces accessible, set explicit standards for behavior, and they didn’t invite you. That’s not disrespect, that’s not forgetting history, that’s solving a problem in advance by not perpetuating it. Try that & maybe your con won’t go under.
(Link: http://mikkikendall.com/2016/02/24/on-bad-cons-how-you-kill-an-event-in-advance/ )

Edited at 2016-02-24 10:43 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - green_knight - Feb. 26th, 2016 04:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 24th, 2016 12:57 am (UTC)
I wonder if part of the problem is that all to often people creating these policies have really unrealistic ideas of the situations in which they're likely to come into play. (I am thinking of the large number of times people have confidently told me that women both feel and are *so safe* at conventions that such and such problems never occur. At which point I usually blandly inform them that I was raped at a con a few weeks after my eighteenth birthday - which wasn't in any way a failure of convention policy, but please, take off the rosy glasses.) So they make policies, thinking that they'll be used in cases of terrible people who they don't know and were always a little creeped out by.

It's... a failure analysis question, really. When designing a harassment policy, keep in mind that

a) it's going to be used.
b) it's going to be used both by people you like and people you don't like.
c) it's going to involve both high and low status people, in both directions.

Sometimes it's going to seem like it's right in the middle of your family. And you need a policy that can deal with your skeevey cousin harassing people... and your favorite cousin being harassed.

[ETA: and vice versa, on that last.]

Edited at 2016-02-24 01:13 am (UTC)
Feb. 24th, 2016 02:15 am (UTC)
I really like the points you make here. "Well, I know X, and I don't believe X would do that" has to be excluded as rigorously as possible from the evaluation of complaints, either structurally or personally (generally by the people who know X recusing themselves from the process).
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Feb. 24th, 2016 02:08 am (UTC)
A couple of years ago I was talking at a con with a group of longtime members, people who'd been in fandom for decades. Jerry Sandusky came up, and of course we were all furious at the people who looked the other way and ignored some pretty obvious warning signs. And then, someone said something to the effect of, "Well, it's not like we have to worry about stuff like that here. We're all good people and keep an eye on each other."

I managed not to fall over. I pointed out the Breendoggle, quoting from the Wiki that mentions him fondling a naked 3yo repeatedly in front of an audience whose main concern was the lack of aesthetic pleasure they received from the sight. People ignored his molesting for YEARS, because it was just Walter being Walter.

Another case where a child was molested by a member of a local hobby group was brought up- the child's mother was not popular, she was a single parent and not the most pleasant person, so people tended to disbelieve. Someone else responded that the people who argued, "Well, he never did anything to MY children," were frequently higher-ranking members who were popular (and not single parents.) Who are you going to pick as a victim, the unpopular shy kid or the one with solid parental backup who can rain down hell?

We in fandom have to avoid that blindness- and smugness- that says that bad things only happen when jocks are around, and so therefore we don't have to worry, because we're geeks and we're nice people, and harassment only happens elsewhere because Geek Social Fallacies 1-5.
Feb. 24th, 2016 02:12 am (UTC)
I think it's very appropriate to name individual harassers where their names have been made known. Did you choose not to do that regarding ConQuesT because there hasn't been any formal process to date? (That seems like an understandable choice if that was your reasoning.)
Feb. 24th, 2016 02:26 am (UTC)
Partly, and partly because I didn't want the emphasis to be about ConQuesT specifically, with all of the discussion already happening, if that makes sense?
Feb. 24th, 2016 05:24 am (UTC)
I think one thing that cons could do as part of their harassment policies is think about how they will process complaints, what they will accept as proof of harassment and a tariff of punishment which may involve exclusions for less than forever.

If you have a commitment to deal with a complaint within a timeframe, and know who has to decide what, by when, and how then the tendency for a complaint to flounder will either be dealt with or will be flagged up to con goers as a sign harassment isn't being taken seriously. If people think in advance about what sort of proof they will accept, it's harder to wiggle out of taking action when good old Bob does something. You're asking people to act in a quasi judicial capacity, and usually without experience with dealing with concepts like prof, guilt, and punishment. Think about the Formal aspects of these in advance when allegations aren't running hot and you've a better chance of dealing with complaints properly.

And thinking about a tariff may de escalate the stress of taking a decision. Zero tolerance doesn't have to mean permanent exclusion, and different types of offences may require different levels of punishment because there is a difference between good old Bob being drunk and a misunderstanding and Fred, who is a predator. But if good old Bob gets con going privileges removed for five years, and then comes back and does it again, then he's out for good because actually it turns out he's a Fred.

In short, thinking about the sorts of decisions a con committee might have to make and how they will be made in advance of complaints gives everyone an agreed framework that strips away the stress of deciding whether good old Bob is a bad person.
Feb. 24th, 2016 12:00 pm (UTC)
If you'll forgive a stupid question from overseas... I'm probably missing something really stupid and obvious. But.

I'm slightly confused as to why Con's need to have strategies in place to handle sexual harassment. If somebody is sexually harassed, is it not the duty of the police to investigate that, and not... some untrained volunteers at a convention?

Is it just that many places in America, the police aren't very interested in listening to young women make complaints of sexual assault?

It's just, having serial convention harassers escorted off premises by police and taken away for questioning and potentially charges, seems like it would make a much stronger statement than somebody being banned from a con for life?
Feb. 24th, 2016 12:32 pm (UTC)
talking loudly about (to use personal examples, as a congoer of fifteen years) how "geez, her boobs look awesome in that corset" or "wouldn't you just like to bend that bustle over a table" isn't going to do much to get police involvement. It's rude and skeezy and harassing as hell, but the police aren't going to get involved with someone speaking rudely, because speaking rudely isn't illegal. But if it violates the con rules, then the con security and staff has the room to do something about it.
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Feb. 24th, 2016 12:49 pm (UTC)
There's also the issue of the protection from harassment of the hotel/venue staff. Over my years in UK fandom I've witnessed far too many incidents of people being abusive verbally to hotel staff but as a group harassment policies tend to omit them.
This, in my view, also includes cons taking the responsibility to find out how the venue is treating its staff and being willing not to use sites that exploit their staff.
Feb. 25th, 2016 01:53 am (UTC)
As usual, wise and well thought through.
( 66 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines


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