K. Ceres Wright

Having a Sexual Harassment Policy is not Enough

by , on
Aug 22, 2013

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: http://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 (http://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” (http://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]: http://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.]