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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

World Fantasy Convention: A Possible Sexual Harassment Policy

If you haven't heard about the latest pile of B.S. already, then you need to read this, this, and this.  The short version:
A man at the World Fantasy Convention made several women incredibly uncomfortable by a) inappropriate comments made towards them, b) groping or touching them inappropriately, and/or c) blatantly disregarding their complaints and the complaints of others who had witnessed his behavior.
To start, we should probably get a few things out of the way:

  1. The man in question is most likely mentally ill, as comments he made about his magical abilities seem, in my mind, to extend well beyond typical masculine bravado about one's prowess with the opposite sex.
  2. Being mentally ill doesn't excuse bad behavior.
  3. Conventions in our community must have a clear, printed, and official policy and procedure for dealing with any instance of harassment, sexual or otherwise.
#3, to me, is non-negotiable.  The incidents discussed by Stina Leicht, Alisa Krasnostein, and others are not unique to World Fantasy Convention.  These things happen at conventions all around the country (and elsewhere).  They may not occur in the same form, but they happen nonetheless.

We are not immune to sexual harassment in our genre community, and at no point can we pretend that perverts, the mentally ill, the socially inept, the socially insensitive, and so on don't exist or won't exist.  This all makes me feel like the problem has never been adequately addressed.  That can't continue.

With that in mind, I think what we need most is a procedure for dealing with harassment that can be adopted at conventions, placed in program books, and made publicly accessible to convention attendees.  Part of that will hopefully discourage people from engaging in inappropriate behavior, but it won't do much to those who, quite frankly, have never been properly punished for their conduct.

I don't know if I am qualified to provide a set of procedures, but I'm going to give it a shot anyway.  Folks are more than welcome to contribute to improving these guidelines.  If anyone is a lawyer or knows sexual harassment law, it would be great to get your input.

A Guide to Harassment at Conventions -- For Convention "Staff"
  1. Convention staff should be briefed on how to deal with potential harassment reports, and should be provided relevant phone numbers, information on where to find security personnel, and other relevant information.
  2. Convention staff should have a "group" designated to maintain a "database" of complaints.  They should be easily locate-able (such as at a general information desk), should take down relevant information about the alleged offender and the alleged victim, and should follow the procedures listed below as necessary.
  3. Convention staff should assess the severity of an incident before deciding on a course of action.
Convention Procedures for Harassment -- For Anyone
  1. Actions should be divided, broadly speaking, into the following:  notification, warning, temporary removal, permanent removal, and ban.  These can be explained as follows:
    • Notification:  telling an individual that their behavior is inappropriate (either by the convention staff or the victim)
    • Warning:  telling the offender that continued behavior will not be tolerated
    • Temporary removal:  a stern version of a warning, in which the offender is asked or made to leave an area
    • Permanent removal:  the offender is removed from the convention grounds or arrested
    • Ban:  the offender is permanently removed from the convention and all future conventions.
  2. The first course of action is to alert the individual of his or her inappropriate conduct.  In many cases, people are simply ignorant of appropriate social behavior and having someone -- whether the victim or a person in a position of authority -- tell them so can do a great deal of good.*  However, if the offense is serious enough, speaking with convention staff or deferring to appropriate authorities may be important.  The severity of the action should determine where convention staff begin their procedures.
  3. The second course of action should be to warn the offender that a serious response will be made if the conduct continues.  Serious offenses (which I'm not sure how to define) should be reported to staff.
  4. The third course of action should be to remove an offender from a certain area, perhaps as a way to tell someone to "cool off."
  5. The fourth course of action should be removal from the grounds.  This might mean police need to be involved (and I would strongly suggest that the police be informed if there is a legal component to the offence).
  6. Multiple offenses should be addressed promptly and with precision.  At no point should an individual who has harassed multiple people (or the same person multiple times) be allowed to continue participating in the convention.  If one's conduct does not change after a warning (or two), then that person should be kindly escorted from the convention.  Serious discussion could be had about whether their membership should be revoked.
  7. If an individual is a repeat offender, they should be arrested and appropriately charged and permanently banned from the convention grounds indefinitely.  This should be treated as a kind of restraining order.
To be fair, all of the above procedures are poorly constructed.  I don't know how to put these things together.  How do you know when to issue a warning or when to talk to the offender?  How do you know when something is serious enough to deal with immediately (with authority figures present)?  Is there a way for convention staff to easily assess the accuracy of reports?  I don't know the answers to these questions.  But we still have to have this discussion.  Not next month.  Not next convention.  Now.


*I'll use myself as an example.  It is likely that I have said or done something that another person deemed as harassment.  It's just as likely that I have sexually harassed someone without meaning to.  I think a lot of people don't intend to harass someone, but intention is rarely relevant in cases of sexual harassment.  And if I'm am guilty of such behavior (I've never groped anyone, just to be clear), I sincerely apologize.  The point is that even well-meaning people can be guilty of bad behavior.

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  1. Anonymous3:04 PM

    This person was repeatedly asked to leave the parties; the con chairs were not able to revoke his membership until Saturday night after a particularly egregious incident. His identity was known, but because he wasn't staying at the hotel, it was very difficult to find him at the convention. When they did, he promised to behave, and so they let him stay; but he didn't behave, and so Sat. nite it all came to a head and his badge was taken away.

    It's one thing to have a policy; it's another to enforce it. I was told, that after last year, WFC had a zero tolerance policy. But someone has to be willing to enforce that zero tolerance. Giving someone four or five chances does not constitute zero tolerance.

  2. Agreed. This tells me that what needs to happen is the WFC has to set out to enforce the rules it has established for itself.

  3. As one of the people at the forefront of responding to this issue, and the person who has been wrangling the situation since, I will say that WFC2012 will have a policy ON THE BOOKS, and I will do my best to ensure that they also have people in place to enforce it.

    For the future: we're building a grievance committee so that such issues, if not resolved satisfactorily, are not lost by the wayside. It also will allow conventions and organizations to be aware of problems before they start.

    For everyone talking about this issue, thank you. Speaking up and showing support makes things a lot more likely to be fixed.

  4. I would just add one thing -- not my original thoughts, but I have to apologise, I can't remember who came up with this first.

    It would be helpful to have something in official policy about the Con chairs speaking to hotel management about policy as well, and agreeing with hotel management how issues should be handled. If the hotel is a large one, they are likely to have their own security policy anyway, and it is much better to be working with that than in ignorance of it. I mean things like: does the hotel have its own security and prefer that you use them as a point of contact with police if necessary? Or do they prefer that people contact police directly? Do they in fact have a specific point of contact AT the police?

    Will bar staff be informed of how to handle requests to cut people off?

    That kind of thing. Otherwise the hotel is more likely to be a blind alley for some complaints, or hotel staff unhelpful for fear of doing the wrong thing if they are asked to get involved.