FAQ

What is sexual harassment?
Is this really such a widespread problem? Where are these “accounts of harassment” you talk about?
What exactly is an “anti-harassment policy”?
I’ve never been harassed. Why should I care about con harassment?
Can’t con attendees just call the police if they feel threatened?
Why do cons need to spell it out that sexual harassment is unacceptable? They don’t tell anyone not to murder someone else on the con floor.
Why is this even a problem? People should be flattered when someone lets them know they’re sexy.
Do you really think having a policy will completely prevent harassment at cons?
What if I’m accused of harassment and I really didn’t mean to do anything? Won’t establishing a policy like this lead to a lot of vendettas and false accusations?
I’ve written to my favourite con organisers. What else can I do to help?
What can I do if I’m harassed and a con has no clear policy on what to do?
What can I do if I see someone else being harassed?

Got questions? Email us!

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment can include:

- unwelcome sexual remarks, jokes, or taunting
- repeated requests for dates
- demands or requests for sexual favors
- demands or requests that the harassed person carry out a sexual activity with another person
- carrying out sexual activities in a public area, where not all those present have consented
- unnecessary touching, grabbing, patting, pinching
- following or silently observing someone
- leering, staring or suggestive gestures
- anti-queer or anti-trans rhetoric
- assault due to sexual orientation or gender identity (often known as “gaybashing” or “transbashing”)
- forcing a kiss or sexual contact
- sexual assault

(For a more complete discussion, see RAINN’s description.)

What is and isn’t harassment will differ according to the environment and context.  A family-oriented or all-ages con might have a minimum clothing requirement and an expectation that sexual activities will take place only in private. A BDSM convention may not have minimum clothing requirements and although it will expect and require that all sexual activity be consensual, it may not be expected to be private.

Not every physical or verbal contact is harassment, and we don’t expect cons to invest in little plastic bubbles for each attendee. Cons often pack a lot of people into limited space, and some accidental physical contact is a normal (if occasionally discomforting) occurrence in the con environment. What is not normal or okay is unwelcome touching, verbal harassment, or other instances that fall into the categories described above.

- Brushing shoulders with someone on a crowded elevator is not likely to be seen as harassment. Deliberately touching someone’s hair, face or body without permission can be.
- Carrying a “Free Hugs” sign is not likely to be seen as harassment (individual con policy varies on this). Carrying a “Free Hugs” sign, continuing to ask people for hugs when they’ve said no, and moving closer to them can be.
- Consensual spanking with a yaoi/yuri paddle in private is not likely to be seen as harassment (individual con policy varies on this too). Spanking people without prior permission or in public can be.
- Consensual sexual activity with a guest is not likely to be seen as harassment. Groping a guest can be.

Is this really such a widespread problem? Where are these “accounts of harassment” you talk about?

Sadly, it is a widespread problem. Even one incident would be one too many, but there’s plenty of evidence that harassment takes place at cons, or is even accepted to be “just the way it is” (note: this includes at cons with a policy: we repeat that it’s a first step, not a cure-all). In addition to those linked above, here are links to accounts and discussions of a few incidents and general observed behaviours:

Incidents at SDCC ’08
The Open Source Boob Project (took place at ConFusion and Penguicon; many, many links)
Harassment at WisCon32
Harlan Ellison gropes Connie Willis onstage (WorldCon)
Harassment at con parties.
Round-up of guest harassment accounts (scroll down).
Taki Soma reports being harassed (in her own words; scroll down).

What exactly is an “anti-harassment policy”?

It’s an official rule from con organizers stating that personal harassment will not be tolerated at their event. An effective anti-harassment policy is tailored to the audience and atmosphere of the specific con, outlines penalties for transgressors, and includes guidelines for staff and volunteers responding to reports of harassment.

I’ve never been harassed. Why should I care about con harassment?

You can’t assume that will always be true for you, or for people you care about. More importantly, when a substantial portion of the population of a convention feels unsafe, the entire con suffers. Making conventions safe is in the best interest of organizers, exhibitors, guests and attendees — and the more we can do about it internally, the less likely our cons are to be derailed by outside intervention.

Can’t con attendees just call the police if they feel threatened?

Some people may hesitate to involve the police, when they wouldn’t hesitate to talk to Con security. Some harassers may think that what they are doing is perfectly appropriate behavior in the context of a con: if a con makes it clear from the beginning that the behavior is not con-appropriate, we hope that harassment arising from misunderstandings can be prevented without police involvement.

We absolutely encourage harassed persons to call in law enforcement at any time if they feel it is necessary or desirable. However, we know that often sexual harassment and assault are not reported to police: because harassed persons are afraid the police will engage in victim-blaming or not act effectively; because of a potentially costly and lengthy legal process; because they feel humiliated or scared; because the incident was “too minor” to bother; or for many other reasons. In addition, many con attendees and guests are coming from out of state or even out of the country, and don’t have the time or money to pursue an incident in the jurisdiction in which it occurred.

It is our experience that timely intervention from con security and staff can be a very effective way of stopping harassers, and having an established anti-harassment policy in place makes it clear to all potential attendees that the con cares about their safety.

Why do cons need to spell it out that sexual harassment is unacceptable? They don’t tell anyone not to murder someone else on the con floor.

And there aren’t widespread reports of people murdering others, so clearly that’s already understood. But some people seemingly feel that harassment is con-appropriate behavior, and it’s important that cons clearly tell them it’s not.

Many cons have specific rules in their policies against anti-social and/or illegal behavior – no brandishing realistic weapons, or any weapons; no smoking except in smoking rooms or outside; no sleeping in the hotel without a room; no indecent display; no assaulting people with yaoi/yuri paddles. They have those rules, even in those cases where the activity is prohibited by law, because people are likely to do or have done those things in the con environment.

The number of people reporting harassment clearly demonstrates that harassment is one of those behaviors, both anti-social and illegal, that cons need to have established policy against and clear procedures to act upon in the event of its occurrence.

Why is this even a problem? People should be flattered when someone lets them know they’re sexy.

Harassment isn’t about polite and respectful admiration. Polite and respectful admiration doesn’t tell the admired person how they “should” feel about it.

Do you really think having a policy will completely prevent harassment at cons?

No. Sadly, nothing can completely prevent harassment. What an established, articulated anti-harassment policy will do is discourage harassers and assist the harassed. Potential harassers may hesitate in the knowledge of a well-publicized anti-harassment policy, and are utterly unable to use “I didn’t know” as an excuse. Harassed people are able to make use of clear policy and well-trained con staff to address the harassment.

Moreover, having a policy tells con-goers and potential con-goers that you care about their safety and are prepared in the event of harassment. It says that yours is a responsible con that wants everyone to have a good time. It also encourages mutual respect among your staff, guests and attendees.

What if I’m accused of harassment and I really didn’t mean to do anything? Won’t establishing a policy like this lead to a lot of vendettas and false accusations?

It’s not very likely. Most people go to cons to have fun and hang out with fun people; they’re unlikely to file a false report to carry out a grudge. The small chance of this happening does not outweigh the benefits of establishing, articulating and acting upon anti-harassment policies to con staff, con-goers, and public perception of the con.

Moreover, one of the benefits of a convention having a clear anti-harassment policy means that everyone involved has had the opportunity to be aware of what counts as harassment and what doesn’t, and that the people assessing the harassment report will have been trained to recognize it.

Finally, be aware that it’s entirely possible to scare and harass people without meaning to, or with the impression that you were just being friendly or just flirting. It isn’t a nice feeling to realize that you’ve inadvertently harmed someone, but the knowing where the line is drawn will help you avoid crossing it.

If someone lays a complaint against you, listen, and be aware that your actions may not have come off as you intended them. If so, be prepared to apologize, sincerely and without qualifiers, and understand that, in such a situation, comfort and righteous indignation will always take a back seat to safety.

I’ve written to my favourite con organisers. What else can I do to help?

Thank you for asking! Here are some ideas:

- You can help spread the word. Link to CAHP in your blog, livejournal, or personal webpage, and encourage others to do the same.

- You can join your local convention committee or volunteer to help staff it. Most cons really depend on volunteers, and the more people volunteering who are aware of harassment at cons, the better. Volunteering at cons is also a great way to get involved and meet awesome people!

- You can encourage your local comic-book shop to host an anti-harassment workshop before a major convention.

- You can check out complementary projects like Open Source Women Back Each Other Up Project (and Gentlemen’s Auxiliary) for more ideas!

What can I do if I’m harassed and a con has no clear policy on what to do?

It’s often hard to know how to react to harassment, especially in a con environment where you might have been just minutes before part of a community having fun.

Your safety should be paramount. As soon as you can, make sure you’re in a safe place, and seek support — if not from the con staff, then from friends, family, and, if you want, local law enforcement. If this entails leaving the con and staying away, make sure the organizers know exactly what’s going on and why — and that you won’t be back until they get their act together.

What can I do if I see someone else being harassed?

If you feel safe doing so, step in — or, if you think it’s bigger than you can handle, grab a few friends or call con security or local law enforcement. Contributors to the Open Source Women Back Each Other Up Project (and Gentlemen’s Auxiliary) lists a number of ways you can intervene if you see harassment — or suspected harassment — in progress. These ways are gender-specific, and there are special issues involving race, sexuality and transpeople, so read up and be prepared to adapt to the situation you find yourself in.

Many self-defense and martial arts schools are beginning to offer what’s known as “bystander training”–teaching people to safely and effectively intervene if they see harassment, abuse, or assault taking place. You can find an overview of the philosophy behind bystander training here, here, and here.

Got questions? Email us!

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