Harassment – You Just Don’t Get it

There is a big debate in the skeptical community over harassment.  I’ve been thinking (and reading) about it a lot.  I have friends who think that it is a big deal and I have friends who think that it is obnoxious.

So here’s the thing:  the whole debate is between two groups of people.

On one side, you have women (and men) who have been made to feel uncomfortable at large-scale skeptical events (as well as those who sympathize).

On the other side, you have people who haven’t.

It is all well and good to say “you guys are overreacting to the situation” when you haven’t experienced the problem yourself.

The question we all need to be asking if this: if a woman (or a man) is saying that they have felt harassed, what should we do about it?

Thing one: we should assume they actually felt harassed.  Right?  They say someone made them feel uncomfortable in more than a socially awkward “please try to understand personal space” kind of way and they ought to be taken seriously.  Am I missing anything in this equation?

Thing two:  we (and by we I should stress I mean “anyone who the person talks to but certainly whoever is running the convention”) should do something about it.  I’m not saying we have to mobilize a police force.  Maybe we just need to run interference.

Point is, nobody goes to a convention to feel harassed and if they feel that way, there ought to be some sort of policy in place to make sure they can get away from that situation and – and this is very important – be relatively confident it won’t happen again.

On the other side, we have a bunch of people who feel that some sort of harassment policy gets in the way of their ability to publicly flirt, hug and engage in other sorts of social interaction that goes beyond a handshake.

Uh…no it doesn’t.  It just means that if you are going to engage in those kinds of  interactions, you ought to make sure everyone is OK with it.

Now, can someone tell me what the big deal is with that?

It doesn’t have to be verbal (although if you are at all uncertain it really ought to be) but there needs to be some sort of an opportunity for the parties involved to opt out of an interaction.  If you walk up to someone you don’t know and you give them a hug, that’s creepy.

If they are wearing a “free hugs” sign, you’re probably OK.

Let’s explore a few examples.

Several years ago, I was at a convention with a female friend and we were engaging in a conversation with a creepy fanboy.  By “engaging in a conversation with,” I mean “desperately trying to avoid eye contact with.”

After several minutes, he decided to put his arm around her shoulder.

She shot him a sharp look and he said “oh, is that not OK?”

So, what happened there?  Was what he did OK?

No, of course not.  You don’t get to put your arm around a woman you don’t know without some sort of explicit agreement that she is willing to let you put your arm there.

This happened in a public room with lots of people around and it happened to a woman who was completely capable of stating that what he did made her uncomfortable and he was going to stop or she was going to cut his arm off.

What if it had been a teenaged girl who was less confident?  What if it had not been in a public room?

Is it better that a convention has some sort of explicit policy in place that says “you don’t have to stay in this uncomfortable situation” or should we just hope she knows that?

I”m asking because some people felt the “costumes are not consent” campaign at CONvergence was obnoxious.

I’m pretty sure the people who felt that way have never felt trapped in a situation like the one I describe above.

Now, let’s explore the other example.

I spent quite a lot of time at the Skepchick party room this year.  For those of you who don’t know, they had a much maligned anti-harassment policy.

So we can assume that because of this explicit statement that you didn’t get to act like a douche in the Skepchick/FreethoughtBlog party room, the room was pretty dull.  No hugging, no joking around.  A pretty staid and stoic environment, right?

No.  That’s idiotic.

I got hugs from some women I knew at the party and – this part is going to shock the hell out of you – they initiated the hug. 

Of course my involvement in Vilification Tennis would be a problem, right?  We tell some pretty misogynistic jokes so that’s bad, right?

Actually, no.  Kammy, who organized the party, is a big fan of Vilification Tennis.  I’m sure other skepchicks didn’t know about it or might not like it but we actually had some very good conversations about Vilification in which we talked about the theory behind our show (everything has to be on the table or you imply that some of what you are saying is OK).

You know what?  They get it!

Now, if I’d started throwing misogynistic insults at some of the women in the party, that would have been bad because I wouldn’t have been playing Vilification Tennis. I would have just been insulting someone based solely on the fact that they were a woman.

You know, like calling Rebecca Watson a cunt because I don’t agree with her rather than engaging her in a rational discussion about why I don’t agree with her.

My point is this, the party was not some sort of stoic event where everyone was afraid they might say or do the wrong thing.  There was a shit ton of booze, a lot of hugging and laughing and it is entirely possible there was flirting and some of the folks there might have even had sex.

Asking for a harassment policy is not the equivalent of making a convention less fun.

In fact, it makes the convention more fun because people who find themselves in an uncomfortable situation can get the fuck out of it.

At the CONvergence post-mortem, several teens brought up how important the safe space campaign was to the young women in their room.

These young women were new to the convention and many of them were nervous because of the overt sexuality on display by some folks at the con (all of whom were consenting adults and OK with what was going on).  They needed to feel like they didn’t have to participate if they didn’t want to.

They had nothing but praise for the concept.

So for those who believe that it was over the top in some way, let me make this really clear it wasn’t there for you.

It was there for the people who have been made to feel uncomfortable.  And there were a lot of people who were very happy it was there because it made the convention feel like a place that gave a shit about their safety and boundaries.

And I’m going to further bet that those people who wanted to flirt, hug and maybe even hook up at the con were able to do so.  Guys who wanted to stare at women’s breasts had an ample number from which to choose.

The Bacchanalia continued unabated and those who did not wish to participate were made to feel like they didn’t have to and it was okay.

So will someone please tell me what the fuck was wrong with that?

While thinking about the answer to that question, think about this: as a convention organizer, having an explicit anti-harassment policy makes my life easier.

You know why?  First, by making sure people know that sort of shit isn’t OK, they do it less.

Second, the people charged with managing the convention attendees have a set of guidelines to follow that helps them determine if a situation is becoming a problem.  If CONvergence didn’t have an anti-harassment policy, it would have been up to each individual wandering host to figure out what they needed to do in a given situation.

With an explicit policy, everyone is working with the same set of rules and that makes them easier to enforce.

In reading the blogs by people who seem to think there is something wrong with asking for an explicit harassment policy, I’ve noticed a few things.

One, most of them are men.  Not all of them, to be sure, but a very significant percentage.  Example?  On one particularly horrific thread I read, there were 202 comments and I found one woman who agreed with the initial post.  No I’m not linking because I don’t think it is worth finding.

Two, many of the women who do voice support for this sort of thing say they have never felt harassed.  Which, frankly, is great.  Good for them.

An anti-harassment policy is not for either of these groups.  It is for the people who have felt harassed.

The women who enjoy that kind of attention and don’t feel uncomfortable are already giving their consent, both verbally and nonverbally.  They are cool with it.  Good for them.

The men who want to engage in that kind of behavior seem to think that all women should be like these wonderfully open ladies.

They aren’t.

Get the fuck over it.

It doesn’t make them frigid.  It doesn’t make them cunts.  It just means they want the ability to tell you what kind of social and physical interaction is OK.

And if they don’t tell you something is OK, you need to accept that you shouldn’t do it until they do.

We may all think this is a little problem that affects very few people.  If we go by sheer numbers, that is probably true.  A very small percentage of women have been made to feel uncomfortable at skeptical/geek conventions.

So what percentage is OK?  What do you guys think?

To the women who experience this kind of abuse (and yes – it is abuse), it isn’t a small thing at all.  It sucks.  They feel like their voices don’t matter and that the only thing that matters to the men at the convention is the size of their breasts and their willingness to flirt and be physcially touched by any guy who is in the mood.

Their voices do matter.  That means we should be working to ensure they feel comfortable using them.

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About Petsnakereggie

Geek, movie buff, dad, musician, comedian, atheist, liberal and writer. I also really like Taco flavored Doritos.

10 responses to “Harassment – You Just Don’t Get it”

  1. Charlotte Haas says :

    Hey Tim.

    I’m a Convergence attendee, and a woman, and I have never felt particularly harassed at any con I have attended, and you know what? I thought the “Costumes are not Consent” campaign was a great idea. Some women and men, and more often girls and boys, at conventions DO get harassed, and it is important for them to know that not only is there “safe space” but that they can go to any con volunteer, and get help.

    I pointed the posters out to my teenage son, and it sparked a good conversation about what consent is, what behaviors are often seen as being harassment, and how to get help if he felt harassed, or if the girls he was hanging out with felt threatened by his (or someone’s ) behavior.. It’s a conversation we might not have otherwise had and that is a Good Thing.

    Thanks for the well thought out post.

  2. UAJamie says :

    Hi TIm, quick comment. As someone who goes to lots of conventions wearing my “Hug Me! I’m Vaccinated!” shirt, it is still not ok for strangers to come up and hug me without warning. It is not uncommon for guys to try to hug me that are doing it in an excessively creepy way in which it is clear they are more interested in rubbing their bodies on mine instead of engaging in a normal, friendly hug. Just because my shirt says “Hug Me!” on it, doesn’t give auto-permission. I still need a chance to turn it down if I see fit. However, the “Hug Me!” shirt is an invitation to ask for a hug. I love wearing it because I love giving out hugs, but I don’t appreciate getting hugs with no warning and no chance to refuse.

    Otherwise, fantastic post!


    • Petsnakereggie says :

      Good point. Do you think the “Hug Me” shirt sends a different message than a “free hugs” sign? To me, the message is quite different. I would still think that you should make sure the hug is OK but I think that a “free hugs” sign (usually worn by creepy looking guys in my experience) sends a sligtly different message.

  3. Quynh says :

    Bless your heart for writing this. I’ve been going to cons ever since I was a 17 year old teenaged girl and was always just skeeved off by the amazing amount of awkward that I am still ill-equipped to handle because it just defies all common sense. I am especially pleased that a DUDE gets this and can translate the sheer amounts of discomfort that a woman feels TO OTHER DUDES and also drive home the point that this policy is for a minority of people who benefit deeply from the backing of the powers that be.

  4. John Slade says :

    Great discussion and analysis of a great point. I thought Costumes Are Not Consent was brilliant. And I hope it continues. And I’ve followed the skeptic thread through Amanda Marcotte’s writing, and yes to that too. Good on both communities for making steps to make safe space.

    And some people who have always had privilege should think about it.

  5. Sarah says :

    If I had anything to fault to “Costumes are Not Consent” campaign for, it’s for providing warning without education. I wish there was an easy way to teach the socially inept where the line is, because while folks like you and I may think overstepping such a line is obvious, it isn’t for everyone. There are kind and intelligent men (and women…but mostly men) of little or no social skill who have stumbled around in a sea of non-verbal queues all their lives, and are regularly bitten by it. These men gravitate toward geek cons because they’ve been driven out of other social enclaves, and so are over-represented among us. To them, such a sign can be genuinely frightening, not because they’re offenders of the policy and are mad that they can’t get away with it anymore, or because they have a vague sense that any restriction on their total freedom is bad, but because they have no idea whether or how often they’ve been in violation.

    And I believe, totally, that the chilling effect felt by these men is an acceptable price to pay for the benefits of a good anti-harassment policy. But I feel for them none-the-less. I wish I knew a way to fix it. I am, at heart, opposed to anyone feeling shamed when they have done nothing wrong.

    Also incidentally, I have never myself attended the “how to talk to girls” panel. I am not their target audience. If this is a good place for extended exploration of how to help everyone feel comfortable and safe at Convergence, I’d love to hear from anyone who has, and find out if this sort of thing is talked about there.

    • Another Sarah says :

      I can appreciate the compassion you feel for those who legitimately just don’t get it; a large portion of harassers don’t understand that they’ve crossed a line because they are bad at reading social cues; or even just misread a particular situation. It doesn’t help that social conditioning often primes people to read friendliness from women as flirtation.

      I would like to quibble with your assertion that they have “done nothing wrong.” Even the socially inept need to be held responsible for their behavior. We don’t give psychopaths a ‘get out of jail free’ card because they are incapable of feeling remorse for killing someone; they have still crossed a line and need to be held responsible. I think that Tim covered this pretty well talking about explicit consent. Are you bad at reading social cues? Ask permission.

      In the same vein, telling someone who is making you uncomfortable that they are making you uncomfortable can be act of kindness. You don’t owe it to them; it’s still on their shoulders to check themselves. But a simple “hey please stop I’m not ok with that” could go a long way, IF they are willing to hear it. I don’t think that the harassment policy gets in the way of that; if anything I think it makes it easier. It gives the harried ground to stand on in a culture that forgets female agency and makes it seem like women owe men the attention they want.

      That said, I think there are plenty of the socially inept who refuse to believe that it’s their fault; that the pattern of women who don’t respond to them is because of THEIR behavior. This is a rather huge can of worms to open, but personally I think it is behind a lot of the backlash. The privileged stamp their feet that someone would tell them they might be WRONG, that someone would remind them that women don’t owe them anything. These are the people who call women names, who blame women for their own lack of success. I don’t know that any amount of education would help that.

  6. O Captain My Captain (@CaptainHeck) says :

    To me, harassment is a form of bullying and there is no place for predators like that at Con or anyplace else for that matter. I know some people just don’t seem to “get it” as far as social cues go and thus rules are needed. You should run for mayor.

  7. Jess says :

    I 100% support harassment policies at Cons. Honestly it makes me sad that we NEED something like “Costumes aren’t Consent,” because *some* people (male and female) haven’t learned not to blame the victim by assuming someone’s “asking for it” with their attire. Sigh. It’s unfortunate that mutual respect isn’t a given.

    Maybe the backlash has been because so many people just foolishly assume the geek/nerd/con crowd is different from the rest of the world, but ultimately predators and assholes exist in ANY group.

    Plus…it helps lay things out clearly for new attendees, socially awkward people (there are some peeps out there who just don’t read social cues or body language well at all), and provides a leg for organizers to stand on when they have to deal with assholes.

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