So, all day today there’s been an epic twitter storm regarding sexual harassment in the science fiction and fantasy convention circuit, specifically the means for the official reporting of same. See Elise Matthesen’s post quoted in full at John’s Scalzi’s WHATEVER for the events that led to said storm.
I feel the need to weigh in on the topic, given that I’m a female writer who attends conventions regularly as part of my professional life, and given that I have been harassed all over convention hotels from here to San Diego. Despite the fact that I’ve also experienced a lot of great stuff at cons, smart and fabulous people, there’s certainly been a lot of Other as well.
I’ve actually never made an official report, largely because I’m so used to being harassed that I’d just chalked it up to basic workplace suck. Of course, my position on this – that I should tolerate it, rather than battle it – was wrong. It was very helpful to read Elise’s post, in which it’s revealed that someone with a seemingly long record of sexual harassment had no record of official complaints filed against him. So, that sucks for obvious reasons, one of which is that he has apparently continued, for years, happily harassing women right and left, without repercussions.
That looks to be changing. Scandals right and left, and rightly so.
I’ve been working professionally as writer for 17 years, as a playwright first, and then as a prose writer. I’ve been in this genre for about three years. I know a lot of people. I don’t go to every convention, but I go to several every year. I’d love to say I’d been to any conventions in the SFF field wherein things like this didn’t happen.
So in weighing in, what I want to do is give a sense of the things that can happen, sexual harassment-wise as a baseline at conventions, using some examples of things that have happened to me, and to my friends.
Today was, I think, eye opening for some people who didn’t realize the breadth of the snarl.
My female friends and I are a group of writers who’ve sold books and stories professionally for years. We’re a pretty formidable group of women (and men, but here I’m mostly talking about women getting harassed. I know people who aren’t women get harassed too – yes, oh, I do. But today? It’s about my experience as a woman in the genre.) Among us are NYT bestsellers, award winners, lawyers, doctors, and various badasses. On panels, we hold our own – sometimes against significant odds. In rooms, we hold our own, again, sometimes against significant odds. On the internet, we hold our own, despite exactly what you’d expect, significant odds.
We’re outspoken women who write about history, monsters, sex, battles, cities, science, love, myth, creatures, the worlds above and below. If you met us at a convention, you’d think – accurately – that we were confident, smart, and capable professionals. You might not realize that most of us had been harassed at the very convention you were meeting us at. I’m not using names. But I want to say a few things about things that have happened to me.
There’s been a lot of talk about conventions being “safe spaces” – but one of the very unfortunate things is that a lot of conventions, while being safe spaces for people who don’t fit into societal norms, have also managed to make themselves safe spaces for sexual harassers.
As follows. Here, a partial list.
1. My first convention. I’m at a party, where I know maybe 2 people. A respected SF writer beelines up to me, kisses – with tongue – up my arm from wrist to shoulder without introducing himself, mutters “stunning” and is gone. Later that night, he googles me, sends me an email through my website informing me of his identity, and telling me that he is the man who left his “spoor” on my arm. I write back. I say, “you know, you should have actually spoken to me. I’m an interesting person, not to mention I’m one of your fellow invited pros, and I’m smart, and a writer.” He writes back to me, having done some more googling. He says, oops, I didn’t know that you had a husband (and, implication mine, are his property, therefore not on the open market). I didn’t mean to disrespect him. (Ital mine.) My soul is yours. I’ll blurb you if you need a blurb. He doesn’t speak to me or acknowledge me professionally ever, though we are at the convention together for days.
2. Same convention, some guy in the dealer’s room with whom I’ve been having a brief conversation about whether or mot my book is stocked picks me up and holds me in his arms, as though I am a toddler. I instruct him to put me down. He looks bewildered. It’s because i’m little, he says, and because I’m wearing green, which is his favorite color and which means we have a connection. I’m 5’3″. I’m not big. I am also not a toddler. And even if I was? I WOULD NOT BE ASKING A STRANGER TO PICK ME UP. EVEN IF THAT STRANGER LIKED GREEN. I DID NOT WEAR MY GREEN DRESS IN ORDER TO BE PICKED UP. My dress is not an invitation, yo.
3. Moments later, another guy, a fellow writer, hugs me tenderly from behind, though I do not know him. When I turn, startled, to protest, he says “You have the greatest smile. It just makes me want to hug you.” I’m doomed to avoiding him for the rest of the con, because he’s always wherever I am, charging at me with open arms, hugging me in elevators and moving at me to hug basically just wherever I go. It’s gross. He becomes known to my swiftly formed girl posse as The Hugger in the Hat. And when I say hugger, I mean full body contact with erect bits against my thigh. I don’t report him. I’m new to the scene. I feel awkward. I’m used to being harassed in the world. This is bad, but it’s not insane in terms of how much wrong attention I get from creeps in cities. So, I don’t report.
4. What Cherie Priest says in her post on this is true. We form protective posses. Descriptions of creepers are traded like cards. Women say things such as “Do you need back up when you walk through that room?” “What color is his shirt?” “Oh, I saw The Hugger In The Hat in there – I’m getting between you and him.”
5. Conversely, when I complained about The Hugger anecdotally to men, most of them said he was just clueless and didn’t mean to creep me out, and that if I was clear that I didn’t want to be hugged, I wouldn’t be, because The Hugger was a nice guy. Don’t get me wrong. Most men are great. But I think most guys have also not been witness to a lot of this. Creepers wait til you’re with your girls, or alone. Because Creepers calculate.
6. The Hugger wasn’t hugging the guys. Nor was Spoor Guy licking their arm and then sending them love letters. Nor was Dealer’s Room Guy lifting them off their feet.
7. Notice that I’ve not even mentioned anyone giving me any kind of respect for being a professional writer here. In these scenarios, I’ve been A Pretty Writer. It’s part of my job to be nice to people at conventions. I don’t like to cause scenes and be ill humored. I’m inherently a friendly person. Sometimes this bites me in the ass, literally. Sometimes it gropes me in the ass.
8. To ask me to be someone who is not friendly is to ask me to be someone other than myself. Yet, people who have heard these stories, have sometimes said “Maria, you should be less friendly. It’s not their fault they get confused. You’re pretty and nice.”
9. So, apparently pretty and nice means I should change, not the harassers. But how should I change? It’s not me who is at fault. It’s historically been unusual that anything is a harasser’s fault at a SFF con. They often self-market as misunderstood, and act as though somehow their creepy, stalkerish behavior is the natural result of Mean Pretty Women of SFF who are also Crazy Feminists Who Don’t Know How To Have A Good Time. Creepy men often self-market as Innocents Abroad. This, when they have long been attending conventions with women, and in fact, have been schooled before, usually beginning in kindergarten, about what constitutes an inappropriate touch or action.
10. This pisses me off. I feel pissed off when i find myself followed into an elevator and have to get off the elevator because i don’t want to be followed to my room. I feel pissed off when I find my group of friends joined at the bar by someone who seats himself on the arm of my chair and insists that because he wants to buy us a drink, he is allowed to sit there, then curses us for denying him. I feel pissed off when my space is invaded repeatedly by someone who wants to stare at my boobs, over, and over, and over, and who cannot seem to keep himself away, despite being spoken to by a defender. I feel pissed off when I have to dodge away from a guy who has no personal space and keeps pressing me hard against a wall. I feel pissed off when suddenly i’m getting a neck massage I didn’t request. I feel pissed off when in all of this?
NO ONE EVER ACKNOWLEDGES ME AS A WRITER. Which is the whole reason I’m at the con to begin with.
11. Post-witnessing a creepy interaction, people often say things to me like “You seemed like you knew how to handle yourself.” It’s true that it is unusual for me to feel frightened. I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I’ve never felt myself to be in danger. What I have felt is that my time as a writer is being wasted.
I’ve had, for example, small toys pushed down the front of my dress, as though this was a playful thing to do. I’ve been on panels where i’ve been asked questions that began “As a female writer” – when everyone else on the panel was a guy, and didn’t have to answer the equivalent. I’ve had my ass grabbed in an elevator and proclaimed “perky.” I’ve been called “feisty” because I protested sexism in a conversation, and the person i was speaking to told me I was “cute and sassy” for speaking out, but that I didn’t understand the history of the genre, and how what I was protesting was actually just normal.
I have no huge conclusions here, just aggravations and airing of a pretty basic account of my pretty basic female writer experience at SFF conventions.
On twitter today, I said:
“After my first convention, I almost didn’t go back to any others. It was that bad. Everywhere I went, there were dudes waiting to grab.
And if you question how bad it would have to be to make me feel upset? Know that I used to be a pirate negotiator in the maritime industry.
The pirates in the maritime industry were generally a great deal more polite than the creeps in the SFF world. They stuck to terms.
In the SFF world, the nasty that happens is as follows: ‘He was confused,’ rather than “HE JUST TRIED TO HIJACK YOUR SHIP.’
But I’m here to tell you, people have regularly tried to hijack my ship, and then protested that my real problem was a bad ship and bad weather, rather than dudes trying to board me.
This is, alongside all that has been said today, a plea to convention attendees, to writers, to people, to watch for these things and work with us to stamp them out. They suck. They make conventions un-fun for women, and for everyone. If you see something, say something. If you watch something, walk up to the something and intervene. If you feel uncomfortable with someone’s action, chances are the person who is experiencing it is too. It’s likely that she would like you to chime in with her.
And me? From now on, I report officially. It’s the right thing to do.
Support from over here. With you in all of it. Thank you for writing this.
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Fan-damn-tastic. If I could give you a standing ovation, I would.
“But I didn’t know!”
Dude, that ship has sailed.
I’m disgusted this kind of thing happens to you, and so regularly you’ve come to accept it as part of the con experience. I’ve only encountered creepers from the male perspective, and while they can be intensely annoying and can make entire rooms of people uncomfortable just by stepping inside, I’ve rarely had to deal with more than an unwanted hug. I’m glad you’ve spoken up, and I hope more attention focused on those who misbehave will whip them into shape or simply get them tossed out of con-space.
I knew I liked you for a reason. For many, many good reasons and this post is just one.
Reblogged this on Heather Urbanski's Digital Portfolio and commented:
Maria Dahvana Headley captures brilliantly an unfortunate aspect of the landscape that is the SF/F fandom where I also do my work. With enough sunlight, I hope we are able to disinfect this out of our work and fan space.
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Thank you for this piece.
As a middle-aged man who only recently started going to conventions, I was totally unaware of this kind of thing going on.
I was shocked when a new friend told me at one convention that as she was talking to an old and venerable writer, he had reached out and groped her breast. Not in a deniable, accidental-on-purpose way, but a full-on, blatant grope, as though totally confident that nothing would come of such a heinous act. And he was right. She’s no ingenue, but despite my friend’s experience, she was utterly nonplussed and couldn’t even get her head together enough to say something cutting before the grope was over.
I’m still horrified that this kind of thing is so widespread and that it’s so hard to get acknowledgement from con-runners that this is a problem.
I wonder what would happen if every grope, feel-up, unwanted hug or kiss, if it was answered with a spit. *ptui*
Not a push or a slap which escalates the possibility of physical harm, but a spit-in-the-face, which is basically “I see your insult and match it.” A clear response, which is not open to ‘But I Thought She Meant’ [tm].
Very well expressed. It’s the never acknowledging you as a writer, acknowledging you as another man’s property, offering to BLURB you in apology, not because you’re a writer, but because you were someone else’s property.
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Brilliant. Let “trying to hijack my ship” characterize harassment from now on. I suffer from a mild and well-managed case of agoraphobia, which means I rarely travel, even to cons, without my husband. What this means is that I’m rarely harassed, which fits in with your “I didn’t know you were married” experience. The whole thing is creepy and sad.
I have heard of this level of harassment for years, which is one of the reasons I have never gone to conventions. The general misogyny that I have experienced as a SFF fan has also had the effect of driving me away from the genre to some extent. I have gotten very tired of reading, again and again, guy stories written as though women don’t exist except in the context of sexual interests, mothers, and entities to be protectd.
Thank you for speaking out about your experiences.
Thank you so much for this post.
“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” – Conan
Koszper Gábor, that was a GREAT quote you used!
I hope you were treated well at ConFusion. I’m horrified and disgusted that you’ve ever been treated that way at any con ever, but if it happened at the con I helped organize, I would be ashamed. We invited you there as our guest, and you should have been treated as such, not as some freely available plaything.
Dave: I was! People were very good at Confusion, at least to me. It was actually a very different experience than my usual, possibly in part because being a guest created some distance and a different hierarchical arrangement. I actually was delighted to NOT be creeped on. Kat and I discussed it in some awe. It’s really so unusual to be treated with respect throughout a con.
I think its sad that ‘not being harassed’ is a red-letter day.
It should be EVERY day.
Note to self – in the next life, be born a man. sigh.
Reporting immediately and every single time, is the best thing to do. But I do wonder what would have happened if you’d slapped those men as hard as you could, right there, as soon as they did those things. Can we do that? I have a feeling we’re too “educated” now, about how to handle these situations by reporting them. But man… would I have loved to slap a few of them.
Unfortunately, slapping creates a situation in which the creeper can now claim to be the victim. “I was just playing around and she assaulted me!” These guys are both clueless and conniving simultaneously. It’s a terrifying and dangerous combination.
You are correct, in the main, but, any woman who feels she can shout down the following whiny accusations should do this (This is, in fact, the only reason that I was grabbed, once, & once only, at a WSFA club meeting – over 20 years ago). Anything that forces creepers & con runners alike to acknowledge what is going on, the better!
Umm, it’s my *impression* (and this should be checked out by the legal-eagles) that Unwanted Sexual Touching — breast- or ass-grabbing, specifically — is considered sexual assault and is therefore A CRIME. You have ther right to defend yourself against a crime to your person; I’m thinkg a fist or elbow to the solar plexus would be effective.
I would maybe ‘accidentally’ with the heel of my shoe, step on their foot and then put all the weight down while explaining a few things. And if they complain, well, it was an accident, wans’t it? I didn’t notice that his foot was between my heel and the floor, maybe if he’d been a bit more aware of my personal space his foot wouldn’t have accidentally ended up under my heel.
But reporting is probably better and making sure that men know that you will report them.
If they haven’t actually touched you, you’ll be the one up on charges.
A college friend of mine had a wonderful response to being grabbed on the subway – she took the guy’s hand, lifted it high and yelled “Who’s hand is this?” Maybe that would work with creepers with wandering hands at cons?
I always tell the kids, ‘don’t answer words with hitting’ and personally I’d never hit a guy bigger than me. Which means to me, if I’m only willing to hit someone smaller than me, maybe I’m a bully?
Also if you hit someone and they hit back, they can say you hit first, all your fault.
And if your skirt is already the your-fault-i’m-harassing-you, hitting is… not going to help your case with con security.
Wow. I am a man and I could NEVER imagine doing any of those things to any woman that I did not know personally. And some of those things I would not do at all unless she asked directly. I am sorry that those cavemen didn’t treat you with human respect. If I had seen such things I would have tried to stop it, even without having to know you. It just was not right. I haven’t been to a con in quite some time, but I have a lot of friends, men and women, who do. If I am coming up to an author, of either sex, it is to discuss their work, not to molest them. If the conversation becomes more friendly then I would love to get to know them as a person and not just their work. But still, sheesh. Yes, by all means report them. That kind of behavior can grow to something far more dangerous, and they need to be stopped.
Not cavemen. Perfectly normal men who get along just fine in everyday situations, ‘nice guys’ who you’d leave your daughter with. Because they’re nice.
Creeps don’t have ‘CREEP’ written in zits on their forehead.
Please don’t other them so that people are afraid to accuse a ‘nice guy’ who doesn’t act like a caveman in most situations.
With you on that request. I know too many men whose reaction to these stories is “I’m so sorry some random asshole got through” when chances are it was someone they know, respect and like. As much as I appreciate the sympathy when it happens to me, the apologies for some outlier stranger are kind of a cop out, because it doesn’t acknowledge reality.
If Elise’s experiences show anything, it’s that the face a harasser shows people they aren’t harassing is going to be that of a normal, professional, successful, nice guy. That’s the entire reason they get away with it. And it’s part of being a true ally to accept that defending women doesn’t usually mean battling alien creepers, it means seeing and calling out the alien in people you never dreamed had it in them because you never had to see it.
Good Lord. Thank you for speaking out–what a travesty that jerks are getting away with this at conferences all over. 😦
This is jaw droppingly horrible. I’m glad you intend to speak out in the future.
This, this, this. And the “neck rubs” — no, you do not have permission to touch me, I do not KNOW you. And the creep who started grinding his groin into my ass — Jesus, Allah and Zoroaster, what is WRONG with you. I’m glad that concoms are finally taking this seriously and doing something about it.
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Reblogged this on STORY 2 SUCCESS BLOG.
I’m so sorry to hear of your experience. Maybe because I was 45 when my first book came out? But as an experienced con runner, I would sure want to know it was going on, WHEN it was going on, not just a vague comment after the event was over.
We’re putting on an event for people to have fun. Being fondled? Not fun. Report it.
Yep, I get that. I’m shifting my policy on this, in terms
Of reporting. To be clear, I don’t mean a blog of this kind to function as a vague comment or report. It’s not, beyond the fact that it’s a cultural report on the way the SFF con culture has often been skewed in a way that causes harassers to harass in peace while the people they target end up frustrated, upset, and mute. It’s my experience. I wanted to share it in hopes that it would help the dialogue started by Genevieve Valentine last year, and by Elise Mattheson just now. Voice raising. 🙂
Thank you for this post. Thank you for articulating the problem so clearly and eloquently. As to why it happens? Well, so long as women are considered the lowest rung of the social ladder, the most socially maladjusted men will still feel able to empower themselves by victimising the people beneath them in the hierarchy.
This is shocking and horrifying. I’m very sorry that you’ve had these problems with men who apparently haven’t had much experience with women who don’t inflate. Aside from some boorishness on panels, I haven’t seen this sort of behavior myself, but if I did, rest assured I’d bear witness.
I really want conventions to be a welcoming environment for everyone. Except those who disrespect the other attendees. They can go jump in a lake, and I’d throw them an anchor.
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Thank you for writing this, Maria. ❤
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I concur that most of us guys have no firsthand experience of this. As a guy who DOES know what “personal space” is and how to respect a person regardless of their gender or my physical attraction (or lack thereof) to them, this sort of behavior is unfathomable to me.
A suggestion; instead of just recruiting a female posse, why not try to recruit some guys, too. A lot of us, when witnessing the behaviors you mention, would be very direct in reminding the guy involved that his attentions were NOT wanted and NOT welcome. And although it’s a social stereotype and not a gender-determined role, us guys ARE conditioned to be more confrontational and direct.
I don’t know that it’d help; creepers will always creep. But maybe if they didn’t feel like it was just them against the “little” “helpless” women, but realize that a bunch of other guys might join in for a verbal (or otherwise…) ass-whupping, they’d be more cautious?
Just a thought. I also realize that this borders upon intimating that you can’t stand up for yourself — which you clearly can. But maybe if the creepers could get it through their thick skulls that this isn’t just a bunch of “uppity feminists” who don’t like their behavior, but literally *EVERYONE* with a shred of decency…
*shrug* Just a thought… aside from that idea, all I can offer is my apologies for the behavior of the misogynistic 10% of my gender…
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OMG. What that guy doesn’t understand is the difference between “usual” and “normal”. Just because it happens all the time, or is “usual”, does NOT mean it is normal. Sexism, harrasment of any kind, invasion of personal space is NOT normal. Because it has been just accepted it has been usual. As soon as all of us, male and female and whatever you identify as, decide that it is not normal, it will no longer be acceptable.
I, for one, am glad this discussion is happening, and I thank you for your articulate contribution. More discussion equates more awareness, and hopefully more action against it.
Good on you, as they say in my part of the country. And it’s been my experience (limited, as a guy, but from what I’ve caught) that most of the people who are so vocal about “He’s just misunderstood!” or “Just learn to deal with it!” are the same people who one way or another benefit the most from female con-goers staying silent.
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Horrible and shameful. Sadly, in the science/math fields, or even science fiction field, there is no equity or respect for women. I had a spectacularly wonderful time at the Stoker Awards weekend. I was, and felt like, a writer among other writers. We were one, maybe because the Horror field as a whole gets no respect, so we to stick together, or maybe because we are all a bit twisted in wonderful ways, which makes these events a smorgasbord of personalities waiting to be explored. See the two following essays from prominent writers for examples of this: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/01/science/01math.html and http://www.thenation.com/article/173743/my-so-called-post-feminist-life-arts-and-letters?page=0,1#axzz2XnRBJlRC
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Reblogged this on The Athele Series and commented:
Thankfully, this is not a normal con-thing for me. However, I have seen and heard of enough of it to reblog this.
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OK, here’s some input from a woman who joined fandom in the early 80’s. “Pretty and nice.” There. That. That was me. Nice and socially unsure of myself. Lacking the social radar to understand what was okay and what wasn’t, even when someone was trying to cross certain boundaries. It didn’t take long to learn that “do as thou wilt was the whole of the law” and if anything happened that I didn’t like, it was my own fault. Why are women with social deficits blamed for misreading signals while men with social deficits are excused for acting out?
And just for clarifications’ sake, this is not to signify that being pagan has anything to do with it. I don’t believe that in the least; I was trying to make a point about a certain type of attitude but might have done so awkwardly. Apologies if I have offended here.
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I feel that, in America but certainly in other countries to, we have difficulty acknowledging how big a problem harassment of women is because we tend to see it as a systematic issue in OTHER countries, but when taking place here it is to be treated as an isolated case.
That is assuming the harassment is viewed as unacceptable behavior.
Far too often it is seen as acceptable. This “boys will be boys” attitude is reflective of the persistence of attitudes that only began to be challenged systematically within the last few decades on the national political stage. The current generation is still strong in holding the torch of our recent, more misogynistic, pre-civil rights era movements past.
I spent my early years in fandom standing with my back to walls. I loved (still do) having my shoulders and back rubbed. Unfortunately, knowing this, guys felt it was ok to do so without an introduction to the front half of me, much less getting permission. I really don’t want to stand against walls any more. It limits the interesting people I get to talk to.
Thanks to all who have spoken up, and to all who have boosted the signal. I’m expanding back into fandom after years of gafiation, and a few limited exposures in the last couple of years. It’s good to know that when (not if, when) I am harassed, I have more options than standing against a wall.
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Thanks for this post!
The world needs more historical fiction, so I hope the creeps don’t mess up your head-space to the point you can’t write.
BREATHTAKING. Thanks for this essay now I have to go read your books!
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100% agree with your stand and the analogy of the hijack. I’m only now starting to go to cons, but it is amazing how much they are treated like biodomes of their own with laws and language that wouldn’t be accepted anywhere else. I do want to say, as a mom of a young fan boy, that some of the younger fan boy creepers (not the touchers, but the follower/annoyer types) might also benefit from a direct, forceful laying down of rules by a woman. Not that it’s your job, but many of the young creepers are boys who haven’t had success in other ways with attracting someone and are following the lead of the older, more successful creepers. I feel that the next generation of creepers are being informed right now, through this discussion and those like it, that creeping is not okay for the first time.
On a side note, the background of this blog (peeing giant camel horse) is fantastic!
putting the onus on women to speak up in a male dominated field is victim blaming. established men have the responsibility to talk sense into one ear and smack it into the other if necessary. the only exceptions are official authorities of the con, venue, police, etc. which might happen not to be men or scene members.
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