PIRATES OF DESPAIR & NEON – HOW NOT TO BE A CONVENTION CREEP

A follow up post to BUT HE DIDN’T KNOW HE WAS HIJACKING YOUR SHIP: ON CONFERENCE CREEPS.

Thanks, people, for sharing the above with your networks. Talking Honestly and Rigorously about these things = Better Times for All.

One of the things that’s come up a lot of places is people feeling nervous that they don’t entirely know what proper behavior is.

So, what do we mean when we say Creep, or Creeper?

I asked Twitter for some crowd source definitions.

@cmpriest: Someone who pretends not to notice how uncomfortable his/her behavior makes others.

@lunafish1wish: to creep: unwelcome hovering, esp. when accompanied by unwelcome touching. creeper: person who does the previous.

@BBolander: Waiting until a woman is alone, then approaching and saying I’M SORRY I OGLED YOU IN YOUR DRESS LAST NIGHT.
@KatWithSwordAnyone who refuses to stop whatever they are doing, after being told no or walked away from.
@alwayscoffeea person who loiters and/or behaves aggressively, making another person uncomfortable. Usually violates personal space.
@StinaLeicht: Acting in a way intended to intimidate recipient/target. That is, manipulate their behavior for UR benefit in a sexual context
@meijerjt: Passive aggressive intruder in the personal space. who does not stop when called upon but circles around for a new approach
@maggiekarpharassment. Unintentional doesn’t make it different.
@random_scrubCreeping: violating the boundaries of personal space or acceptable sexual discourse while maintaining plausible deniability.
@BJMuntainTo creep: to make someone uncomfortable, possibly fearful, through over-familiar interactions. Creeper: one who does this.
@wallrikeCreep. v. To satisfy one’s lascivious urges at the expense of another. To put one’s sexual desires above another’s humanity.
@geoffreygSemilinked, Philip K. Dick used “creeper” to signify a bad turn of events, “if something goes creeper” (Solar Lottery, p. 76)

I like that last one particularly, just for metaphor’s sake. But I especially like @random_scrub’s version, “Violating the boundaries of personal space or acceptable sexual discourse while maintaining plausible deniability.

That one seems to particularly describe what we often deal with in connection with SFF conventions. People violate and harass, but do it in such a way that not everyone agrees that it was even questionable. Thus we can have things like people pressing other people against walls, and blaming crowding, people inappropriately touching other people and blaming confusion over signals, etc. People blaming the victim for being uptight, people saying, oh, that’s just how such & such famous writer IS, you can’t blame him, etc.

Really? Yes, I can.  We are all grownups. If a toddler comes up to me and grabs my leg, I assess that as the action of someone who doesn’t know quite what they are doing and is looking for support. They’re a kid.  If a grown person comes up to me and grabs my leg, I assess that as a choice to touch a body that doesn’t belong to them. Even when they say they are just “kidding.”

We are not children here. We are responsible for our actions.

Don’t get me wrong: I think inadvertent creeping exists too. I address it below, so that you get a sense for what I’m talking about in specificity, and rework yourselves so that you don’t do it. It is unnecessary to creep.

IT IS ALSO, AND LET ME BE VERY CLEAR, UNNECESSARY TO DISRESPECT WOMEN AS PART OF A SUCCESSFUL SFF CONFERENCE EXPERIENCE. JUST BECAUSE A CERTAIN KIND OF CULTURAL ATTITUDE HAS LONG BEEN PREVALENT DOES NOT MEAN CHANGE IS NOT A VERY GOOD THING.

THESE CHANGES  WILL ENRICH THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE GENRE.

Me, and other people posting things like this is not “taking the fun away.”

You know how I have fun at conventions? I do. That’s why I go. I have fun exercising my brain in the midst of a bunch of smart and interesting people, many of whom love books, stories, and the analysis of same as much as I do.  That’s what’s fun about SFF conventions. The not-fun is all of this, and it doesn’t have to exist.

The posting, and heightened awareness of things like this is – I hope –  making it more possible for all of us to attend and enjoy conventions. I saw a great tweet from Michael Damian Thomas a couple days ago:

 ‏@michaeldthomas: I am not scared to walk around an SF convention by myself. It is BULLSHIT that my friends & colleagues need escorts & safety plans.

A lot of the responses I’ve seen after the talk in the last few days, the original Elise Matthesen post, the many posts in response to it, from a variety of women on the scene who have experienced nasty things in the course of professional business, have expressed shock that this sort of behavior continues. Many men have been supportive and appalled, and a lot of people have said that they had no idea things were this bad. I believe you, many of you, because I think the way a lot of these things go down is with their own little cloak of invisibility around them. If it isn’t happening to you, you often don’t see it happening.

I also heard from a lot of people feeling nervous that they might be creeping themselves, or feeling hostile (a minority) at what I was describing as harassment, saying that it was all fun and games, and not in fact unacceptable behavior. A couple of guys asked for proof that harassment happened, which…um, how exactly would you like me to prove someone grabbed my ass in a crowded room?

I saw this tweet from Josh Jasper, which gets to the heart of some of the systemic problems in the genre:

@sinboy: Stopping a culture of harassment means acknowledging that we have multiple, invisible, effective systems in place to protect harrasers.

In quite related news, I just read a June 2013 interview with Harlan Ellison. In 2006, famously and publicly, he grabbed Connie Willis’ breast, onstage at the Hugo Awards. Check it out, here’s a video. It happened.

Here’s a link to the interview from the Guardian, in which he says (to interviewer Damien Walter):

HE: You are enormously kind and gracious. Just for the record, I never, ever threw anybody down an elevator shaft.

DW: [Laughter] I didn’t want to ask you that question, because I’m sure you always get asked that, Harlan. Everyone always seems to ask you, have you killed anybody, did they survive?

HE: Well, that’s a different question. That’s a different question. I’ve never thrown anybody down an escalator shaft, and I did not grab Connie Willis’s breast.

DW: I didn’t want to ask you that question either.

HE: Oh, that just infuriates me. That just infuriates me.

DW: Do you want to – do you have anything you want to say about it?

HE: About Connie Willis? I think she’s a brilliant writer.

So, yeah, maybe I’m just not getting the joke here. Maybe Harlan is being hilarious. Maybe Harlan is just being Harlan.

But no matter how I shake it? That joke isn’t funny, and one writer grabbing another writer’s breast and then insisting jocularly that he didn’t?

Creepus Maximus. Piracy on the High Seas. And not that unusual. Harlan Ellison just did it on a grand scale, but it happens like this all the time.

We are better than that. Let’s be better than that.

***

I’m posting here a short manual (my personal one, but still) for HOW NOT TO CREEP. All of these discussions have made me assess my own behavior too, in the context of interacting with other people. I would die of horror if I made someone feel uncomfortable in their skin, and yet people do it to me all the time. I go out of my way to get permission to touch, to hug, to sit in proximity. I don’t assume that I get to touch you, even if I know you in person. But here. Let’s get more specific.

I’m going to do this in a Choose Your Own Mis-Adventure format.

As always, by woman, I mean anyone who identifies female. By man, I mean the same. And I know this is a pretty gendered post, but there seem to be far fewer examples of men being harassed at cons for being male. (There are, of course, examples of fucked up harassments regarding transgendered people, and to that harassment, like all of it, I can only say WTF!!!!?!! RARRRRR. People. Get yourselves under control. Stop harassing.)

***

CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE: SFF CONVENTION EDITION

1. You walk into an event at a convention. It’s a packed room full of people, some professional, some fans. You see a woman you want to talk to, someone you know from Twitter, and from her writing, say, but not in real life. You:

a) Walk up to her, introduce yourself politely at a distance of at least a yard, and put your hand out for a handshake. 

If you choose a) go to 2.

b) Walk up to her, and embrace her. After all, you know her from Twitter and you really like her tweets. She is awesome, and it’s okay to hug someone if you’ve exchanged tweets. You’re friends.

 if you choose b) go to 3. 

c) Wait until she’s alone, say, in the elevator, or on the way to the bathroom, and then approach her. You feel anxious in groups, and so it’s better for you to talk to her one on one. Get close to her. After all, her tweets are friendly and feel intimate. That means you have an intimate bond with her. It’s better for you to talk at close range, because you feel safer and more comfortable that way. 

if you choose c) go to 4. 

2. She looks at you, nods, and puts her hand out to shake your hand. ‘Hi,’ she says. ‘It’s nice to meet you.’ You say:

a) ‘It’s nice to meet you too. I like your work. I follow you on Twitter.’ Then you bring up something specific you’d like to talk about, whether a common interest, a panel topic, a request for an autograph, whatever. If she responds conversationally, yay. If she does not, you don’t press. Tell her that it was nice speaking with her, and walk away. 

This is the correct response. In this case, imagine that the woman you’d like to speak to is a man. Would you ask Robert Silverberg about his cleavage? Would you press your face to John Scalzi’s face, and ask him what it’s like to be a male writer? Would you tell Samuel R. Delany he was looking hot as lava? Would you crawl up on Saladin Ahmed and, while looming over him, ask him if he was “one of those militant feminists who don’t believe in rape scenes?” Probably not, but all these things have happened to me at conventions, both from pros and fans, and I’m a professional just like the above-named men are. There are a few exceptions (I’ve seen men being groped about the biceps and chest, and also I’ve seen quite a few tattoo-related uninvited gropes of men (and of me – people have done things like pull off the top of my shirt in order to get at my tattoos) – but in this case, it was a combo tattoo grab and feel-up. Once I saw a woman prostrate herself to a writer friend of mine. I’ve seen some female stalkers, for sure…) but I’ve rarely seen men being generally crept on in the same way women are at conventions. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, though, at all. 

b) ‘I just saw you on a panel (read your book, read a short story you wrote, read an interview with you). I disagree with you on the following points and want to explain things to you. I’m an expert in a thing. I have a lot to say.’

This is not inherently creeping, but it is, depending on the level, potentially annoying and may have bad results. It becomes creeping when you continue to pursue a woman through a convention, telling her The Thing, and refusing to leave her alone. It also becomes creeping when you explain that she doesn’t know The Thing because she’s female, and seek to aggressively explain to her, over multiple cycles, what is wrong with her. This is mansplaining. It’s sucky.

c) ‘Did you recently get divorced? That was the #1 predictive search on your name when I just googled you.’

This is a bad choice. It’s not creeping, quite, but it’s right on the border. It’s also really, really a wrong choice. Do not come up to me to hit on me within the first moments of meeting me. Mentioning my personal life when we do not know each other is creepy. Mentioning it repeatedly, particularly my romantic life, is Creeping. 

I’m here at a convention as a writer. My love life is not the point of my presence. We are not in a live action version of SFF Edition OK Cupid. 

3. She hugs you back but awkwardly, possibly patting you hard on the back and then drawing away, her body stiff. She looks startled. She takes a step back from you, and looks around the room, her eyes moving rapidly, but she doesn’t say anything. You:

a) Assume all is well. Keep hugging her. In fact, hug her again. She didn’t say no. She’s supposed to say No if she doesn’t want to be hugged, right? Besides, hugging feels good. Who  wouldn’t like hugging? Mean people, that’s who. You’re just a jolly teddy bear.

Congratulations. You’ve just Crept. She would be well within her rights to report you right now. She would also be well within her rights to yell at you, slap you, or tell you loudly to move away from her. This is your fault, not hers. You pressed your body against her body without permission. That is not okay. When I talk about piracy, this is what I mean. You just got onto her ship without her inviting you aboard. Then you tried to steer. 

b) Step quickly back and say “I’m sorry. That was inappropriate. I shouldn’t have hugged you.”

You’ve already transgressed, but a quick apology and Never Doing It Again may make it better. If it doesn’t, though? Don’t keep following her around staring at her mournfully and trying to apologize. That is Creeping. One apology, polite respect, and no more attempts. Got it? You’ve transgressed, but it’s still possible it was Accidental Piracy. As long as you leave it alone from here on, no promises, but it’s probably okay. 

Here, a brief anecdote: I met another writer at a convention a couple of years ago. We met quite briefly after a panel, and then later, at a dance event, he came up behind me and rested his chin on my head. He’s a lot taller than I am. I wasn’t happy. I felt captured and dwarfed. He did it in front of a group of other writers. They weren’t happy either. He got schooled. He could have reacted with offense and more bad behavior. He didn’t. He immediately stopped the behavior, apologized, and analyzed himself. It helped. He never did it again. Now we’re friends and I respect him for looking at himself and making the right choice.

c) Hug her again, tell her she’s so hot you can’t help yourself, and slide your hand down her back to cop a feel of her ass. She didn’t say no, after all, and she’s still standing here, so she must want it. Even if she doesn’t, she’s hot, and she’s here, and no one is watching. 

You just shifted from Conference Creeper into Criminal. Neither thing is okay. Nothing about it is okay. Not only did you get aboard her ship without permission, you’ve just taken it hostage and assaulted the captain. Yeah, what I just described? That’s sexual assault. It’s illegal. If you did this on a train in NYC, you could be arrested. See this piece from the NYT for an account of subway groping and an arrest following it. What you just did isn’t different.  It’s just that people rarely report this kind of interaction at cons, because it is startling and so unpleasant that all they want to do is flee. That’s about to change. If this is what you do? I don’t believe you’re clueless or confused. I believe you are trying to steal my body from me. My body is mine, just as your body is yours. This is basic. Keep off, or suffer the consequences. 

4. She looks at you, with surprise on her face. She didn’t expect to be accompanied to the bathroom/into the elevator. She leans back into the wall, and looks quickly around for her friends. She tries to go into the bathroom without you, or presses herself stiffly against the elevator corner. You:

a) Apologize. You’ve just made her uncomfortable. Get out at the next floor, or walk away from her, making sure you give her space to move, and that she can actually get past you. 

Again, if you did this? Stop it right now. Don’t do it again. You messed up,but it’s still a relatively minor matter. See 3B. There may be consequences, but at least you’ve stopped the behavior. Know that behavior such as this makes many people uncomfortable. Look at it in another setting: No one likes to be followed to their car. That’s what you just did. 

b) Follow her into the bathroom, or off the elevator and to the door of her room to keep talking.

Creeper. Creeper. Creeper. Do this, and you have no one but yourself to blame. Without a spoken invitation (‘Would You like to come to my room?’ is an invitation, but it’s not an invitation to do anything more than come to a room. ‘Would you like to have sex?’ That is an invitation to have sex. If you don’t have an invitation, do not EVER assume it is implied.)  You should not ever follow a woman into a private space. Not into a bathroom. Not off the elevator and to the doorway of her room because you’re not done talking to her. It doesn’t matter that you’re not done talking to her. It matters that she is trying to leave you behind. Respect her wishes in this matter. 

c) Try to make out with her. I mean, she’s here with you, after all, she must want it. 

See 3C. If a person wants to engage sexually with you, there will be an invitation. It needs to be spoken. Never assume that just because you like someone, she likes you back. Never assume, that just because you would like to kiss someone, or grope someone, or have sex with someone, she agrees and feels the same. Often, in my experience, me being nice – as in, I smile, I greet people in a friendly fashion, I am chatty – gets misread as me wanting to engage sexually. Remember that it is my job at a convention to be friendly. It is not my job to make out with you. That’s not what I’m here for. If I wanted to, I would tell you, using my words. 

____

That was only one scenario, but it applies to lots of things. I also want to contribute a short list of tricky multiple choice identifiers:

1. YOU ARE NOT A CREEPER, IF:

a) You grew up around strong women, so you know what women go through, and understand them.

b) You are married to a badass feminist.

c) You like to write female characters. Your books are full of them.

d) In the 60’s, you were a leader in progressive thought in the genre.

e)  You do not transgress against the boundaries and personal space of other people by ignoring signs, information, and basic courtesies. You do not touch inappropriately, loom inappropriately, lurk, follow, stalk, and otherwise harass. You treat other people with the respect of equals.

The only correct answer is E. All the rest? You could still be harassing women, even if you’ve pre-excused yourself because of your history or CV. Action is what matters, folks. 

_____

I’m not the only voice here, nor do I get everything right. I’m sure of that, because hell, I’m not the Queen of Everything. But I’m attempting with this, and a little levity, to get at some of this problem and keep our voices raised toward a new standard. I want this to get better. I like this community, and I like so many of the people in it. I want to go to conventions and feel safe and happy. I want to have fun. This isn’t a Be Scared of Conventions post, I hope – it’s not meant to be. It’s a Let’s Change The Culture Of Conventions For The Better post.

Let’s.

Thanks all who contributed definitions, and all who’ve raised their voices about this, by forwarding my posts, or by writing posts, or by sharing any of the posts by Elise.

My last post, at last count, had over 8000 views. That’s a big conversation. Let’s keep having it.

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9 thoughts on “PIRATES OF DESPAIR & NEON – HOW NOT TO BE A CONVENTION CREEP

  1. Pingback: A Little More on Con Harassment | Inspiration Struck

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  3. I agree with everything you’ve written, but I ask you to keep one thing in mind… Based on unscientific observations, there appears to be a higher than average number of people on the Autism Spectrum who are part of fandom. As the mother of a young man with Asperger’s and a special ed teacher, I bet there are a number of people on the spectrum who could act like this and not realize they are being creeps. If the individual seems otherwise good-intentioned, I’d urge you to say something like, “When you stand that close to me, you make me uncomfortable.” If the person seems embarrassed and steps back, problem solved. If they get pushy, then by all means be aggressive in getting them to back off!

    • I think that’s very true. In my experience people are often trying hard to learn what the rules are – and what the social signals are. That’s why I posted this, in part because sometimes, if one feels threatened, one doesn’t feel able to speak. I wanted to give a sense of what it might look like from the outside if the person you were talking to was trying to get away from you – the signals rather than the straight up no, or move away words. I agree that those words are useful, but I’ve seen women who are too uncomfortable to speak out in a given situation, me included. It’s a learning process.

      I don’t want to be prejudicial to people on the spectrum, at all, and I have lots of friends and colleagues who are (and who are awesome). Yay, neurodiversity! I think sometimes, however, that the larger numbers of people on the spectrum in SFF fandom and the biz provide an ultimate excuse for behaviors which are sometimes done by people not on the spectrum who then claim confusion about social signals. for what it’s worth, I’ve been witness to lots of conversations about social signals, and analysis of behaviors which have made me or others uncomfortable, and in many cases have arrived at exactly the method you mention above, clarity and precise instruction. It often works very well. Not always though. Hence: instructions for the person doing the encroaching as well as for the person being encroached upon. Sometimes when you are being pressed against a wall, you have no words. So hopefully some of the people who might inadvertently be doing that sort of thing read this. 🙂

  4. My experience: The only creepy behavior problem I have from being autistic is that if people tell me to “stop doing that”, I frequently genuinely have *no idea at all* which of several things I am doing they are talking about. So if I ask for clarification, I am not trying to press the boundaries, I am not trying to weael out, I just want to know what it is that’s annoying. I can’t tell whether I’m in your personal space, or staring, or not-making-eye-contact, or being too confrontational, or Something Else. I’ve had very little trouble with this, because in general, I am pretty good about personal space and stuff, I can fake eye contact well enough not to be a problem, and so on. But it’s the one way in which I’ve had things escalate — because I can’t stop doing “that” until I have a referent for the pronoun.

    And seriously, everything else here strikes me as totally on-target.

    Autistics can be clueless, true. But autism doesn’t make you an asshole. The key litmus test is what happens if you clearly articulate specific boundaries. Autistic non-assholes will follow them. Often more literally than you intend. The guy who stands back and then holds an arm out briefly in your direction before adjusting to be two inches closer may be a creeper, but he may just not have realized “arm’s length” is an idiom. If he holds the arm out and adjusts it until he’s just touching your breast, he’s a creeper. If he stops and says “wait, my arm or your arm?” he’s probably autistic. Especially if he doesn’t appear to be aware that that could be taken as either joking or threatening, but appears to think it’s a plain old literal question.

    Thanks for the really good writing on this.

  5. Pingback: Performing Fan Culture: The Material Experience of Fandom and Conventions | Archaeology and Material Culture

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