On Con Sexual Harassment – Being An Ally Is Freaky As Hell

So, let’s get the nitty-gritty out of the way first. This post will not name names, nor will we get into the details of Bad Things That Happened. Those things are not mine to reveal. I will tell you my story as clearly as I can, because it’s my story, but I will be doing my damndest not to tell you someone else’s.

The Con will also not be named at the moment, however, they A) are pretty darn obvious if you watch my Twitter feed and B) they did things right. I firmly believe that needs to be praised, but as having your name in a post about sexual harassment is crappy search-engine publicity which they don’t deserve, I’ll avoid it for now. I have very mixed feelings about this, but a lot of this story is about the right not to have your name on things.

(If they want to own up to doing a good job on one of life’s unpleasant situations, they are more than welcome to do so, and again, I feel ambivalent about this, but I do not wish them to get dragged into a shitstorm for doing good and the internet is full of assholes.)

This is mostly a story about witnessing harassment and trying to do the right thing and being scared off my ass.

We have been flooded lately with stories of con harassment because this has been going on for a very long time and now the floodgates are opened and many of us have realized we do not need to live like this. This is not cool. They are mostly first-person accounts.

This is a story about being the third person. It is not a story of me doing everything right, because I didn’t, but it’s a true story and I give it to you because silence is too often taken as assent.

I spent this weekend at a Con as their Guest of Honor.  While not germane to the contents of this post, it’s a fun little con, there are some very nice people there that I know in passing from other cons, and it was nice to see them all again and to spend a few minutes with them. The staff is friendly, and while there were mad computer woes plaguing the con at various points that resulted in occasional missed communication, whenever I’d have a problem, whatever staffer I grabbed would say “I don’t know, but I will find out,” and they would find out and tell me. This is a good thing.

Among the things offered to me as GoH was a dealer’s table, which I was at when not on panels.

Saturday, one of the other dealers was harassed by [Creeper.] It was a fairly clearcut case of someone’s assistant being harassed—[Creeper] actually went behind the dealer’s table to proposition and apparently resisted attempts at eviction.

(Incidentally, don’t do this. If you want to flirt with a dealer or assistant—and seriously, I wholeheartedly endorse your right to flirting at cons with willing people—even if you think it’s going well, unless you are give absolutely explicit permission, stay on the other side of the table. You do not sit down with them unless they have actually patted the chair and said “Why don’t you come sit down?” or some variation thereof. That is not your chair. That is not your space. You may be there by direct invitation only. I do not think people who don’t deal at cons realize how much that table is the Great Wall of Sanity. For three days, that is personal space. Do not invite yourself to sit behind their table. Even if there is absolutely nothing sexual on your mind and you’re just a well-meaning fan, unless they have collared you and said “I need you behind the table!” unless you know them really well and you have a sleep-on-their-couch relationship, do not go behind the table.)

The first I heard of this (since you can hear very little in the rooms at full volume) was a frantic dealer grabbing me going in effect “Have you seen my assistant? There was a really creepy guy here and he wouldn’t leave and now I don’t know where she is!”

I said “Whoa, no, but we can go to Security right now! Do you want to report this?”

The notion of going to Security was clearly unsettling. “Well–no–no–but have you seen her? He’s been [wildly inappropriate behavior.]

“Oh my god,” I said, “that is so not cool. We can go right now—I’ll come with you!”

The assistant came into view at that point, which thankfully ended that panic. I still urged her to go to Security and reiterated seriously-not-okay! but she chose not to.

(We will not be second-guessing these reasons in the comments. There are a lot of reasons people don’t want to make complaints, from “I want this not to be happening any more” on up to “I am hellishly busy and have no spoons and cannot deal with one more thing” to “I have reason to fear retaliation.” Anyone can probably sing you a list in three part harmony, scored for women’s voices. We are all going to respect that these people were having a very bad time with this guy and they did not want to deal with official complaints. Yes, it’s frustrating—do you think I don’t know that? I would have cried for joy if they’d taken me up on my offer!—but they get to make that call.

This will be a malletable offense. If it goes on too long, it will be a banning offense. Let us all be clear.)

At this point, we offered the only help we could, and with dealer’s permission and gratitude deployed Angry Bald Man (i.e. Kevin.)

ABM is a depressingly effective weapon. I wish he wasn’t, because it says a lot about society. Nevertheless, he sat down behind the table in the spot [Creeper] had been taking. When the dealer’s assistant showed up, she had a chair, but [Creeper] no longer did. (I went over and introduced myself and him, in hopes of heading off the feeling that she’d gotten out of the frying pan into the fire.)

I tell you true, internet, I watched that man stand there, giving Kevin a blank stare, for a good ten minutes. He actually stood a few feet from my table and simply stared over at the other one. For quite awhile.

Yes, I sat there thinking variations on “There’s an empty chair behind my table. Try to take it. See if they ever find your teeth again.” I am human.

(But I get to think this because I am really damn lucky, frankly. I am older than half the kids wandering around the con, I’ve being doing cons for years and years without having internalized “this is just what happens in fandom” and I was also pretty fucking mad. And Angry Bald Man was fifteen feet away and whatever my flaws, I’m also pretty damn convinced that I have something to contribute to fandom and that it will damn well listen to me if I yell.)

I said nothing and did not make eye contact.

[Creeper] began circling the dealer’s room, coming back every few minutes, seeing Angry Bald Man and moving on again. (As Kevin said later, “He looked stunned there was another man sitting there. Dude, am I just supposed to pee in a circle around the booth to claim it?”) Eventually, when both dealers were able to be there, Kevin came back over to my table, with the usual caveats that this had not been acceptable and if they wanted to report it, we’d go with them, and if they needed more creeper repellant, Angry Bald Man was at their disposal.

And now, O readers, I sat and stewed for the rest of the time, thinking what the hell do I do now?

And here we get to the meat of the post, because here I was, no more than a third-party bystander married to Instant Bodyguard, Just Add Reason. I had minimal direct witnessing I could go and report with my own name on it. And I wanted to do something, because the Con needs to know about this stuff, but I could not, with any kind of conscience, pass these women’s names along if they didn’t want them passed. Removal of agency is what we’re trying to prevent.

This is a situation that I expect lots and lots of us find ourselves in. For many incidents, there are witnesses trying to figure out how to help and having damn little context in which to do it in.

Now, I had the guy’s name off the badge. I could have gone to Security myself and filed an anonymous report.

And…I did nothing.

The room closed without incident, dude was nowhere to be seen, we reiterated our support if they needed it tomorrow…and then we got food and went home.

This was a failure on my part, and I’m pretty pissed at myself for it, because what if something had happened overnight? I should have known better.

But I didn’t.

For this failure of judgment, I spent about four hours staring at the ceiling in the dark, running through scenarios of what I would do in the morning. If this were my con—Anthrocon—I would know who to talk to. I would have grabbed a redshirt by the earlobe and said “YOU WILL FIX THIS NOW.” (In a couple of cases, I can even add “OR I WILL CALL YOUR MOTHER.”) I would have known exactly who to call to say “We require tact and delicacy and someone is freaked out and I don’t want their name to get out but we need to give them a security presence and a sympathetic ear.” I could have done all of that, because those are my people and I know them and I know they will listen to me.

Dear god, friends, I spent a sleepless night thinking “What if they won’t listen to me?” and “What if he’s a friend of theirs?” and “What if I get in trouble?” and “Maybe I should shut up and not rock the boat,” and running through horrible nightmare scenarios in my head, and I was only a bystander trying to do the right thing. (I was a freakin’ GoH! They gave me a fruit basket as big as your torso!*)

I will never judge another person for not reporting harassment directed at them. I wanted someone to tell me what to do and to hold my hand while I did it. Instead I was in scary uncharted waters, and I was mostly just worried that it would all come out who had been harassed and they’d blame me and it would be my fault when a busload of Men’s Right’s advocates started sending them death threats.

And I realized that I was expecting the con staff to fail me. Not because there was any reason to believe this—they had been nothing but delightful, some of them were friends—but because the reality is that we expect failure. We expect everyone to do the wrong thing, the wrong way, and for it to be horrible, because it has been so often and so long.

This is why we don’t speak out.

To hell with that.

I got up. And I asked Kevin if he had my back and told him my intentions, and he said “Of course. 100%.”

And I went in in the morning, and the first staffer I saw, I said “Tell me where I find Security,” and he said “I am Security!” and I told him the story. And I included the phrase that I read in Elise Matheson’s blog post the other day, which is “Who do I follow up with about this?”

And he was horrified. In the right way. And he didn’t ask for the names I said would prefer not to get involved, and he kicked it up to the Security head, who located me within the hour, and told me to follow up with him and/or with said head.

There was a bad minute there, when the Security head found me and said “What? [Creeper?] Are you sure? I was just talking to him!” And I felt myself starting to panic (oh god oh god I knew it I knew it this is what happens) and Kevin said firmly “Yes.” And gave a physical description.

“Then we’ll have to talk to the ConCom,” said Security.

(And I thought I might be bereft and have to find them myself, and I was getting a sinking feeling—and the con chair came himself and said “Talk to me!”)

And I reported the incident as best I could, with what information I had, left out the names of victims (and he knew exactly why people don’t report and was very sympathetic) and he listened and thanked me repeatedly, and said—as probably every con chair on earth has said for the last year—

“Nobody wants to be Readerscon. We have to make this a safe place.”

And guys, they did things right. Without formal reports, there are limits to what one can achieve—and in all practicality, we were midway through Sunday, and there’s not long left to institute change—but they let me know that they were very glad of the report, put rovers in the dealer’s room to keep an eye out and check in with all the dealers to see if any of them had had any problems with anything (and they were tactful!) The dealer in question spent the rest of the con unbothered (that I could see.)

And they made it clear that my third-party word was enough to make them pay attention, and that if nobody talks, they don’t know and can’t fix it.

Now, it’s twelve hours later. I’ve got no idea what impact, if any, this might have—honestly, without a first-person account, I’m not sure what action should be taken. Stormtroopers descending and hauling somebody off in chains would be an overreaction, however emotionally satisfying it might be in the moment. It is still certainly possible they could drop the ball—other people can and have. Most likely we will publicly never hear anything more about it, and that’s fine. Hopefully there will never be a need to hear anything more about it.

But there’s a report so if it ever happens again, it becomes a pattern of behavior, which is the thing I was trying to achieve.

(And the con chair hung around the table and talked about normal things for quite awhile, which is frankly kind of nice when you’ve had your brain consumed with angst for most of a day. He and Kevin geeked out about…I don’t know, whatever obscure tech things. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.)

I cannot swear this will work for everyone. I cannot swear that you will not encounter bad things. There are horrible tales of the old boy’s network out there. But I can tell you that this con handled a nasty situation as well as they possibly could on the spot, once informed.

I give them mad credit for that.

If you see something, speak up. Even if you can’t name names, tell the con so they know stuff has been going down. They can’t fix what they can’t see. People are going to suck, and the only way to stop them is to push back and say “This is really happening. I expect this to be fixed.”

We have been silent and furious for far, far too long.

NOTE: Comments can go badly. We all know they can go badly. You may second guess me all you like, but if other people post their experiences, you will leave them alone unless they ask specifically for feedback on what to have done differently. And anybody who gets on my nerves or gets rude gets banned so hard it’ll sprain their shift key.


ETA: You’ve all been awesome in the comments so far. Thank you.


*Incidentally, and without minimizing any of the horror here, they totally gave me a fruit basket as big as your torso. It even had Pixy Sticks. I won’t speculate on the contribution to my mental state there.

10 thoughts on “On Con Sexual Harassment – Being An Ally Is Freaky As Hell

  1. Peter Cashwell says:

    Ay yi yi. So glad you and ABM were around to help the assistant out. I’m pretty confident that my wife can handle herself if a creeper ever gives her trouble at a con, but it’s a lot more pleasant for me to imagine that the other attendees–or even the GoH–are there looking out for her. You done good.

  2. Beth Matthews says:

    Thank you for posting this. The more we talk about this the more chance that it will CHANGE. I used to get sexually harassed pretty regularly at school and I’ve always wished I’d said something, done something. That loss of power, control, is one of the worst feelings in the world. These boys got to say awful things and I ignored it because that was easier, less scary.

  3. Ash says:

    I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
    Elie Wiesel

  4. Andrew Ragland says:

    Having worked con security and headed off a few situations, I can say for myself that if you have a situation, please for all the gods and goddesses sakes, let me know. Nothing gets fixed if nobody complains. And while I will not rush to judgment, I will take the word of a small frightened person of any gender over the word of a large greasy Creeper until hard evidence presents itself. I will abandon my dealer table to come be a Looming Angry Male Presence or whatever it is you need.

    I have seen a couple of incidents get Dealt With. Sometimes the Creeper just needs a bit of emotional trauma. Having a friend of mine who is 6′ 10″ and built like the entire defensive line walk up behind the Creeper and simply say “No” was sufficient in at least one case. Said Creeper was next seen having recently showered and being carefully polite to everyone.

    And yes, it sucks that big scary guys have to get involved, that Creepers don’t respect boundaries unless male privilege is invoked, but we as a species still have a lot of evolving to do before we get rid of the last vestiges of the reptile brain. Given the way the Creepers treat women, at least we can be reasonably sure they won’t reproduce, and their damaged genes will be tossed out of the pool with the rest of the garbage.

  5. LonOtter says:

    As a convention dealer, a million-billion times your instructions to stay on the outside of a dealer’s table. Also, yay for ABM deployment!

    Instead of an ABM, I have a Large Hairy Man, who used to (unintentionally!) scare away even the legitimate customers.

  6. RhianimatorLGP says:

    My one “must report this to an authority” incident was at an SCA event, and fortunately I was experienced enough to know that if the King needs to know, you get hold of one of his knights, then it’s their job to fix it, including letting the Autocrat of the event and the King know so that should it be necessary, said creeper can be banished.

    SCA kings have BIG banhammers, sometimes ban-daneaxes. They can have someone ejected from an event, banned for all events in their kingdom for any time period up to the duration of their reign, and start an investigation with SCA corporate to get them banninated from All SCA events forever.

  7. guajibaro says:

    Thank you for taking to time to talk about this, and talk through your reasoning. Being able to articulate WHY this behavior is unacceptable and WHY it should be addressed is a big hurdle.

    Too often I hear accounts of people this happens to and their reasoning for doing nothing was “it was just a feeling,” or “it wasn’t my place,” or a vague worry that the Security to appeal to will do nothing. I think your post helps clear the air.

    Thank you.

  8. Jenthor says:

    I had recently dealt with a fellow vendor who had invited himself behind my table and attempted to give me an unsolicited shoulder rub.

    I think he may have muttered an apology after I told him hands off. I was just glad it was the last day of the show. It sucked.

  9. Nathan says:

    This was a failure on my part, and I’m pretty pissed at myself for it, because what if something had happened overnight? I should have known better.

    I disagree that you should have known better, or that not speaking up was some great moral failure. If something had happened overnight it would not have been your fault. Because you are not responsible for the behavior of creepers. At any time of day or night, you do not cause a creepy person to creep. That’s on them.

  10. dester'edra says:

    Wow, so many thoughts floating around in my head…

    It bothers me no end that these things still happen in con culture, especially when they’re so over the top that most of us look at an incident and say, “Oh, come on. The creepers aren’t really still this selfish and thoughtless, are they? Do we really still have to have this conversation? I mean, *really*?” Our folks are so wise and thoughtful in other ways, it drives me crazy when they completely drop the ball on this. And yeah, having come back from an event where a friend went through massive drama because she called someone out about racially problematic language and cultural privilege, this stuff is very much in my head.

    I’m sorry that the victim didn’t feel up to bringing it to security herself–i know that part of how we make this not happen, even in the case of con coms that aren’t as sympathetic as this one, is that we come together to vocally maintain that this is *not* *ok*–but i know she had her reasons. The times i’ve been harassed, i know it’s taken me a long time to admit that it wasn’t just me freaking out, it was harassment, and just because someone didn’t cotton to the inappropriate doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And i’m glad you felt up to passing on what you knew; it’s not the same as a first person report, i know that, but security is best able to do its job when it has lots and lots of information.

    And kevin…every time i think he’s reached the pinnacle of his awesome, he goes and outdoes himself. In an ideal world someone like you or me should be able to chase off the creepers–hell, in an ideal world we should be able to give our own creepers the unhappy-woman-stare-of-death and have that be that without even needing reinforcements. But the reality is that those creepers that have the hardest time recognizing boundaries (not all of them male, though certainly many are) are the same ones that often need some show of rather primitive dominance before they back down, and ABM is perfect for that.

    As for anthrocon…speaking as a Folk who couldn’t make it this year, yes, yes we are. We are absolutely your people, and not just because we sucked kevin pretty thoroughly into the land of red shirts. And you are ours.

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