Last week prominent sci-fi author John Scalzi made a pretty big splash when he announced that he will no longer accept invitations to fan conventions (more commonly known as “cons“) that don’t have clear, well-publicized anti-harassment policies.
The problem of harassment at cons has been getting a lot of attention recently, with a growing number of people speaking up about bad experiences. There’s been quite a bit of really ugly pushback, though, including some from very high places. The whole discussion has illustrated the extent of the casual harassment (sexual and other) that goes on at such events, as well as underscoring the importance of having solid reporting and response procedures in place.
It’s a discussion that needs to be foregrounded in political environments as well.
The problem of sexual harassment and sexual violence in movement spaces was a focus of considerable reporting in the Occupy movement. Some of those claims of bad behavior were invented or exaggerated by Occupy’s critics, but the issue itself wasn’t an invented one — sexual predation is a particular threat in informal, countercultural, communal environments, and the complexity of addressing that threat is compounded by Occupy’s anti-heirarchical, anti-authoritarian politics.
Harassment among activists isn’t just an Occupy issue, though. From campus occupations to student government retreats, activist spaces carry the potential for bad behavior, and there’s often aversion to — or just confusion as to how one would go about — implementing formal policies on what’s out-of-bounds and how to address it.
Whatever the challenges of addressing sexual assault, sexual harassment, and other harassing and violent acts in movement spaces, however, the first step in the process is clear — folks in positions of responsibility in those spaces need to develop, implement, and publicize procedures for addressing such behavior when it occurs. Taking that step is a necessary part of making your movement and your organization one that everyone can feel safe participating in.
In a couple of weeks I’ll be attending the National Student Congress of the United States Student Association, an annual conference that brings together student activists and student government leaders from around the country for six days of intensive, energizing, exhausting work. I’m happy to say that USSA has a harassment policy for its conferences, and sad to say that it’s not anywhere near as good as it should be.
I can say both of those things because I was the policy’s primary author.
The USSA harassment policy was written, as best as I can recall, during my last USSA Congress as an undergraduate. I had been asked to serve on the Congress Steering Committee, the conference’s primary governing body. A student went to the USSA leadership to report that she was being sexually harassed by a member of her campus delegation, and one of the officers brought the complaint to us. In investigating the charges, we quickly discovered that we had little to work with in the organization’s governing documents. Harassment, stalking, even assault — as long as they took place off of the plenary floor — were not violations of USSA policy.
My recollection is that we found some general language in the Congress Rules that we interpreted as empowering us to address the complaint that had been lodged, and then sat down to write a policy to apply at future conferences. We had no guidance, no templates, no formal process — we just brainstormed for a while, and then I went off in a corner and put our notes into formal language.
We did an okay job, given the circumstances. Well enough, at least, that the policy has survived the intervening years largely intact. But there are obvious weaknesses — omissions, imprecise wording, questionable procedures — that are the inevitable result of the ad hoc process we employed. Given that, I encourage the folks who will be in attendance at the Congress to consider taking another look at the rules, and to make use of the resources at the bottom of this post when they do.
More broadly, I’d strongly encourage anyone reading this who is involved in an organization or coalition that conducts conferences, demonstrations, retreats, lengthy meetings, occupations, or other relevant gatherings or actions to take a moment to review the group’s harassment policies, if they exist, and to consider crafting them if they don’t.
I say “consider” here because of the wide variety of settings and situations in play. Appropriate rules for a student government retreat aren’t the same as those for a student government meeting. Rules for a one-hour demonstration aren’t the same as those for a one-week occupation. Rules for the offices of a statewide student association aren’t the same as those for a campus club. Questions of authority and enforcement and appropriate limits are going to shake out in very different ways in different circumstances.
Given all that, I’m not sure that it makes sense for me to take precisely the same stand that Scalzi has. Most of my speaking engagements aren’t at formal conferences, and many are arranged on short enough notice that even if harassment policies were called for it wouldn’t be practical to insist on the drafting, approval, and implementation of new policies as a pre-condition of my agreeing to participate.
I will, however, from here on out, be asking everyone who invites me to speak events about relevant harassment policies, and where appropriate asking them to put such policies in place before I arrive on site.
September 2013 Update: I’ve formalized my position on this a bit more — I’m now asking every conference I speak at to have a robust anti-harassment policy in place. (More details can be found on my guide to bringing me to campus, which is linked at this page.)
To further that process, I’ll also be including links to resources on drafting policies in a guide to bringing me to campus that I’ll be posting next week.
I’d also like to see this conversation continue, and to assist with it however I can. If any of you have suggestions or experiences to offer, or questions about how to proceed, please share them in comments. Also, if your organization does have a harassment policy in place, please share that, and I’ll post it (or a link) for others to draw on.
Some resources to get the ball rolling:
- Geek Feminism Wiki’s hub for info on conference anti-harassment policies
- A sample policy from Geek Feminism Wiki
- Occupy Baltimore’s Sexual Offense Policy
- Reporting Harassment at a Convention: A First-Person How-To
- A Scalzi post explaining his new policy (includes links and FAQ)
- The Con Anti-Harassment Project
- The Backup Project
- A MetaFilter discussion about the complexities of addressing harassment in informal spaces