I’ve written before in this space about the ongoing problem of sexual harassment at fan conventions and other geek events, whether people are taking creepshots of cosplayers and making unreasonable demands of their time in terms that make them uncomfortable, so-called journalists are using their credentials as license to harass women, because apparently bra size is an important piece of data for any published story, or sexual harassment between professionals is being excused as an inherent part of geek or gaming culture. There have been efforts to push back against these cultural problems, significant among them, Girl Wonder’s Con Anti-Harassment Project, which, among other things, stockpiles the anti-harassment policies of major conventions (which aren’t always clearly available on their websites) and offers advice on how to report harassment or to support someone in doing so. And those efforts got a high-profile boost yesterday when John Scalzi, the prolific science fiction novelist, the past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and an outspoken feminist ally, announced a policy on convention harassment of his own.
Scalzi, he told readers of his popular blog, will no longer attend conventions that don’t have clear sexual harassment policies that delineate offending behavior, and where and to whom it’s possible to report it, that don’t make those policies clear to all participants by means like posting them online or announcing them at opening ceremonies, and where he can’t get personal assurances from convention organizers that they’ll do both of the following, and make sure harassment complaints are taken seriously and dealt with promptly. He wrote:
I want my friends and fans to be able to come to a convention and feel assured that the convention is making the effort to be a safe place for them. I want my friends and fans to know that if someone creeps on them, there’s a process to deal with it, quickly and fairly. And I want my friends and fans to know that I don’t support conventions that won’t go out of their way to do both of these things. I want them to know that if I’m showing up as a guest, it’s at a convention that has their backs.
So, that’s my plan. If you’re running a convention and you want to have me show up, now you know what you have to do for me to consider your invitation. I don’t think it’s too much to ask. If you think it’s too much to ask, you can go ahead and skip the invite. We’ll both be happier.
Scalzi, of course, has the clout to demand that such steps be taken at the conventions that he attends, and frankly, a busy enough traveling schedule that taking a few events off his calendar might come as a relief for him personally, even if it means he’s losing the opportunity to sell some books. But that’s precisely why his declaration is meaningful. There are a lot of other people who don’t have that capital to burn, and who see attending and volunteering at conventions, even if it exposes them to harassment from any class of person there, especially by someone prominent in the field, as was the case for a friend of Scalzi’s recently. Scalzi’s gesture isn’t just in his own personal best interest (though more on that in a moment). It’s a gesture of collegiality. Even if he doesn’t worry that he’s personally at risk for sexual harassment, he’s willing to put his own scheduling plans on the line to create a safer space for everyone else.But I actually think it’s important that Scalzi’s stating this new policy in part in terms that suggest that he has skin in the game. Conventions are so wildly popular and oversubscribed that it’s easy to say that it doesn’t matter if some people aren’t interested, or if some people decide to stop coming that others would just take their badges. But Scalzi’s saying that he believes conventions could get more business from his fans in particular, and that he doesn’t want to lose the potential business that could dry up if conventions stay unsafe and uncomfortable or get worse. He’s tying his economic interests to those of the conventions as a whole, reminding conventions that different fandoms have different needs, and that it makes more sense to build policies to the highest standards rather than to the lowest if they want to serve all of their potential constituencies. And it’s not just an economic justification. Scalzi is saying one of the most important things men who want to be feminist allies can say: that sexual harassment affects and offends him personally, even if he’s not the subject of it, that if someone he cares about is hurt or humiliated, he’s going to be offended on their behalf, and stand with them as they report their experiences and look for ways that things could be different.
Those kinds of visuals matter. During his term as SFWA president, Scalzi had to deal with a specific iteration of the argument that sexism are part of the genres he was representing after the organization’s internal publication ran a cheesecake cover, a conversation referring to female editors in the genre in terms of their looks, not their professional contributions, and another writer praised Barbie as an image of a submissive woman. Some of the writers who were criticized cried “censorship,” and some of their supporters insisted that being able to dream about female sexual availability or submission were an important element of preserving the fantasy element of fantasy writing (ignoring, of course, that there’s a difference between a novel and a professional publication). In Scalzi’s statement to the membership, he said he wanted it to be clear that everyone is welcome and should be able to feel comfortable in SWFA. For that to be the case, some people are going to learn that their right to say whatever comes into their heads doesn’t come with a corresponding right to be free of criticism or consequences, and to accept that their feelings are not so much more important than anyone else’s that they’re entitled to act like a public space is a frat house. And for everyone to be comfortable at conventions, some attendees are going to have to figure out the difficult way what kinds of experiences their badges actually entitle them to, and I’m not just talking about getting in the fast line to get into a screening of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..
At both SWFA and fan conventions, it’ll take a long time to bend the curve on existing attitudes and bad cultural practices. But what Scalzi’s done is make himself an obvious counterweight to people who want to insist that sexism is an inherent and even valuable part of geek culture. It’ll take more people like Scalzi for that image to shift, but it’s important that it does, both in the name of making conventions safer places, and in terms of getting genre fiction the respect it deserves, as a space full of people who are trying to dream new worlds into reality, rather than as a hodgepodge of entitled people demanding to live out their adolescent personal fantasies.