Harassment and the Back Channel

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.
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July 1, 2013

My cat does not respect my personal space. Do not follow her example.

My cat does not respect my personal space. Do not follow her example.

I am so very sorry that Elise Matthesen was harassed at WisCon. I don’t know Elise in person, but I have bought a number of pieces of jewelry from her and I admire her tremendously. I am grateful that she has written such a powerful piece that explains what she did to report her harasser to the appropriate authorities.  I am also grateful for the open and frank discussion that has come from her decision to go public.

However.

I’ve also seen a handful of posts about how, at science fiction conventions, women will work together to let each other know who the serial harassers and creepers are. I find this extremely interesting because I have never been warned about anyone at any of the conventions I’ve attended.

And I wonder why this is. Does one have to achieve a certain level of importance in the community in order to be told who the creepers and serial harassers are? Does one have to be conventionally attractive?  Is there a code phrase I need to learn?

Because harassment can happen to anyone. It’s happened to me. The incident I am about to describe is the most notable, but it’s certainly not the only one.

When I was 18 years old, I went to a small film screening with a friend. It was a showing of Tetsuo, the Iron Man and a film by Joe Christ (I think it was this one–it was terrible, whatever it was). Joe Christ was there. He was sitting right next to me on the floor, in fact. And was paying a lot of attention to me and to my friend. I remember, so clearly, the way he kept getting closer and closer. By the end of the evening, he had touched me several times–my foot, my arm. It has been 20 years and I can still remember how it felt when he touched me.

And then he offered us a ride back to our dorm and, since it was past midnight and since it was a bit of a long walk and it was cold outside, we accepted. We got about halfway and he started to tell us how lonely it was being on the road. And then mentioned that he and his wife had an open marriage (he’d previously used his wife’s writing career as a way to ingratiate himself) and invited us to go back to his hotel with us. When we demurred, he then claimed he didn’t know how to get back to his hotel from campus. At this point I remember thinking, “I don’t care if you drive around Kalamazoo all night, asshole.” I did not go back to his hotel. My friend did. The next day, she checked in with me and told me that he tried to get to smoke some weed to “loosen up”. She told me that nothing happened, that she’d spent the night on the floor but I don’t know if she was telling me the truth or telling me what she thought I wanted to hear.

To this day, I feel guilty for not going with my friend back to Joe Christ’s hotel room. My friendship with this woman did not survive. Ten years after it happened, I wrote about it on my now-defunct website.  Joe Christ found the post and took the time to comment. He told me that I was lying and that I was also fat and ugly. Ten years later, it was so important for him to make sure that the 20 people who read my website knew that I was a fat and ugly liar. Put me in my place. Shut me up.

Now Joe Christ is dead. And yet: I wonder if anyone is going to come here and tell me, again, that I am a liar and that I am fat and ugly.

Because this is how it works. Harassment, much like other kinds of sexual abuse, is not about sex or whether or not someone is attractive. It is about power. It’s been 20 years and the man who harassed me is dead and I am still worried about using his name.

And as I think about the back channel and the people who are talking about how they let people know who the creeps and harassers are, the more I think that access to the back channel is a kind of privilege. It’s a privilege of knowing the right people. Which is something that comes with time, effort, and actually being successful with networking.

Not everyone is going to be able to invest that kind of time and effort–or even if they do, they may not ever become part of the group of people who knows who the harassers and creeps are.  And those people are often the most vulnerable to the creeps and harassers. They are the ones who aren’t going to be believed and who are going to be dismissed as attention seekers. Which then makes them even more vulnerable. This absolutely is not a situation where everyone truly does know who the harassers and creeps are.

I am so very tired of hearing stories about how things were back in the good old days. When convention organizers were procuring asses for Isaac Asimov to pinch and women were leaving conventions because their shapely bottoms were patted while out in public. When Randall Garrett felt that it was appropriate to greet women with “I’m Randall Garrett. Let’s fuck.” Hell, as recently as 2006, Harlan Ellison felt that grabbing Connie Willis’s breast onstage at the Hugo Awards was an okay thing to do (this goes to the video, may be upsetting to watch if you haven’t seen it before, edited to fix date per comment). But hey, why can’t we all just get along? (screencap of Google cache, comments missing) Why so negative?

I don’t care how things were in the good old days–it seems pretty clear from where I’m sitting that they were only good for a certain subset of the group. And it also seems that convention culture has been, in many ways, designed to enable this kind of bad behavior. Attempts to challenge the culture and to make it more accessible for different groups of people are almost always met with howls of outrage–be it gender neutral bathrooms, access for persons with disabilities, or the right to be present without being grabbed, groped, or creeped at.

If anyone wants to know what the “old guard” in our community thinks about making the community safe for everyone, you only need to look at the screencaps/transcriptions from the private SFWA forum at SFF.net. Warning: there’s a lot of disgusting rot in there.  And this is what we’re fighting against.

It is because that the back channel is a privilege that I believe that each and every convention (science fiction or otherwise) needs to have a clear code of conduct and a procedure to deal with harassment. And that procedure must be followed, without exception. The back channel can be useful but it is too prone to failure and the gaps are too large for it to be reliable. Cliff Pervocracy touches a bit on this in their post from last year about the missing stair, although they don’t go so far as to call it a privilege.

The other thing about using the back channel to deal with the missing stair is this: there are no consequences for serial harassers or creepers. They can keep on harassing and creeping on people not in the know, while those in the know can avoid them. So in some ways, the back channel actually enables creepers and harassers by allowing those in the know to become complacent. I’m seeing  a lot of complacency in the posts about the back channel and how it works.

We talk a lot about safety and complacency at my day job–I work in a very dangerous industry  (two chemicals we have on site: phosgene and HF) and complacency can lead to serious harm to both ourselves and our community. Not all of the safety rules I am subject to at my day job necessarily carry over into the rest of my life but one that does is the idea of watching out for other people. Which is one reason I love the Backup Ribbon Project so much: it is a visible reminder to everyone that there are people on their side, who are willing and able to assist in any way they can.

People should not be compelled to report; there are times when not-reporting is the safest thing to do and the only person who gets to make that decision is the person who has been harassed or assaulted. But for people who do report, there must be safety for them as well. The time for complacency and reliance on the back channel is past. It is time to openly commit to making our community a safe place for everyone.

Safety should not be a privilege.  It is a right.

A by-no-means-complete list of people talking about this, in no particular order except I’ve tried to put women’s voices (or voices that appear to be from women) at the top of the list:

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