Illustration for article titled Heres How You Deal With Sexual Harassment at a Sci-fi Convention

Last month, writer Genevieve Valentine was harassed at Readercon (a science fiction/fantasy convention) by a man named René Walling, a high-profile attendee who told her to stop saying things that "made [him] want to say "wrong" things" and then essentially stalked her throughout the conference in order to "apologize" even though she made it clear she didn't want to talk to him.

Readercon has a zero tolerance sexual harassment policy, meaning that harassers are permanently banned from the convention. So when Readercon's Board of Directors decided to only suspend Walling for two years after he delivered an apparently extremely moving explanation for his actions — therefore siding with an harasser who claimed he "didn't get" what he did wrong over a justifiably upset victim of harassment — the community was outraged. Many people concluded that Walling got off easy because of his status and connections within the community. The board responded with this statement:

When we wrote our zero-tolerance policy in 2008 (in response to a previous incident), we were operating under the assumption that violators were either intent on their specific behaviors, clueless, or both.

During the course of our conversation with Rene it became immediately apparent that he realized what he had done and was sincerely regretful of his actions. It was that recognition and regret that influenced our decision, not his status in the community. If, as a community, we wish to educate others about harassment, we must also allow for the possibility of reform.

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"Immediately apparent," eh? Funnily enough, after the board announced their decision, multiple women came out to say that Walling had harassed them as well, both that weekend and in the past, making it clear that the incident was not a one-time misunderstanding. Here's one comment from Kate Kligman:

I didn't attend Readercon, but this morning Nick Mamatas told me the
guy who was bothering Genevieve Valentine was someone who had caused
problems for me too. Rene Walling is the chair of the Hugo Awards
Marketing Committee, and he was a french translator last year at Reno
for the 2011 base designer (I was a Hugo admin in 2010 and 2011 and
also served on the marketing committee).

I had worked under him online for a couple years, when he was the
chair of Anticipation, then out of the blue when he met me in person
he asked me to marry him. I didn't even know we were dating. I told
him no, but since then, I've had issues with him following me at
events, and he didn't ever really back off. For this and other
reasons, I stopped volunteering entirely last year so I could limit
contact. But it got worse after I resigned, he followed me around at
SF Contario 2, and I ended up leaving the event early.

I'm interested in the outcome, if any, because it's a factor in me
attending Readercon next year. I didn't go this year because I knew
he'd be there.

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To their credit, the Readercon Convention Committee finally realized the board had made a grievous mistake and responded with an extremely thorough and incredibly classy public statement/apology in which they admitted they fucked up.

They apologized to Valentine and Kligman:

We apologize first and foremost to Genevieve Valentine and to Kate Kligman for not taking appropriate action based on their reports of being harassed by René Walling. Our policy clearly states that harassers will have their memberships permanently revoked; we did not adhere to this policy, despite undisputed evidence of harassment. The board failed in its responsibilities to prioritize the safety of our attendees, promote a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere at the convention, follow our policy, and uphold Readercon's reputation as a place where reports of harassment will be handled appropriately. Our actions showed disrespect for Ms. Valentine and Ms. Kligman's painful experiences of harassment and their bravery in speaking up. We offer our heartfelt apology for failing to justify the trust they placed in us and for compounding their distress.

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And to the community:

We apologize to the larger Readercon community for failing to follow our own rules and failing to make Readercon a place that both is safe and feels safe. The conversation about the value of zero-tolerance policies and lifetime bans is ongoing, but the issue of the moment is this: Readercon's program participants, attendees, and volunteers came together with the understanding that a particular policy was in place, and that Readercon's concom and board would not hesitate to implement it; and yet, when a complaint was made, we failed to address it appropriately and in accordance with our own rules.

We especially regret the perception that our process was biased in favor of a confirmed harasser. It is our responsibility to implement our anti-harassment policy in a way that corrects for the societal power imbalances that are often present between harassers and their targets, and for the fannish interconnectedness that often leads to these cases being judged by friends and colleagues of one or both parties. We failed in that responsibility.

Finally, by damaging the convention's reputation as a safe haven where harassment is aggressively discouraged and appropriately dealt with when it happens, we have upset many people who care about the convention and undermined our efforts to make the convention more inclusive and diverse. Women, members of minority groups, and younger people are often especially vulnerable to harassment, and many have been understandably put off by the perception that harassment is tolerated at our convention; we cannot claim to be welcoming them while creating an environment in which they feel unsafe.

We offer our heartfelt apology to everyone in our community who trusted us and has been hurt by our breach of trust; to everyone who once felt safe at Readercon and no longer does; to those who have linked Readercon's reputation with their own and now feel tarnished by association, especially our past guests of honor and anyone who has officially or informally promoted the convention; and to those who love Readercon and are heartbroken to see its leaders acting contrary to the convention's best interests.

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In addition to banning Walling from from attending or participating in Readercon in any way, the committee vowed to update their anti-harassment policies, work with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center "to train concom members and volunteers in swift, appropriate reactions to observed or reported harassment," and put up "visible posters, distributing flyers or business cards, and/or adding language to the program guide informing attendees that harassing behavior is not permitted at Readercon and providing ways to report harassment during and after the convention next year." All five members of the board have resigned.

Valentine wrote that she was thankful for the final outcome and very pleased with the results:

Over the weekend, late at night, a message to me from Kate popped up.

"So if this works out, wanna go to Readercon?"

Yes, I do. See you next year.

"With luck, we'll get to a time in which it is not necessary to defend a target of harassment, because harassment doesn't happen at cons, or because, when it does, that shit is shut down like it should be," Valentine wrote. "Until that day, I can only hope that those who come forward find the same support that I have. Thank you."

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Props to the committee for (semi-swiftly) doing the right thing and cleaning up the board's mess. Hopefully, many more women who stayed away from conventions like Readercon because they felt unsafe will feel comfortable joining Valentine next year, too.

[Flickr/Houari B.]

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DISCUSSION

I'm involved in similar events, and yes, this happens. One incident I can remember was a guy who was harassing two girls, and we asked them what they would like us to do. They said they did not want him to be removed from the event, just told it wasn't acceptable, so that's what we did. We also pointed out to him that it was their request not to take further action that meant this was all that was being done. He was very apologetic, and wrote a letter then and there in our office (of his own volition) to express this to them.

Next event, he did it again to someone else. We banned him for life immediately.

Now, should we have banned him in the first instance? With hindsight, you could say that would have been preferable. That is was not safe for him to be there. But we made our decision, and that was to say to the only people affected "Do you want us to tell him to leave? Are you sure you are comfortable if he remains at the event?", and take their answer at face value. Hand on heart, I'd make that same call tomorrow.

There is a factor that is not mentioned here (to be fair, it's not applicable in the example contained in the article) - I notice that sci-fi/gaming/anime events tend to have a higher number of people who suffer from Aspergers, or similarly are not very good at interacting with people, or (and here's the meat of it) reading social situations.

Now, I'm not absolving people of responsibility for their actions, but I've developed a suspicion that there is a greater-than-normal percentage of attendees who genuinely can't properly process the signals from others that what they are doing is not desired. Normally this manifests itself as just talking on to people when they're blatantly trying to get away or ignore them, to push into groups uninvited, that sort of thing - but I can see how it could also be things like not realising that the girl in the Yoko cosplay is really, really tired of you staring at her ass right now.

Is this a reasonable angle, or am I overanalysing something that's an outlier?