Several weeks ago, I wrote a post over on Go Make Me a Sandwich talking about my personal experiences with convention harassment and why I was going to make a point of staying away from Penny Arcade eXpo, despite their strong harassment policies. In that post, I mentioned being sad that GenCon – a convention I have attended for many years – did not have a strong anti-harassment policy, and that this would be something I would be cautious of in my future returns to GenCon.
After writing that post, Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press was kind enough to get in touch with me and ask if I had been in touch with any of the GenCon staff. As it turned out I hadn’t. (It was always something I had meant to do, but I still find it difficult to talk about my experience. Also, being pregnant has given me a few other things to think about recently.) So Simon put me in touch with Adrian Swartout – the CEO of GenCon. I was initially trepidatious, but here’s the email that I sent:
I wanted to contact you in regards to helping to make GenCon a safer, more welcoming space for women, specifically through the use of an anti-harassment policy – which I strongly feel is needed.
As for who I am, I’m a long-time gamer and somewhat more recent gaming blogger. This year would have been my seventh consecutive attendance at GenCon, were it not for the fact that my baby is due a week after the convention. (But my husband and I are already making plans for how to attend with a baby in tow in 2013!) Over the past several years, I’ve been delighted to see more women and families in attendance. Last year especially I noticed a lot of fathers with babies, which I was very happy about, as I think making gaming spaces family-friendly is a great step toward making gaming more inclusive and welcoming overall.
Unfortunately, last year’s GenCon was a first for me in that I was sexually harassed by another convention attendee in what turned out to be a pretty traumatic experience for me. I didn’t wind up approaching any convention officials about it, because I didn’t know who to approach, or even if GenCon had an anti-harassment policy. And when I got home and did some googling, I was a little dismayed to realize that the closest thing there was to an anti-harassment policy was a small phrase buried in the policies for ethics and conduct: “All of the following constitute grounds for expulsion from the convention without refund: …Threatening, stealing, cheating or harassing others”
Since last year’s GenCon, it’s come to my attention that harassment at conventions is a huge problem and is very widespread. And it’s not just limited to GenCon! It’s prevalent at gaming conventions, tech conferences, sci-fi/fantasy conventions – pretty much the gamut of nerd-related conventions. Encouragingly, some other conventions are taking steps to implement clear anti-harassment policies that are helping to keep women safe, and it’s something I would love to see GenCon take steps toward implementing as well! Unfortunately, there is a lot of shame surrounding harassment and a general lack of awareness about convention harassment as an issue. An explicit policy would help raise awareness and more importantly protect convention attendees! Which, given that women are approaching fifty percent of gamers, would also be good for business.
There are some great resources out there for convention organizers looking to implement anti-harassment policies without re-inventing the wheel. Geek Feminism Wiki has this fantastic generic policy here that can be modified to suit a specific convention’s purposes. The Con Anti Harassment Project is also a good resource.
Of course the other half is making sure that people are aware of the policy. I’ve heard of some great approaches recently – one conference prints the short version on their maps. I’ve heard of others that publish it toward the front of their program books. I’ve also heard of conventions that print it on the back of the badge. I think all of these are great ideas, but there might be other ways out there.
Sorry if I’ve rambled on a bit, but GenCon is a convention that I love attending. My experience with convention harassment won’t prevent me from coming back, but I would like to feel supported and safe in doing so. And I think a clear anti-harassment policy would benefit not just the safety of female attendees but also GenCon’s attendance as a whole.
Thank you for your time and attention,
As it turns out, I needn’t have been anxious – Adrian’s response was both quick and quite positive. She thanked me for contacting her, saying that this wasn’t an issue that they had ever considered they might need to deal with. She also promised to investigate the matter seriously. The response was quite in depth, and I don’t want to quote extensively from what was a private email conversation, but this especially struck me as a really positive response:
This is the first time anyone has brought up our policy as a topic and requested we make changes and I really appreciate you taking the time to write such a thorough and thoughtful email. I only wish it wasn’t the result of your having experienced harassment at Gen Con. As a woman, I’ve grown up with harassment as part of my life –all women have on some level or another and it simply makes me sick to my stomach that we have to continue to deal this with this type of thing over and over again. This shouldn’t happen to anyone, ever and I am so sorry that it happened to you at my show.
It’s critical to me that Gen Con is a safe environment for everyone and we can’t address policy changes if we don’t know that there are issues around them. I will follow up at the end of this week or early next week with details on how we are going to address the harassment policy.
Not surprisingly, what with this being the run-up to GenCon 2012, it wound up being a few weeks before I heard from Adrian again. When she did respond, the nuts and bolts of her response boiled down to the following:
- First, a harassment policy needs to have three things. It needs to state that harassment isn’t allowed, what the consequences are, and how to report incidents of harassment. She acknowledged that they were currently missing the third component completely.
- Language detailing how to report incidents of harassment would be added to the policy. For next year, the policy with the new language would be included on the back of badges and in the info section of the program. Also for next year, there are to be signs in high-traffic areas – registration and possibly the exhibit hall entrances – with the policy.
- Convention hall staff would be advised of the policy and the details of how to enforce it so they could assist in raising awareness.
Unfortunately, many of these changes requiring print material will have to wait until next year to be implemented; Late July is just too late to make changes to the volume of print material that a convention the size of GenCon requires only a few weeks before the convention itself. But these sound like great first steps. I especially hope that there will indeed be signage outside of the dealer’s room, as harassment of cosplayers is its own special subset of convention harassment that needs attention. (For instance, check out these great posters that were up at CONvergence this year dealing with this issue.)
My only real disappointment in all of this is a minor one: there will not be any language added to the policy to define harassment or specify what sorts of harassing behavior will not be tolerated. The concern stated was that the definition be as broad as possible to allow response to any and all situations that might come up. And while I can understand that there are legal concerns that are informing this decision by the organizers, my honest preference would be for a policy that clearly spells out what constitutes harassment, because the biggest problem is awareness for both potential harassers and victims. Convention goers need to be aware of what types of behavior are not acceptable, but victims also need to be aware of what sorts of things they have a right to not have to deal with.
The difficulty in dealing with harassment at conventions is that it often is not clear cut and often victims can’t process what has happened and label it as harassment until after the harassment has already occurred and their harasser has had a chance to remove themselves from the situation. I know that this was certainly the situation for me.
It is possible to define harassment in such a way that sets expected standards of behavior while still leaving room for proper enforcement. SkepChickCon’s definition of harassment is one of the best that I’ve seen:
Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, or race. Harassment also includes deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.
However, as I said, I can understand that this approach to defining harassment is probably based on legal concerns, and really this is a very minor criticism of what is a very huge and important change in policy. GenCon has made great strides in recent years in making itself a family-friendly convention, and these changes represent a hugely important step toward making GenCon a truly welcoming and safe space for all its attendees. It’s not a panacea! There’s still a lot to be done to raise awareness of convention harassment as an issue that needs addressing. But this is a hugely important step towards creating a culture where the harassment of female gamers isn’t tolerated and normalized.