In recent months, there has been an increasing awareness of convention harassment. To their credit, most of the people who are running conventions of all geek varieties are taking action. Harassment policies are being written where before none existed, they are being clarified where there were only vague statements, they are being publicized where there was no way for the average con-goer to know how to report harassment. Change is happening, and most of it has been good.
Any time awareness of a problem increases, there will be a lot of solutions put forward. Some of them will be brilliant and easy to implement. Some of them will be misguided and may cause more harm than good. Most will fall in the middle. It is likely that we will have to wait a few years to see which solutions are really effective in decreasing actual instances of (not just reporting of) harassment.
One solution that has been put forward is the Back Up Project (http://backupproject.org/). The Back Up Project is designed to encourage convention goers to be aware of situations where women are being harassed and to actively provide assistance to those women. It aims at a culture where many people are afraid of rocking the boat and where harassment has been tolerated for a long time, both by men and by women. This movement isn’t a complete solution to the problem of convention harassment. But what it does, that most other solutions do not do, is empower the average, non-staff member at a convention to feel like they are helping to make the convention a safer place. By wearing a T-shirt or a ribbon or a button, a convention goer can make a statement against convention harassment and be a part of the solution, not the problem.
Dragon*Con has recently made an announcement (http://dragoncon.livejournal.com/2953722.html) essentially criticizing this type of approach, distancing themselves from it, and asking an unnamed individual who was providing such ribbons to stop doing so.
Is Dragon*Con in favor of harassment? Clearly not. But there is a certain irony in their approach. Just as the Back Up Project has been criticized for, perhaps, erring on the side of being overly protective, Dragon*Con is overly concerned that someone might use a Back Up Project ribbon to act as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and lure some poor woman into a dangerous situation. There are a _lot_ of things wrong with the Dragon*Con announcement, and I will try to go through them individually. But at the outset, I would like to make two things clear. First, Dragon*Con is trying to do the right thing. This is not a new problem, but it is being approached in a new way. Mistakes will be made as we attempt to create the best solution. Second, a lot of convention runners are very, very concerned about making their cons safer while, at the same time, not arousing the wrath of the Internets, and, perhaps of greater concern, not getting sued by anyone. It’s a hard balancing act. I hope that this article will shed some light about how to do it.
1. The Legal Side
I should start by saying that I am a lawyer. However this article does not constitute legal advice to anyone, especially not to any convention organizers. There, I have covered my ass. And this is pretty much what Dragon*Con is trying to do as well. Because, what if somebody thinks that the Back Up Project folks are actually sanctioned and screened by the convention? And what if one of them rapes someone? Dragon*Con could totally get sued!!! Stop. First of all, anyone can get sued. They will let pretty much any bozo file a lawsuit for the price of the filing fee. Nothing you do will “keep you from getting sued.” No disclaimer or release is sufficient. What you want to do is, you want to make sure that if you _are_ sued, you will win, preferably quickly before you incur a lot of legal fees. You also want to make sure that a lot of people don’t get the notion that suing you would be a good idea. (Pro tip: Suing a convention is a terrible idea, they don’t have any money.) The second concern is not a problem here. The “wolf in sheep’s clothing” scenario is, even if you take it as a possibility, a very remote possibility. It isn’t going to be happening all over the place. The first concern is also not a problem here, but if you were really, really conservative, you could post a disclaimer saying: “Dragon*Con supports the ideals of, but is not affiliated with the Back Up Project. If you feel you are being harassed, or if you witness harassment, please inform any staff member (details from our harassment policy here).” Boom, problem solved. No one is going to win that lawsuit, unless Dragon*Con staff are the ones harassing people or creating an _egregiously_ awful environment.
2. Women Are Not Stupid
What if someone uses the Back Up project to pose as a knight in shining armor and then lures away poor innocent damsel in distress? (Seriously, the Dragon*Con announcement uses the words “someone in distress”, and we all know who the “someone” is.) Well, that could happen. But it could just as easily happen if that person were not wearing a ribbon. And frankly, it couldn’t happen that easily. Women are not stupid. I know that a lot of men have a hard time believing this, but we take precautions against rape every single goddamned day. We have multiple exit strategies from bad situations. When we are fooled in that way, it is generally because it is someone we know and trust already. The ribbon is not going to make a bit of difference.
Moreover, shutting down the entire idea of the Back Up Project because they are concerned that someone could use it badly? This is an overreaction. It sends a message that they are more worried about covering your ass (see The Legal Side, above), than actually helping to promote a safer atmosphere at your convention. This is not, I think, the message that they are trying to send.
3. Denial of the Problem Will Not Make It Go Away
Now we get to the big problem. This is really the heart of the issue I have with the Dragon*Con message. They say this: “We think a lot of our fans and believe strongly in the message that if you see someone in trouble, you should always be willing to help out or get someone who can. We expect no less and you all have never disappointed.” NEVER DISAPPOINTED. Imagine, if you will, that you are a woman who has been harassed at Dragon*Con in a public or semi-public place. I see a lot of hands go up. Well, of course they do, because this is a geek convention we are talking about. Now Dragon*Con says that their fans have NEVER disappointed them in this regard. That is pretty much the same as saying that sort of harassment simply doesn’t happen at their convention. I don’t think that they meant to say that, but all those women with their hands up? This announcement just made them feel completely invisible.
Saying that you don’t have a problem is foolish and non-productive. We know you have a problem. We are glad that you have taken steps to correct it. We are glad those steps are paying off. But don’t think that this entitles you to prevent anyone else from trying to address this issue as well. Perpetrating the myth that all geek guys are perfect gentlemen who hold the door open for a lady and would never (never!) harass anyone is not helping. Your fans are great, and they are part of the problem. Don’t tell them that they cannot become part of the solution.