Home Essays What We Talk About When We Talk About Con Harassment

What We Talk About When We Talk About Con Harassment

Published on July 2, 2013 by in Essays

I’m not sure everyone fully understands con harassment.

There’s been a lot of talk about recently, a great deal of online sharing of experiences from the women who have been on the receiving end of unwanted groping—or worse—in what is supposed to be a safe place for geeks of stripes. Which has been wonderful, for reasons I’ll get into. But I’m seeing so many of the same responses to these discussions that I’m not sure everyone understands what con harassment really is.

And by “everyone” I’m really talking about dudes. Women seem to understand this just fine. So, let’s sit down, guys, and talk this out. Bro to bro.

To start with, con harassment is rarely done by socially awkward men. I see this confusion over and over. Socially awkward men may have uncomfortable conversations. They may spend too much time staring at woman’s cleavage. They may not take a hint that a conversation is done. But if you’ve ever spent some time around socially awkward men (and you probably have, it’s a big world) you may have noticed that they don’t touch people. Touching adds an extra layer of complication to social interaction, one that can easily be avoided by not touching. So they don’t.

Because—and let’s be clear on this guys—while awkward conversations and horrible sexist speech are problems, the big concern in con harassment is physical violation. Groping, inappropriate touching and other, worse forms of invasion of a woman’s personal space. This is rarely done by social awkward men.

The kind of guys who grope women at cons are socially aware. They can recognize social signals of when a women is with a man who cares about her, or when she is functionally “alone.” They know when the social contract of silence can be enforced, when the atmosphere of drunkenness will provide them with an excuse, when they can have an easy getaway. These are not socially awkward men. Often they are talkers, practiced in using social rules to get what they want. Because they think they can get away with it.

Which brings me to my next point, bros. It doesn’t help when you say you would punish someone if and when you saw con harassment. First off, you’re not going to see it. The socially aware groper can read your good intentions toward the women around you, and will bide his time until you are not around. Secondly, the damage has been done. A woman has been made to feel unsafe in what should be a safe space. Physically harming the groper is not going to make her feel safe again. If anything, it creates a larger culture of violence.

Think of it like arson. Sure, you can catch the guy who burned a woman’s house down and break his legs, but she’s still without a house. The damage has been done.

This is not to say con harassers should not be punished. They certainly should not be allowed to return to the convention. They should be appropriately shunned by their community. But threatening them with bodily harm doesn’t solve anything.

Which brings me to my last point. While I do not doubt that some of them men who I have heard say they would act would, in fact punch a groper in the face, I know that most of you guys would not do anything.

This has nothing to do with your masculinity, or your ability to dish out bone-crunching violence. It has nothing to do with you being men. It has to do with being a human being. We’re social animals. Which means that once the party has started, no one wants it to stop. Most people are more than willing to excuse harassment, if it means an awkward moment has passed.

My wife and I were at a Christmas party a few years back, and while she was bent over to grab a drink, another party-goer slapped her butt so hard it was heard throughout the party. She was in tears. I was livid. I never been so close to hurting some one than I was at that moment. The guy tried to play it off, that he was drunk, that was just something they did at this party. He was backed up on this by many party goers, who just wanted the party to get back to what it was. Included in this was the guy’s girlfriend, who told me she routinely receives worse slaps from the guy, and it was all in good fun.

Think about that for a moment. A woman wanted to sweep this event under the rug so bad that she said she was routinely beaten by her boyfriend, and it was no big deal. I don’t think she knew what she was saying. She only wanted the moment to pass, and for me not cave her boyfriend’s face in.

We ended up leaving the party without me fighting anyone, and cutting those people out of our lives. But I think about that party every time someone claims that if they saw what happened, they would act against the abuser. At the party, no one joined me arguing against this guy, no one but me was ready to hit him. And this was an undisputed act of violence against my wife. No one claimed it didn’t happen. Several people saw it, even more heard it. But no one wanted the party to stop.

Any sort of recompense after the fact is going to be met with resistance. Gropers are usually people who are charming otherwise, and used to getting away with things. There will be people who come to their defense, because they don’t fit the image of a sexual predator. They’re a nice guy. They were just drunk. It’s not going to happen again. That’s him being him. Hurting someone in the midst of this is not going to change peoples’ minds about the guy.

Gropers know this. They are counting on it.

Dudes, I understand, you want to do something. It’s bad enough that men who sexually assault women at cons don’t have signifiers like awkwardness, and now I’m saying that your need for vengeance is impotent, or, at best, counterproductive. What are we guys supposed to do?

The best thing we can do, bros, is talk about this. We will raise our voices in support of the women who are telling their assault stories, and make their voices louder with our chorus. We will say that we know this happens, and we know that the men who do it are scuzzballs. We will not threaten them with violence should they get caught, because we know that violence does not a safe space make. We will say that the men who do this sort of behavior do not deserve our respect, and will we remember that we have said that when a groper is revealed to be a friend.

Con harassment succeeds because of a culture of silence, of a willingness to ignore this behavior out of shock, out of denial, out of a need to not to be a buzzkill. We can break this silence, guys. If enough people talk about this problem, understand it, and loudly voice their disapproval, then gropers will no longer see conventions as spaces they can assault women and get away with it.

Because the only remedy for con harassment is to make sure that it doesn’t happen in the first place.



Edit: Thank you so much, everyone who spread this around. I had no idea this post was going to be so popular and touch so many people. It was just something I felt needed to be said. I am humbled and honored that such a large group of people agree.

I put up a “Who I am and what I do” post, for people who are coming to the site for the first time, which has links to other posts that might interest someone who liked this one.

Thank you, all, again.





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26 Comments  comments 

26 Responses

  1. Thank you for writing this. I’m going to share it far and wide. Because (unfortunately) well-written pieces about con harassment and the larger tapestry of which it is a thread — rape culture, ie, a short form term for the culture we’ve created that consistently ignores consent and boundaries and teaches people that’s ok and we should be quiet about it, etc– and what it is, why it persists, and how to end it, can never be shared enough.

    I dream of a day when we don’t need to say these things any more, but, well, in the meantime I am very happy to see smart, well-spoken men speaking out about this.

  2. Thank you. Thank you for saying this.

  3. Round of rousing applause for you! This is one of the best articles on the subject I’ve seen so far.

  4. Rock on, Jared. Well said.

  5. GibsonGirl99

    You, sir, are a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. Women everywhere (not just those at cons) salute you. We also wish we could bottle your attitude!

  6. GeekGirl

    You’re exactly right about people not wanting anything to spoil the party. My local geek community has embraced a known rapist and shunned the victims for precisely that reason – he’s the life of the party, after all, and it’s no fun to be around people who are suffering.

  7. Most of the our sisters in science fiction have experienced some form of harassment at a con and not just from a guy with whom they associate. Asimov grabbed my but the first time I met him. I instinctively slapped him. We instantly formed a respectful relationship after he apologized and promised he would not disrespect me again. I promised to not grab his balls.

  8. Mel

    Excellent. Thank you!
    I think you might be missing a “not”in this senntence: “We will not threaten them with violence should they get caught, because we know that violence does (not) a safe space make.”

  9. This, precisely. All of it, but particularly the threat-of-violence response. Thanks for expressing it so well.

  10. This is an excellent post, thanks for this.

  11. Gregory

    And not just women, I would add. I’ll do my best to live up to this challenge.

  12. I find it utterly fascinating that this sort of thing is no longer being tolerated in silence simultaneously with a very public anti-bullying crusade. Perhaps we, as a culture, are waking up.

  13. Borpo

    Being drunk is such a non-apology for shitty behavior. Here’s a cool trick: if you act inappropriately when you’re drunk, don’t get drunk in those situations. Or, use the buddy system: if you go out and are afraid you’ll harass someone, keep a friend around to take you home before that happens.

  14. Great article. You showed great restraint. I had a similar incident with someone and my significant other and violence does not help, it only passes anger on. More men need to be a part of the discussion.

  15. Courtney

    I really appreciate you making the points about socially awkward guys vs. predators, how “I would do X!!!” responses don’t help, and the “don’t ruin the party” apologists. They are spot on.

    I take strong exception to your assertion that the definition of con harassment or harassment in other spaces is limited to unwanted touching. LOTS of harassment is verbal only, and it is no less harassment.

    See, for example, the list of harassment incidents in this article:

    The author lists 11 separate incidents of harassment she has endured over 20 odd years (as examples–they aren’t the only incidents she has dealt with over time.)

    Five of them either don’t involve touching, or she didn’t mention touching if it happened. They are all still harassment. Also, the statements made in #3 and #7 would be harassment even if they hadn’t been accompanied by unwanted touching.

    Telling women to smile is harassment. Hounding women for attention when they have made it clear through their body language that they want to be left alone is harassment. The quick-change that some guys do where they go from “hey, can I have your number?” to “Fuck you, Bitch! You think you’re too good for me?!?!” is harassment (and that right there is probably one of the biggest reasons most women tense up when they are approached by a man they aren’t interested in–there is no way to tell who will respond with “OK, have a nice life” and who will become belligerent.)

    Also, there are some really, really scary behaviors that technically don’t involve touching and that absolutely are harassment. Following someone around, frequently standing too close when you are talking to someone, cornering someone/blocking their exit path while you talk to them. There are a lot of things you can do to harass and intimidate someone who is smaller and/or less physically strong than you that don’t actually involve touching them. Asking a stranger for a date when you are in an elevator can be terrifying for them.

    You make a lot of excellent points, but perpetuating the idea that it’s not harassment if it doesn’t involve touching is dangerous. That opens the door for the “don’t ruin the party” apologists to say, “What’s the big deal? It’s not like he touched her.” I think we can be clear about what is harassment without limiting the definition to touching.

  16. Great post. Calling out the behaviour and social exclusion is the best punishment for the scuzzballs.

  17. Most of us chaps simply don’t know that this is going on. I had a discussion about this a little while ago with a female colleague I’d known professionally for many years, someone who I met regularly at conferences. She told me once that she had been groped by a man during a lecture, and that I was sitting just a few yards away at the time. This sort of thing goes on a lot, with most of us being completely unaware of it.

  18. [...] Jared Axelrod: What We Talk About When We Talk About Con Harassment [...]

  19. [...] blog (with commentary, and links to all the other hosts of the post) Jared Axelrod on “Ruining the Party” SFFragette: Moving SFF/F into the 21st Century Culture Consumed   ALISA: Defiance and [...]

  20. Laura

    Thank you for this post, and especially for this sentence: “We will say that the men who do this sort of behavior do not deserve our respect, and will we remember that we have said that when a groper is revealed to be a friend.” I was recently harassed (both physically & verbally) by someone who is a member of a much larger group of friends, and though on the one hand I don’t feel right putting our mutual friends in a “him or me” situation, it is more hurtful than I let on that they would choose to continue to be friends with someone who would treat someone else the way he treated me, especially since they ostensibly also care about me.

  21. [...] Read Jared Axelrod’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Con Harassment” [...]

  22. Lee

    Re that horrible Christmas party… words cannot express how appalled I am that the host didn’t immediately eject that dude (and his wife), and offer everyone else at the party the choice of (1) behaving like civilized human beings who know that this kind of crap is unacceptable or (2) going with them. Cutting that entire group of people out of your lives was clearly the only reasonable response you could make to a betrayal of common decency on that level. Part of the duty of a host/hostess is to ensure that their guests are not PHYSICALLY ASSAULTED, even by other guests!

    I have an annual party (not a Christmas party) which is very popular among my group of friends, and I would have no hesitation whatsoever in ejecting anyone who did such a thing. The nearest I’ve ever had to come to that was declaring a moratorium on discussions of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion, and nobody (including the people having the *ahem* discussion) had any problem with that; my house, my party, my rules.

  23. What an awful experience for your wife.

    I understand what you mean about safe environments. We can’t use violent punishment. We have to make it so that it’s the harassers who feel insecure, not their victims.

  24. DMX

    The physical violence against butt-slapper thing isn’t really an answer anyway, even if people DO actually lean that way. Most of my friends are heavily feminist, being its my old uni crowd and we all went through socialist orgs and what not growing up. We also drink alot being fairly strung out activist types. Most of the times parties have lost the plot and ended up in a fight , thankfully rare, but more often than is remotely sane, have involved someone sexually invading a womans space and then the other guys setting on him. The end result is a punch up and the party ending early and bitterly. Its very much not a good solution.

  25. What a fantastic article. So well written and on point about a topic that would be easy to just be aggressive or accusatory.

    Thank you for being awesome on the internet :)