I witnessed one incident of harassment at Worldcon. I report it here publicly because I think that we in fandom do not always recognize harassment when we see it. I, personally, did not correctly process what I was seeing until it was too late to intervene. The event came, and went, and then I figured out that I ought to have said something. Too late to act.
I was standing in the elevator bay, waiting for an elevator. Two other people were waiting nearby, talking.
An elevator door opened. A man I recognized stepped out, one arm carrying a box of things.
I know this man. He’s a regular attendee at conventions I go to. I have seen him on panels, I have talked to him at parties. He is not a stranger to me; neither is he a friend. He is a fixture in my understanding of what fandom is.
He stepped out, talking. A voice from inside the elevator contradicted him. The man turned to finished his thought.
I was not listening closely, however, the man was explaining to the two people in the elevator that they were wrong about their opinion of the treatment of another party not present. That Other Party Not Present had not been given enough of an explanation, enough of a chance to understand, for what happened to Other Party Not Present to be appropriate.
A woman in the elevator stepped forward and began pushing the buttons. Either close door or next floor. The doors began to close.
The man talking put his hand over the door to hold the elevator and continue telling the two people that they were wrong.
At this point my attention engaged.
Sigrid, I thought. There are two people, I believe they are both women, in that elevator. The exit is blocked by a man who is telling them how wrong their opinions are, while holding the elevator and preventing them from leaving the conversation. At least one of them is jamming on the elevator buttons, trying to force the doors closed, trying to leave.
At the moment my thinking got this far, the alarm began ringing in the elevator, indicating that the door was being held too long. A voice from inside the elevator said, flatly, you are setting off the alarm.
The man released the door and walked past me, still telling the other two people that they did not understand they way in which they were wrong.
The doors closed, the elevator disappeared. The man walked down the hall and was gone.
I stood there. I thought, “I should have said something. I should have said, ‘Hey [name redacted], they want to leave. Let go of the door.’” I should have let them know that someone saw it and agreed it wasn’t good. I should have let him know that his behavior was crossing a line.
I was talking to Elise Matheson over lunch, and she gave me permission to share a private conversation she had elsewhere that is germane to my point. She was discussing an educational poster campaign for another convention, one based on the CONvergence “Costumes are Not Consent,” “Don’t Be a Dink,” and “Don’t Harsh the Squee” campaign.
Elise said that one of the slogans under discussion was “We Don’t Do That Anymore.”
We don’t do that anymore. Think about that for a moment.
I like this as an educational poster slogan. “We.” It reminds us all that we have all been a part of a cultural of sexual harassment at conventions. We have been harassed and not reported it. We have crossed boundaries and not known. We have been told we crossed boundaries and not known how to make amends. We have witnessed and not intervened.
“Don’t Do That.” But now we know better. Now we have been educated and informed. We have strategies and plans. We have people and institutions that we can trust to help us navigate the muddy waters of harassment.
“Anymore.” We have failed in the past. We intend to fail less in the future.
I like this slogan because it captures something often missing from anti-harassment discussion. It captures the complexity and nuance of harassment. It acknowledges that sexual harassment at a convention is not always a boob grope or an offer to trade work for sex. Sometimes harassment is a flashing moment of something ambiguous. Something complicated.
Sometimes sexual harassment is an elevator door.
I do not know whether the two people, I think they were both women, felt sexually harassed in the incident I witnessed. I do not know whether they felt threatened. I know at leat one of them wanted to leave, urgently. Did she feel afraid? Angry? Did she really really have to pee?
I don’t know.
I am confident that the man was certain that he was not harassing or threatening anyone. I’ve talked to him at conventions. It is my observation that he habitually does not listen to what people say. I am confident that he was merely finishing his sentence, gently correcting people who do not know as much as he does.
This makes him a poor conversational partner. Does it make him a sexual harasser?
One man forced two women to stand and listen to him berate their views. He did this by physically preventing them from leaving. It this harassment? Is it threatening behavior?
I know what I think. I think it was threatening behavior. I wish, I wish, that I had processed what I was seeing faster, that I had spoken up. I wish I had intervened.
These are the incidents that create the seedy underbelly of conventions. These are the incidents we all don’t see, or let pass by, that enable the more extreme incidents of harassment to occur. When a person thinks they are entitled to trap and berate people — while I am certain he would call it “finishing the conversation” — that person is highly unlikely to see or comprehend other instances where a party is trying to get away.
These are the incidents that we must all begin to see. And on seeing them, find appropriate action to take. Violence would not be appropriate. Shouting would not be appropriate. Telling the guy that I see him, and I think he is behaving poorly, that is what I wished I had done. “Let go of the door, [name redacted], they want to leave.”
I wish I’d said it.