Witnessing harassment at Worldcon

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.



25 Responses

  1. Rude is bad, sometimes very bad. I don’t think what you’ve described Is sexual harassment. (the specifics of what was said might impact that, I guess.)

  2. It’s a tricky thing. I only have my view and perspective, not that of the participants.

  3. That sounds like harassment to me, and gender probably played an important role in it. Intimidation and harassment is bad no matter what the genders of the people involved, but it can be even more frustrating when the person doing the harassment has so much more privilege and social power than the people receiving it.

    Harassment or sexual harassment, call it what you want. But either way this wasn’t okay, and I’m glad you wrote about it.

  4. It leaves me with more questions than answers, that’s certain.

  5. […] Witnessing harassment at Worldcon « Thinking Too Much […]

  6. I have not taken part in a SF/Horror/Comic convention, but there’s been a lot of discussion lately on the internet about how women are treated at these gatherings.

    The situation described here seems out of bounds, no matter whether the people in the elevator were male or female. The speaker PHYSICALLY PREVENTED THEM from leaving the conversation.

    Were they in mortal danger? Probably not. It’s still not appropriate.

  7. Precisely. And boundary-crossing, limit-ignoring behavior is a problem for everyone.

  8. […] on something relevant to this after witnessing an incident at this year’s ChiCon that she only slowly came to recognize as harassment. I was talking to Elise Matheson over lunch, and she gave me permission to share a private […]

  9. I wonder how we would parse the conversation differently if it were a woman holding the door and two men inside the elevator trying to get away? I’m still processing the way I approach these situations myself and this is one thought tangent I’ve had. We certainly have our share of pushy, overbearing, socially unaware women in our communities, who might do something exactly like what you described. But I think if the gender roles were reversed, with a woman holding two men temporarily captive, it wouldn’t look or feel the same, likewise if it were the same man and two men in the elevator. It wouldn’t raise the sexual harassment flag.

    Of course the thing is that gender cannot be just erased from the analysis because harassment arises from gender inequality, so don’t think I’m bringing it up as a way to negate the argument when it’s the man and two women. But I am thinking back to those 1970s sci-fi utopian ideals where all people, regardless of gender, were to be treated the same. If the guy holding the elevator would have treated anyone (regardless of gender) who argued with him the same way because their gender really didn’t matter to him, then…? What it brings me to is that our 1970s genderless utopia does NOT in fact exist, and even those of us who try to fight for gender equality should never assume that “gender blindness” is going to be the solution to inequality. Blindness could very well be a synonym for ignorance, and not a virtue. The plain fact is that gender inequality *does* exist, and acknowledging difference may be an important step for people in figuring out when they’re crossing boundaries and when they aren’t, in the same way that the man’s behavior that might have been appropriate with people he knew wasn’t appropriate with people he’d only met in an elevator.

    And then there’s the fact that it would be rude behavior to anyone of any gender unless they were perhaps the man’s close friends/usual argument partners. But it’s only when combined with the situation of male aggressor/female victims that it can cross the line into sexual harassment, and any argument of the type “but I treated them just like I’d treat my (guy) friends” is bankrupt/missing the point. If anything, that only points up the cluelessness of the harasser. Cluelessness does not excuse culpability.

    Anyway, thanks for posting. I know I kind of circled around my own point there, but as I say, I’m still processing.

  10. ARRGGH!!! {calming breath} Okay.

    That right there is the perfect example of the “I automatically win because I [have an advanced degree / am more experienced / earn a lot of money / attend services regularly / am a dude], so I’m gonna school you ’cause you better recognize!” fallacy that has run rampant through fandom for as long as I can remember (and my first con was reportedly 3 days after I was born — though admittedly I don’t remember it).

    It’s a cluelessly priveleged attitude shared by some of the “elite” in *any* industry, field, hobby or endeavor, but made more ridiculous and aggravating by the fact that, FFS, WITH THE WAY THE WORLD HAS TREATED US GEEKS, WE SHOULD KNOW BETTER! The fact that some of our ilk aren’t aware of the fact that their behavior is inappropriate and/or unwelcome gives NO ONE permission to be dismissive of the effects on the unwilling recipients.

    In response to Chuq Von Rospach’s brief comment above, I can’t tell whether “Thinking Too Much” was meant facetiously, so I’ll respond on its face value:

    As described, Mr. Foot-in-Elevator’s dickish behavior was definitely harassment. The fact that it was apparently directed toward members of the most historically downtrodden, victimized, abused, neglected, ignored, disrespected and just plain effed over (by a *huge* margin and solely on the basis of their gender) half of our species MEANS SOMETHING. Depending on the context of the argument and extenuating circumstances, it may well have qualified as *sexual* harassment. In the kindest interpretation of the exchange, it still smacks of door-to-door proselytizing, which is itself a dismissive, invasive activity.

    Whatever the actual situation, to say to a woman that she’s “thinking too much” in her interpretation of situations like this is, IMHO, akin to saying the same to a black man who wasn’t driving his clean, well-maintained vehicle erratically, recklessly or over the speed limit through the nice suburban neighborhood, but got pulled over anyway because he “matched the description of a suspect.”

    Of course, *I* may be overreacting. It happens sometimes.


    Such an idiot. Jeez. Please accept my apologies, Mr. Von Rospach.

    As I said, I sometimes overreact.

  12. Please just delete my entire comment so I can crawl into my cave and hide my shame.

  13. Actually, most of your comment is right on the money, Erik, just not the one misunderstanding in your parsing of the blog title. You articulated a few things I had going through my mind.

  14. I do not think you understand what actual sexual harassment entails. What you saw, unless is was accompanied by foul language of the sort I will not describe in a public comment, threats, or physical endangerment – not holding OPEN an elevator door – the incident may be ugly, it may be an argument with unpleasant overtones, but it is not sexual harassment.

    If there is so much concern about harassment going on at conventions, then start by addressing those concerns in a responsible manner. Merely blogging and tweeting rumors, speculation, and supporting people who claim they have been harmed or threatened in some way without actually examining their claims and finding out what other people may have witnessed or experienced leads to mobs.

    And that’s what I’m seeing in the community I have been part of for 38 years. Mobs. With pitchforks and torches, and now the poison is spreading beyond the original incident to a mob lusting for blood and destruction, with little rational discussion and careful judgement; it’s wrong and it’s harming many people who were not involved in the original incident at ReaderCon, good people who are unable to defend themselves because of the howling of the mob is drowning out the small, quiet voices asking for sense and thoughtfulness to inform our discussions.

    I am greatly saddened by the way people are demonizing a person who admitted he did not respect another person’s boundaries and personal space. At a different convention, not at ChiCon. This incident was resolved. The person who felt harmed has NOT gone on to demonize the person who made them feel uncomfortable.

    If you have concerns about your own experiences at conventions, actions directed at you, then find ways to address those problems. Work at conventions to inform and discuss those issues. Become part of the solutions, and don’t just pile on a person who has already done what he could to make amends. Examine what claims are made by people who may or may not be reliable; that’s not blaming the victim, that’s just good common sense and fairness.

    I wish I found your blog because of your sensible and well-founded criticisms of the ‘handicapped no-access’ problems at ChiCon. Instead, I find myself having to stand up and ask people to calm down and think about what they are doing, and hope that by doing so, others will be able to speak out about what they are experiencing as this horror spreads, and that going forward the communities and organizations that run conventions and the people who work at conventions, and the people who attend conventions can discuss these issues, educate themselves and others, and find solutions to the problems we do have.

    It’s time to live up to our claims of being a reality-based rational, intelligent community, and to stop the mob from destroying more people, and poisoning the reputations of actual human beings as well as several of the best conventions our communities create without just cause.


    an old red-stocking feminist and fan,

    Parris McBride

  15. @Erik :grins: No harm, no foul. And I, for one, appreciate your passion for the topic. 🙂

  16. @Cecilia It’s exactly those parsing issues that caused me to start t he discussion. It’s complicated; do I think that the woman in the elevator believes she was sexually harassed? No idea. Was she angry and trying to exit the conversation? Visibly. It this a part, however small or large, of rape culture, of a systemic silencing of a woman’s right to not have a conversation with some guy?

    … Well, now, that’s the entire question. I believe that it is.

    Am I saying Dude Holding the Doors is a rapist? Obviously not. Am I saying I wish he were more aware of the threat implied in trapping a woman physically in a small space and arguing with her? YES, YES I AM.

  17. @Parris Hello, and welcome to my blog.

    This is not a forum for you to lecture me or anyone else who comments here. You are perilously close to doing so. Listen to others respectfully. Do not tell victims of harassment, bullying, or aggressive behavior that they must work to make things better.

    While you are pondering whether or not you are going to continue to participate in the discussion, please read the following educational materials (or similar ones) before you return:

    John Scalzi’s How to Not Be a Creeper, http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/08/09/an-incomplete-guide-to-not-creeping/

    Anti-Feminist Bingo, http://hoydenabouttown.com/20070414.431/anti-feminist-bingo-a-master-class-in-sexual-entitlement/

    CONvergence’s harassment policy, http://convergence-con.org/about-us/policies/

    Thank you.

  18. I thought about commenting on this originally, decided not to because I’ve been far enough away from fandom for long enough that I’m not sure I have a dog in this fight (on the other hand, maybe an outsider view can’t hurt). I think now that I’m here, I’ll say a bit..

    My main purpose was to pop in and say “Erik: thanks for the giggle. no harm, no foul”. And like Parris, I mostly agree with what was said by you.

    My big worry when I first read this post was what I thought was this creeping “everything I don’t like is now sexual harassment”. What the guy did was a lot of things, but you can create that same scenario with a couple of guys in the elevator and a guy being too enthusiastic about making his point and the scenario doesn’t change. It’s many things, most of them someone being “too enthusiastic” and “not really thinking beyond making his point”, but I just can’t see it being a sexual situation, other than a woman was stuck listening to the guy rant.

    That doesn’t make it right. It just doesn’t make it sexual harassment. Mostly it’s a kind of earnest doofusness that I think we’re all guilty of at some time or another. God knows I’ve bored people to death with my opinions over the years, and I’ve tried to get better and learning to shut up.

    The problem I had with how this was described and by defining it as sexual harassment is this: sexual harassment is a significant and serious thing and it needs to be taken seriously, and we need to stop tolerating it and help educate people who need to change their behavior (and educate them in a positive and constructive way); but to start lumping stuff you aren’t comfortable with in here and turning everything into sexual harassment isn’t constructive to the cause. Instead, it’s going to annoy people you want on your side, and it raises the spectre of people coming to think “here come the PC police” and having them marginalize you out of their worldview. We need to be careful about “scope creep” causing people to see us as people merely using “the cause” as an excuse to get in people’s faces, because if it goes there, we lose the fight to solve the cause when they stop listening to us.

    As it was described, I felt this wasn’t sexual harassment, and to try to define it as such isn’t constructive. Just because a woman was involved in a situation doesn’t make a situation sexual, and if we lose that distinction, we’ll be doing the work being done to try to raise awareness of this problem a big disservice.

  19. @chuq I was fairly careful to specify that I think the behavior is harassment — but I leave it as a question whether or not the harassment is sexual in nature.

    If you read the essay, see the question, and respectfully opine that you find the behavior boorish but not sexual in nature, excellent! We’re having a discussion! But your paragraph that begins “The problem I had with how this was described and by defining it as sexual harassment is” strongly implies that I am making an argument rather than pondering a complex situation.

    That said, and taking you to be discussing and not straw man arguing a point I did not assert, I agree with you that sexual harassment is a serious problem. I think we may have to disagree, perhaps, on how a serious problem can be made of smaller pieces. There is no clear-cut line marking the shift from boor to harasser. It’s a contextual power exchange, nuanced and individual.

    Part of my point is that we have all, all been idiots in public. God knows I have. If a woman thinks that I have harassed her, then .. I must seriously question my behavior. It’s not her job to prove I did wrong. It’s my job to not threaten or harass. Part of We Don’t Do That Anymore is going to be very, very uncomfortable — we may look at our behavior and realize that we, individually and collectively, have done wrong actions.

    But we’re responsible, well-intentioned adults. So we apologize, made amends, and fix both the system and our own behavior. We don’t do it anymore.

  20. I think that’s perfectly fair, including where you disagree with me. (I’ve come to be a firm believer that it’s a lot more important for someone to understand and believe in their own position than it is for them to agree to mine).

  21. @chuq \o/ Civil discourse! :grins:

  22. I realise this is several months late, for which I apologise.

    Reading this account, two things struck me:

    1. If they two people in the left knew the guy well enough to be conducting a conversation about a third party, they probably knew him better than you did. If you can reach the conclusion that he was merely being a doofus, not trying to intimidate then they were too.

    2. if you’d had said something – given how you describe the guy, i.e a seeming compulsion to have the last word and Tell People How It Is – there would probably have been some kind of escalation of unpleasentness which would not have been to the benefit of anyone, including the people in the lift. They may not have welcomed your intervention.

    So I think you actually did the right thing. *However*, if the chap had continued to hold the lift after someone in the lift had asked him not to then the character of the situation changes, a line is crossed, and that’s the point at which it would have been appropriate to speak up.

    Disclaimer: obviously I wasn’t there and may be entirely wrong in my reading of what was happening.

  23. Just discovered this post via a re-tweet by Steven Gould.

    Thanks for this insightful and articulate examination of a complex situation. It’s certainly something I’ll be pondering over for some time, and keeping an eye out for at the Cons I go to.

    Also: I *adore* the idea of the “We Don’t Do That Anymore” slogan.

    And apologies for the necrothreadia. =)

  24. I love the idea of this poster campaign. Things are changing, but glacially and it would be great to raise awareness.

  25. […] has been chronicling for years. Sexual harassment at science-fiction conventions is also an ongoing problem. Genevieve Valentine’s treatment at Readercon produced an online firestorm last […]

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