I’d never heard of Readercon. Obviously because I’m not a fan of fantasy writing, and am unfamiliar with authors or conventions within that community. While I was away on a road trip, an incident at the 2011 Readercon and its subsequent handling, caused internet outcry and anger. I didn’t catch wind of it until today. A female convention goer was repeatedly harassed by another participant during the convention. The man in question would not go away. Luckily for the woman, her friends were aware and kept a close circle around her. Not all women at these things have her kind of back up. Genevieve Valentine is a writer with several published stories and a highly praised novel to her credit so far in her career. The harasser is a fan, apparently a well known one and apparently liked by the board of Readercon, because despite having a 100 per cent no tolerance on harassment, they sent a statement essentially saying the policy was too strict, and anyway, Rene Walling said he was sorry, so, let’s cut him a break and ban him for 2 years rather than banish him completely which should be the outcome of documented, undisputed sexual harassment. Too augment the board’s terrible behavior, they had in their possession another woman’s statement about being accosted by Rene Walling, but seemed to disregard it, not pausing to consider the implications of 2 woman complaining. For some atrocious reason, they felt there should be room for ‘reform‘ on Rene Walling’s part, despite his complete acknowledgement of inappropriate behavior.
Ms. Valentine wrote a marvelous blog post about the incidents with these rules for men who think they can behave in a harassing manner.
“A brief conversation is not an opportunity to try your luck.
When someone moves away from an overture you are making? You are done.
When someone indicates something you have said makes them uncomfortable and then turns their back on you? You are done.
When someone turns to you and tells you in no uncertain terms that you are not to touch them again and moves off at speed? You are so incredibly done.
And when you have offended a woman with boundary-crossing behavior, you do not get to choose how you apologize.
If a woman has indicated you are unwelcome (see above, but also including but not limited to: lack of eye contact, moving away from you, looking for other people around you, trying to wrap up the conversation), and especially if a woman has told you in any way, to any degree, that you are unwelcome, your apology is YOU, VANISHING.
You have forfeited the right to unburden yourself by apologizing to her until she forgives you, assuring her that you have learned things until she praises you. When you have made a woman uncomfortable, you show her you are sorry by leaving her alone. Hanging around the only exit to a space for an extended period of time, and hovering near someone at length, may feel to you like waiting for an opportunity to apologize, but from the outside it is, in fact, indistinguishable behavior from stalking, with the same roots – your motives and feelings trumping the woman’s right to exist in a world without you in it.”
Subsequently, Readercon has issued a long, very sincere and decent apology–Readercon being the voice of everyone other than the board members, all of whom resigned.
There are subtler forms of harassment and gender bias, and Ms. Valentine also experienced a great deal of that participating on a Frankenstein panel discussion. The moderator, repeatedly treated only her to condescension, and at one point called her “missy”. She was the sole woman on this panel, as seems to be the case within the fantasy con world.
Verbal harassment is almost impossible to fight, defeat. It happens far more frequently than most realize, and in probably every walk of life. There is still, after years and years of enlightenment regarding this subject, no lack of offenders ready to say anything and do whatever to keep a woman in her place. And her place is not as a legitimate panelist, writer, critic, or even bookseller.
As a New Yorker, one is accustomed to subway feel-ups, male genitalia expanding while you are crushed up against the masses in a packed N train. You learn to either ignore it, or turn around to the offender and yell in their faces various things, all meaning, stop it, and move away from me before you are rendered a eunuch. This kind of overt behavior is easily recognized and dealt with. Verbal harassment is insidious, and can erode a person’s confidence in their job performance.
On of my stints as a bookseller involved subtle, and not so discreet verbal behavior. Always passed off by others as “oh, that’s just the way he is” or ”don’t take that kind of stuff seriously”. I knew nothing, absolutely zero regarding my employer before being hired. I only knew I needed a job badly after my last employer suddenly passed away and the bookstore closed. I had recently married and the job looked so very perfect. And I was quite lucky to get it. And for all but a certain aspect, it was a dream job. I managed the hardcovers and rarer titles, pushed new authors, was in charge of author signings, and learned via my boss and time, everything I know about vintage books. Which I value, greatly. But within this world was the low key, if one’s being charitable, chauvinism, if not, verbal harassment, I encountered if not on a daily basis, then weekly. At first the charm was overflowing. I felt fantastic about working in the bookstore, all the rumors I’d semi heard since staring work seemed exaggerated. It began in tiny ways–a remark about preferring my hair to be curled like it was at the interview. I’m sure if a man, my haircut would have come into play, right? He would sit and talk about the breakup of his marriage, the affair he was having. He had umpteenth conversations with another employee working part time, about women, in somewhat graphic style, within inches of my desk. His disdain for female writers was well known and documented, sparing a couple who were personal friends. He would talk about women writers and their appeal. Or judge whether they had any. He’s declare often, he never “date any one over 35″ which at the time was 20 years his junior. Certain macho authors would come in for signings and the conversations were bawdy at times. One author, discussed the odor of his wife’s panties. To me. I was simply a fixture or automaton who brought books, opened them to the signature page, closed them, and took them away while flowing locker room conversation abounded. Did all this bother me? Yes, to a degree. But I’m not a product of the 90s. I am a throwback to those days where women took this kind of behavior in stride, the ‘boys will be boys’ thinking process. And so did everyone else employed in the store. All of this stuff was business as usual, and I wanted to believe that it was a perfectly normal environment. Within the industry, the owner was legendary for overt distain of the non violent type of novel, an area most populated by women. He wrote numerous articles attacking the genre. These points are in no way considered harassing, but it gives a context for the other. Women authors, even the more hard-boiled, were considered beneath men. To be fair, he wasn’t known as a teddy bear to very many people, and that had no gender lines. And I may be the only person who worked in the store that found any of this offensive. After time, my character was challenged, my personality discussed, nothing at all to do with the job performance. (by personality, I mean I was regarded as a typical emotional female, based I suppose, on my enthusiastic selling personality. I never did find out what he really was after, if anything) Again, I may have been the only one who received this kind of lecture. After one such round of character slaughter, I was quite distraught, I was buying into his assessment, all the time knowing it was his viewpoint, and his alone. Eventually, he began an affair with a rather sociopathic employee, and life there became quite difficult.
I think that had I been ten years older, I would have ignored every bit of the sexual content as ‘what do you expect’? This is the way it is. If I had been 20 years younger, I think I may have complained loudly. If I were a young woman today, would I have stood up to it, called him on it? Quit the job early on? I don’t know. Even now, I question whether I was too sensitive, or was this kind of workplace conversation out of bounds? And that’s exactly what those who engage in this type of verbal ‘abuse’ count on–women like myself chastising their feelings of embarrassment, distaste, and character assassination as over reacting.
There was no touching, etc., etc., nothing along the lines of Ms. Valentine’s ordeal, only a underlying feverish feeling of sordidness that would climb to the conscious level occasionally, and more repeatedly as time lingered on.
Everything else about the job was splendiferous. I loved the job sans sociopaths, naturally. So, even today, although I acknowledge the less than stellar aspect of the job, I am and will always be grateful I had the opportunity to learn and toil at something as thrilling as the selling of books.