Accidents are harder than you think: harassment and all of us.
(Well. Maybe some people do. And fuck them.)
But as always happens when this conversation gets started, some people are standing up and shouting "THOUGHT POLICE!" and "Well I don't want to go to a convention where wearing a T-shirt could get me banned for harassment."
Oh, honey lambs, I'm sorry the world is so hard. Let's talk about harassment a little more, shall we? Wikipedia (which is not the most 100% reputable source, but is easy to copy and paste) defines "harassment" as "behavior intended to disturb or upset, and it is characteristically repetitive." It goes on to say that "In the legal sense, it is intentional behavior which is found threatening or disturbing. Sexual harassment refers to persistent and unwanted sexual advances."
Intentional. Intended. Persistent. What does each of these words mean? Let's look at definitions taken from real world experiences.
Intentional. If you run up to me in a public place and scream "I'M GOING TO RAPE YOU, YOU FAT BITCH!", you are harassing me. It only took one sentence to cross that line! Why is that? Well, because a specific threat was made, and even if there was no intent to actually cause physical harm, anyone who makes that statement clearly intended to disturb and upset me. This is harassment, and yeah, it's probably going to lead to my making a report to convention staff, and no, I'm not going to feel bad if someone gets kicked out because of it.
On the other hand, what if I'm just walking through the convention lobby and I hear some guys making dirty jokes in the corner? Is that harassment? No. It's in poor taste, but it's not harassment. I may still say something to convention staff, because most cons include children, and public space is not the place to be crossing certain lines.
Intended. But what happens if, after I tell convention staff "Hey, those guys over there are telling dirty jokes loudly in the lobby, maybe it would be a good idea for them to stop" those same people figure out that I was the one who reported them and spend the rest of the day following me around the hotel, telling dirty jokes loudly to try and get a rise out of me? What if, say, they follow me into my panels and ask questions that are really set-ups for filthy punchlines? Is that harassment?
Yeah. They intended to upset me. They wanted me to feel unsafe and unwelcome, and they did a very good job of it. But what if it was a T-shirt that made me go "ew," and not a bunch of joke-tellers? Well, if the convention doesn't have a "clean language" policy (which some cons with lots of underage attendees do have: they want Grandma to be able to look around the lobby and feel like little Timmy is safe), that's not harassment. Hell, even if there is a "clean language" policy, it's not harassment, it's just a rule violation. Running into the person in the inappropriate-to-me shirt several times over the course of the day is not harassment, it's happenstance.
I have seen costumed individuals harass people with their attire. The most upsetting incident involved someone in a bikini and bodypaint trying to force an individual whose religion forbade him to stare at uncovered women to look at her. Was the man committing religious oppression or harassment? No. He never said, at least in my hearing, that she needed to cover up her sinful, sinful body. He just didn't look at her. Was the woman committing harassment? Yes. But look at her actions: she intended to do what she did. It was intentional. Lots of women wearing as little or less walked by, and none of them were harassing him with their presence. Just the one who was yelling and touching his arms and generally being intentionally problematic.
Persistent. I've seen several people say that anti-harassment policies are the end of convention hook-ups and no geeks will ever get dates again oh noes we're going to die out. And that's where persistent comes to the party.
"Hey, you're nice, wanna have coffee?"
"That dress could make a good dog break his leash."
"Crude but points for The West Wing reference."
Probably not harassment!
Maybe harassment, maybe not, depending on what came before it.
"Thanks, I'm with someone."
"Aw baby don't be like that."
"Please excuse me."
"Your ass is just...mmm."
"I'd really like to go over there."
"I'll come with you baby."
Harassment! Look: no one is saying "don't ask people out" or "never talk to a person you find attractive again." We're saying "no means no." We're saying "if she's trying to get away from you, let her." We're saying "if you follow him through the hotel, you are being inappropriate." We're saying "unless I have asked you to touch me, touching me is not appropriate."
Studies have shown that people are much better at picking up on "no" than they want to admit, because admitting it would mean acknowledging it. So learn to pick up on "no," both verbally and non-verbally. Watch body language. Back off. Listen.
Having a bawdy song filk circle is not harassment: it's in the program book, it's labeled, and anyone who comes to that circle and gets offended by the circle in general is looking to get upset. Singing a dirty song during open filk while staring at the girl who says she's uncomfortable with that sort of thing and going "Ha ha Olga's probably pretty turned on" is harassment. You have singled her out. You are making an intentional choice. You are persisting.
Cat and I do this panel called "In Conversation" that's sort of like "An Evening With Kevin Smith" with more boobs. We always provide a program book description that says, flat out, that we will swear, that we will answer all questions, that no topics are off the table. So no, you don't get to attend our panel and then say we harassed you with our swearing. But if we have that same conversation in the lobby, and won't stop, and get louder when asked to stop, you are right to involve the convention staff. You have a right to feel safe. You have a right to be allowed to participate freely in your community.
I've used "you" throughout this post both to avoid gendering the subject, and to make this point: If you, the reader, think that a convention where you can be asked not to make rape jokes at panelists, not to lay hands on people who have asked you (either aloud or with their actions) to leave them alone, and to treat everyone else as a human being who has a right to the ball, if you think that this convention sounds like political correctness gone awry and something you want no part in, good.