What We Talk About When We Talk About Con Harassment

Cross-posted from “Born of an Atom Bomb”, originally posted July 2013.


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 socially 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 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.

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