Monday, October 28, 2013

Preventing Sexual Harassment at Science Fiction Conventions

This week's guest blogger is Nick Murphy. Nick Murphy is an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. His research is on solar physics, including the role of magnetic reconnection in solar eruptions. He is active in several community groups in the Boston area that are working for gender equity and racial justice.

In January 2013, I attended Arisia, a sci-fi convention in Boston. For most attendees, Arisia is a fun excursion where fans can dress up as their favorite sci-fi character, play board games for hours on end, and speculate about whether or not the Borg developed a taste for Earl Grey tea after attempting to assimilate Captain Picard. Less appreciated is that for authors, editors, and vendors, it is also a workplace and a professional environment. Amazing work is being done within the sci-fi community to prevent sexual harassment, and these strategies provide insight into what we in the astronomical community can do.

Anti-harassment work began months before the convention when representatives from the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center held a workshop on how to respond when people report being sexually harassed or assaulted. The first response is critical in setting the course for a survivor’s recovery. By making this workshop open to everyone, the organizers helped ensure that the community as a whole is holding itself responsible for ending sexual harassment.

Part of the culture of Arisia is for attendees to dress in costume. Unfortunately, many other people hold an implicit assumption that because someone is dressed provocatively, this means that they are ok with or even should expect to be touched, photographed, or leered at. To combat this, fliers were hung throughout the convention, declaring that “Costumes are not consent!” Not only did these fliers inform attendees about the convention’s anti-harassment policies and procedures, but they also let potential harassers know that such behavior is unacceptable. What is most important is that these fliers got people talking.

In order to challenge the culture of tolerance towards harassment, several regular attendees of sci-fi conventions started the Backup Ribbon Project. The goal of this project is to have attendees wear ribbons to symbolize an agreement to provide backup for people who are being harassed by other attendees. This project directly challenges our tendency to just let harassment happen. Indeed, this effort mirrors campaigns by anti-street harassment groups such as Hollaback! who are encouraging bystanders to intervene and ally themselves with the people being harassed.

Near the end of the convention, there was a panel discussion on addressing sexual harassment. Despite being scheduled against one of the convention’s main events, the room was packed! Not only did the panelists discuss convention policies, enforcement, and reporting procedures, but they also addressed the importance of changing the dominant culture within sci-fi fandoms in which harassment and bullying remain acceptable. 

So what can we as astronomers take from all of this?  While acknowledging that inappropriate behavior still happens, this convention has successfully made anti-harassment an integral part of its culture. Attendees and organizers talk about the problem, and anti-harassment policies are well advertised. We too can take further steps to advertise our anti-harassment policies at conferences, while simultaneously publicizing how not to harass people. The CSWA already holds town halls on topics like this, but we also have the option of inviting other groups to perform anti-harassment trainings. We are not alone in working to end sexual harassment, and there is much that we can learn from other communities.