July 1, 2013
We live in the future—stop being a damn creep at science fiction conventions
by Dustin Kurtz
It’s been a hell of a year for science fiction readers, with the death of a few greats—Iain M. Banks, Jack Vance, surely others I’m forgetting—and the release of some books that may prove lasting additions to the genre—the newest from Gene Wolfe, Lauren Beukes and M. John Harrison seem promising (and I’m pretty excited about our own offerings). But more than that, it’s been an important year for the science fiction community as a whole. This may finally be the year that we say good riddance to one of the worst aspects of the notorious sexism in science fiction and fantasy fandom.
In a post last Friday carried on the blogs of authors Jim Hines, Mary Robinette Kowal, Seanan McGuire, Brandon Sanderson, John Scalzi, and Chuck Wendig, writer Elise Matthiesen described a recent instance of sexual harrassment she suffered at WisCon. WisCon, it should be noted, is a yearly convention devoted to discussion of feminism, race, gender and class in science fiction, and is cherished in the community as a change of pace from the rampant sexism that can be the norm at many more broadly attended conventions.
Matthiesen describes the steps she went through in reporting the harassment to first the convention organizers and then in a formal complaint to the employers of her harasser, writing:
We’re geeks. We learn things and share, right? Well, this year at WisCon I learned firsthand how to report sexual harassment. In case you ever need or want to know, here’s what I learned and how it went.
And then a remarkable thing happened in the comments of the post over at Scalzi’s blog: the harasser was outed as Jim Frenkel, an editor at Tor and a respected name in the field. What’s more, it seems he’s been named in other less formal complaints in the past.
A public statement from the company seems unlikely, though the response from other editorial staff at the celebrated genre publisher was one of careful but unequivocal support for Matthiesen’s post and the discussion generally.
One refrain of Matthiesen’s post is that this harassment was not an isolated incident, that she had been the victim of the same often before, and that it took decades before she felt confident enough of her position in the community to speak out formally against it. Among the many posts that followed by other voices in the community speaking out against the pervasiveness of this type of behavior, those by authors Maria Dahvana Headley, Cherie Priest and Carrie Cuinn‘s are particularly striking examples. As Headley writes,
“I’d love to say I’d been to any conventions in the SFF field wherein things like this didn’t happen. … There’s been a lot of talk about conventions being “safe spaces” – but one of the very unfortunate things is that a lot of conventions, while being safe spaces for people who don’t fit into societal norms, have also managed to make themselves safe spaces for sexual harassers.”
This gets to the strange heart of the problem: does the inclusiveness of the community somehow lead to the stalking incident at ReaderCon last year or, infamously, Harlan Ellison groping the breast of eleven-time Hugo Award winner Connie Willis while on stage at WorldCon in 2006?
The SFF community, of which conventions are a vital distillation, was, historically, populated by outsiders. The entire idea of genre is of course predicated on a readership that consciously sets itself apart, and no genre made that as much a point of pride as skiffy readers. That has the glorious result that outsiderdom predicated on other criteria—transgendered fans, for instance—is welcome within the community, even when that might be less true in society generally. But some, particularly men of an older generation, seem to mistake a spirit of permissiveness for individual permission.
Whatever the reasons, harassment is rife at these things. But maybe now, in the twenty-first century—the goddamned future—after a year of truly infuriating misogyny from some of the old guard in the genre, maybe now things will finally reach the point where even the most loutish of fans realize that an inclusive community need not include them, that a safe space for geeks doesn’t mean they themselves are safe from repercussions, and that, oh yeah, we all know their boss’ phone number.
Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.