On Expunging Creepers From Conventions, Or: Why The World Is Exceedingly Complex

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

While pretty much everybody lauded the Geeky Kink Event’s attempt to keep sex offenders out, there were many who groused that the Sex Offender list was not a ban list for conventions.  And some asked a question I’ve asked before, which is, “Why don’t more conventions band up to create an officially shared blacklist?”
That’s a good question.  Let’s break that down in some detail.
The first thing you need to understand about fan conventions is that the people attending them tend to see cons as this monolithic corporate entity – and why not?  They bring thousands of people together!  They rent a whole damn hotel!  They decorate, they cater, they hold parties, they hold concerts!  These conventions must be professional organizations!
Whereas the truth is, most cons are run on a shoestring budget, barely making back their costs, about one bad event away from going broke.  They’re also all staffed by volunteers; I know few conventions that have one full-time salaried employee, let alone a board full of them.
No, unbelievably, the cons you love are most likely run by people in their spare time – all those guests booked for you in the two hours they have after they get home from work, all those investigations held on weekends when you’re out watching movies and they’re dealing with convention feedback.  Cons are not so much the “MegaCorp funds the grand ballroom gala” as “An Amish barn-raising.”
If you have fun at conventions, ponder this and thank the crap out of your local con-organizers.  Better yet: volunteer.
But this does mean that while conventions mean well, and the people are dedicated, they’re working with volunteer effort – which is to say that yes, the Literary Track that went so well last year is now in danger of going to shit because Louise moved to Minnesota and she was the only one who knew everything.  And she didn’t leave notes.  The guy who knew how to find the good hotels has to work double-shifts because of his new kid.
Conventions are not one entity, but rather a constantly-fragmenting hive mind composed of well-meaning people doing this in the corners of their life.  And as such, cons are good at doing what they’re passionate about, but it’s hard to say “Fred, you must follow these rules and regulations” when Fred gets to say, “Or what?  You’ll tell me not to come here, and I’ll get my weekends back?”
The fact that conventions get anything competent done is, in fact, a testament to the goodness of the human race.  Again: volunteer.
But when conventions are saying, “How do we keep these molesting dorks out of our con?” they’re often a bunch of not legally trained, not experienced people.  At this stage in time, yes, “Keeping cons a harassment-free space” should be a priority for everybody.  But when you see a con doing something spectacularly stupid, it’s often because Joe New Volunteer With More Enthusiasm Than Brains got put into a slot that, sadly, nobody else was stepping up to fill.
…did I mention “volunteer”?  Okay.  Good.  We’re done with that.
Anyway, so hopefully now you see your average con not as a sleek Porsche, but more like a soap box racer made of old popsicle sticks held together with duct tape.  They all strive to be the best, and many of them manage it, but they are constantly battling attrition and resources to make the magic happen. The fact that the magic happens at all is a miracle.
So anyone who wants to devise an official “blacklist” shared among not just one of these constantly shifting volunteer organizations, but many of them, is trying to herd cats.  The person they’re supposed to talk to each year about this may change as people shift positions, and Jackie who was totally stoked for this safety drive may have given up cons and moved on to Burning Man, and now who are you supposed to talk to at ConSternation?
Who knows?
But even once you get past that very considerable hurdle, you have the big issue: How do you compile a list of ban-worthy harassers?
Keep in mind, many people who get harassed – or even out-and-out raped – do not want to talk to people at the con.  All they want to do is leave this experience behind, and “testifying to a group of strangers” – even strangers inclined to believe in them – is not a part of their healing process.
And let’s say someone gets physically assaulted at your convention, and talks to a group of her friends.  The friends go to you to report what they’ve heard, but there’s no physical evidence or eyewitnesses.  And you’re willing to take her word for things, in fact are perfectly primed to toss this asshole out on just one word from her… but she won’t talk to you or anyone official at the con because she’s freaked and doesn’t feel like reliving the day.
Do you blacklist someone based on second-hand testimony?
Some say “yes,” some say “no,” but that’s a tricky goddamned call.  In fact, banning the dude in the absence of testimony may actually make the victim’s life worse, because people are going to ask “So why’d he get banned?” and gossip will flow, and now the victim’s name will be out in circles she may not want them out in.
It’s not simple.
And – again, remember, cons are each composed of messy well-meaning volunteers – what crimes get you banned for life?  If you say, “Well, we’ll come up with a clear list of bannable offenses” and break it down in detail, well, you have just started a large board argument at every convention you’re asking to join over “Whether these rules are acceptable to us or not.”  (Quite possibly with the obligatory sides taken of “Too strict” vs. “Not strict enough.”)  And like every law, you’re going to come across situations that aren’t covered, because creepers creep in new and not-so-exciting ways all the time.
Yet if you take the alternate route of, “Well, you know what’s acceptable,” remember: well-meaning volunteers.  They might not.  Or they might not feel comfortable enough to ban people based on “gut feels” and hence default to not-banning when they damn well should.  It could be that your ban-list creates a false sense of safety, which is, in a way, even worse.
And then you get into the whole mess of “How do you report this stuff?”  The initial instinct may be to say, “Well, we won’t reveal any details, of what happened, we’ll just ban them.”  And congratulations!  You have just become the TSA’s “No-fly” list – a mysterious shadow cabinet that holds secret trials and doesn’t tell you what you did.  Even if you’re really good at weeding out creepers, you’re going to cause drama among people who don’t trust organizations. And as we all know, cons never have attendees of libertarian bents with deep mistrusts of authority.
Or maybe you give some vague details. Yet as organization after organization has discovered, people can put together stories from the vaguest hints.  You run a very good risk of inadvertently outing a victim.
Yet either way you go here, private or public disclosure, you run the risk of legal action.  Banned douchebot may not take well to being ejected from one convention, but he’s unlikely to go nuclear.  But if this project gets successful and banned douchebot is banned from not just one convention but most of the fun gatherings on the Eastern Seaboard, he may well get a lawyer and decide to see what he can shake loose.
And yes: you will probably win the court case.  But you’re very naive if you think “winning the court case” means “JUSTICE SERVED PIPING HOT!” Remember, cons are run on shoestring budgets, often only carrying maybe $500 to $1000 in profits over to the next year.  Douchebot doesn’t have to win the court case, he just has to force TinyCon to pay out in legal fees.  Too many legal fees, and they go broke.  And that’s a concern.
Is it any wonder a lot of cons just rely on whisper campaigns?  Even though they’re closely dependent on reputation, fragile, and can break all too easily?
None of this is to say that cons should not attempt to fling out the creepers, of course.  They should.  And most do try.  But because people criticized using the Sex Offender registry as a blacklist and asked, “Why not just use a customized one?”  And this is why creating a really good list is an honest-to-God struggle.
The real world is complex.  We struggle with very serious problems that don’t have easy answers.  And a lot of cons have been trying to provide better alternatives, with some success, and the fact that they achieve any headway at all is laudable as fuck.  Applaud them.  Contemplate how much work is ahead of them at making cons into safe spaces.  Understand that mistakes happen, and happen for these reasons, and should never ever happen, but even as you hold their feet to the fire understand all the vectors for error they’re juggling.
Now.  If you’ve run a con and got any good tips for keeping people out as a convention (and not the usual true-but-not-particularly helpful “Tell everyone to be eternally on their guard!”), then share.

1 Comment

  1. Chris Hallquist
    Jul 11, 2014

    One thought: use the registered sexual offender list… but only for people who are on there for things they did after turning 18. Still not a perfect solution by any means, but better than mindlessly reinforcing our nation’s current policy of fucking up teenagers’ lives for having sex with other teenagers.

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