by M.M. Schill
(Content Note: This article contains descriptions of sexual harassment.)
As a survivors’ advocate and community culture analyst, I am exhausted. I’m sure you are too. Lately, it seems not a day can go by without a favorite SF/F artist or beloved author issuing a public apology for how they’ve chosen to conduct themselves in our community spaces—in our convention halls, workshops, panels, and dealers’ rooms. Just when the debris and disappointment is cleaned up, another prominent member of our community is exposed for harassment or sexual predation. Also, like you, I’m appalled, and I hurt for the members of our community that’ve been preyed upon and diminished by these bad actors.
I feel anger for how long the victims have had to be quiet out of fear for safety or loss of professional opportunity. I’m sure you share many of these same concerns. It is unthinkable that a person can be preyed upon, then have their own career/community standing suffer for it. But this is a reality for some.
So, I’m writing to ask a question: what do you feel is our ethical responsibility to our abuse survivors?
Not simply, “What’s your plan for future abuse reports?”
In addition to that, I’m asking, “What’s your plan for restorative justice for past victims, the members of our community that’ve been injured, in part, because of our collective inability to apply our policies holistically without prejudice?”
Having worked conventions myself, I know that for the most part our spaces have pretty solid generic harassment/assault policies—something like: “If you are made to feel unsafe, report it to staff! We take such reports seriously and will act promptly!”
That’s all well and good in the hypothetical, when the image of the abuser is some strange man you don’t know, alone in the corner with an unwashed T-shirt. But is that the reality? Do any of the abusers coming forward with performative apologies for harassment and sexual assault look like that abuser?
Let me tell a story about how this policy is often applied, in my experience: I have a friend who works professionally in SF/F (to remain nameless for privacy). She was stalked at a convention-sponsored event. A man groped her and attempted to grope her several more times. She fled and watched in horror as he sidled up to other women to continue his predation. In this case, she did the right thing. She found a staffer and reported the assault. What do you think the trained staffer’s response was? You think they took the report “seriously” and “acted promptly”?
No. I wouldn’t be telling this story if they had.
Their response was, “Oh, that’s so-and-so, he just gets like that when he’s been drinking.”
And just like that, she was minimized into not taking her assault seriously, while the assaulter was left to continue in (what should be) unacceptable behavior.
It wasn’t the greasy-haired stranger who preyed upon her. It was a member of the clique, a respected member of the community that had insulation because of his proximity, or importance, to the convention. Just like our fallen SF/F artists and authors, to act publicly against these insulated abusers may cost you something—socially, financially, or professionally. When the abuser isn’t the stranger in the shadows, but our friends, heroes, or business associates, does the generic harassment/abuse policy hold water? Or does it fold, to our discomfort?
As a survivors’ advocate, scores of affected persons, in just the SF/F community alone, have reached out to me for assistance. It pains me to say that the above story is a repeated feature of abuse-reporting at cons, not a bug.
As for my friend’s situation, she relies on our conventions and sponsored networking events to make her living. After that day, she felt unsafe, unprotected in our spaces. She, and the hundreds of survivors like her, have been diminished socially and professionally by abusers—abusers that’ve been using our platforms to prey on them, with or without our complicit consent.
These survivors are our members, after all, and thus our responsibility.
So, I implore you to consider thoughtfully: From your position, where are you empowered to aid in survivor restoration?
To help answer that, I have a seed to start with: Just like that creep, many of the survivors aren’t nebulous. They have names and faces. Most of the abusers have skulked off to get their affairs in order or seek professional help for their predatory inclinations. Therefore, I’m suggesting, in the abusers’ absence, consider using your platform to give their empty seats at the table to their victims. Help survivors rebound in whatever way is at your disposal, using our same community spaces that we’ve been allowing to be used to cause harm.
M. M. Schill is a SF/F writer, illustrator, and a survivors’ and victims’ advocate, working closely with local and national abuse recovery and victim advocacy organizations, as well with her local government to effect systemic change for survivors of abuse. She is a regular on panels and on staff in the Southern SF/F convention circuit, and is an associate editor at PseudoPod.