Quick Hit: The Safety Dance

When I saw The Safety Dance: Helping End Sexual Harassment at Conventions, I was immediately transported back to one of my very first Linux conferences. A friend walked up to me and tickled me, and then was horrified when I told him that that was totally inappropriate behaviour out in public. Why was I so concerned? Because this story from ConFusion is exactly the sort of thing I feared that could follow:

Recently, I was talking about the convention with a young lady who related to me the story of a “a guy being inappropriate” with her. In this story, she was quick to point out at the onset that she was dressed somewhat sexier than normal—in pajamas that were a bit more risqué than those in which she is generally seen around con—so that, as she put it, is was a factor. She was standing, talking with two gentlemen (but, she points out, not flirting or anything, just talking) when this third person approached her from behind, grabbed her in a “grabbing, pinching, kind of tickling motion” on the ribs immediately below breast level, then continued on his way. This is not “a guy being inappropriate” for the record, this is assault.

And it happens. I’ve been picked up, tossed around, poked, and generally had people get in my face in a lot of geek settings. In my experience it’s worse in geeky settings: I can enjoy a rock show and only get hit with the odd spilled beer or drunken patron once or twice in a year of concerts, but if I want to take in an anime screening I can expect someone to do something makes me uncomfortable before the end of the night. I was appalled the first time someone tried to pick me up (like a sack of potatoes) at a Linux event, and now I choose my companions more carefully. I’ve written here about why I don’t often dress up in costumes for cons. But random inappropriate physical behaviour has never been limited to days when I’m dressed up.

Let me say this in no uncertain terms: there is no manner of dress or flirtatious activity that gives you the right to initiate unwanted contact with another member of the convention! This is behavior that is unacceptable, period. Full stop. End of sentence. No mitigating factors needed or even allowed. I don’t care if you have watched a young lady kiss every single person in the lobby on her way to you, when she gets to you, you do NOT have implied permission to initiate contact. You don’t get permission to touch, hover over, leer at, or otherwise harass her. I don’t care if a guy has been talking suggestively with you for the last hour, you don’t get to grab him without explicit permission.

And there’s the thing. I go to an event where I know people, of course I want to give out a few hugs. But if I let anyone initiate a hug with me, I never know if some random stranger is going to do it next. Now, I’ve got a pretty good tolerence for hugs even from strangers, but tickling? Keep your hands off. So even friends I otherwise trust will get slapped in public. Shut down loudly and publicly before someone takes “he did it” as an excuse.

I don’t think The Safety Dance is necessarily telling a lot of us anything we didn’t know, but apparently “don’t grab strangers” is news to someone (It seems to be a common rule at anime cons, and I’m sure there’s a reason.) So maybe it’s worth a little signal-boosting so we can see more cons providing and enforcing some basic rules to protect con-goers. I know this sort of thing would make me feel a bit happier about going to events I’ve previously shunned.

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About terriko

Terri has a PhD in horribleness, assuming we can all agree that web security is kind of horrible. She stopped working on skynet (err, automated program repair and AI) before robots from the future came to kill her and got a job in open source, which at least sounds safer. Now, she gets paid to break things and tell people they're wrong, and maybe help fix things so that people won't agree so readily with the first sentence of this bio in the future. Terri writes/tweets under the name terriko, enjoys making things and mentoring others and has a plain ol' home page at http://terri.toybox.ca.

19 thoughts on “Quick Hit: The Safety Dance

  1. Cesy

    Ugh, yeah. What’s appropriate from a friend is different from what’s appropriate from an acquaintance which is different from what’s appropriate from a stranger you’ve just met.

  2. koipond

    And different depending on the situation. If you’re not feeling like it, then it doesn’t matter if you’ve known the person for ages. Hands off.

  3. Kat

    My first SF convention was the 2006 Worldcon and I remember reading a guide for con newbies that covered things like not bringing in weapons, taking showers please, etc. I was surprised not to see “no inappropriate touching” on the list, considering it covered things as basic as hygiene…and after the Hugos that year (infamous breast-grabbing of the friggin Guest of Honor) it was a glaring omission.

    Now that I am more seasoned I’ve had my own less-than-pleasant experiences, including being at a con party with a guy who sat over in the corner next to me fondling himself. I feel lucky that I attend conventions with a large group, and that we can make people persona non grata at our parties, and regularly do, for acting inappropriately. I’m not sure I would go to con parties without such backup. :/

  4. Laughingrat

    Thanks for posting this. I recently referred to the earlier GF post about this problem in a post of my own, and will definitely be linking to this one!

  5. Jacinta Reid

    There are things that concern me about moves to have people approach people who are engaged in close-quarters social interaction. One is that there is a possibility for both the person doing the checking and the person being checked on to imagine that it is a “rescue”.

    If the person whose comfort and wellbeing is being checked experiences it as a patriarchal expression of a belief that women can’t stand up for themselves, the person who is doing what the Safety Dance advocates may get a verbal scorching. This problem will be diminished if the ‘Safety Dance’ move is outlined in event literature, but the flip side of being prepared to check on the comfort and safety of other people is to be prepared to be gracious if other people unnecessarily check on ours.

    On a tangentially related note; There are two conflicting questions I encounter which highlight the need for the culture to be changed at a fundamental level. The first question is “Why wouldn’t anyone help me/intervene?” The second is “Why do people think I can’t stand up for myself?” Both are perfectly reasonable and valid questions, but the latter always leads me to think: People should not *have* to stand up against unwanted sexual behaviour. Unwanted sexual advances, catcalls, leering, even, under many circumstances. platonic touch are inappropriate and people need to be called on it consistently.

    A person who, when cornered by an unwelcome sexual aggressor, defends themselves effectively (and good for them) defends only herself, because the perpetrator and like minded onlookers can think of it as some flaw in the person who was targeted. In the mind of the aggressor, the person who rebuffed them is an exception, one crazy individual with no libido and no sense of humour, so not evidence that persisting with the unwanted behaviour was plain wrong.

    However, when practically *anyone* and better still *everyone* can be trusted to call the aggressor on their bad behaviour as it is happening, and hat there are real, tangible consequences for persevering, it makes it clear to them and to any onlookers, that the problem is with the perpetrator, not their target.

    So though I think it is laudable for people to be able to assert themselves verbally and even defend themselves physically, the fact remains that there is a problem with *someone else* if they have to use more than the most mild and polite “no thank you” to cause unwanted attention to cease.

    The problem is in the mis-perceptions in the minds of individuals who have not had adequate social education from their peers. The messages “no unwanted touching”, and “people you think look sexy still absolutely deserve respect” and “ask before you touch”, and all the others, need to be amplified and repeated from all possible quarters for minds to change, and for the culture to change.

  6. Noirin

    On “he did it” as an excuse: AARGH!

    I have a pretty low tolerance for hugs from men I don’t know. It pisses me off, almightily, when people think “oh, well she gave him a hug, of course I can just go and hug her”.

    He’s known me for years! Actually, in at least one case where this actually happened at a ‘Con, he was my husband, FFS! If you don’t already know that, why on earth do you assume that him getting a hug entitles you to one?!

    Rant over. My, that feels better :-)

  7. Carla Schroder

    The biggest misunderstanding in all of this is not being aware that women are the property of men. Once you understand that, and quit fighting it, it all makes sense.

  8. Cessen

    “I don’t care if you have watched a young lady kiss every single person in the lobby on her way to you, when she gets to you, you do NOT have implied permission to initiate contact.”

    I’d like to point out that such behavior isn’t okay in reverse either, which is why the above sentence (refering to a woman kissing every other person on her way to you) bothers me. I think there’s an assumption in our culture that all men want physical contact with women all the time, and therefor it’s okay for women to initiate things without consent.

    I’ve been on the receiving end of unwanted contact (kisses, butt pinches, cuddling…) from women before, and it’s not pleasant. And how “attractive” our culture considers them to be really isn’t a factor, either. Sometimes I just don’t want to be touched. And I’m the kind of person that loves to give hugs, btw. I’m not generally shy about physical affection.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to derail. Obviously this is a far, far worse issue for women. But due to that bit in the article, I felt it was worth bringing up. Kissing every guy in the room on your way to some other place isn’t appropriate behavior for men *and* women, because you can’t know for sure who does or does not want such contact.

    1. Terri

      I’d like to point out that such behavior isn’t okay in reverse either

      … which is why the very next sentence in the original post was an example with the genders reversed. Chill.

      Normally I wouldn’t approve a post that’s clearly derailing discussion, but a friend of mine pointed out something very similar to your point about attractiveness and I wanted to mention it. She commented many geeky men feel that their behaviour is ok because they’re one of the “good” guys, or because they’re not as threateningly large as your stereotypical jock.

      And sure, maybe if you’re a scrawny kid who I could easily knock out with a solid punch, it’s not as terrifying… but that’s like saying stealing someone’s laptop is okay because it’s not grand larceny. It’s a total logical fallacy. Less of a crime, maybe, but still a crime. And you never know: maybe the person you’re approaching has a reason to be terrified of someone who looks like you.

      So it doesn’t matter if you’re attractive, weak, small, or rescue puppies and orphans in your spare time: what matters is whether your target wants contact with you right then.

      1. Cessen

        It is both interesting and embarrassing to me that I read over that very next sentence you mentioned without, apparently, noticing its content.

        My apologies.

      2. koipond

        And sure, maybe if you’re a scrawny kid who I could easily knock out with a solid punch, it’s not as terrifying… but that’s like saying stealing someone’s laptop is okay because it’s not grand larceny. It’s a total logical fallacy. Less of a crime, maybe, but still a crime. And you never know: maybe the person you’re approaching has a reason to be terrified of someone who looks like you.

        For those who don’t get that paragraph above, I point to Schroedinger’s Rapist.

  9. Cessen

    So, I’ll take another crack at this commenting thing, hopefully this time without being a dense derailing asshole. ;-)

    I attended small geeky conference in Europe last year, and also in attendance were a friend of mine and a (female) friend of his that were working on a project together in university.

    I had the opportunity to talk with her some, which was quite informative given her different perspective on the conference. She said she definitely was not comfortable there. I was a bit surprised, because to me the conference was such a safe place for me to be myself.

    On the last day of the conference I was hugging a lot of people goodbye who were standing in a group, including people I had just met at the conference. She happened to be in that group, and there was an awkward “I’ve hugged most everyone else here” kind of moment. And I wasn’t sure what to do when I got to her. It seemed odd to specifically not hug her out of everyone else.
    So I asked excplicitly. She said, “Sure.” So we gave each other a quick hug.

    Anyway, the point of all this is that later that night (when a bunch of us went out at dinner) a guy started giving her a backrub at another table. It wasn’t clear to me whether she was enjoying it or not, so I didn’t do anything or step in at the time. I regret that deeply, as later she indicated that the guy really creeped her out and that she definitely didn’t enjoy it.

    Reading this post makes me question whether I should have given her that hug. I’m pretty sure that guy was in the group I was hugging. I’m also thinking that, in that kind of situation, she probably felt pressured to say yes (which wasn’t my intent). And it’s a lot safer to risk someone feeling a little left out from hugging than it is to put them in a situation where they feel they can’t reject it.

    Anyway… a lot of fail on my part.

    But (hopefully) I’ve learned some things from this, and reading your post and the linked article reminded me of that experience. Kudos.

    1. Carla Schroder

      The sad truth is I don’t trust any man, not without knowing him well and for a long time first. Suspicion and wariness are the most prudent attitudes. My first assumption with any man I’m meeting for the first time is he will have ulterior motives and not be honest with me. I can talk to women I don’t know comfortably; I don’t have to be on guard.

      But with men I don’t dare let my guard down. What does he really want, is he just friendly and sociable? Is he playing some weird guy game that’s about messing with the woman’s head? Is he a hound who has to bag every babe, and then brag about it to his buddies? Does he have to assert dominance over every random woman he encounters? Does he assume that just because he is Man, I will hang on his every word and admire him? Is he one of these messed-up guys (and there are a lot of these) who categorize women as either Saintly Mom or Whore? I don’t know which one drives me battier, I get so tired of all these men who assume I have all these maternal impulses just for them, and wish to spend my life taking care of them. (Which goes to show just how obtuse they are, as I have maybe one tiny shriveled maternal bone in my entire body.) Is he some kind of con artist who targets women for his games? I don’t take anyone at face value until I know them better, and most emphatically especially not men.

      It is such a minefield. We’re always getting told “You need to stand up for yourselves, girls, or things will never change.” Which is true. But what is the price of that? Violence towards women is everywhere, both physical and emotional, and I haven’t seen a whole lot of progress in my 52 years on the planet. Men don’t go around slapping other men down routinely, whether it’s physical or verbal, the way they do to women. We get special treatment, lucky us. It is so accepted people don’t even see it. There are a whole lot of men who see women as a challenge and a threat to them personally. When was the last time you heard any woman say “I need to teach that so-and-so a lesson”? I bet money never. But there sure are a lot of men who think that is their right, and even their manly duty. Gotta keep the womans in their place. What’s the worst insult you can say to a man? “You’re a girl.” Or fag, I don’t which one is worse.

      Yes I know, there are lots of cool men who are not too burdened with weird attitudes to wards women, and lots of women are rotten human beings. The difference is the vast majority of the time I do not have to worry about my safety around women, or have to fight idiotic assumptions and attitudes, or have to listen to them griping how other women don’t want to hang with them and they don’t understand why, so those standoffish uppity women must be defective somehow.

      I am not optimistic. I have read much history, talked to older women, and have accumulated a few experiences of my own. I think nothing much will change because men, for the most part, don’t want it to, and it really is up to us women to learn to play the power game and seize what we want. Which are awful things like respect and decency, so it’s no wonder there is so much stubborn defense of the status quo.

  10. Lampdevil

    Those examples given make me all ARRRGHy and strangly-like. ARRRRGH.

    Thank you for bringing this up and linking this. My area’s local one-day winter gamecon is coming up, and our local Camarilla chapter is putting together a bid to host the national convention in the upcoming future. I’ve always pitched in, even if it’s just with setup or teardown, and I think I’ve got one more thing I’ll want to pitch in with.

    Our little local con has been referred to, perhaps uncharitably, as a “total sausage fest”. Though I’m not sure that we’ve got stats, I can just eyeball the signup sheets, peek at the games, or stare across the main floor, and see a handful of girls and women. I’ve always figured it was just the local gamer demographic being skewed, thus skewing the turnout, but now I’m going to keep a closer eye on the goings-on. I’m going to ask around. My experiences have always been great, but who knows what lies ahead?

  11. Erica

    I’m so glad you brought us this post Terri. I was a regular ConFusion attendee through college, and have navigated my own share of awkward moments. I enjoyed my time at cons, and I was damned proud to see that the The Safety Dance was written by my friend and Con-runner Jeremy Lance.

    Mad props to him for clearly and loudly championing everyone’s right to feel safe, and empowering many of us here to tell our stories.

    If there’s one thing I got out of this thread, it’s that although *don’t touch strangers* and *get explicit consent* are social norms, legal requirements, and just plain civilized behavior, they still need to be stated over and over, loudly and clearly.

    Things that should go without saying still need to be said.

  12. Lesley

    I feel the woman in the original article was fortunate she was with someone who knew her very well and was able to speak out on her behalf. When I’ve experienced sexual harassment, whether verbal or physical, I seem to always suffer from some element of shock. For me, that response prevents an immediate protective and preventative outburst that seems to be expected and indeed, really required, for observers to understand the nature of any situation.

    In the situation reported, the woman and her fiance were said to be too busy to take time out to deal with the matter and didn’t want to be seen making a fuss because they were the only ones making a noise about it.

    This appears to result in a case of being damned if you do complain and damned if you don’t so I think it is great that people are finally coming to terms with what happens and laying down explicit ground rules as terms of attendance.

    Great to spread the word in that way.

    Should we now be prepared to ask what policies other conferences, one day events and the like have and explicitly state on harassment – sexual or otherwise?

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