While writing about CONvergence and SkepchickCon this year, I mentioned that women warning each other about Big Names at conventions was nothing new.
My friend Lynne Thomas (a guest of honor at last year’s CONvergence) archives the papers of several F&SF authors at Northern Illinois University. A quick look into the magazines will disabuse you of the notion that these sorts of public battles arose with the internet.
They will also tell you that women being leery of elevators or harassment from big names at cons is nothing new. Isaac Asimov’s butt-pinching predilections were well-known in the day. They were also fondly tolerated–by men whose butts were, of course, inviolate.
The rare books collection at NIU DeKalb, where Lynne is curator, is currently hosting an exhibition in honor of Worldcon returning to Chicago for 2012, the seventh time Worldcon has been held there. The exhibition features a wide variety of Chicon memorabilia, including programs as well as manuscripts, magazines, and books that are connected to both Worldcon and Chicago.
It also contains a fair amount of correspondence exposing the back-room workings of Chicon III. It is in this correspondence that we can find how the conrunners of the time treated Asimov’s harassing behavior. To be explicit, Asimov was well known for pinching the asses of women who were unlucky–or unwarned–enough to get on an elevator with him alone.
(A note about the correspondence included here. The NIU archives curate this material. They do not necessarily own the copyright to it, only to the pictures. I have permission to use small versions of the photos for illustration purposes. Larger versions can be found by clicking on the pictures. I do not have permission to publish the full text of the letters. If you are visually impaired, the excerpts I’ve included should give you what you need to know to understand this post. If you feel you need to read the full text for context, please email me using the button on my sidebar or leave a comment to that effect with a working email address.)
This first letter is addressed from Earl Kemp, chair of Chicon III, to Asimov. Kemp had a request, “based on your delightful wit, and frankly your reputation”. That would be Asimov’s reputation for nonconsensual butt pinching, otherwise known as sexual assault. Kemp wanted Asimov to deliver a speech at the masquerade, one of the central events of many F&SF conventions.
Specifically it should be delievered at the masquerade and should be something on the theme of THE POSITIVE POWER OF POSTERIOR PINCHING. They went on to say that we would, naturally furnish some suitable posteriors for demonstration purposes.
The suggestion was made to Kemp in jest, but Kemp liked it enough to ask Asimov in earnest. And how did Asimov respond?
Quite favorably, as you can see from our second letter.
I have no doubt I could give a stimulating talk that would stiffen the manly fiber of every one in the audience.
The audience, clearly, was made up entirely of those who had “manly fiber” to be stiffened, despite the fact that enough women attended these conventions that there would be bottoms for pinching.
Besides the real reason is that I will have to ask the permission of various people who are (or would be) concerned in the matter. If they say ”no”, it will be “no.”
That was how sexual harassment and assault was dealt with at the genre’s major convention back in 1961. Everybody knew, and not only was it not stopped, but it was encouraged. Tee-hee. Isn’t it funny. Let’s put the guy on stage to tell us all how to enjoy this wonderful thing. Because “us”, like the audience at the masquerade, excluded everyone who wasn’t male. Women weren’t considered at all.
Things have gotten a little bit better since then. The general political situation outside fandom has changed enough that any conrunner has a good idea of the volume of protest that a “witty” speech on sexual assault would bring. The Harlan Ellison incident was met with a very loud outcry. (See the comments on that post for more about Asimov.)
Some conventions spaces have gotten downright wonderful. WisCon, which was started by feminists not thrilled with the rest of the convention scene, has pioneered the way (from my limited perspective) on issues like accessibility and safe spaces and easily spotted, non-threatening security staff. CONvergence has adopted many of the measures and innovated more, with the anti-harassment posters for this year and a clever code of behavioral conduct that tells everyone how they expect people to get along.
These things aren’t universal yet, however. There are places where “us” is still a pretty exclusive group. This is particularly true when hard choices have to be made between the historical “us” and the inclusive “us” or when “us” is being asked to include people who might be less than perfect–unlike, of course, the rest of “us”. We have a ways to go.
Sigrid Ellis, a comic-book author and co-editor of Chicks Dig Comics, mused on something relevant to this after witnessing an incident at this year’s ChiCon that she only slowly came to recognize as harassment.
I was talking to Elise Matheson over lunch, and she gave me permission to share a private conversation she had elsewhere that is germane to my point. She was discussing an educational poster campaign for another convention, one based on the CONvergence “Costumes are Not Consent,” “Don’t Be a Dink,” and “Don’t Harsh the Squee” campaign.
Elise said that one of the slogans under discussion was “We Don’t Do That Anymore.”
We don’t do that anymore. Think about that for a moment.
I like this as an educational poster slogan. “We.” It reminds us all that we have all been a part of a cultural of sexual harassment at conventions. We have been harassed and not reported it. We have crossed boundaries and not known. We have been told we crossed boundaries and not known how to make amends. We have witnessed and not intervened.
“Don’t Do That.” But now we know better. Now we have been educated and informed. We have strategies and plans. We have people and institutions that we can trust to help us navigate the muddy waters of harassment.
“Anymore.” We have failed in the past. We intend to fail less in the future.
We won’t fix everything. We can’t stop harassment completely. But we can fail less. We’ve already made some progress. Now it’s time to make some more.