Guest post: Harassment isn't an interpersonal issue, it's a health and safety issue

This is a series of excerpts from a post by writer and speaker Stephanie Zvan, advising conference organizers on how to respond when a person who harassed people at their event wants to return to the event. The post was prompted by Jim Frenkel’s attendance at the 2014 Wiscon feminist science fiction convention, after reports of harassment by Frenkel at the 2013 Wiscon and other events. These posts are excerpts from a post that originally appeared on “Almost Diamonds” at Free Thought Blogs.

So how should event organizers deal with people who have been reasonably found to have harassed one of their attendees (hereafter referred to as “the harasser” out of convenience rather than any essentialism)?

Harassment isn’t an interpersonal issue

We are accustomed and encouraged to use frames of reference in thinking about harassment that aren’t helpful, so let’s clear a couple of those up right off the bat. Harassment is not an “interpersonal issue”. Having your boundaries violated is not something a person does. It is something that is done to them. When someone says how they want to be treated (either verbally or through body language) and this is ignored, this is a unilateral action on the part of the person who chose to ignore their boundaries. When things outside the bounds of the broadest social norms or outside of a local code of conduct are done to people without them being consulted, this is a unilateral action on the part of the person who took action without consulting the target of that action.

Treating harassment as a back-and-forth between two people simply because it requires that two people be present elides the one-sided nature of these interactions. It elides the responsibility of one person who acts on another to be aware of how that action will impact the person it targets.

Worse, it places some of that responsibility on the person acted upon, the person whose boundaries—stated or reasonably assumed—were violated. It says that either the target of the harassing behavior had an obligation to stop the behavior themselves or that it is reasonable for another person to assume they consented to whatever happened. When we’re talking about code of conduct violations, this means that treating harassment as an interpersonal issue is telling people that it would be reasonable to assume they consented to being the target of racist or sexist remarks, consented to being followed or photographed, consented to being touched—simply by attending your event.

If you’re going to treat these things as reasonable assumptions when it comes time to evaluate a complaint, they shouldn’t be listed as code of conduct violations in the first place. If your intent is to create a space where anything should be expected to happen, a code of conduct is false advertising. Don’t treat someone who relies on your code of conduct as though they’ve done something wrong.

A harassment investigation is not a criminal case

Additionally, a harassment investigation is not a criminal case. You, as event organizers, are not the government of a country, a state, or even a city. When you investigate an allegation of harassment, you are not interfering with anyone’s liberties or rights under the constitution. You are determining who will and who will not attend your event.

This is true however your investigation and decision comes out. If you bend over backward to give the accused the benefit of the doubt and end up allowing a harasser to continue to attend your event, you will lose attendees who feel that harasser has now been given official permission to continue. These people are innocent of violating your rules, but that doesn’t keep them from being excluded by your decision. This is true every bit as much as if you exclude someone who is innocent of harassment on the basis of an unfounded accusation.

So, all that said, how do you go about determining when a harasser can rejoin your community?

Harassment is a health and safety issue, treat it like one

First off, stop asking that particular question. We don’t spend time agonizing over when “that person who set off the fire alarms and caused an evacuation” or “that person who held someone’s head under water in the pool” gets to come back. This is not about the harasser and their needs. Harassment is a health and safety issue, and you’ll get a whole lot further if you treat it like one. […]

I’m sure there are readers at this point who still don’t understand why harassment short of assault would be considered a health and safety issue if no one was physically injured, so I’ll break it down briefly. The mild forms of harassment are still stressors. They still make their targets outsiders, less than human beings with full agency in the spaces in which the harassment occurs. They require that not just targets, but the entire classes of people who tend to be targeted, make decisions bout how to navigate these spaces in ways that allow them to remain safer.

Even before we get to behaviors that (nearly) everyone agrees constitute sexual violence, even before we talk about the fact that the presence of harassment reasonably makes people question whether they’ll be subject to to violence, sexual harassment not only adds to people’s stress–a health issue in and of itself–but it requires people to spend their limited time and energy to protect themselves. We would not tolerate events held in places that required participants to track down safe water for themselves, whether or not the water at a venue was ultimately safe to drink. We don’t allow fake weapons for cosplay to be carried in a way that may threaten people. We don’t have any better reason than cultural inertia to make a special allowance for sexual or gender-based behavior that is stressful and threatening. That just isn’t what safety means.

Continue reading the original post here, or read part 2 in tomorrow’s blog post.