Sexual goings-on at conventions are a natural adult proclivity and fans have their own special brands of play. At any regular science fiction convention there’ll be the guy with mild Aspergers looking on the white board for directions to the Furry “Scritch & Yiff” Party, the resident Leisure Suit Larry who tries to chat up every woman in the elevator, the corset brigade who compete for who can best balance a glass of wine on their chests, the guy who thinks dressing like a pirate will impress the ladies, the lass who decides it’s her sacred role to set free the restrained cherries of lonely nerds, the man who thinks if he wears revealing clothes it will encourage women to do the same, the person who keeps the Who Hooked Up With Who chart, the couple who think their S&M gear make good hall costumes, people using the con as a test lab for exploring their sexual identity, swingers who politely invite you to join them and their friends or those that play spin the bottle in the wee hours before skinny-dipping in the hotel pool. And then there’s old-fashioned chemistry and perhaps the Dutch courage to act on it and the mythical one night stand. Hell, getting laid at a con is almost considered a fan’s rite of passage.
Yes, for many a science fiction convention is the place where one who has suffered the restraints of their sexual expression in their formidable years can now let themselves blossom into the children of Pan, frolicking in their freshly released libidos and all around them be the witness of their true, exciting and delicious selves.
And though I must admit that at times the results aren’t always aesthetically pleasing (lycra and capes, oh dear) it is largely harmless, adult play that is a part of the circle of fannish life or that of any close-knit community of mutual interests. And in this swirling pool of hormones comes friendships, relationships, love, marriage, family and eventually toddlers owned by long time con goers wishing some people would put on a few more clothes.
But on the whole the convention floor is a moderate place with few perceptible improprieties, well, none that need addressing with any seriousness. For the overflow of fan sexual energy actually pours out on the late night room party floor, and on occasion quite literally. And this need to express sexual freedom, the right to be sexy, and the want to parade it publicly is more the natural way of things than otherwise and shouldn’t be seen as anything else.
Still, it does on occasion go a little too far for comfort. In a crowded room party getting drunk and bullshitting on about the failure of utopian literature is par of the course, bitching about being snubbed by a bigger name fan is also a normal thing to do and yes, an intimate chat with someone that leads to a heavy pash in the far corner of the balcony is even tolerable. But trying to hold a conversation while two others proceed to give you an intimate massage you hadn’t asked for or being distracted by three people rolling around the floor expressing their sexual freedom for everyone else to act as witnesses… well, I’ve had my drink jostled more than once by a few over-enthused at the their end of the bed while I try to debate awards procedures sitting at my end.
And before anyone thinks I’m being all-superior, I admit in my more adventurous fan days of yore to having followed through with the odd party dare and all I have to say about it is, with apologies to my gay friends, I’ll never pash an unshaven man again. Ladies, how do you do it?
So let’s ignore notions of comfort or acceptability and acknowledge that a large part of the expression of sexual freedom comes from the feeling of being safe in the convention environment, that you are amongst understanding and accepting friends (though tolerance is sometimes misinterpreted as accepting). Much of this sense of feeling accepted comes from a strong principle at the heart of science fiction fandom and similar communities; a strong sense of welcoming society’s rejected. Within fandom those who feel insecure, even inadequate or just feel like an outsider can enter the fold and often with a little time get the courage to come out of their cocoon. Sometimes they come out of their cocoon a bit too brightly, but it adds to the colour and is further testament to the sense of safety and of protection that one can feel when fully enveloped in the con-fan environment.
Now, what I have written so far has been intended with an air of humour and affection, but I’m afraid that from this point on I will be quite serious.
This sense of being safe is of great kudos to fandom and it is commendable for the level of safety that is provided within the convention space. But there is a reality that should not be forgotten or ignored. The space within a convention cannot be totally safe. No more or less safe than any other public or semi-public environment like a shopping mall, a university campus or a religious social hall. You will get the same mix of easy-going people, introverts, extroverts, pain-in-the-butt people, dickheads, bitches, dudes & dudettes and the occasional sexual predator.
The predator is not some dumb shit hoping to get a lay. They are willing to take advantage of people and to manipulate situations to get what they want regardless that it not be mutually shared. And they do it with skill. They can get victims into heavily compromised situations before they know what’s going on. I know it sounds strange, but a male predator can get a woman naked, lying next to them in bed, while still convincing them there is nothing sexual going on. They themselves can act as if they are sexually naïve. They can gently press for the intimacy of friendship and say things like “we can stop at anytime, we won’t go too far”, “I don’t want sex I just need a hug with skin to skin”, “You need to take your bra off for a proper massage”, “You know, I haven’t kissed someone in a long time”. They can be subtle and smooth and often the woman doesn’t quite realize the extent of the abuse until it’s well over.
You’re mistaken if you think it doesn’t happen because you never seen or heard of anything like this. That’s because the abuser usually gets away with it. The victim is too ashamed to reveal what happened or they don’t think anyone will believe them, or they’ll be seen as bringers of unwanted news. The victims can even blame themselves, which is tragic.
And as they are usually not revealed these abusers are hard to identify, especially if you are like every other normal person and have not even considered the possibility of their presence in such a close knit and seemingly safe community. Because these abusers present themselves in an everyday manner that a fan community would deem as normal, even charming and they have friends, even be popular. And remarkably, they don’t see themselves as users and abusers or what they do as taking advantage, never as assault and certainly not as rape.
Occasionally, if you are lucky, you’ll spot the telltale sign when some people refuse to associate with a seemingly harmless, even appealing person. Sadly, you rarely notice when somebody is not talking to somebody and, with the nature of fan politics, people not talking to people can be a regular state of affairs. Usually to really know what’s going on you have to have the luck to hook up to the right grapevine. But then those who know how to get the lay of the land or have their head screwed on to bullshit (usually from experience) are not the ones a predator goes for. And don’t assume all predators are men and all victims are women.
Now, I understand if you know someone who acts disingenuous to lure people into sexual situations and see them as being someone acting on a weakness and to paint that over the situation, especially if the victim doesn’t cry assault. But so what if it is a weakness of character? They won’t stop acting on that weakness, that impulse, if they can get away with it and the more they can get away with it the more likely they’ll go further. It is about obtaining a power to overcome, even only temporarily, their feelings of being a social failure in the world outside of “welcome all” fandom where they are not nearly proficient in seduction. [I suggest reading this]
But despite whatever their reason for being frauds, it is not the perpetrator for which we have first duty of care, it is the victim. Regardless of why, who or how, it comes down to the fact that within a community it is about protection. We can’t just turn a blind eye to certain behaviour we have in the past tolerated because of some tribal law of universal acceptance (see the Five Geek Social Fallacies), it is about creating and maintaining a safe place and it isn’t a safe place if abusers of trust are allowed to operate in anonymity. I’m not saying you have to act publicly, or have a witch hunt or that there is always an abuser somewhere around, because much of the time the convention environment is a safe place to be, but we can’t be blind to it happening, because then sooner or later it will happen as surely as it already has.