Consent Policies are Great, but Not Enough

There are a few events and communities who recognize the need for a more defined policy about consent and harassment at their events, and have responded with more clearly-written and advertised policies.

For example, the recent Bookcon had a huge image (pictured right) in their main foyer. It spelled out the entire policy, including this statement:

If someone’s behavior has made you uncomfortable, or if you witness the same happening to someone else, you should immediately contact BookCon Staff or Security Team. You may also come to BookCon’s Show Office or the Security Office.

Now, before I continue, let me say: I applaud Bookcon for taking this stance, and also for considering the potential for consent incidents at an event with a lot of cosplay. They even spell it out in a simple and catchy phrase: Cosplay is not Consent!

This is GREAT.

However, we also feel this is not enough. And here’s why:

The Burden of Priority

Here’s a hypothetical situation: Emma, a first-timer at Bookcon, is feeling both empowered and a bit vulnerable in her costume. She has an unpleasant encounter with another individual who says things about the costume that make her feel even more insecure about wearing it, and a friend says “Hey! Maybe you should talk to a staff member about whether that’s harassment!”

Emma looks at the staff members, who look busy (if it’s a day or two into the con, they also look tired). They all are going here and there, or staffing situations. The Security Staff are intimidating. She could also go to the con office, but it seems easier to just go to her hotel room – she didn’t know any of those people there, and the person hadn’t even touched her – that didn’t count as harassment, did it?

Now, I know – in the bullet points of the policy it specifies both “unwelcome physical attention” and “offensive verbal comments.” That’s great, if someone actually reads the bullet points – but how many do, especially in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a big convention. There are a lot of other factors that could come into play as well:

  • Emma may have tried asking for help before and been told the sadly typical “you’re making a big deal about nothing” (or worse).
  • The staff member/volunteer who is most readily available may be intimidating for Emma, especially if they are similar to the person whose remarks first made her uncomfortable.
  • The staff member/volunteer may be the one who (possibly unintentionally) made the comments in the first place.
  • Emma, a new attendee, may be unsure of whether or not what happened was actually offensive or if it’s part of the culture of this convention

By asking Emma, who is already in a vulnerable state, to interrupt someone who already has a duty with the convention is to expect her to make the following judgment:

My discomfort is more important than the convention. 

And that seems like a heavy burden to put on anyone.

Consent is as Important as Security or Medical

There was a time, in the not-so-distant past of conventions, when they didn’t have “security” teams. Everyone knew each other, or there wasn’t that much space or that many teams.

There was a time when we didn’t think we needed medical teams. Or social media. Or advertising budgets, or even T-shirts.

All of those things, at some point, became necessary. And the conventions adjusted to the needs and now they are rarely questioned. They’re just accepted as part of the way a good convention is run.

At Consent Rocks, we believe that handling consent incidents and better educating attendees about boundaries and interactions should be integrated into the staff just as security and medical are now. Sometimes that’s a team on call 24/7, sometimes it’s just a couple of people trained in consent incident response. But it’s necessary, and it makes a difference. Instead of interrupting someone, Emma has a different resource available.

Hey, maybe you should talk to a Consent Rocks Crew member,” Emma’s friend suggests.

Emma frowns. “Well, I’m not sure it’s such a big deal…I don’t want to interrupt them or anything.”

Emma’s friend laughs. “Interrupt them? They literally don’t do anything except talk to people about this stuff. It’s their job! They can help you figure out what you want to do about it, if anything.”

And they cosplayed happily ever after.