I haven't been to many science fiction conventions, but I imagine the people one runs into at these things aren't that different from the people I see at the horror conventions I frequent. Namely: 75% wonderful, 20% off-puttingly weird but usually harmless and sometimes actually quite nice when you make an effort to get to know them, and 5% batfuck crazy.
Here's the shocking thing: At conventions, it's not always the 5% batfuck crazy ones you need to worry about.
I've never been informed of sexual assaults occurring at any of the conventions I've attended. I like to think that means they didn't occur, but my not hearing anything doesn't necessarily mean that. Because what I have seen is people acting wildly inappropriately. I'm not talking about the harmless flirting that sometimes happens between colleagues over drinks at the hotel bar. I'm talking about pinches on the butt, groping and things said by one party to another that are so inappropriate they make the second party nervous and not want to be around that person anymore. Again, as far as I know, none of these instances have progressed from inappropriate behavior to hurtful action--but the truth is, they don't have to in order to have lasting ramifications.
Unwelcome flirting is one thing. Most people get the hint when the person they're flirting with is uninterested and move on (not that these conventions are always filled with the most socially skilled people, but most of the time the message is received). It's when the tone of the flirting becomes aggressive that it starts to become truly inappropriate. Even frightening. I've had friends ask me to stand with them at convention parties in order to keep these alarmingly aggressive souls away. I'm happy to do it, but I'm angry as hell that I have to.
Remember when I said it's not always the 5% batfuck crazy attendees you have to worry about? The reason is this: None of the instances I'm referencing here involved someone crazy (and believe me, you know crazy when you see it). One involved a well known--at least within the core community--novelist who, by all accounts, comes across as quite nice and normal in every other way. Except that I heard from multiple sources that he acted just shy of sexually predatory with them.
He was also married with children, and I assume still is. Unfortunately, he's not unique in this regard. I've seen married people, and people in long term relationships, cheat at conventions. In my mind, as long as it's consensual and both parties know the score, and it doesn't affect me one way or the other, it's not for me to judge. (Though, let's be honest, I totally do anyway.) But all of this, the cheating, aggressive behavior, and yes, even sexual assaults, can be traced to more than just questionable morals. There's more at work here than individual psyches. There's a group psychology in play too. And it's got a name.
We whisper it mostly in jest to each other, and it used to mean if you drink too much, or if you have a cigarette when you're not allowed to smoke at home, or if you want to hook up with someone, don't worry about it, we're not going to judge you or make trouble. Nine simple words. Words that, it seems, have since been perverted to now enable hurtful behavior.
"What happens at a convention, stays at a convention."
But the truth of the matter is, what happens at a convention doesn't stay at a convention. There can be and often are lasting emotional and/or physical ramifications, as there are in the SwanCon account. I speak from experience. I was cheated on at a convention. A convention I was attending, no less. I walked right in on my then-girlfriend while she was cheating on me. And though enough time has passed since then that I have been able to forgive both parties in my heart, it was a shattering experience, and one I found it impossible for our relationship to come back from. The emotional ramifications of this "what happens at a convention, stays at a convention" moment were enormous and lasting.
Which brings us back to SwanCon. A lot has been made of how these conventions are supposed to be safe places, a community if you will. And for the most part they are, but that safety has also been twisted to mean the opposite of what it should. Namely, you're now safe to act like a complete asshole, no matter how much it hurts someone else. We cannot turn a blind eye to it when someone is being physically hurt. We cannot shrug it off and say, "He seems so nice, there must be some misunderstanding." We cannot chuckle and shake our heads and mutter, "What happens at a convention, stays at a convention." Because the consequences of that are far worse. It enables hurtful behavior. It tells the perpetrator that this is a safe place to sexually assault someone, and tells the victim, and all potential victims, that this isn't a safe place for them at all, not anymore. You don't need me to tell you that it should actually be the opposite.
I'm hardly a prude. You're single and sleeping with someone at the con? Enjoy! You want to cheat on your spouse back home? That's on you. You want to do drugs, drink yourself into a blackout, wear a rubber chicken as underwear? So long as you don't bother me or anyone else, I don't give a damn. But when it comes to sexual assault, or any other kind of violent behavior, what happens at a convention does not, should not and must not stay at a convention. No good comes of that. So kudos to the SwanCon attendee for speaking out, and for naming names. And kudos to the other SwanCon attendees who said if they see him there again they'll make the experience so inhospitable for him that he'll think twice before coming back again. (On a more primal level, I'd love to see them do more than that to this guy but I know more violence isn't the answer.)
What happens at a convention, stays at a convention? Dude, don't be an idiot. What happens at a convention can follow you for the rest of your life. Hell, it can follow you right to jail.
Addendum: I've been informed that the sexual assault did not happen at the convention itself. Though the principals met at SwanCon, the assault itself happened separately from the convention. That said, I think my point about enabling sexual predation at conventions still stands.