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Fandom, safe spaces, and other failures

This is (to some extent) an expansion on yesterday's post about leaving fandom (or not).
It focuses on one of the aspects of SF fandom that was pretty much inherent in its founding and later expanded into areas that I doubt anyone in First Fandom ever considered back in the long-lost Golden Age of 1937-41.

Fandom started out as someplace readers of SF could go to talk about their favorite literary genre without dealing with the social ostracism that usually followed when the people you worked with/went to school with/were related to found out you were reading "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff". That part hadn't changed in the 35 years between the first Worldcon and my entry into fandom at Discon II. It was, in today's argot, a "safe space". Not that you wouldn't get criticized, mocked or satirized, but at least people were reacting to something dumb you said or did instead of just rejecting you out of hand as "one of those people." There was very much an "us and them" mentality, with "them" being all the Mundanes in the Danelaw who just didn't get how cool and awesome and wonderful SF was. This also made fandom into a coping mechanism for a lot of people who weren't very good at dealing with other folks. It allowed them to get to know people at a distance usually through the mail and/or letter columns in SF magazines such as Amazing. It gave them something to talk about. It gave them an outlet for silliness that they didn't feel comfortable expressing around the mundanes.

Things had started changing even before the Trek fans showed up, really. The New Wave came along, taking SF in directions that had more in common with contemporary literature with regard to plotting, characterization, and topics. Even old masters like Heinlein were writing about SEX. Eight years after Stranger in a Strange Land won the Hugo, people were still ranting about the sex and swearing in Joe Haldeman's "Hero"* when it was published in Analog, and threatening to cancel their subscriptions. Others, however, were beginning to get together in the tolerant space provided by fandom, and pretty soon conventions were playing host to a whole range of subcultures that were taking a lot of the New Wave's literary adventurism and applying it to real life. I remember being very surprised to see flyers at Discon II promoting the "Church of the New Egg", a bunch of folks who were trying to live the lifestyle of Valentine Michael Smith and his droogs; thirty years later, as I was picking through the rubble of Minicon looking for ways for ATC to avoid their meltdown, finding out that there was a BDSM "party floor" there didn't surprise me in the least.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not laying all the social ills of fandom (as I have known it) at the door of that crew; if anything, they deserve their props for making an honest effort to secure their space and keep out the underage wannabees as well as other people who really didn't belong there. However, when things get to the point where you have to remind people "If it's illegal outside the hotel, it's illegal inside the hotel", something has gone seriously wrong. Perhaps I'm extrapolating too much from my experience with Minnesota fandom, but there seems to be a real reluctance to admit that in order to have genuinely safe space, you have to either have the people in that space keeping it safe, or have enough staff on hand to do so. Otherwise you're not creating a safe space at all, you're creating a space marked with a big sign saying PREDATORS WELCOME. Safe spaces attract the socially awkward and helpless, and in a perfect fandom the older fans would act in loco parentis and teach them to be less awkward and more capable. Unfortunately, fandom is far from perfect. Here there be monsters, and it's not always easy for would-be sheepdogs on staff to distinguish the truly dangerous from the merely creepy. Easy or not, it has to be done. Otherwise your innocent little lambs get pretty fucked up, and the rest of the sheep (also in my experience) will just turn away - or worse yet, turn on the damaged one.

It's a lot harder now than it used to be. The little slanshack that was SF fandom has grown to something no single building in America can contain any more, and there are some weird, unsavory parts of the city it has become. A lot of the newcomers are coming from a school environment that's every bit as intolerant of real difference as the society that spawned First Fandom, and more vicious in some ways than those fans could even imagine. At the same time, the ghetto that was fandom has evolved...the walls are lower now in a lot of places thanks to Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas, and the back room where the otaku used to swap fifth-generation VHS tape copies has become (quite possibly) the largest part of town. Like any city, though, people don't know each other as well as they did when the city was just a small town, and that makes the job of spotting the wolves a lot harder.

There's different approaches to handling these problems. I've always been partial to "on the case and in your face" enforcement at Detour, because I know it works, but other conventions do security differently and it seems to work for them. All that really matters is that somebody's looking out for the kids, because they don't always realize that what they thought was a safe space really isn't, except in a very limited sense.

*This later became the first chapter in his Hugo-winning novel The Forever War, which featured more sex, more swearing, and *GASP* HOMOSEXUALS, OMG!!!! Pretty radical stuff for the magazine once edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 8th, 2008 12:50 am (UTC)
Best post on the subject I've found so far. If you could extrapolate and write more of this, that'd be awesome - as you know, I have a fascination with the psychology behind fandom and the general culture itself.
Jul. 8th, 2008 12:59 am (UTC)
I can't be the only one writing about this kind of thing.
You're welcome, though.

Edited at 2008-07-08 01:03 am (UTC)
Jul. 8th, 2008 02:34 am (UTC)
It's worth noting that as much as this happens in real life fandom, this also happens on the Internet a fair amount as well. Albeit to a lesser extent - there's only so much you can fuck somebody up through text.
Jul. 8th, 2008 03:29 am (UTC)
Illegal is not the right bar...
People speed--that's illegal, but everyone does it...

Sometimes "Safe Space" has to exist in order to let people do things which are right--or right for them--but which "society at large" deems not-right, whether by force of law or [as in early fandom] social ostracism.

I can't remember a con in recent memory where I didn't see at least one underage fan obviously under the influence of alcohol [or something else]. It's illegal inside and outside the hotel, and yet most turn a blind eye to it so long as the actual provision and consumption of alcohol to those not of age is not done too blatantly. [I'm not picking only on fandom--the same is true on most college campuses on any given weekend]. Flagrant disregard of law? Of morality? Or perhaps just a tacit recognition that "safe space" has to include provision to be just-a-bit-unsafe, to take risks, to push boundaries, to mock the rules, if only temporarily.

I agree that one has to take measures against predators--and that they aren't always easy to detect. I'm convinced though that our society all too often takes "risk management" and tries to turn that into "risk elimination."

Sometimes it's necessary--and even good--to walk through life's dangerous sides of town. The trick is to learn how to keep your keys between your fingers and your head on a swivel--and recognize that it's possible you're going to get jumped anyway.

Just my $0.02.
Jul. 8th, 2008 04:04 am (UTC)
Re: Illegal is not the right bar...
Drinking is kind of a small offense as far as I'm concerned. I'm more worried about folks who like the idea of fucking with heads or just plain poaching sex from underage kids.

Bear in mind that I'm not objecting to the sixteen and seventeen year old kids here, I've come across several examples of kids who were 10-15 ending up in bed with folks in their thirties and forties.

Illegal isn't necessarily a good bar, but it's a better guideline than "don't be stupid" for most folks.
Jul. 8th, 2008 05:35 pm (UTC)
Re: Illegal is not the right bar...
"Don't be stupid" doesn't work very well, in my experience. You wind up having to make too many horrible examples in order to establish what the limits of acceptable behavior are, then people start whining about fascism, etc.
Jul. 8th, 2008 07:39 am (UTC)
Re: Illegal is not the right bar...
"... underage fan obviously under the influence of alcohol [or something else]. It's illegal inside and outside the hotel, and yet most turn a blind eye to it so long as the actual provision and consumption of alcohol to those not of age is not done too blatantly."

I don't think that "most" turn a blind eye to this. I think that *some* turn a blind eye toward it, but that "most" don't notice it for the same reasons that people overlook a number of social evils in society at large; we are all just too damn busy with our own problems, and can't be our brother's keepers.

If some underage person were clearly drunk I'm sure that "most" adults in fandom would notice and act. The problem becomes complex since it can be difficult to separate mild inebriation from simple rambunctiousness. Additionally, in many states the drinking age is 21, but if you don't have the *personal* acquaintance of every 18-20 year old attendee, and they can pass for 21, how likely is it that you will jump in and meddle if you don't know them, aren't sure what their age is, and (even if they are *obviously* inebriated) if they are not being disruptive or in apparent distress?
Jul. 8th, 2008 05:40 pm (UTC)
Re: Illegal is not the right bar...
Staff can't afford to ignore drunk/stoned minors, because they represent serious liability for the convention. More to the point, perhaps, is a question one of the Detour staff asked when this subject was being discussed: "There's 362 other days in the year that they can go get wrecked with their friends. Why the fuck do they have to do it here?"
Jul. 8th, 2008 05:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Illegal is not the right bar...
"Sometimes it's necessary--and even good--to walk through life's dangerous sides of town. The trick is to learn how to keep your keys between your fingers and your head on a swivel--and recognize that it's possible you're going to get jumped anyway."

That's a lot easier and more attractive for us guys, frankly, and most of the time young men can take care of themselves, especially in SF fandom which still tends to skew mostly male.

I would also posit that there's a difference between drinking with your friends and family, some of which may be old enough to drink while you aren't, and accepting drinks from strangers. There is also a difference between room parties (where alcohol is served) in mainstream (SF/F/media) fandom and room parties at anime conventions that serve alcohol; the latter tend to be either refuges for the older fans and staff or loci of potential trouble.

I agree with your point about risk management v. risk elimination. The latter is flatly impossible for the same reason that foolproof things aren't.

Edited at 2008-07-09 04:58 pm (UTC)
Jul. 8th, 2008 05:21 pm (UTC)
Agreed, although the asshat in Missouri who provoked one of her daughter's schoolmates to suicide might be a counterpoint to that.
Jul. 8th, 2008 08:09 am (UTC)
As regards the broad issue - that SF fandom has become an umbrella for a wider selection of "outsider" groups than envisioned by First Fandom - it's obviously true, and it has pushed and pulled the direction of SF conventions for a long time now. Trek fandom may have been birthed as a sub-fandom of SF fandom, but then grew to being a standalone sub-culture... and since then has broadened out into a greater branch of fandom which is now inclusive of most TV and film based SF fandom. Conventions which were born as Trek cons have evolved into places where fans of numerous media-based SF go to see the creators and stars of their favorite shows, including Trek, of course.

Anime fandom has in the last decade exploded onto the scene as the "new" fandom where the young fans are, and it will be interesting to see over the next 20-30 years how it evolves, since (unlike Trek fandom) it was "born" as a multi-source fandom.

Finally, the SF convention world has indeed become a haven for various members of the BDSM community. Most of the people I have met who are into that scene are in fact fannish people already... at some point, someone must simply have realized that the outre behavior of SF fans in general (outre to the general public, anyway) was a perfect screen for some of the dress and behavior of fannish people who were also into BDSM.

As regards their private parties, I understand that only adults are admitted, all are required to read and sign a waiver which warns them that they may witness things at such a party which could be shocking to some, and there is no tolerance for predatory behavior. Consent must always be given, and if someone wishes to stop participating their wish must be granted. Given that many states have laws that seek to govern a variety of private matters, all of those precautions are understandable and necessary.

Problems mostly arise from the fact that fandom is too large a body of people to have "small town" familiarity with more than a fraction of the attendees of any large convention. I've been to Balticon almost every year since 1979, and I know a lot of people there, but I doubt that I know half of the attendees, even on a "have chatted with them once or twice" basis. I pity the people who are "running" DragonCon... where "running" means "we start the ball in motion and then try to keep it from crushing small towns as it rolls by, because... INERTIA, BABY!"
Jul. 8th, 2008 10:40 pm (UTC)
Perhaps surprisingly, I don't have an issue with the BDSM crowd, precisely because they are alert to possible problems and aggressively police their space. The size issue is very pertinent to fandom. Looking back on it now, I think fans were right to be wary of the increasingly large Worldcons and regional cons; it's very hard to ride herd on 3000 people, even when most of them are young anime fans and fairly compliant with the rules. I don't know that I'd want the job of chairman for a similarly-sized SF convention, because the same control measures that worked at Anime Detour would not work at Balticon, and there would be Trouble. Maybe if I was allowed to hire the Dorsai Irregulars for security, now that I've found out that they're still around. I'm convinced that DragonCon is a disaster waiting to happen. All those people...what are the chances that sooner or later somebody is going to fuck up badly, and in a way that screws the concom?
Jul. 8th, 2008 12:57 pm (UTC)
That was an excellent essay. But it made me nostalgic for the early days of AI, when it was easy to get to know all 150 people in attendance.
Jul. 8th, 2008 10:43 pm (UTC)
You've put your finger on the very reason I love Arcana so much, and Diversicon only a little less. If I do get back into running conventions, more than likely it'll be a small-scale thing like Arcana.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )



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