View 781 Sunday, July 07, 2013
I took most of the week off. Niven and I got some work done on our next book, and Friday we spent the day at the Los Angeles Zoo in search of inspiration for some scenes. More on that another time.
The Arthur C. Clarke Prediction of Sexual Behavior
Meanwhile, over at the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) members site, there began a complicated conversation about sexual harassment. The discussion was heated but mostly involved hypothetical cases. Then there came a report of an incident involving an editor I once worked with and a female editor I have never met, at a convention party. The offended party posted something on line, and a SFWA official reposted that in the SFWA discussion. Since neither party was a member of SFWA and the event was not an SFWA event, I failed to understand why this was SFWA business; and in what must have been a fit of absence of mind, I said so.
There was a storm of response, at which point I seem to have lost the rest of my senses because I got involved: so far no one had specified what the accused had done, merely that it was sexual harassment. There were other discussions, none of any actual incidents; and since no one seemed to know any actual cases, I decided to supply one in which the facts are not at all in dispute, it was all very well known to nearly everyone fan or professional in the science fiction community thirty years ago, and the principals were pretty well beyond being harmed by talking about it since the major figure has been dead for decades.
I did have an interest in the subject, because in his 1953 book Childhood’s End Arthur C. Clarke had predicted that the development of reliable contraceptives and a foolproof paternity test would end marriage and sever the connection between procreation and sex: it would bring Western Civilization (and thus everyone else) into a culture of sex for pleasure and recreation unrelated to marriage and child raising. I had discussed this with him a couple of times in the 1980’s, and his comment was “Well, I was right wasn’t I? Isn’t that where we are going?” ( http://the-american-catholic.com/2012/04/03/arthur-c-clarke-on-how-to-destroy-marriage/ )
At the time Arthur was writing Childhood’s End he met, courted, and married Marilyn Mayfield, a young American divorcée with a young son. They lived together for less than six months, and separated before the publication of Childhood’s End; the divorce proceedings took a decade, and involved legal and financial issues to the point that Arthur avoided coming to the United States lest he be served with demands for money. When his friends asked him about his marriage, he indicated that he did not want to talk about the subject, although he did tell me once that “She was very young and I was set in my ways, and it was all doomed from the beginning.” He made it very clear that he was not blaming her, and I never heard him say an unkind word about her; of course he didn’t say very much at all about the subject. Arthur was unfailingly kind to his friends, but he seldom discussed his personal life even with much closer friends than I was.
But as I look at the changes in Western sexual customs and courtship I am often reminded of Clarke’s sociological prediction. Apparently the extent of the hookup culture is disputed, but every month or so I seen another article on casual sex, hooking up, and current college practice both at Spring Break and normal times. And of course there are the Tom Wolfe books Hooking Up and I Am Charlotte Simmons. But there was nothing about hookup culture in the SFWA discussions either inside the SFWA membership forums, or in the open discussions resulting from the distorted picture put together by the ‘leak’.
The discussion of sexual harassment at SF events was mostly abstract, and for some reason I decided to inject into it a well known story that seemed relevant. The facts were never in dispute and the whole story was widely known in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. To wit: Randall Garrett, a popular science fiction author with a large number of publications to his credit – he made a living at SF even before his Too Many Magicians novels, selling tons of stories at a few cents a word – was a very popular figure at SF conventions. He was often asked to perform, which he did: he sang ballads interpretively. A couple of favorites were “Have Some Madeira, my Dear”, and “Thais” (actually a poetic review of the opera Thais turned into a ballad). His performances were usually accompanied by a volunteer from the audience, some young woman who would dance interpretively as the ingénue in the Madeira song, or the courtesan in Thais.
Randall had another very well known practice. After a few drinks, he would roam the convention parties looking for women he did not know, making certain that this was someone of age ( most often late twenties or older ). He would then approach, stand well out of reach without any physical contact, bow, and say “HI. I’m Randall Garrett. Let’s F—.” This happened many times at many conventions between 1970 and about 1980, after which he was disabled until his death in 1987. His habit was known to nearly everyone of importance in the science fiction community. I know of no one who encouraged him, and many told him to stop it, but he persisted, giving the argument that he never made physical contact, he never pursued or persisted unless he was actively encouraged to continue, and he was doing no more than offering casual recreational sex. He would also cite the argument that women had as much right to desire non-relationship recreational sex as men – he could cite articles from women’s magazines stating that idea.
The one time he came to a convention that I had any authority over – a SFWA Nebula Awards event I chaired – I looked up Randall and told him to cool it, and was greeted with a hurt look for suggesting that he would act that way at that sort of event. I don’t know what he would have done if a fan convention chairman had given him the same instruction. For all I know that happened and he obeyed. It was not a common topic of discussion with us. In those time, before the Internet and cheap long distance telephone calls, there were many friendships among science fiction writers who met mostly or even exclusively at science fiction conventions, and communicated at other times chiefly through US Post Office letters, which is to say, not very often. I had many such friends, and Randall was one of them. In addition I saw him at SCA events, and when I visited my close personal friend Poul Anderson in the Bay Area. Randall was a frequent visitor at Poul’s home.
Randall had friends all over the world, whom he met yearly at the World SF Conventions. I doubt many of them approved of his unique form of courtship, which became famous as it continued year after year.
I related this in a closed SFWA discussion. I mention it now because someone within the organization has, in direct violation of the rules, copied my post along with others contributed by other participants including past presidents, into an open web site. I found out about it thanks to email from some of my readers.
Well before I knew there was any interest in this matter outside the SFWA web site, I regretted ever getting involved in the ‘sexual harassment’ discussions inside SFWA. There was a storm of condemnation heaped upon my head. Most of it accused me of approving of Randall’s performance, which I did not, or of insufficiently condemning him. Did I not understand that leaving aside his explicit language, the very offer he made was demeaning, and treated the woman as an object whose only purpose was sex, and was definitely sexual harassment, and anyone who did not agree to that view was disgusting, and Garrett ought to have been thrown out of SFWA and thrown out of SF fandom, and anyone who did not agree to that was a disgusting sexist. Generally this was stated in stronger language than I use here.
There weren’t a lot of people saying this. Few, actually. But they said it often, and in answer to any attempt on my part to explain what I thought I was doing – I told you I temporarily took leave of my senses.
I found all this rather depressing which is one reason I haven’t been commenting on much of anything this week.
My point in bringing up this case was to try to persuade my fellow SFWA members that whatever they cared to say or do about sexual harassment at SFWA events, it was not our job or our place to try to dictate rules for SF conventions because SF writers don’t put on the conventions. They are put on by fans, and science fiction fans have a very long, and very strong, tradition of tolerance of almost anything except violence. Con convention parties are, to use Jack Chandler’s phrase, Liberty Hall. You can spit on the mat and call the cat a bastard. (Which sounds silly when I say it, so I guess you have to read one of Chandler’s Rim novels). Fans welcomed diversity before diversity was considered a good thing to welcome. Sex, race, gender, manner of dress, language, everyone is pretty well welcome in SF events and parties. And the fans knew all about Randall, did for years, and did nothing whatever about him.
The question becomes one of defining harassment. We can all agree that no woman – or man, or child, or anyone else – should have to put up with sexual harassment. Bad manners, rudeness, and the like are another story. I recall one fan party in Canada which was busted by the Regional Police because there was a performance of a folk singing group that involved an obscene pillow (known as the penisaurus) witnessed by mundane hotel guests (who weren’t allowed in the party because they hadn’t badges, but one pleaded to be allowed to watch, after which she called the cops in disgust). The people with the penisaurus were not condemned. The Regional Police were. Fandom is tolerant.
And Randall would and did insist that whatever else you could say about him – outrageous was acceptable – it was not harassment. To harass someone is to persist with unwanted attention, and he didn’t persist. He didn’t grope. He didn’t touch. He wasn’t threatening in any way. He offered recreational sex with no compensation. When asked what responses he got he said a few less than 10% accepted or at least discussed the possibility, about 10% tried to slap his face (he was agile so most weren’t successful), and about equal numbers said No rather nervously, said no with laughter, or said no thank you or even No, but thank you for the offer. I have neither confirmation nor challenge of his data. One correspondent said her husband tells her that the 10% acceptance is an old urban legend. If so I suspect that it derives from Randall because I never heard that claimed by anyone else.
It was also insisted that the language itself was harassment. I can’t argue with that, because I don’t use that language in the first place. Certainly in Randall’s day one might go weeks without hearing what has become known as the F-bomb; but that is hardly true now. Now probably hears several per minute in some concerts and parties. It’s just not rare. To which the argument is made that the very offer is harassment and demeaning and rude and –
I certainly won’t argue against naming it outrageous, rude, bad manners; the question is whether it rises to the level of harassment. When I was mad enough to care I was trying to make that distinction: there are plenty of things happening around us that are discomforting and unpleasant, but are they so harmful that there ought to be rules and enforcements prohibiting them? Clearly the Regional Police thought the penisaurus rose to that level and sent a squad of cops out to protect everyone from the penisaurus, but I suspect not many readers here would agree that this was a good use of police resources. I know few SF fans would think so.
For the record, I know of no one who encouraged Randall to continue this experiment, and I know many who tried to persuade him to give it up. I don’t know his motive for continuing it. It wasn’t intimidation or some kind of power play. There’s no evidence that he got any enjoyment out of dominance or anything resembling it. Nearly everyone who knew him including many who condemned this particular practice agreed that all around he was a nice guy with a contemptible quirk. In any event I’m not his advocate and I am not defending him. My whole point in bringing him up is that if you can’t come up with a reasonable consensus on what ought to have been done about Randall Garrett, then abstract discussions of rules and penalties aren’t likely to be useful. At least I think that was my point. By now I am sufficiently weary of the subject that I don’t really know.
It’s late and I ought to be in bed. I will leave this for the night, and with luck perhaps forever. It does remind me of Clarke’s prediction of the future of human sexual relations. Given fool proof paternity identification, and reasonably efficient contraception (not involving abortion) the emotional connection between sex and procreation will dissolve, and the very notion of chastity as a virtue will disappear.
And while I was thinking along those lines, I got mail accusing me of wishful thinking about the hookup culture. There really isn’t one. It’s just wishful thinking on the part of boys who can’t get dates, and a way of insulting a whole group of young women by calling them promiscuous. Although the writer of that note was infuriated with me, I found it hopeful, because it insisted that promiscuous was not virtuous, and implied that chastity remained a virtue, and thus that Clarke’s prediction was wrong. But then I picked up a copy of the LA free paper the LA Weekly with some of its articles about hooking up, and Vogue had a lead item on how the star of a bachelorette reality show was shocked to discover that none of the 9 young men courting her on TV was really interested in a permanent marriage, and I wonder about it all.
We may continue this discussion another time, but I don’t really plan to. I just want to get the whole depressing subject out of my system.
And I do note that even the mainstream press is beginning to realize I didn’t make up my stories about bunny inspectors.