What Happens When We Speak: On Con Harassment and Fandom

“So I heard that you won Tumblr,” a coworker joked with me the other day.

He was referring to the maelstrom of activity that was triggered when I posted about my con harassment experience at New York Comic Con by the film crew of the YouTube web series Man Banter, hosted by Mike Babchik. I won’t reiterate everything that happened, but kept pretty good documentation. Other industry professionals and geek news sources had done the same, too. There is a petition out, created by the activist group 18 Million Rising in order to hold Babchik’s employer, Sirius XM Radio, accountable for his actions since Babchik had gotten into the convention using his job credentials. Since the incident happened, New York Comic Con had assured that they will tighten their safety policies, and I even had a nice wrap-up interview about making convention spaces safer with NYCC show manager Lance Fensterman.

Okay, that ugly event got all wrapped up with a nice li’l bow of resolution; we can leave this in the fandom corner until the next big misogynistic thing that happens to women at conventions hits the fan (but oh wait, it just did as I typed this). At this moment, I feel like I can voice something that I’ve been holding in this whole time: I am lucky. And it shouldn’t have to be that way.

Everything worked out in a best-case scenario: calling out my harassers actually resulted in them getting punished for their actions without any retribution from them or their supporters. On the eve of traveling to another convention, I feel relatively safe (greatly enforced by that convention’s extremely prominent anti-harassment policies).

For the last two weeks, I had been very angry and determined to fight back against what had happened to me and other con-goers at NYCC. Yet I had also been afraid. It’s a complicated fear, going beyond the ones about retaliation, trolls, flamers, and anon hate. I’m hesitant even as I type this in public, because so much of my actions in this situation had been framed as “courageous” and trotted out as an example of what women should be doing. I’m not 100% comfortable with being the poster child of that narrative.

Unpacking the roots of this fear, though, is important—not only for me, but to have other people understand the situation women and marginalized folk are going through in fandom when it comes to reporting harassment, bullying, and abuse.*

*When I say “women and other marginalized folk,” I mean people of all types: racial/ethnic minorities, people of different abilities and sizes, queer people. I know someone will mention, “But straight, white cis-men get harassed too!” and that is true. In order to raise social standards to protect all people, however, we have to focus on the needs of those who are most vulnerable first. In the greater world, straight, white cis-men have most of the social and political power to fight back against things thrown their way, unlike the rest of us.

One of the big messages that this conversation has promoted is that “speaking out” against your own harassment is key to ensure the safety of an event. Reporting, however, does not necessarily ensure the safety of the victim. For example, a few weeks before the NYCC harassment, a trans* woman spoke out about her treatment at a gaming conference, and the results were pretty terrifying:

“People tracked down my phone number. Hate flooded my work inbox. I had people threatening to track me down in person and attack me. People found my old identity and began to try to publicize it. I faced the darkest aspects of the Internet just for existing and speaking up….I am usually the first to discuss trans issues within the gaming industry, but a few days of death threats can really limit one’s will to fight. All I wanted to do was tell someone that he had upset me. I never wanted anything else.”

“How will I be treated?” was the first reaction I had before I wrote that Tumblr post at 1 AM. I wanted to report this to the authorities, but even as I was gathering information and writing my public warning, doubts flooded my mind:

  • Will people believe me?
  • Will people reject the seriousness of the issue because “I’m oversensitive”?
  • Will people dismiss me for “not having a sense of humor”?
  • Will people tell me that if I dressed differently, this wouldn’t have happened?
  • Will people tell me that if I had a male friend with me, this wouldn’t have happened?
  • Will people try to get ahold of my work or personal information in order to further harass me?
  • Will people try to leak my personal information in order to get others to further harass me?
  • Will I face negative consequences from NYCC, other conventions, or other industry professionals that could damage my career?

I’m explaining my thought process as an example what many women and other marginalized folk think even before they decide to report anything (if they ever do). Those victims who remain silent aren’t doing it out of cowardice, but out of fear, and those fears are fully justified. I don’t want my story to be held up to critique another’s silence if they need to protect themselves first.

In fact, when cosplayer Bethany Maddock warned people about her harassment at NYCC on Facebook, she faced a variety of dismissive and victim-blaming comments from her followers:

I think if our both cases hadn’t been made public, then it would’ve been harder to convince the convention that what had happened wasn’t an isolated event that could be ignored or the unfortunate result of one guy’s “bad social skills” (which is terrible misconception that Jared Axelrod debunks quite nicely). Victims of harassment are targeted for one reason only: because the harassers want to target them. Enforcing a culture of “Victims Must Report!” as the only solution to harassment, however, could be used to further shame those who remain silent or blame them for being complicit in their own hurt.

The best reaction in cases of harassment, whether told privately to you or heard publicly, is to respect the victim’s wishes. That may be the hardest of all if you don’t personally agree with them, but it is also the most supportive you can be. If they speak up, support them. If they stay silent, support them. If they need to leave the space or the community where it had occurred, support them. Imposing your priorities upon a victim’s situation won’t help them live their life or move on afterwards.

There are other ways that fandom can be proactive that don’t place the onus of responsibility on the victim of harassment. Conventions need to have clearly-stated public policies against harassment and also include procedures of what will happen to those who violate it. A few months back, John Scalzi made a statement that he would not attend a convention that doesn’t supply one and created a thread that over 1,000 industry professionals and fans have co-signed in support. This prioritizes how community safety is everyone’s responsibility. There are also fan-created “watchdog” groups who monitor safety at conventions, such as the Back-up Project, Cosplay is Not Consent, The Order of the White Feather, and SFFEquality. Most importantly, though, we need to have a conversation about what it means to respect all the individuals within a community and not hide behind our geek identities as excuses to justify treating others badly. And we must promote the idea that perpetrators be held fully accountable for their actions.

18 Million Rising’s petition can be signed here; as of this morning, they need less than 250 more signatures to reach their goal. I’d also be interested in sharing ideas about creating safer convention spaces (or any geek space!) in the comments below.

Ay-leen the Peacemaker works at Tor Books, runs the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, pens academic things, and tweets. She also is a professional lecturer who travels across the United States and speaks about steampunk, fandom, and social issues. Her latest writing can be found in Anatomy of Steampunk: The Fashion of Victorian Futurism.


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