In recent years, harassment at conventions has become more visible due to a combination of factors including increased conversation over social media and cons more prominently displaying harassment policies. (You can read New York Comic-Con’s new harassment policy, co-written by The Mary Sue.) Twenty-five percent of women at cons have reported being sexually harassed, while 8% of con attendees of all genders have reported being groped, assaulted, or raped at the events. (More statistics here.)
At #YesAllGeeks: Let’s Talk About Harassment in Fandom, one of NYCC’s several panels emphasizing diversity and empathy, panelists discussed the contributing factors toward harassment at cons, and how to call it out.
Pulling from their discussion, here are some guidelines to keep in mind as a con attendee, whether you’re a bystander witnessing harassment, or someone who might (intentionally or not) harass a fellow geek.
Tor Books editor Diana Pho (you might also know her as Ay-leen the Peacemaker) moderated a panel including:
- Robert Anders, RN NP-C
- Mikki Kendall
- Marlene Bonnelly
- our very own Emily Asher-Perrin
- Kane M. (digital correspondent)
What constitutes harassment, and how is it different from bullying?
One reason that Kendall gave for why harassment doesn’t get reported as often as it should is that the victims might assume “just because someone said something one time, it’s not harassment.” Yet these behaviors repeat over and over—either the offender commits the same harassment against multiple people, or encounters the same victim at multiple cons.
Anders explained how harassment (especially repeated incidents) can poison people’s inner monologues, creating long-lasting effects on one’s schooling, professional life, and other spheres.
Asher-Perrin noted a “distinct similarity” between the harassment and bullying: “It involves making sure that someone doesn’t feel like a person—turning them into an object to be derided, to be spoken of or viewed in a certain way. You are taking something away from them.”
Should harassment be considered a personal drama or a public mental health issue?
Harassment is very subtle, Kendall pointed out, especially if the offender has a pattern down. Outsiders might dismiss it as a personal issue between two people—similar to domestic abuse accusations, Asher-Perrin pointed out. After repeated instances of tolerating the incidents, the victim finally lashes out—when that outburst is what we see, we interpret it as a private, personal drama.
Pho chimed in that these incidents don’t just highlight issues between two people, but general problematic cultural attitudes we have towards women, sexuality, ability, and more.
What factors in fan communities might generate certain types of harassment? What about the structures of these communities can be changed?
Kendall cited a mantra from her writing in feminist circles: “Believe the victim.” Even if his or her account is later disproved, it’s the best place to start. (False allegations make up a very small percentage, fewer than 1% of situations.) This can be a difficult notion to uphold when the offender is someone you know, or someone you’ve never had a problem with.
Bonnelly called for a zero-tolerance policy when witnessing harassment in real life.
What are online and offline resources for handling harassment?
There must be a clear code of conduct, Kendall said: “We laugh off bad social graces in geek spaces” but “we need to come to some mutual agreement in public spaces… so people know what’s acceptable and cannot say they didn’t know.”
“Having a policy and not enforcing it in some ways can be more demeaning to the person who brings up the charges of harassment,” Anders said, “because they feel there should be a system in place, and it’s failed them.”
What about people who use reverse racism or reverse sexism as justification for bad behavior?
Bonnelly said that she doesn’t believe in reverse racism, “just because I think the word ‘racism’ covers all the bases.”
“Anyone can be prejudiced,” Kendall said, “but structural, institutional racism requires power that tends to tilt the scales in one very significant direction in America.” But “sometimes you’re an asshole, and somebody got mad at you,” and it’s not about racism at all.
If I’m a bystander witnessing harassment, what should I do?
“The most important thing in any situation where you witness something is, check in with the victim,” Asher-Perrin said. Often in incidents of harassment, the victim will freeze up, not believing it’s happening, and not react. By stepping up, you prove that someone else saw what happened.
Anders stole a line from an EMT textbook in his advice: “Make sure you yourself are safe.”
While the panel didn’t take any questions from the audience, they did answer several Twitter questions posed with the hashtag #YesAllGeeks:
What has contributed to the recent spotlight on harassment?
“People who are being victimized are using a megaphone they didn’t have,” Kendall said of Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media platforms. Fandoms tend to uphold their communities, but now people are realizing that problem people in fandoms might have left other fandoms for similar issues.
Do you think the escapism and fantasy of geek culture leads to harassment?
“I have heard of instances where that is the case,” Kendall said. “I know there was an incident at NYCC a few years ago where someone [cosplaying as] Deadpool got a little too in-character… but I think most fans, in my instance, know the distinction well enough to keep the character separate from the person.”
“That’s an excuse,” Asher-Perrin said. “When people want to harass someone, they will find a reason. There’s always a reason.”
Can we do anything about harassment before it happens?
Make it clear that such behavior won’t be tolerated, Kendall said—say it and mean it. “I know we like to pretend like kicking someone out of a con or fandom is like they’re drawn-and-quartered,” she said, “but all you’ve done is make sure they can’t come to your party again… We do that in our house, why wouldn’t we do it in our fandom?”
What can men do to support harassment victims at cons?
“The same thing everyone else can do,” Asher-Perrin said. The question highlights one of the issues of harassment—the assumption that all victims are women. Male victims are often more ashamed to speak up; but again, believe the victim. “Everyone should be informed and available for everyone else,” Bonnelly said.
How can we prevent victim-blaming?
Asher-Perrin pointed out that harassers are “terrified to apologize, because if they apologize, that somehow means they’re a horrible person and there’s nothing redeeming about them. If we can indicate better to people, ‘You need to apologize and indicate what you did was wrong,’ if we can teach people to say, ‘I’m sorry, I messed up, I mean it,’ that’s gonna help the conversation a lot, and that will help a lot of these instances going forward.”
It’s never the victim’s fault—no matter, Kendall reiterated, if they don’t fit within your moral framework for what makes a “respectable” person. “They’re still not supposed to be a target,” she said. “No one ever deserves it.”
You can check out the entire #YesAllGeeks presentation, plus a list of resources, on Beyond Victoriana!
Natalie Zutter writes plays about superheroes and sex robots, articles about celebrity conspiracy theories, and Tumblr rants about fandom. You can find her commenting on pop culture and giggling over Internet memes on Twitter.