Sexual harassment in the convention community: A personal account

Every now and then an article will pop up about sexual harassment in the geek community; we have all seen them. Be it harassment in online gaming or at conventions, hundreds have weighed in on the topic. Blame has been cast on all sides and solutions of varying viability have been suggested. But there are still voices that cry out that sexual harassment isn’t a problem, or at the very least not a big one. They say that writers are just looking for scandal and that while sexual harassment does occur at conventions it is in no higher incidence than day to day life.

It is because these voices still exist that I want to tell my story.

I went to my very first convention when I was thirteen and have continued to attend at least two annually since then. Conventions still feel like one of the only places where I can be truly open about my interests and express my love for the various media that have inspired me throughout my life. It is a unique social experience where I can meet new people with similar interests and not be considered the weird girl for knowing more about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Silent Hill than Glee or Gossip Girl. Conventions are therapeutic, especially through the tough social years of high school where the smallest oddity can result in being completely ostracized. However, conventions are not the total safe haven for me as they can be to other people. Over the years, I’ve been the target of sexual harassment at a convention on several occasions. I’ve had my butt grabbed four times. My breasts were grabbed. I’ve had my bra strap snapped by a stranger. I’ve been pinned into a corner and was saved by a complete stranger. And men have placed their hands a bit too low for comfort when posing for photos and made lewd comments more times than I can remember. All of this has occurred in only seven years. Now, just to offer up a comparison to the rest of my life, I have only received three lewd comments and been touched inappropriately once outside of a convention.

Coach Aris’ sexual harassment of competitor Miranda during the Cross Assault tournament brought mainstream attention to the issue of sexual harassment in the geek community

Admittedly, this is only a single case study, but the evidence here is still pretty damning. There is something very wrong with convention culture. Inappropriate touching and provocative slurs are not the tip of the iceberg; I have personally had to care for a friend who was roofied at a convention in 2008. Though we had a very good idea of who the man responsible was, we had no evidence and nothing could be done.

And what has this done for women in the geek community? I constantly find myself taking precautions at conventions in order to avoid being touched. I refuse to give hugs to people when they ask. When men request a photo with me, I offer to take the photo back-to-back, or I stick out my arm and put my hand on my hip on the side that’s closest to him. It creates a barrier so that he has to put his arm around my shoulders, not my waist or hips. I also always try to have a male friend with me when I’m moving about the convention space, as all the sexual harassment I have received was when I was alone or with another girl. And the saddest thing is that all these measures come from a feeling of fear. Because of everything that’s happened over the years, I don’t feel safe at conventions. And that flies directly in the face of everything that a convention is supposed to be for its attendees.

Perhaps the most telling factor of all this abuse is that it always happens when I am in cosplay. Contrary to popular belief, it seems to have nothing to do with the “sluttiness” of my costume, as I never wear revealing cosplay and have even been sexually harassed when cosplaying a distinctively male character. I will not deny that wearing a costume to a convention invites attention. You are physically displaying your interests and devotion to those interests by spending time, effort, and cash on turning yourself into a character from someone’s intellectual property. So while cosplay is certainly a display of affection, it is not asking for them. Something about being in cosplay changes the way people look at you. It is almost like you are no longer a person; as a representation of something fictional, you have become an object. You are no longer treated like a real person in the same way that celebrities are sometimes objectified by fans.

And it doesn’t just happen to women. In the video above, Lucy Liu reveals how fans have asked her to spank them, and David Boreanaz tells how fans frequently ask him to bite them. In what other scenario could you imagine this being a common request to be receiving from complete strangers?

Ultimately, the issue of sexual harassment at conventions cannot be dismissed. We need to, as a community, acknowledge this issue and work together to change the factors that contribute to it. This is a problem that is spoiling everything that conventions are supposed to be: a safe, open environment where people can express their love of various media without fear of judgement or ridicule. But instead of celebrating our fandoms, we’re objectifying each other. I shouldn’t have to fear being touched when I pose for a photo. I should be able to walk around the convention on my own without concern. Tight corridors shouldn’t make me nervous at a con. This is a social condition that needs to be changed. We need to remember that people in cosplay are people first. They should never be treated as an object and a costume is not consent.

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  • Bambi Blue

    Second picture is broken.

    • Bambi Blue

      Also, under the video it says ‘Alex Boreanaz’ — should be David. (I’m sure it’s just a typo, not harping all fan-weird like, heh)

      • John Spartan

        Thanks and fixed!

  • Dr. Phil

    I don’t see a lot of sexual harrasment at cons. Just a lot of surprise buttseks

  • JWCamp

    Let’s see, women in video games tend to be portrayed in a sexist manner. Conventions have lots of scantily clad cosplayers and “booth babes.” Hmm, why is there sexual harassment and sexism at these conventions? Vexing, isn’t it?

  • Laura

    I agree. I don’t wear clothes that bring attention when I go to cosplay events (conventions and meetings), but man… the attention you do get anyways… it’s really disheartening. I feel for the girls who are revealing because they probably have it worse than me.

    But I honestly can see why… lots of comics and fandoms have women objectify… some men just don’t know the difference when interacting with a cosplayer dressed like that character. Comics need to tone it down too.

  • Nighthunter

    @JWCamp It still doesn’t excuse inappropriate behavior. Adult conventions pride themselves in the nature of their industry, and I’ve never seen/heard any problems with sexual assault there. Vexing, isn’t it?

  • eliter1

    I have been to SDCC for the past 4 years and I have seen a good amount of harassment. I don’t want to generalize but I think most of it is by non “fans”. What’s more annoying is how open some people are about it and either don’t care or think it’s right because they’re in a Con. I have seen people harass women while waiting to take a picture with them and it makes me uncomfortable and not want to take the picture anymore because I feel bad and just walk away. I have seen people trying to make women pose in a really uncomfortable position and said something 2 or 3 times and the people leave pissed off because they feel entitled. I think one problem is that some women feel uncomfortable or harassed and they don’t try to put a stop to it because they are trying to please people that they shouldn’t have to0.

    • Ryan

      The other thing would be, if I were to say something or step in. Then I look like the ass hole in that situation. Maybe I’m wrong? Some girls do just go along with it. I don’t understand why people have to act that way and be harassing. I’ve just recently gotten into cosplay and even though I’m a guy, I’ve been approached by some really stupid people. They ask for an interview or something and it’s literally a load of crap. The questions are of nothing relevant.

    • Genevieve LeBlanc

      I understand what you mean here, Eliter. Your examples are exactly what I’m talking about, and sadly most people feel too awkward to say anything when they either witness or are victimized by harassment. However, I can’t agree with your assesment that it is mostly “non-fans.” Most of my experiences have been at anime conventions which do not have a lot of “non-fans” the same way that comic-cons do. I think the nature of blamming outsiders rather than acknowledging that it comes from within our own community is an ultimately negative practice. This has been going on for too long for us to reasonably think that it’s the fault of a recent influx of people brought by the superhero blockbusters of the last decade.

      Thanks for you comment! I hope that in the future you will be comfortable enough to step up and call out these guys on what they’re doing. The only way we’ll stop this as a community is to be good samaritans and stop it ourselves. Call these guys out. And call out the girls that glomp on to guys without their permission. This isn’t okay.

  • turtle power gal

    Went to one convention and for that very reason I dont go to them anymore

  • FlynnzArkade

    First off: thanks for writing the article. A buddy of mine sent me the link in an email titled: “Dude can you believe this s***?!” Yeah dude I can. I stopped cosplaying a few years ago because of being “grabbed at.”

    Let’s face it, women ARE objectified in comics, anime and games and I don’t see that changing anytime soon, that’s fine those women FICTION (as stated in the article.) The living breathing replicas walking around the exhibition floor AREN’T. I really sympathize with the statements said here. I love going to conventions, but I don’t cosplay anymore and even then I don’t always feel 100% safe anymore. That makes me more sad than anything. Geeks are supposed to stick together and protect each other.

  • connor2k

    I am thinking of starting a bodyguard service at Cons. Anyone interested? Protect men or Women from the morons. I think this has a chance.

  • Tom Croom

    Our conventions (at Green Mustard Entertainment) keep an Anti-Harassment rule in our publications to make sure it is crystal clear that inappropriate behavior isn’t tolerated. Check out Rules #3 and #16

  • Robotto

    Luckily here in Spain we don’t see this kind of things too often, and actually they’re pretty unusual.

    Maybe because mediterranean girls are more hot-headed, or have that strong character, I don’t know the reason, but if a random man tries to touch a girl’s butt be sure she will raise her voice and probably her hand to that said dude.

    You American girls (and boys!) are quite strong too, do not let anyone to touch you or make you feel uncomfortable. Do not be ashamed of being rude to someone who is harassing you, because it is definitely not your faut.

    Cons are for fun, to spend your time together with other people who like the same things like you, so having a bad time just because some people is unable to behave is just unacceptable.

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