ECCC: Understanding Harassment in Geek Culture

Walking into this year's Emerald City Comicon, it was immediately clear that its organizers were taking a firm stance on the pervasive harassment that has plagued conventions in the past. While other shows have come under fire for their lack of informational resources and overly tolerant responses toward harassment, Emerald City had an obvious plan to enforce its harassment prevention policy. Signs proclaiming, "Costumes Are Not Consent" were visible all over the convention center as tacit reminders for guests to be respectful of one another. The signs included informational resources for anyone being harassed, stating explicitly where to go and who could help. While though this year's ECCC had an incredibly positive feeling, there remain opportunities to improve spaces within geek culture to be inclusive, safe places for everyone -- a process that begins by identifying the problems.

Saturday morning, a panel of writers, editors and geek culture enthusiasts explored the topic of harassment in an incredibly full room of con-goers. Moderated by Geek Portland founder Kenna Conklin, the panel included Rachel Edidin, a writer/editor who has advocated for anti-harassment resources in the comics/gamer communities, Bobby Roberts, a pop-culture writer for The Portland Mercury, Laura Hudson, a WIRED writer known for her writing about pop culture gender issues, and Janelle Asselin, editor and writer who focuses on feminist issues.

Conklin opened the discussion by asking the simplest and most difficult question -- what is harassment?

Edidin eagerly responded, flipping open her ECCC program, which contained an outstanding definition. "Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, appearance, body size and religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact and unwelcome sexual attention."

With the terms clear of what constituted harassment, the panelists began exploring ways to handle it, including how to process what just happened, how to create safe spaces and what to do if you experience or witness unacceptable behavior.

"There's an impulse for a lot of women in particular to dismiss what's happened, to convince yourself that it wasn't that big of a deal," Hudson began. "Sometimes I talk to women after things have happened and it's almost their reflex response -- this happened, but it wasn't a big deal. It's fine. But is it really fine? Or are they just saying that to smooth things over?"

She continued, affirming that acknowledging harassing behavior as a problem is the first step. "Give yourself permission to be uncomfortable and to tell other people that you're uncomfortable. It's okay to do that!"

Many people find it difficult to vocalize when they've experienced harassment, especially since our culture can be so quick to victim-blame. Hudson shared her thoughts about the challenges behind drawing attention to harassment as well as the potential risks of silence. "It can be hard to speak up when something bad has happened," she said. "It can be really intimidating to say something, and then you feel ashamed because you haven't spoken up, and that becomes self-defeating."

"Then it becomes this thing where you feel like if you didn't speak up and something happens again, it's gotta be a lot worse to justify speaking up because you've already said that this is the bar I'll tolerate," Edidn offered in agreement. "That's something I think ends up reinforced, deliberately or not, by a lot of the discussion around harassment."

Something that threw Edidin, who has a background in assault advocacy working with survivors of sexual violence, was how conversations around the topics could be great for support and for points of identification, but that they can also normalize the harassing experiences. "I remember having creepy shit happen at conventions and thinking, 'Oh, this isn't so bad. I know so many people who've had worse things happen.'"

Hudson agreed, sharing that cultural norms can make room for unwanted touching -- for example, hugging strangers as a greeting, or assuming that people dressed like football players would consent to having their butts slapped. "Touching women is, surprisingly, a cultural norm that's a lot more acceptable than touching men," she began. "I've definitely had a lot of experiences, and there are times where it doesn't bother me, but I've had strangers touch me in situations where I think they wouldn't do it with men. There's more of a sense with women that there's an innate permission to do that. Interrogating ourselves about that -- as women and men -- is important to do. Why do I feel like I can touch this person, or why do I feel like this person can touch me? If I feel uncomfortable, is that me? Am I the problem?"

Violating cultural norms can create conflict, and speaking up about it can draw attention to something that can be easily dismissed by other people not sharing a lateral level of discomfort -- which is problematic in its own right. "Recognizing that it shouldn't be a normal thing to walk up to a woman you don't know and touch her," hudson said. "Ask yourself -- would you do that if it were a man? A lot of times, the answer is no."

Edidin shifted the conversation from convention goers to creators and professionals, who experience plenty of non-consensual touching from fans. "I've heard a lot of unwanted touching, specifically and across gender lines, from creators and people working at cons. The economy of conventions specifically leads to the assumption that there are people who are there as public commodities. It relates really, really heavily to harassment of cosplayers and the idea that somehow, by coming in costume, they implicitly become public commodity."

Cosplay boundaries were specifically addressed in the fliers around the con, and have been a heated topic of discussion for years. Both professional and amateur cosplayers tend to be the subject of convention photography -- both consensual and non-consensual. Their amazing outfits draw attention, and people want to admire the hard work -- but some people want to do it in a really creepy way. The panelists talked about good habits for asking anyone before taking their picture, making sure to maintain respectful boundaries and not making assumptions about anyone's personal character based on their clothing. When a point about self-managing space for people who aren't aware of appropriate boundaries came up, Edidin chimed in with an excellent thought.

"I think the onus needs to be on the people who are crossing the line. Cosplayers shouldn't have to do that. The lesson isn't, 'If you're a cosplayer, this is what you do to protect yourself.' The lesson is, 'If you want to touch a cosplayer, or anyone else, just ask.'"

Hudson agreed, adding that it was important to ask such questions in a way that makes it okay to say no. "There are ways to ask really loaded questions, like, 'It's fine if I do this, right?' and that's not really asking."

Roberts encouraged challenging the assumptive permissiveness that people operate on. "It's a matter of questioning if the behavior that you're about to engage in is behavior you would engage in anywhere else. Just because they're wearing a costume doesn't negate the fact that they are people underneath, who have to go home, and right before they go to sleep at night are going to remember what happened that day. It would be nice if the memories that are flitting behind their eyelids as they are closing weren't gross ones that made them feel sad."

"Your enjoyment should never come at the expense of another human being's," he concluded as the audience applauded.

Hudson confronted misperceptions about the motivation behind cosplay, namely the assumption that they are doing it solely for attention. "I think it's better," Hudson stated, "to assume that they are doing it for themselves. Most of the women I know who cosplay do it because they love it. Treating them like that isn't true, like their passion isn't authentic, is insulting."

Asselin shared a story of her first time cosplaying at a convention where she dressed up as a gender-swapped Doctor of "Doctor Who." She was surprised by the amount of people who approached her in an unpleasant way to ask for photos as well as for her personal email address so they could send them to her for her modeling profile -- which she doesn't have. "Why do you think we even care about modeling?" she asked. "And no, I'm not giving you my personal email."

Edidin mentioned that even if a cosplayer does dress up for attention, there's nothing wrong with that. No matter what a person's motivations are behind their appearance, no one is entitled to take liberties that infringe upon their sense of well-being. In short: no one is asking for negative attention, and no one deserves to be touched without consent. "Dressing in something to deliberately attract attention and to look attractive isn't evil and doesn't mean that you are inviting or requesting boundary violations," she said.

Roberts asked a question of the panelists: How do you check it when people get nasty? How do you correct people behaving unacceptably, even if they aren't aware that their actions aren't okay?

"The first thing I say is that everyone has a fundamental right to do what makes them feel safe," Hudson answered. "You are not required to confront anyone, particularly in anyway you feel would make you feel unsafe or provoke a potentially violent response."

"Ideally, the onice should not be on you to alter your behavior to respond to harassment, but given that, this isn't an ideal world," Edidin added.

"A lot of it depends on people's comfort," Hudson continued. "You can always walk away. You don't owe anybody, especially some random jerk, your time. Sometimes that might be the best situations."

Conklin steered the discussion forward toward solutions, asking the panelists to share ideas about constructive steps to take after harassment has occurred.

Edidin spoke about bystander resources for anyone witnessing harassment. "The first thing I would say is to make sure everyone involved is physically safe. Ask if everyone is okay, do they need anything, do they need you to call someone. If you've been harassed or attacked, check in with yourself to find out what you need to do or where you need to go to feel safe and think about what you want to do next."

Hudson spoke to being a good support to friends who are harassed, including finding out what people need to feel safe as well as what their options for resolution are. Edidin mentioned that by sharing that you've experienced something scary and asking to step behind a professional's table, you are less physically vulnerable and can take a moment to collect your thoughts.

In terms of addressing the sources of harassment, panelists began to share what sort of behavioral expectations, examples and norms needed to be adjusted going forward.

Hudson shared an example from earlier in the year, when she was at a game developer's conference in San Francisco. An audience member used sexist language, possibly unknowingly, while asking a question of panelists and was met with boos from the audience. "The coolest thing was that the whole room reacted with displeasure," she said. "From the look on his face, you could tell that he knew he messed up. He ended up apologizing and I thought it was such a powerful exercise of different norms. There are spaces and conventions where that would've just slid by. There was a prevailing sense in that room that what was just said was way out of bounds."

"That comes down to the voices in authority," Edidin said, meaning that the people in positions of power (either direct or implied) in these situations set the bar for what appropriate behavior looks like. 
Conklin posed another question, asking for people who are open to modifying their behavior but need to develop an understanding about the changing cultural landscape, what are some resources for learning more?

"There is an element of self-awareness in it," Roberts replied. "People don't like to believe at any point that they could be construed as 'the bad guy.' That's where a lot of the initial pushback comes from. We're trying to change the atmosphere so that people do realize when someone comes up to the microphone to ask a question, and they ask it terribly using really demeaning language that doesn't even occur to them as demeaning -- we're trying to change that atmosphere. They feel bad and their initial reaction is to come up with other examples of someone else doing it. I think it's a matter of realizing that you can make a mistake. We've all made mistakes, and I used to be that dumb, thoughtless moron. It's a slow motion, uphill fight. It's not going to be an instant victory." 
Roberts continued, addressing the misperception that in order to have fun, people need to be able to behave however they want without regard to the fun other people are having. "Changing that behavior isn't going to diminish the fun they're going to have. 'It's not going to be as fun if I don't get to say the horrible thing I wanted to say.' No, its probably going to be more fun because now you're not pushing half the population away from you like a Heisman trophy."

Hudson added that sexism isn't a binary. "There isn't a group of people who are never sexist and people who are totally sexist," she said. "I have said and done things that are sexist in the past, and that's because we live in a culture that is sexist, and that infuses a lot of how we think and what we do. That doesn't make me history's greatest villain, but it does mean you have to be aware of it. If you realize you've done something sexist, it's not okay, but realize that it's something you need to think about and work on. We all do."

The conversation turned to deconstructing a person's identity from their potentially problematic behavior and what can be done to shift mindsets.

Asselin mentioned the place of privilege harassers come from, where they feel like they have a right to other people's bodies. "For everyone, it's an evolution of checking your own privilege and realizing your own assumptions about who you are and who other people are, and learning to be a better human. Once you start that evolution, it's pretty hard to stop it."

"I've had a lot of guys ask me what they can do," Hudson said, agreeing with Asselin. "One thing that I've been thinking often that's important is that I'd love to see more men talking to other men, especially in strongly masculine cultures.

"It doesn't mean you need to use the language we use," she continued. "You are the best gauge of your friends and what words they will respond to. But starting that conversation is important. Hearing it from other men is important."

Roberts contributed his own points of frustration about conversations with men. "One of the phrases I've come to despise is the term 'white knight.' If you are a guy who is trying to get your guys friends to maybe not be so liberal with their sexist or homophobic terminology, because it's a bummer to hang out with people who are being really exclusionary, if you're going to try and course-correct them and course-correct themselves so they realize it, you're going to have phrases like 'white knight' thrown at you. You're going to have your masculinity questioned. And so what? There are degrees of confidence at play here, and you've got to put in the work to realize that the course you're taking is the correct one."

Hudson agreed, advocating for people to deconstruct the depressing notion that men only help women for sexual gain. "I don't think it's true at all," she said.

Edidin spoke about the default assumptions as far as gender and default populations in the nerd community. "There's an overwhelming sense that when I say 'geek,' there's a 'male' in parenthesis next to it. Because of that tacit assumption in communities, conventions and industries, there's a sense that women are perennially 'other.' They are interlopers. That's true of people of color, queer people -- anyone that doesn't fit a specific mold."

Edidin praised her experiences at the Carol Corps meet up Thursday night, where partygoers happily shared their interests without the nasty, competitive, nerdier-than-thou hierarchy commonly encountered. She admired how the gender lines were absent, with both men and women sharing a space based on their common interests. She closed the panel by saying, "Seeing that in a room with 250 people at a sold-out event makes me more optimistic about that shift on a larger scale."

Her advice? "Watch what they're doing; do that stuff."

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