MariNaomi's first-person testimony of being sexually harassed onstage during a convention panel made the rounds of the comics blogsphere Thursday like lightning. Heidi MacDonald wrote about it at The Beat, and shortly afterward veteran writer Scott Lobdell outed himself as the person MariNaomi was talking about and publicly apologized. Usually when Heidi speaks on an issue like this, I don't have much to add, but what struck me about the incident is that it's a textbook case of something that happens to women all the time, and that many men, even those of good will, don't always understand.
Sexual harassment is a difficult topic, and sometimes we tie ourselves up in knots trying to define and discuss it. But in MariNaomi's account of the panel, it was very clear: Her harasser wasn't just making some crude sexual jokes, he was ignoring what MariNaomi was saying and drawing attention away from it by focusing on her sexuality as a woman. He was denying everything about her except one aspect, her sexual attractiveness. That's what sexual harassment is about.
It's not necessarily about trying to pick up someone; that happens between consenting adults all the time. It's not about dirty jokes, either. In context, with the right people, those can be fine.
It's about not regarding women as full, complete people on an equal footing with men. It's about not listening to what a woman has to say and focusing instead on her physical attributes. Pickup lines and dirty jokes are just the tools a sexual harasser uses to do the real job: belittling the other person.
If that still isn't clear, ask yourself if it's OK to belittle anybody. The answer is simple: It isn't. Sexual harassment is bad behavior — behavior that would be bad in any context — that's directed at someone because of his or her gender or sexuality. And this happens because somehow the person doing the harassing thinks it's OK, because the other person really doesn't count. No one pulls this nonsense on someone he regards as a peer.
Here's a thought experiment: Suppose Lobdell had been sitting next to Mark Waid at that panel about LGBT comics. Would he ignore what Waid was saying and make comments about his appearance instead? Would he ask him if he's gay? I think not.
The discussion that followed on The Beat illustrated a serious disconnect. The very first commenter on the original post is a straight white male protesting that all straight white males are not like that. He's reacting to Heidi's offhand comment that the (at that time) unnamed harasser "certainly stood in very well for straight guys everywhere." The thread then got more or less hijacked by straight guys complaining about being put upon.
That's a straw man argument and a distraction; no one is seriously saying all men are like that. Most men, in the comics industry and outside of it, are respectful and professional. I have never had a problem with sexual harassment at a comics convention. I'm married to a straight white male, and he's awesome. But this is a problem we can't talk about without bringing gender into the conversation, because it rests on inequality that's rooted in gender.
Sometimes there are things that you don't see, that you don't understand, because they've never happened to you. You may not see what the big deal is, but it's a big deal to the person it's happening to. It's infuriating to be put down, ignored, made fun of, in any circumstances, and that happens to women all the time, from getting yelled at on the street to being ignored or passed over for a job because we're not one of the guys. We lose a lot of time and energy being angry about it and getting over it and moving on. It would be helpful if the men who never would do those things would nonetheless understand that it happens and listen to us when we talk about it. And from that, learn what it is and call people on it when they do it.
That last point is crucial. Often a word from someone they respect — "Hey, that's not cool" — will make someone realize what they're doing is, in fact, not cool. That awareness is the necessary first step in changing the social norm. In addition, I would hope that anyone in a position of authority would make it clear to their employees and creators that bad behavior is unprofessional, hurts the company brand and won't be tolerated.
On the other hand, it's not helpful to try to analyze incidents of sexual harassment logically, something the armchair attorneys do a lot of on the Internet. It's emotional, not logical. At some point in the comments at The Beat, someone asked why MariNaomi didn't object while all this was happening. The answer is that she was caught off guard, and she was up on a public stage, but there's something more. MariNaomi wasn't sure at first what was going on, which is pretty typical. The thing about sexual harassment is that it's often ambiguous, and the harasser cloaks everything in jokes, so not only can he belittle you, he can accuse you of having no sense of humor if you object. You become the bad guy.
An aside here: While I've never been sexually harassed at a comics convention, I have been sexually harassed in other circumstances. It's awful, and part of the awfulness is that I ended up thinking "Did that just happen? Am I losing my mind?" One natural reaction to that is simply to deny it and go on like it didn't happen, and even go back into the situation because maybe if you do and it doesn't happen again, it didn't really happen in the first place, and you can erase it. Attempts to parse these situations logically always seem to end up blaming the victim for not reacting properly, or exonerating the harasser because it's really hard to pin this behavior down with words. It's not a constructive approach.
That said, I'd like to end with a plea to the women to cut the guys a bit of a break. In some recent cases, the man involved has come clean and apologized. It's a step in the right direction, and beating up on them because the apology isn't good enough may be counterproductive. If it's genuine and from the heart, perhaps we should accept it and move on, even if it doesn't hit every point we would like it to. Deep change doesn't come overnight; it's a process, and maybe we need to allow a bit of space for that process to get started.