Conventions are truly a sight to behold. The throngs of people milling about, enjoying and reveling in cosplay, panels, and discovery. People are filled with a wonderful frenetic energy and palpable excitement, but too often this energy can gloss over a serious problem still facing many convention-goers. Sexual harassment remains a troubling component of convention culture and with New York City Comic Con just a few short weeks away, it’s a topic worth revisiting.
Over the Labor Day weekend author Jess Nevins, perhaps best known for his annotations for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, published a blog detailing the results of an informal survey on sexual harassment within the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) community. Conducted over the course of two weeks, the survey revealed what many have already known or feared: sexual harassment remains an ongoing and troubling problem at conventions, within the workplace, and online.
Sexual harassment is a global issue affecting how people work, live, and their quality of life. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey on online harassment, nearly four-in-ten Americans have personally experienced some kind of harassment online. One-in-five Americans have been subjected to more serious forms of harassment including stalking, sexual harassment, and physical threats. Women and minorities were harassed more often than other groups. Within the workplace, an April 2017 YouGov poll, revealed one-in-three American women had experienced harassment. The issue of sexual harassment may extend beyond the comics and SFF communities but we have a duty to our community and those in it to stop and prevent it from happening.
Sexual Harassment: Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. –Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Speaking over email about what spurred the creation of the survey, Jess Nevins says he was troubled by stories of harassment from convention-goers and recent revelations concerning well-known Science Fiction writer’s history of groping. Most troubling for Nevins was that many were aware of this individual’s behavior but decided not to step in to stop or prevent it. Nevins’ survey is one in a series of articles in recent years which illuminate the issue of harassment at conventions.
Each convention season brings a fresh wave of articles about harassment and consent. In 2013, essayist Elise Matthesen shared her experience of sexual harassment at WisCon. Matthesen’s detailed accounting of what it was like to report the incident to officials was a revelation, highlighting the often inadequate reporting and enforcement mechanisms in place to prosecute those accused of harassment.
Writing for Bitch Media, Janelle Asselin detailed the results of her survey about sexual harassment in comics conducted in 2014. Of the 3,6000 responses the majority (59%) agreed harassment was an issue. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed reported experiencing sexual harassment themselves. Harassment at conventions was discussed again in 2015 with a piece appearing in the Los Angeles Times and once again in 2016, this time on the website Gizmodo. Despite this greater awareness, the establishment of zero-tolerance harassment policies, organizations like Cosplay is NOT Consent and the BackUp Ribbon Project, the results of Nevins survey suggest too little has changed. When asked for his opinion on what the survey indicates about where the breakdown of communication regarding what sexual harassment is and how to stop it, Nevins said the following:
“I refuse to believe that there aren’t male witnesses to the harassment and groping. I think men just aren’t taking action when it happens, and that’s where the failure is occurring. I think conventions could do a better job of regulation and enforcement, but I think men need to do a far, far better job of policing each other.”
Nevins believes more widespread adoption of zero-tolerance policies and increased security presence could help deter would-be harassers. Prevention, however, must go beyond convention season. The science fiction and comics community must be less hospitable to harassers. “I’d like to see the industry as a whole take a firmer stance with harassers.” Nevins stressed the role employers play in this, “Don’t enable them by letting them work for you after they’ve been harassing fans and authors; fire them!”
Giant cosplay is not consent sign right by the NYCC entrance. Very nice. pic.twitter.com/QGu1qhci6N
— Brian Dorfman (@bdorfman) October 9, 2014
Everyone has a role to play in preventing and stopping sexual harassment, especially men who implicitly enable harassment through inaction and silence. It’s up to us to believe victims who report harassment and this is especially true for convention organizers. Nevins says he was troubled by the number of survey responses which included comments about convention-goers being dismissed by staff after reporting harassment. To improve reporting mechanisms, Nevins suggests convention organizers provide extra sensitivity training, add more women to convention security, and strictly enforce all posted policies.
Abusers hide in plain sight. Harassers rely on the silence of those around them and societies prevailing sexist attitudes. They take advantage of weak reporting mechanisms and the culture of shame and fear that surrounds sexual abuse. The good news is we can all do something about it. We can call our harassers and demand accountability at our places of work and shared community spaces. Most importantly we can believe victims, full stop. Victims are never to blame for the actions of their harassers. To help prevent and stop sexual harassment we must eradicate the environment would-be harassers live in and thrive on.
“SFF, like comics, has a structural problem, where men in power abuse that power and are allowed to do so by both fans and other people in power. Structural problems are best addressed by other people in power. Sure, I’d like to see the average fanboy be on the look -out for gropers–but we need publishers to fire editors who harass, not just ignore the complaints about them.”
For more information about New York City Comic Con’s anti-harassment policy click here.
Andrea Ayres writes about comics and representation in pop-culture.