On three separate occasion in my life at scifi/gaming conventions, someone I tangentially knew and who I was not even vaguely in a romantic or even potentially romantic relationship with gabbed my ass. I don’t mean brushed by me, I mean got their fingers deep in a cheek and checked for ripeness. Each time, I was shocked and horrified. each time, I didn’t say a damn thing about it. This may, in fact, be the first time I’ve ever discussed it publicly–I’m genuinely not sure.
These harassers were of different ages, genders, and stations of power. To this day I have no idea what their goal or thinking was, if any. In at least one case, alcohol was involved. Maybe for all three, I do not know. Two of them are dead now, and one no longer able to go to conventions for various reasons. And, that third one later apologized, and I believe did the work needed to earn my forgiveness. This article isn’t about that. It’s about making sure people know and accept that sexual and emotional assault in public geek spaces is real, and we need as a culture to ask ourselves what we are doing about it.
I’m a 400-500 lb man, depending on when you catch me. If I can be a target of abuse, anyone can be. And while these assaults affected me, at no point did I have concern for my physical well-being, security, reputation, or other relationships. That is very much not true for a lot of targets of abuse and harassment. A lot of my reaction to these assaults stemmed from the fact I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. In therapy and support groups, I have been told over and over that abusers are good at identifying survivors they can target without much pushback. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it might explain why anyone would harass me.
You know — pure evil and sadism.
As I write this, Gen Con just ended. I have always had an amazing time at Gen Con (although, yes, one of the events I am describing took place there, back when it was in Milwaukee, so those amazing times are mixed with other stuff too). But already, less than a week after it ended, there are both public reports and people talking to me in private about harassment and abuse that took place at the convention. And, of course, there are people publicly scoffing at the idea that someone might be assaulted, frightened, or threatened by an event that took place just the past weekend.
If you didn’t see it or hear about it, all that means is, well, you didn’t see it or hear about it. But it is happening, and I don’t have some brilliant or universal solution to offer to stop it. But I do know that dismissing or ignoring it is going to make it worse. And, to be very clear, this is not a Gen Con-specific problem. All gatherings have their predators and broken stairs (and if you don’t know what I mean by “broken stair” in the context of industry abusers, go do some research. It’s been discussed, a lot, by people smarter and more experienced than me, and you should be up to speed on those discussions if you want to have any chance of understanding the problem enough to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem). Bigger gatherings (and, I suspect, ones with people from more different places, which are often the same thing) may have more actual events, but that may be just the same percentage with a bigger population.
The second half of this issue, beyond “acknowledge this is real,” is to talk about what we, all, as part of the community are going to do about it. What policies do companies and organizations have in place? How are we making it clear to abusers and potential abusers that this behavior is not acceptable? Why are people still pressuring attendees in public, professional, or work environments to engage in unwanted, undesired behavior and conduct?
This is not the end of that process for me, but it’s part of it. To stand up and say loudly yes, people are abused. Yes, some of them aren’t talking about it, or won’t for years, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t an issue. It’s real. I have seen it. I have even been a target of it, in discrete cases. but I have also stood next to people in this industry who don’t have some of the unearned advantages and privileges I do, and for too many of them harassment is part of the background radiation of their life.
That can’t be considered acceptable.