It’s not just about feminism, it’s about safety.

The current top two posts at Rachel Edidin’s blog highlight a problem that I think has been coming to a head for some time. Comic and pop culture conventions are becoming less of a safe and accepting environment, and are increasingly a place for some people to abuse and harass women.

Rachel recounts a personal incident in which a guy at Comic-Con International in San Diego, carrying a “free hugs” sign, approaches her for a hug despite overwhelming objection and, short of a violent response, resistance. I remember seeing these things unfolding at the Con: Wednesday night, I saw one guy carrying a “Free High Fives!” sign, which got a lot of laughs and a generally positive response. By another day, there were plenty of imitators. By Saturday, things were starting to get out of hand–plenty of “Free Hugs,” “Free Glomps,” “Free Lovin'” and the like. Despite my misgivings, there wasn’t any particular official response from the Con. I wondered whether it would only be a matter of time, and other bloggers have done a bit to keep this story alive.

Secondly, Rachel and others repost a piece from Comics Oughta Be Fun discussing outright abusive behavior at Comic-Con, and the absence of an organized, official response to the problem:

Overheard at San Diego Comic-Con while I was having lunch on the balcony of the Convention Center on Sunday July 27: a bunch of guys looking at the digital photos on the camera of another, while he narrated: “These were the Ghostbusters girls. That one, I grabbed her ass, ’cause I wanted to see what her reaction was.” This was only one example of several instances of harassment, stalking or assault that I saw at San Diego this time.

[…]

I don’t understand why there’s no such written policy about what is not tolerated and what to do when this happens. Is there anyone at Comic-Con able to explain this? Does a similar written policy exist in the booklets for other conventions (SF, comics or otherwise) that could be used as a model? Can it be adapted or adapted, and enforced, for Comic-Con? As the leading event of the comics and pop culture world, Comic-Con should work to make everyone who attends feel comfortable and safe.

There’s a lot of avenues to discussing the feminist ramifications of all of this. The convention environment objectifies and sexualizes women as a way to attract increasingly fickle and distracted eyes on the exhibit floor. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to dress sexy in an environment where one could draw a lot of personal attention, or with wanting to create good, sophisticated sexually-oriented artwork.

However, any discussion about how sexualization and objectification contribute to abusive and negative behavior is entirely beside the point that this is a major safety issue. Comic-Con doesn’t really have policies or guidelines for addressing this sort of behavior, and the convention staff and security don’t really seem oriented towards handling this.

I think that’s an oversight from the convention organizers, but not a malicious one.  I suspect that the organizers of Comic-Con genuinely try to keep everyone’s best interests at heart, but in an environment increasingly focused on heavyweight Hollywood media promotion, I can imagine the difficulty at micromanaging smaller aspects of the convention.

Still, I hope this is something they can address before next year, instead of waiting for these nuisances to escalate to a serious incident.

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7 responses to “It’s not just about feminism, it’s about safety.

  1. Thank you for the link, and for continuing the conversation about something I think desperately needs more public discussion.

    Probably worth noting that gender isn’t the only factor that plays into sexual harassment at cons–women of color often find themselves facing a whole additional spectrum of nastiness and entitlement:

    http://www.digitalfemme.com/journal/index.php?itemid=932
    http://delux-vivens.livejournal.com/801997.html
    http://delux-vivens.livejournal.com/805218.html

    Which goes a way toward explaining the con organizers’ neglect of this issue so far. Until we’re confronted with it, most of us never even see this stuff as needing to be explicitly forbidden, because it’s so far beyond what we think of as acceptable behavior. And how much we recognize at all will depend on how much of it applies to us. Cheryl Lynn’s story floored me, because she describes something I’ve never had to deal with directly–which I’d been privileged enough to able to cheerfully fail to notice until someone said “Stop and look.”

    Which, at this point, is what we need to do. Con organizers (for the most part) aren’t malevolent, but sometimes it takes that “Stop and look” to break through the haze of good intentions.

  2. Thanks for the very fascinating links. I’m a white male, so I can at least be sympathetically aware of sexual harassment and discrimination against white women, but it’s much harder–although I’m certainly as sympathetic–to perceive problems along the same lines for women of color.

    As obnoxious as people carrying signs could be at Comic-Con, I couldn’t imagine the grief an African-American guy would have received for carrying or responding to one of those signs. White and male still sadly seems to be the default fan experience, with women grist for fantasy and objectification–women are the ones that dress in “sexy” costumes, while even men who dress in revealing costumes aren’t truthfully considered to be “sexy.”

    As an aside, Rachel–It’s a shame I never got to say hello in San Diego. I was trying to meet as many Comics Scholars List denizens as possible.

  3. >sigh< – I’ve been reading comics for twenty years now and sadly I see the stunted emotional behavior of many in the comics field. When I take my GF into any comic store I make sure and look over my shoulder and remind her that the guys that work at these places don’t get out much and don’t really know alot about women. She’s hot, and it’s a spontaneous freak out everytime. My Ex works at DC – we don’t speak anymore – but I’d really like to hear some of her stories. Thanks for the post…

  4. Thanks for focusing on the safety issue. It seems people easily forget that women’s taste for things like comics and comics conventions are shaped by brass tacks issues like safety, which unfortunately must take precedence over issues like interest or appreciation. If comics industry people want more women involved, they need to prove it, and step one is dealing with basic safety issues.

  5. @Cisco and Theresa–

    Sorry I hadn’t addressed your comments sooner. Beginnings of the school semester are busy times. Any rate…

    Cisco:
    I think everybody’s pointed out the issues women have with comic shops, and I don’t deny that’s an issue. I think the conventions are a bit more of a risk zone, because there’s a much larger space and population involved. There’s just an attitude from too many people that conventions are a place to go to act on the impulse to take advantage of people.

    However, there needs to be a movement towards inclusion in fan culture, which goes all the way top-to-bottom. Thanks for the comment 🙂

    Teresa:
    I agree, I think safety should come before the inevitable tendency to analyze or point fingers towards the cause. I think there needs to be a movement focus towards an inclusive environment, women and minorities. I like what Rachel Edidin’s working on, CAHP, if you haven’t heard about it.

  6. “When I take my GF into any comic store I make sure and look over my shoulder and remind her that the guys that work at these places don’t get out much and don’t really know alot about women. She’s hot, and it’s a spontaneous freak out everytime.”

    No wonder some people download comics off the internet instead – why should a comics fan go out of her way and endure bad treatment by the staff in order to get comics when she can get the same comics in the comfort of her own home with less harassment?

  7. I was at an anime convention in Virginia a few years ago, and they forbid those signs because they fall under state laws for PROSTITUTION. Seriously.

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