GenCon: it’s time for an anti-harassment policy

A bit of an extended note before I begin here. Due to the extremely personal nature of this post, I will be moderating comments on this post very heavily. If you know, or you think you know, or you think you might have a good idea of who I’m talking about – I ask you to please not speculate. The situation has been dealt with to my satisfaction, and this isn’t about pointing figures. If you happen to think that refusing to point fingers makes me “not feminist enough”, then you can keep those thoughts to yourself. Thank you.

I was sexually harassed at this year’s GenCon, and not in a ‘hey, baby’ kind of way or a ‘guys staring at my tits instead of my face’ kind of way. This was a very serious incident that only just managed not to be assault, one that left me feeling shaken, shamed, and damaged for days. Even writing this now, it’s a struggle for me to maintain enough clarity to keep my train of thought.

The reason I say this is not because I want this to be a confessional post about my experience. Rather, I want to use my experience to highlight the fact that harassment is a very real problem at gaming events and conventions. I’ll admit that the thought of remaining silent had its appeal – in a lot of ways I still feel very shaken and not entirely sure that I want to air my dirty laundry, as it were, in public. But if anything, the backlash that I got on my first few posts about GenCon convinced me that speaking out about my experience was the right thing to do.

There are people within the gaming community who want to pretend that sexism in gaming doesn’t exist, or who would seek to justify its existence, or who seek to belittle anyone who tries to speak out against the sexism and misogyny that is so clear and so prevalently on display at conventions like GenCon. And this attitude is not only wrong-headed, it’s dangerous; When you look at the high prevalence of sexism within the gaming community and the high prevalence of sexual harassment at gaming events, conventions, and other conferences, it is entirely fallacious to assume that the first does not influence the second.

People who sexually harass and assault their fellow con-goers are acting in a environment that condones sexism and misogyny as part of con culture. Just as the characters I mock here don’t spring from a magical thought-vacuum, the actions of people who victimize other convention attendees in such a manner also do NOT spring from a magical thought vacuum. The victims of sexual harassment and assault aren’t “asking for it”, they’re not using some kind of voodoo that forces their harassers to take actions they wouldn’t normally.

But, wundergeek, you might be saying. Just because gaming is sexist is no excuse for such behavior. After all, I would never act in such a manner.

And you’re right, it isn’t an excuse. There can never be an excuse for acting in such a horrendous manner toward another human being. But just because you wouldn’t act this way, can you make that guarantee for everyone you know? This epidemic of sexual assault and harassment isn’t happening on its own. It’s a reflection of the community as a whole, and a clear sign that we need to pull our heads out of our asses and start taking misogynist attitudes within gaming culture seriously.

So what do we do? Where do we go from here? Well, I think that depends on which end of the convention you’re on…

Convention goers: Don’t waste time trying to talk about how women who go to conventions need to be careful to prevent themselves from being victims. That’s victim-blaming of the worst sort. It’s possible to experience harassment or assault even when one is being careful about the sorts of situations one is placed in. Certainly it was my experience that I was in a situation I had judged to be safe and turned out not to be.

So, no. Take responsibility, do some self-examination. Be aware of when you are in situations that might become sketchy and if you are ever unsure of how you are being received, ASK. Never just assume. For that matter, never assume that silence means assent, because silence can often mean dissent, fear, terror, or anger.

As for people who find themselves uncomfortable and/or threatened, always remember you’re allowed to feel that way. Don’t second-guess how you feel, don’t apologize for their behavior. If you can tell them no, then do so. Even if you can’t find the words in that moment, remove yourself from the situation and confront them later.

Convention organizers: It’s time to start taking the threat of harassment and assault seriously and start implementing clear, consistent,  and enforceable anti-harassment policy. Convention organizers can’t continue to pretend that it’s a problem that doesn’t exist, or that it won’t happen at their convention, or that they can’t be expected to assume any responsibility for incidents of harassment that happen at their convention.

The closest thing that GenCon has to an anti-harassment policy is a small phrase buried within their policies for ethics and conduct:

All of the following constitute grounds for expulsion from the convention without refund:

Threatening, stealing, cheating or harassing others

That’s just not enough. There needs to be a clear policy defining harassment and setting out clearly who harassment can be reported to and how harassment situations will be dealt with. It’s not enough to shove your head in the sand and hope that some vaguely worded phrase in your ethics policy will prevent harassment. Real, serious, and thoughtful policies are needed – policies that have teeth to them.

If GenCon LLC is serious about being a family-friendly space, then this is something that they need to take real action toward addressing. It’s not enough for a subset of convention attendees to try to raise awareness. There needs to be a clear signal from convention officials that harassment and assault is not acceptable convention behavior if this disturbing trend is ever going to see real change.

43 thoughts on “GenCon: it’s time for an anti-harassment policy

  1. There was a post over at RPGNet recently congratulating the owner of a gaming-related shop for instituting a strict anti-harassment policy and even post it on the front of his store. As heavy-handed and uncomfortable as it may seem to people unfamiliar with the problem, I think it’s a good idea.

    Besides, it works as a good litmus test. You can kick people out who complain about it.

      • Also, any description of what happened will devolve into an argument about whether that specific event was or was not harassment, rather than about what are effective strategies to combat it.

  2. I’m sorry that you were put in that terrible situation. I am glad to hear that it has been resolved to your satisfaction.

    I imagine this kind of thing happens far more often that gets talked about, which, at first, saddens me. And then it angers me. I have never been to GenCon, but I have been to PAX several years in a row. I’m usually traveling in a pack of friends and with my SO, so my experience has likely been a bit sheltered as to the behavior of the general con population. I’d like to believe that everyone at PAX takes Wheaton’s Law seriously, but I have my doubts. After hearing several women on other forums talk about their experiences of being assaulted or harassed, I’m starting to question my faith in some of my fellow PAX-ians.

    Thank you for sharing your story, though. Every voice that speaks out against harassment makes it easier for the next and then next, and so on, until the fight is no longer necessary.

    • As a transwoman, I was attending a PAX, where I was mistaken for a man, and two guys standing behind me starting making harassing comments about homosexuals. After we had left them, the guy I was with asked me if I usually encountered hostility like them, and I was entirely shocked to realize that they were harassing me. Looking back at it, I should have been upset, and maybe confronted them about the “Don’t be a dick” policy at PAX, but as it was their harassment flew entirely over my head.

  3. As a previous PAX Enforcer, I would love to be able to say this doesn’t happen at PAX. I can only say if it does, I have remained unaware of it. As an Enforcer, as a man, as a father of a geek girl and as a husband, I must say that I’m angered as well as disappointed that this shit happens in my community. As all of those things, I also think that silence may not be assent, but silence after the fact becomes tacit acceptance. One way to stop this is to make sure that those people who engage in this totally barbaric behavior are held accountable for their actions.

    • I don’t know if it doesn’t happen- there are always exceptions- but I have been *extremely* impressed with the general vibe at PAX and how proactive the Enforcers seem to be. It feels more like a safe space than most other conventions I’ve been to, which is pretty fantastic. 🙂

      Thanks to you and all the other Enforcers who’ve been nothing but helpful in my experience over the past few years,

  4. This is just my impression, so I could be completely off base, but I can’t help thinking that the desire to believe cons are safe places is exactly what gets in the way of writing policies that would make them so. In order to write up a proper anti-harassment policy, you have to admit that harassment (or worse, assault) could happen at the con. I’m not excusing the con committees, mind. They’re made up of grown ups and they should know better. And they need to do better. Because conventions should be safe.

  5. I’m very sorry for what happened to you, and I agree that the absence of a clear anti-harrassment policy is unacceptable at this stage. It’s especially infuriating with fiascos such as the Battlefield 3 LAN party where harrassment was, in fact, properly acknowledged, only to be swept under the rug, when it could have been an opportunity to raise awareness by setting up actual rules and find intelligent ways to enforce them.

    I’m curious to know what you mean when you write that the situation has been dealt with to your satisfaction. I’m not interested in names or details you might not want to share, of course, but given how difficult it is to resolve such situations when there was no outright assault, and how hard it is to get others to acknowledge that more ambiguous forms of harassment are still harrassment and should be treated as such, I was wondering how it went in your case. I completely understand if you prefer not to say more on the subject, for whatever reasons.

  6. It is so endlessly frustrating to see report after report of harassment not lead to serious polices like those you’re advocating. Even organizers that purportedly strive for a safe space do stupid petty things to sabotage the safety and enjoyment of people participating in the conventions (eg. dickwolves flashmobs.) I hope that Gen Con does implement a legitimate anti-harassment policy going forward.

  7. I can only imagine what happened, having read the accounts of female con-goers of other gaming, comic, and just plain pop culture events have experienced themselves and it ticks me off every damn time. There is an inherent sexism within geekdom that not many seem willing to discuss and all too eager to dismiss.

    I’ve been a volunteer at the Calgary Expo for the past 3 years, and it’s something I want to continue as it’s great to have such an event take place in the North. I’m also happy to say that I didn’t hear nor come across any harassment. I certainly hope that it did not take place.

    It just frustrates me to no end that most people can’t seem to understand common courtesy and respect.

  8. It’s depressing that a clear and severe anti-harassment policy is even necessary. But when the culture condones harassment, acting as if there was no problem solves nothing. Active policies are needed to change the culture in this respect and I hope they implement them from now on. Which would be an easy thing to do. It’s very easy to make it very clear that this kind of shit will not be tolerated. The difficult part is to make people stop living in denial (how many times have we heard things like “come on, I was just fooling around”) and make the organizers acknowledge the problem and act accordingly.

  9. I’ve only ever been to GenCon once, and my experiences were not positive, but it pains me to know that this sort of thing happened at all, much less to someone I’ve read and sent occasional messages to. This is absolutely behavior that’s unacceptable, and sadly, almost encouraged by some of the more reprehensible members of the community.

    Stay safe, and may the individual or individuals who are responsible have a very rude awakening to how they have wronged others.

  10. After the shitstorm that hit Rebecca Watson for being specific about what happened to her (not that I’m comparing the incidents), I don’t blame you for not giving details that people can disassemble and relativize into something meaningless and easily dismissed.
    As for the harassment policy, it seems like if you’re alrady one of the good guys, it wouldn’t be any skin off your back to support it.

    • That event upset me greatly, and I was completely separated from the events, and most of the first line arguments, and probably the second line arguments as well… but with me defending her experience of harassment against OTHER WOMEN telling me that she should have shut up, and it was no big deal? GRRRRRRRrrrrrrrrr… it makes me so angry.

  11. Completely understandable that you wouldn’t want to talk about the specifics.  And I’d almost go so far as to say that anti-harassment policies need to be de rigeur at conventions.

  12. I know that there are often examples of blatant harassment that nobody would consider ambiguous, but I wonder too if examples of what isn’t ok/problematic would also be helpful for attendees. I’ve never been to a con myself, but reading so many stories of women getting harassed is certainly not making me want to attend one. Though, I imagine too, cons are also space where people might meet people they are sexually attracted to and might want to date/hook up/etc. ‘Rules’ about how to do this in a respectful manner and what might be problematic (I’m thinking of that whole creepy guy in an elevator thing that was recently blogged about) or downright harassing could maybe be outlined… maybe even in a geeky flow-chart format.

    Also, I think that bystanders should be aware that they are also part of the problem/solution to harassment. I get so annoyed when people say “oh, he’s a good guy”, or “he didn’t mean anything” or “we’re just joking around”. Um no, your friend is being a jerk and you should call him on it – or else, you’re a jerk to, even if you don’t feel like you are being one.

    • ps – I think a lot of guys feel like harassment isn’t cool either, but don’t really know what to do when it happens, especially with their peers. So how to deal with it or saying they SHOULD deal with it might also be helpful/powerful for them as well and help foster allies.

    • “Though, I imagine too, cons are also space where people might meet people they are sexually attracted to and might want to date/hook up/etc.”

      I’m perhaps a bit biased on this matter, but my ruling would be “permaban anyone that does this shit”. People can socialize without spending money to join a PR circus; the point of a hobby convention should be the hobby.

      • A primary reason why I go to cons is socialization, actually- catching up with and meeting new people who share the same interests as I do, and I know a lot of people who feel the same way. I don’t think flirting/hook-ups/dating should be banned at cons, but there is a way to be a creep, and a way to respectfully approach and get to know someone in a safe context.


        • But see, meeting people is what the internet is for, and hanging out is what friends are for, and fucking new people is what clubs are for. A con is supposed to be a place where like-minded people get together to discuss their interest, but the things we have now… well, imagine paying money and buying plane tickets for the privilege of watching an infomercial (while being molested, apparently) and then rationalizing that it was okay because your friends all did the same thing and you were there together. That’s how I see conventions at present. The goal, therefore, is to either reform them into places where we can seriously discuss relevant matters without interruption, or eliminate them wholesale. The reason I’m fond of my policy is because it works easily towards both.

          • I fail to see how you’ve dealt with the infomercial part. (Though if you mean what I think you mean, I fear many people are going to cons expressly for the infomercial part.)

            And, while you think the internet is for meeting people, a lot of people think that cons (and many other social gatherings) are for meeting people. I mean, if you want to hang out with your friends, you really don’t have to go to a con for that. Nor do you have to to discuss relevant matters – the internet seems to work well for that, too. Why make everything tiny little boxes?

      • That’s rather a strange solution and one that seems completely unworkable. Assuming people aren’t having sex in the middle of the dealers room, you can’t necessarily tell the difference between friends and lovers – you’d also effectively be banning existing couples, simply for having had the nerve to be couples.

        It seems far more workable, and reasonable, to have guidelines for acceptable con behavior. In fact, some cons already do have anti-harassment policies.

        • “you can’t necessarily tell the difference between friends and lovers ”

          The solution to that is to ban anyone that an attendee makes a complaint about.

          “you’d also effectively be banning existing couples, simply for having had the nerve to be couples.”

          They deserve it, honestly. Public displays of affection are annoying as fuck.

          • The solution to that is to ban anyone that an attendee makes a complaint about.

            I’m glad that couldn’t possibly be horribly misused. And barring something as vague as “public displays of affection” is a disaster waiting to happen. Or were you planning on having a detailed list of what people could and couldn’t do in public?

            • Wow I seemed to have opened up a can of worms with my ‘sometimes people hook up at cons’ comment!

              While I said earlier I’ve never been to a con, the only comparative experience I could come up with is going to an academic conference. Now, I was going there to present a paper, go and hear some talks, buy some books and maybe chat with a few people in my field.

              Though from what I’ve read, conferences are apparently hook up central. I once had someone tell me a story about how he was talking to a woman, having a really great conversation, went up to her bedroom and continued talking and then he said goodnight to her and returned to his room. His wife laughed at him when he was telling her about this woman he had a great conversation with and she said ‘honey, she wanted to have sex with you!’ He was totally oblivious until she said that.

              I think I’m in the same mindset when I go to these things – but not everyone is. Which is probably why ‘rules’ about this sort of thing should be made clear about what is respectful and that disrespect/harassment will be dealt with swiftly. I don’t think it’s fair to ban PDAs or the like – I mean, it’s tantamount to people freaking out if they see gay people holding hands or kissing – it’s not illegal and they aren’t hurting anybody. But people who ARE hurting you (i.e. harassing you) need to be dealt with accordingly.

  13. My opinions are frequently contrary to yours, and often read your blog to “hate” on what you post and lurk. I make no excuse for that.
    BUT on this one I am 100% with you. Harassment of any kind should not tolerated. Everyone (whether male, female or klingon) should feel safe coming to a con and enjoy the sights and event in peace.
    I like to look at women and female forms in drawings/ book covers/ illustrations. I watch the booth babes and talk to them. I hungry stare at the scantily-clad (and often not-so-scantily-clad) cosplayers that walk on by. I make no apologies for that. I take pictures do some small-talk. But that’s it.
    But there is a CLEAR AND OBVIOUS line between watching booberellas in a book and assaulting/ touching/ poking/ groping someone. (As I don’t know the details of what happen I can only assume).
    Does sexism occur? Like everywhere there are rotten apples. That said I’m sure most gamers are fine, good guys. I think I’m one of them. I’m happy the con resolved your issue to your satisfaction, but can’t say I’m proud of us gamers geeks.
    That’s true whether you’re a man. woman or a ninja.
    Although Pirates have the right to kill ninjas cuz they are more awesome.

    • “I watch the booth babes”
      This is sexual harrassment

      “I hungry stare at the scantily-clad (and often not-so-scantily-clad) cosplayers that walk on by”
      This is sexual harrassment.

      “I make no apologies for that.”
      This is sexual harrassment.

      “That said I’m sure most gamers are fine, good guys. I think I’m one of them.”
      This is where your cognitive dissonance and recognition of privilege fails you.

      You are a hypocrite.

      • Watching booth babes is sexual harassment? Are you supposed to ignore them? Doesn’t the manner of watching them count? They’re hired to advertise. Their point is to be watched *to some degree*. If no one watched them at all, they’d be out of a job.

        Leering, drooling, cajoling–those are all qualitative modifications and additions to watching. But just watching? I don’t get it.

  14. A strict and rigid definition of harassment would be a useful guide for the administrations, but getting the herd that actually attends conventions to come up with a reasonable consensus definition of “harassment” is going to be a hilarious clusterfuck. Still, it’s not as bad as it could be. At least you do not have roving hordes of girls jump-tackling and paddling people, like anime conventions do.

    • Actually, sf/f conventions (of a non-gaming sort) are starting to have anti-harassment policies as part of their SOP. It’s easy enough to read through some samples of those and crib from their work. Will you get people arguing with it? Of course; this is a gaming convention we’re talking about, so it goes without saying that there will be rules lawyers around. But you don’t need 100% agreement and harmony for the policy to do some good.

    • I don’t think it would be useful just for the administration, but all con-goers should be familiar with harassment and how it’s unacceptable in any circumstances. As mentioned SFF cons are starting to take harassment quite seriously, and making con-goers more aware of it (especially guys who tend to dominate attendance at many cons) is a step in the right direction for many–it’s information everyone can use both at cons and everywhere else.

      I think I’ll withhold the comment I wanted to make about anime cons, except to say WTH at the tackling and paddling. Aurgh.

      • Not all anime cons involve tackling or paddling. In fact, the nearest anime con to where I live has an anti-harassment policy.

  15. As for people who find themselves uncomfortable and/or threatened, always remember you’re allowed to feel that way. Don’t second-guess how you feel, don’t apologize for their behavior.

    As someone who just had to report workplace sexual harassment, that quote just totally eased my mind, even if just a little. I hate that ANYONE has to be in that situation EVER, and I pray for the day something is done to end it.

  16. I am very sorry for what happened, you are brave, talking about this issue.

    I am sometimes visiting gaming convetions with my job ( I work in the gaming industry as a designer/scropter/community manager of F2P-games). Last week I went to Gamescom in Gremany and had such a bad night at one of the parties. Usually when you go to the official Gamescom biz parties, you are there to make new contacts and find other biz people. This night I had 2 really drunk guys screeming in my face, wanting to buy me drinks and staring at my boobs. Kind of ruins the whole night. I just get so tired at this, when you pay 1000€ to attend the Gamescom and additional 50€ party, and guys stand screaming in your face, spitting as they talk and get angry when you don’t want a drink (I am there for my job, not to find a mate…-__-).

    Over to some good news: I made a Facebook-post about your blog and a lot of my peers picked it up and posted it in the Facebook-group “computer dev studenst in Sweden”. Thy had a long discussion and a lot of the students where pretty horrified about how sexist the industry actually is. Many of them (boys/gals) said they want to change this when they start working in the industry 🙂

    Keep fighting and remember not to feed da trolls!


  17. I never comments here mostly only read the awesome stuff, so I delurk to say that you are making a fantastic job and it’s a rare thing for me not to agree it all your posts. Keep doing the great work your are doing even if the world it’s shity sometimes. Best of luck.

  18. There should be slut walks …. But for female convention goers lol. “I don’t deserve assault for playing table top games!” etc 🙂

  19. The only thing I will state here is that the policy is in fact pretty clear.

    Harassment = GTFO and never come back, we keep your money.

    Policies in general do not need a tonne of wording, they need enforcement. I will often see a sign in wash-rooms for instance that says “Do not pee on the seats”. This is a pointless sign, people know this is wrong and if you don’t, reading a sign won’t make it sink in.

    So I think the problem here is not lack of a clearly worded policy. The policy is actually very well written to allow for security to make appropriate judgement calls to remove people. The problem is enforcement and broadcasting the policy. This could be a combination of bad management and bad security guards, but the policy itself is clear.

    • That’s just not enough. There needs to be a clear policy defining harassment and setting out clearly who harassment can be reported to and how harassment situations will be dealt with.

      (I think I’ve read that somewhere…)

  20. it isn’t just in Gaming conventions, but the gaming community as well. And if any woman dares to bring forward any sort of “hey this happened” it is always “grow up,” “grow some balls” and other retorts of that nature, not “wtf! we can NOT let this happen to women.”

    Wanna know why women don’t game – it is because we get harassed for being women. Women do not take kindly to being called derogatory terms. We do not take kindly to being mentally gropped, let alone physically touched in inappropriate ways. Then, when they call the guys that did so on it, it is always a victim blame, never a “you messed up” to the guy, or guys, that did it.

    No wonder women don’t want to game.

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