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.