19 OCTOBER 2012
All summer I debated on whether to post on the increasingly high-profile topic of sexual harassment at Cons. It's been in the media, but not specifically about San Diego Comic Con - mostly the debate has floated more around a more amorphous nerd/geek/con/large crowd phenomenon, whether it was the Skepchick elevator incident in the skeptic community or the Dragon Con Open Source Boob Project or cosplayer Ginny McQueen being asked to perform as a stripper at a convention. There's also been a lot of complaints about booth babes, female gamers, Felicia Day, and so on. Anyone who hangs out online at various nerdy or pop culture sites has read something about this, I'm sure.
While I think these are all valuable dialogues to have, I've been annoyed by a conflation of all these incidents that somehow always boils down to a single word: GEEKS. Inevitably, in either the article or the comments, someone will lament how geeks and nerds are so just sexist and clueless and horrible around women. Which is dourly amusing to me as a woman and a nerd - it's as if people earnestly believe that this kind of thing is both rare and isolated to geeky circles. Seriously? No. It's universal and is not some kind of "geek culture" thing.
1. The word "con" or even "convention" does not refer to one homogeneous population. Dragon Con, SXSW, skeptism conferences and comic cons might share a few participants, but they have different purposes and draw different crowds. The fact that they feature large crowds is what bears looking at here - I won't go all academic on the theory of diffuse responsibility and whatnot, but we know that some people act differently in a large crowd than they do in normal circumstances.
2. Geek and Nerd have come to have very elastic definitions, applied at this point to almost anyone who's passionate about something other than sports. There's a certain intellectual cred associated with being a nerd, which is why calling oneself a "history nerd" or "archeology geek" has become a way of humble-bragging about your cerebral interests. And in the instances mentioned above, plenty of people are being labeled as nerds and geeks simply because they attended some kind of conference.
3. This kind of thing - groping, rude comments, stupid assumptions about women in sexy outfits - happens everywhere. I'm a woman who's been dealing with this crap since I was 12, and I have not yet found a population or environment magically exempt from it. Stadium games, punk rock shows, Gay Pride parades, you name it - crowds and anonymity bring out the worst in some people.
All of which is my way of saying, it just isn't my experience that geeks are more prone to misogyny and bad behavior than other people.
Now. That said, it's still worth discussing the harassment that does happen at cons. Because it does happen. This is in the blogosphere right now: a pretty woman in a Black Cat outfit who was asked her cup size at New York Comic Con. I know a lot of people probably think she's overreacting, that it was "harmless fun" and she should have a sense of humor/expect such things when wearing such an outfit. Even though it continued after she said "seriously, stop." If that's you, congratulations - here are 3 more points just for you.
1. Treat women with respect. Don't divide the women at Cons into some weird Madonna/Whore dichotomy where there are the "true geeks" you respect and the booth babes and cosplayers you don't. A revealing costume is not an invitation to groping, crude comments or any kind of rude behavior.
2, Women are people too. We are nerds and geeks and gamers and comic book fans and belong at Comic Con every bit as much as you do. We are not invaders of sacred male territory. We pay the same money to get in, look forward to it just like you do, and deserve to enjoy it without being mocked, harassed or scorned.
3. The dialogues around this topic have resulted in calls for tighter harassment policies at Cons of all types. So before you ask that fetching Poison Ivy to flash you, think better of it.
By and large, I've always been amazed at how pleasant everyone is at Comic Con. Given how crowded and frustrating the whole experience can be, we are mostly a civil and friendly bunch. But every year I experience lewd comments, disdainful assumptions that I'm a booth babe or someone's girlfriend, the occasional grope and other caveman behavior. My Walking Dead picture on this blog was originally one with me in it, but after two creepy emails, I replaced it.
I didn't mean to write quite such a novella of a post. So here's the TLDR version:
1. A lot of the Internet hubbub about various harassment controversies seems to eventually boil down to "Nerd boys are resentful, awkward and misogynist toward women!" which I do not feel is any more true than the general population.
2. That said, harassment does happen at Cons - so try not to be an ass. And if you do insist on treating women badly and clinging to your oafish, primitive bitterness, then please stop calling yourself a geek or a nerd. You're ruining it for the rest of us.