Har-Asses, by Elayne Riggs
I must confess, I didn’t read a lot of San Diego con reports this year. My SDCC attending days are probably well behind me; in addition to Robin just not being as into comic conventions as my first husband Steve was (maybe it’s because, for many pros, conventions are part of their job, whereas for the rest of us they’re part of a hobby), between hotel and airfare costs the darn thing has just gotten ridiculously expensive, and that’s if you can get a room or a flight or even admittance at all.
Plus, there’s the mobility thing, which has started becoming less of an issue now that my new job has increased my physical activity to a level it hasn’t seen in a number of years and my 50-year-old body is responding accordingly, much to my surprise. Of course, this year’s excuse has also been the job thing; after being out of work over half the year, I wasn’t about to make plans to travel anywhere further than New Jersey during the first few months of my new employment!
But, aside from the always-enjoyable pictorials that many folks uploaded to their blogs, the two posts that piqued my interest the most this year had to do with harassment. Yes, we’re still talking about harassment in this day and age. But, as has been pointed out recently in response to hypocritical and sanctimonious politicians presuming to lecture Russia from their own lack of moral high ground with admonitions like “this doesn’t happen in the 21st century” — well yes, yes it does. Anything that’s happening now is by definition happening in the 21st century. One can certainly argue that we as a civilization ought to have moved beyond sexual harassment by now, but one can argue we should have moved beyond various forms of discrimination and intimidation hundreds of years ago as well. It’s still happening even today, and it still needs to be addressed.
Fortunately in the 21st century we have an amazing communications tool that, to our collective knowledge, has never existed before in the entirety of human history. This electronic paper trail certainly has its flaws, but it also helps hold people accountable when there’s no other recourse. So when Rachel Edidin writes an open letter decrying the behavior of someone at San Diego who sought hugs from unwilling strangers, it gets discussed in an open forum where all sorts of interesting observations are made. One commenter noted it wasn’t "necessarily a male privilege thing," while Rachel herself added "I was generally hella impressed with the general respect for personal space at SDCC. In crowds packed shoulder-to-shoulder, I encountered only a very little bit of pushing, and aside from Creepy Hug Guy, I didn’t have a single encounter that made me uncomfortable." Someone else pointed out that "In Canada pestering a stranger for physical contact is a form of criminal assault even if it’s not intended sexually."
The hugger incident confused me a bit because, theoretically, I like the concept of giving hugs to complete strangers. Jason Hunter’s Free Hugs campaign has been going on for years and has even spread as far as China, a culture with a far different cultural view of personal space than exists in much of the West. But that presupposes that the hugger is offering something which others can feel free to accept or reject, and that their rejection of the offer is the end of the proposed transaction. The incident Rachel relates bears little resemblance to Jason’s vision.
Then John DiBello, who writes a delightful blog as Bully the Little Stuffed Bull, weighed in with a serious post about some SDCC harassment incidents that were confided to him and disturbed him mightily. Since John possesses an actual Y chromosome (as well as a happy talent for composition and a remarkable felicity of expression) this post got picked up and reprinted in lots of places across the comics blogosphere where, as these things go, it was then assumed that it must be a real problem if a guy’s talking about it!
Sarcasm aside, sexual harassment has been a very real problem for its direct targets (mostly women) for a long, long time now. Why hasn’t “someone” done “something” about it?
The answer is frustratingly complicated. First of all, who would that “someone” be? A couple of years ago during the “Taki Soma incident,” lots of comics folk were looking to Friends of Lulu, the premier organization working towards improving women’s situation in the comics industry, to take the initiative on this with their Empowerment Fund. Unfortunately, through a series of missteps this fund never achieved what well-meaning but perhaps not terribly organized members envisioned it doing.
Being a secretary, my stock in trade is organization, and in April of 2006 I wrote up a method that I thought would make the Fund work. I didn’t send it to anyone, as I hadn’t been involved in FoL and didn’t feel it was my place to butt in. After the Taki Soma aftermath had long died down and Val D’Orazio took over leadership of the organization, I mentioned the suggested proposal and sent it to her. With harassment in the news again I thought I’d repro most of it here as well:
“Gender discrimination in the comic book industry has been perceived as an institutionalized problem for decades. As more and more women seek to enter the industry as working professionals, they need assurance that they will be able to pursue their creative aspirations in a welcoming and safe atmosphere, in the same way their male colleagues have been able to do so; and that editors, convention staff, retailers, fellow creators and fans alike recognize the injustice of harassment and assault, and are prepared to seriously and objectively discuss any gender discrimination complaints in order to minimize their recurrence and to present a united front squarely against their perpetuation.” To that end, I suggested FoL propose “the following plans of action:
• Organizing a series of sexual harassment awareness seminars at conventions and other gatherings of industry professionals [and I suggested that if FoL needed contacts they should check with DC and Marvel to see if seminars have been presented there — quite possible in DC’s case as they actively participate in Take Our Daughters To Work Day – to see if they could recommend anyone];
• Encouraging responsible ‘safe space’ socializing at conventions and other gatherings, where much comics business gets done, by presenting alternatives to meeting at strip joints and other venues which objectify or bar women;
• Providing a moderated online area to serve as ‘safe space’ repository where women in comics can discuss their harassment and/or assault experiences and provide emotional support to one another; site should also feature links to resources (free legal advice, feminist orgs, creator unions, educational sites) to which these women can turn if they feel they need to pursue further action.”
Now mind you, this is not official FoL policy, it’s just one woman’s suggestions, based on my experience in the organization and FoL/NY’s successes at the time I was president in accomplishing “small, doable” projects. It may still not be my place to suggest plans of action to an organization in which I’m no longer that heavily involved, but I still think they’re worth discussing, at least in the comment section attached to this column.
When I got my current job, I was required to take an online course called “Preventing Workplace Harassment” within 7 days of my hire date. I was delighted to find whole paragraphs in the employee manual about how the company prohibited sexual harassment, “as well as harassment based upon an individual’s race, religion, color, age, sex, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status, citizenship status or veteran status.” The manual includes a definition of harassment, examples of harassing conduct in violation of company policy, and a reminder that “All personnel are responsible for enforcing compliance with this policy. If anyone either observes conduct that appears to violate this policy or receives a complaint of conduct that would violate this policy, than he/she must immediately report [it]” to the appropriate people.
But how does one do this in a convention setting, if even the appropriate people don’t have the training? And do they need it at all? Mark Evanier, for one, thinks that a notice regarding sexual harassment at conventions is “not necessary any more than it is for the con to post signs that say, ‘No murdering allowed’… There are people there who think that if they’re not told otherwise, they can smoke, they can wield swords, etc. You have to specify because there are places and situations where it’s okay to smoke or where you can request that someone be paged. There is no place where it’s permissible in any way to go up to a stranger and start kissing or fondling them against their wishes. Stated policy or no stated policy, that is not acceptable. People should know this… and if they don’t, the con announcing it in the program book is not going to make a lick of difference to them.” But it will make a difference to the people who actually matter, the targets of this harassment, who will then be able to take appropriate action. And if policies against harassment were unnecessary, I’m pretty darn sure that tons of workplaces like mine wouldn’t take such pains to require them. Such policies don’t exist for the world in which we wish we lived, but for the world in which we do.
Lee "Budgie" Barnett believes there are “degrees of harassment” at play here, and wonders where the line should be drawn between actual harassment and “bad manners.” I don’t think it can be yet, even in the 21st century. Particularly when you’re talking about a subset of fanboys who, let’s face it, often lack the necessary social skills for simple hygiene let alone opposite-sex etiquette. It’s square one with these guys. You have to be blunt, and treat them like you’re a hammer and they’re a bunch of rusty nails. Pull ‘em out or pound ‘em down. I gave a party once for friends of and contributors to my ‘80s zine INSIDE JOKE, and one staff writer absolutely could not take a hint about leaving when the party was winding down. Steve and I suddenly realized this was because his lack of social skills inhibited him from understanding any hints. So, loath as we were to be blunt, we had to say “Look, it’s late, please leave.” To him it wasn’t rudeness, it was us being direct because he couldn’t pick up on anything less.
That’s what a lot of these har-asses are like. They don’t get that something’s wrong unless you tell them quite explicitly. Don’t even bother explaining why any more than “because they’re human beings worthy of your respect,” and even that might be too much because it’s not like the har-asses are worthy of too much respect the way they act. Just say “Don’t do this,” and say it as often as it’s needed. And give the targets somewhere they can go to complain; spell out very clearly in your program book what constitutes harassment (my company’s manual does it in a short paragraph or two) and how to take care of it if it happens to you.
And for goodness sake, look into training your con staff. It took less than an hour for me to go through the online workplace course. It’s not rocket science. But it’s sadly needed. I have a feeling this could be an area where Friends of Lulu might help out…
Elayne Riggs blogs at Pen-Elayne on the Web and wishes the whole world consisted of soft comfy cushions instead of nails.