San Diego Comic Con looms ahead, and everywhere the nerds are aflutter; there’s last minute travel arrangements to make, luggage to be hauled from the dark recesses of the garage or attic (not that anyone will bother to pack until the night before they leave, but damn, they’ll feel so productive every time they walk past those suitcases), all punctuated by nail-biting sessions on the Programming page, hitting refresh again and again in the vain hope that the schedule will be released a few days early. Heady images of themed after parties, geek band gigs, or simply the chance to meet Twitter/Tumblr friends for a drink in the hotel bar (and considering what you’re paying for a hotel room during Comic Con, don’t you deserve a good stiff drink?) provide the finishing touch on the fantasy that gets us through the last few weeks of work and general drudgery before we’re let out to play.
But not all is well in the Land of Geek. After almost every major convention, women come forward to talk about the harassment they faced during what should have been a fun vacation from the real world. That is, indeed, why Comic Con and its peers exist: To celebrate the refuges we take from the daily grind, and perhaps inspire us to figure out how to make our reality a tiny bit closer to the alternate realities we so love. Whether SDCC, NYCC, Dragon*Con, E3, Heroes Con, or all of the above are your stomping grounds, I ask you to stop and take a few minutes to read about how you can make these gatherings a safer place for everyone who attends.
The comments directed at women who step forward tend to be rife with opinions about how people think she should have handled the situation. Some commenters will at least limit their criticisms to what they think the convention staff should have done, but there’s a glaring omission from all these responses.
What I don’t see very often are people making suggestions for what we, the convention goers, should do to tackle the issue of sexual harassment. Women are often taken to task for not speaking up about harassment right away, but here’s the thing: On the convention floor, there are usually dozens of immediate witnesses. If something happens, and none of the people who witness it even acknowledge they’ve noticed anything, will the woman being harassed feel like she’s going to get much help from from con staff? If the people who watched it happen act like they don’t care, how can she have any faith that she’ll be believed in a he said, she said scenario minutes or even hours after the fact?
We need to be proactive. If you notice a cosplayer surrounded by a group of guys, take five seconds from your day to slow your pace and listen for anything inappropriate as you pass by. If you overhear something you know is wrong, stop and say something. If you notice a Slave Leia posing for a picture with a guy who’s hand is starting to drift somewhere it has no business being, say something. It’s a few seconds out of your day, but the anger and hurt the woman can feel from harassment can dog her for weeks, for months, or even far longer.
You don’t have to give a dissertation on feminism, or body autonomy, or even the basic manners the harasser should have received growing up. You don’t have to be clever or powerful or any other adjective you think stands in your way of doing the right thing. Like street harassment, con harassment thrives because the men doing it know that people just don’t like to get involved in a potentially ugly scene. The strongest weapon we can wield against them is not a clever put down, but simply to let them know that we are paying attention, and that we will speak up about what we see. You get embarrassed easily when speaking up in a confrontational situation? Sometimes you stutter or mumble a bit? That’s ok! Because the goal is not “winning” an argument of any type against the person doing the harassing. The goal is to let him know he’s being watched, and to offer support to the girl being harassed.
Look at his badge and make a point of using his name; nothing tends to take harassers down a notch like realizing that all that stands between their poor choices at the con and their “real life” is a quick Google search.
While on the subject, let the girl know you’d be happy to act as a witness if she wants to report harassment to the con staff. If the person who harassed her really got to her, and she looks upset, ask if she has any friends she can call, and offer to stay with her until they arrive. Get other people involved; if you’re meeting friends at the con, casually mention that you’re planning on keeping an eye and ear out for harassment.
Though sexual harassment is by far the most troubling, there are other types of harassment to watch out for. No one of any gender, race, or body type deserves to be made fun of for deciding to cosplay. Remember to speak up when you witness something. Not only will you be helping someone out of a bad situation, you will also be inspiring the passersby to stand up when they see something wrong.
If you see someone who looks a little (or a lot) self conscious, give them a compliment. Yes, even if the guy you follow on Twitter did that costume so much better, and you’re the type of person who just hates it when people put together costumes from stuff they got from the thrift store. There will always be assholes ready to tear someone down; kind people willing to build others up are rare.
Stand up. Be kind. Do the right thing.