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Consent & Consequence at Cons: An Alliterative Appeal to Acknowledgement

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Award-winning author, general badass, and gleeful foul-mouthed despot.

Consent & Consequence at Cons: An Alliterative Appeal to Acknowledgement

Karina Cooper

Those Who Play by Lydia Love
Model: Karina Cooper

Although stories of harassment at cons are legion, possibly the most widely spread at this moment is the story of an exquisitely costumed Black Cat, portrayed by Mandy Caruso. Those people who don't attend cons regularly may see this as a launching point for an awareness campaign, a "no big deal" story taken to an extreme, or as a "small" problem of a "small" community. Those of us who attend cons—conferences and conventions, typically—know this as something much more widespread, common, and, yes, even dangerous.

There are dozens of posts talking about behaviors at cons, harassment, and sexualization of cosplayers, and hundreds more talking about it off-screen, out of the limelight. I won't get into what does and does not constitute harassment, because better spoken folks than I have already covered this. Repeatedly.

Instead, I'll try to talk about the reasons why we—by which I mean primarily women, but not always—tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to our safety, what it means when we—by which I mean primarily women, but not always—dress up in costume, and what we—by which I mean all of us, everywhere, all the time—can do about it.

For fun, emphasis, and to make a stronger point, this article is peppered with my own costumes. Everything written in these captions is a real life experience I have been forced to handle—though not always related to that costume.

Yes, I am dressed like a doll. No, you can not  grab my limbs and puppet me as if I were one.

 Harassment: It's In the Room, Man!

I don't know how old I was when I first realized that I was being objectified. If there was ever an ah-ha moment, I don't recall it for sure. Instead, at some point, I woke up with the impression that any attempt to dress like a girl resulted in boys' behaviors changing—not always for the worse, but not always for the better, either. I was roughly eighteen before I started wearing clothes that didn't get stolen from my older brother's closet.

I've always been a geek, and I've been a gamer/roleplayer for almost twenty years, now. When I got involved in the LARP scene—that's Live Action Roleplay, for the uninitiated—it was only a matter of time before I ended up playing a character whose mode of dress trended towards sheer hose and spike heels. Not to say that's all I ever played. Just to recap a little for you, in my long and storied LARP career, I've played:

  • an Everyman sort of character whose dress was jeans and flannel shirts;
  • seductive women who dressed to flaunt;
  • warriors who preferred tank-tops and combat boots;
  • wanna-be warriors who thought it was all about the midriff;
  • an androgynous character in baggy jeans and T-shirts who never said one way or another what gender was preferred and answered to both;
  • young characters in flowy skirts and oversized sweaters;
  • earthy/hippie/New Agey characters who wore as little as possible;
  • Western women in cowboy boots and lots of denim;
  • cyberpunk deckers and street samurai who wore vinyl and neon fishnet;

...and I'm sure even more with varied outfits and styles. It's hard to wrap up over a decade of characters and costuming.

Yes, I have my navel exposed. No, you can not  touch my naked waist.

It's Not (Always) What You Wear

We've all heard the excuse. We've even been told it, as if it were some kind of balm to soothe our harassed hurts. "Just dress less provocatively" or "cover up more" or "don't dress so sexy"—as if these things could somehow be quantified into a value. And while that's as stupid an argument as it gets—blaming the harassed person for the behaviors of the harasser—what I don't see brought into play very much is what I've seen in my own life experiences.

My Did You Know? moment: When I was dressed as a vamp—literally, at times, but metaphorically speaking at others—many men treated me like varying degrees of candy, like I was more intimidating, like I was art to be openly admired and discussed, and, at times, like I was something to be touched/grabbed/possessed. However, when I was dressed in more "mannish" attire, I was treated as if I were sexually repressed and needed "coaching", as if my sexuality was open for public discussion, as if my hidden curves were to be speculated and—at times—even physically measured without my consent.

What I learned was this: It does not matter what you wear. If a harasser chooses to latch on to you for any reason, any excuse will do. If you happen to be dressed in a manner called "sexy", that simply becomes the easy excuse.

Yes: I am wearing five inch heels and sheer stockings. No: You can not assume that these heels are indicative of my desire to have sexual congress with you.

It's Not (Always) How You Act

Those of you who know me also know that I tend to go for a take-no-prisoners approach to my social interactions. I'm generally nice to everyone, and if I can't dredge up nice, I settle for professionally dismissive. "Hi, enjoy your con, bye." Because of my costuming, in cons and out, I'm often stopped on the streets by (usually) nice people asking me what it's for, what the costume is, why I do it,t hat sort of thing. People are curious. I'm nice to almost everyone, and even the occasional wolf-whistle or catcall is met with a smile and dismissive wave—I generally accept that these are quick and often effortless versions of compliments.

Frankly, if I take the time to look extra nice, I appreciate the fact that it's admired. But it's not always about looking nice.

Yes, those are jewels drawing attention to my collar bone. No, you can not  take this as an invitation to span my neck with your hands.

I have seen shy and withdrawn cosplayers and costumed folk take heat for being shy—and promptly placed in wickedly uncomfortable positions with people who may just be trying to draw them out, but become harassers by pushing the point. I, who consider myself strong and independent, have been cornered by a man—sometimes by a handful—and forced to endure uncomfortable banter about my outfit, my looks, my choices of undergarments, etc. Why forced to endure? Because until these past few years, I was under the impression that keeping the peace was somehow more important than my comfort.

And because even now, if I find myself in a situation where I am surrounded by men all making sexual comments about me, I am painfully aware that I am out-numbered, out-weighed, and extremely vulnerable. That "teasing banter" about my sexual proclivities can all too easily turn to rage.

You could be the nicest girl on the block, but that's just the point. Like your choice in clothing, harassment isn't about you. It's about the judgment the harasser has already made in his or her head about you—without any help from you. Once that judgment is made, the harasser will use any details about you as justification for his or her choices.

Yes: I look like I've been beaten up. No: That does not mean you should make jokes about how I need to learn to listen better.

It's Not (Always) What You Think

At the RT Booklover's Convention in 2012, there was another conference of what I think were sales folk of some kind. They were sharing the hotel, mostly comprised of men of ages ranging from—at an outside guess—mid 20s to late 50s. A nice wide gamut. Now, I tend to dress nicely at cons. I don't quite buy into the business-casual look, often preferring jeans and badass shoes over slacks and sensible anything, and at RT, I am just as likely to be in some kind of costume, such as this Morrigan-inspired number below.

Yes, I am wearing a very tight corset. No, you can not grab me by the waist to see how small it is.

In this case, I was wearing a pair of skinny jeans, some colorful high heels, a T-shirt and a blazer. All morning, every time my path took me near these salesmen, I fielded dozens of romance-oriented comments, from the mild—"Are you one of those romance writers?"—to the wildly inappropriate—"Do you write about your sex life?"—to the awkward pick up variety—"Are you famous? Will you buy me a drink?"

After dealing with this on and off for a couple days, using my judgment as to whether the askers were genuinely curious or looking for man-pats from their buddies, I was waiting by the elevator when a lanky gentleman with thick-framed glasses and a good-looking suit approached me—or rather, the elevator.For reasons that should be more than obvious by now, I keep a sense of what and who is around me at all times, and I was not unaware of this guy wearing a lanyard like both our cons had been given.

Yes, I am dressed like a burlesque star. No, this doesn't mean you an put your hand on my upper thigh to "see how far the stockings go up".

He greets me. I half-turn and smile, returning the greeting politely. He asks me if I'm a writer. I am. He asks if he'd know me.

At this point, I'm at my limit. I'm not famous, I'm certainly not EL James—as some of the less cognizant sales guys seemed to indicate I should be—and I've had it up to here with men in suits trying to get through my defenses.

"Yeah, I don't think so," I say, rather too cheerfully and with more than a hint of dismissal. "Since I write romance and all." Dismissed, sir!

I believe that in that moment, he picked up on a vibe that ran deeper than simple dismissal, because his next move is to introduce himself properly.

I facepalm. This was my initial introduction to Eric Ruben. A literary agent.

Why? Because I was frazzled from constantly fielding come-ons from a handful of sales guys from another con; because I was hyperaware of being a lone woman next to a strange guy; because I saw his suit and his lanyard and pegged him as one of them; because earlier at another event, a male model had put his hands on me casually like he had a right; because I made a judgment call in the interest of my own safety and tolerance—trying to set down clear lines of do not cross—and would much rather have to apologize for a social faux pas than be caught in a situation that could get dangerous.

Fortunately, Eric has a wonderful sense of humor, and I was not shy about explaining my situation. He waved off my apology easily. That I mistook him for a sleazy salesman is now an ongoing joke between us.

Now what if that wasn't Eric Ruben, Literary Agent? What if it were a stranger with no ties to the romance industry? What if it was that model with no sense of boundaries? What if...?

It may not always be what we think, but can we afford to assume it isn't?

It's Not Your Fault. Period.

Here's the kicker: it is not your fault if you are harassed at a convention. Unless you are wearing a sign that proclaims Free for Harassment! Touch, squeeze, handle, joke, ask me dirty questions!, you are not responsible for someone else's decision to make you uncomfortable. You are not to blame when someone chooses to encroach on your space. You are not at fault if someone chooses to corner you, to put his or her hands on you, or to make you the butt of their jokes.

You are not toblame.

It is not what you are wearing. It is not the fragrance you choose to wear. It is not your make-up, or your costume, or your loudness, or your shyness. It's not the shoes you're wearing, the badge you're sporting, or the jewelry you're wearing. Unless you are personally delivering a challenge to see who can grope you first, it's not what you're saying, either.

You are not responsible for another person's choices.

But there is something that you—if you find yourself on the receiving end of harassment—can do.

Yes, I am dressed in faux military wear. No, you can not make military rape jokes.

Harassment: How to Handle It

Not every case of harassment can be self-handled, so I'll share my experiences—what usually works and what to do if it doesn't.

Boundaries

Sometimes, harassment comes in the form of physical encroachment. It's a sad fact that the person encroaching on you may not realize that they are encroaching on your space. This is often an excuse used by harassers to excuse their actions, so you can never know for sure which aspect you're dealing with. That's okay, this is where you make clear your boundaries.

Inform the person in your space that you'd prefer some distance between you and your conversation partners. This also works for people who put their hands on you. A polite, but firm, "Please don't put your hands on me," or "Please don't get so close to me, it makes me uncomfortable," should be enough to get your point across.

If this fails...

A harasser might get indignant, and become belligerent—believing that you are accusing them of assault or ill-intent. A harasser might also become overly friendly, tightening their hold on you, attempting to hug you, or otherwise get close in an ill-conceived plan to show you how harmless they really are—as if you just need to experience a moment of being touched without violence to feel safe.

Leave the conversation immediately. If there is con staff or security—yes, this includes actors or volunteers—go to them immediately and make known your situation.

If there is no staff or volunteers in sight, locate the closest person or group that appears safe to you. If you are a woman and you feel safer with another woman, approach one or a group and explain that you are feeling uncomfortable and would like an escort to find con staff.

Leave The Area

If the harassment is coming in the forms of verbal abuse, physical abuse,  or aggression shaped by machismo or crowd-intoxication—that is, that bravado that tends to be egged on by the presence of other people—then leave the area immediately. Locate a member of the con staff and explain the situation—do not wait to do this, as time muddles everything, including witness accounts. If you are uncomfortable leaving alone, ask someone who appears safe to escort you.

If you are physically restrained...

Yes, I am wearing a pearl necklace. No, you can not  offer to give me another.

If you are cornered by a harasser, or otherwise unable to make good your escape, speak loudly and enunciate clearly so that others in the area can hear you. Inform the person that they are encroaching on your space and you demand to be let free immediately—in whatever verbiage you choose, although I encourage you to stay calm and stay away from cursing, which can trigger flooding in assailants and force a physical confrontation.

If the harasser refuses to comply, or even if you are unwilling to give the person the time to consider it, reach out to any passer-byes. Ask clearly for someone to fetch con staff and, at your best judgment, to call the police. Physical restraining, even by unspoken threat of physical cornering, is a serious issue.

Under no circumstances should you feel bad about asking for help.

Report the Incident

I cannot stress this enough. All incidents of harassment need to be reported to con staff—it's the only way anything will ever come of the incident. Most cons have harassment policies for a reason, and no matter what, these need to be enforced. A good con staff will want to know, and to get to the bottom of the situation. In order to make sure that your harasser does not turn into a serial harasser—and for your own safety and peace of mind—you need to report the situation as soon as possible.

Any con that does not take this seriously is not a con worth attending.

Harassment: How to Handle It When It's Not You

I have been in situations when it wasn't me receiving the harassment being dealt. I've watched a man in a kilt walk into a room full of women and be forced to hold his kilt down because quick hands—belonging to women, let me be clear, this is not a single-gender issue—kept trying to flip up the material.

I've heard anecdotes from trusted sources of a man walking into a room and finding his shirt ripped off by over-eager women.

I've seen girls cornered by a handful of men and I've seen the same happen by same-gender harassers.

I've pushed my way through more than a fair number of crowds looking for blood of the social kind.

What do you do when you see it happen?

Take a Calculated Risk

You know your own strength and confidence. You know your build, your appearance, your abilities. If you look at a situation where someone is being harassed and you legitimately think that you can handle it, then approach the scene and extract the person being harassed as delicately and politely as possible. Your best bet is often to treat the person like you know then, even if you don't. "Hey, I'm glad I found you, come on, the panel is starting!" is a great way to suggest that a) you mean no trouble, and b) you're giving the harasser a way out.

Only you know that b) is a lie.

The instant the person is extracted, you escort them to con staff. If they are unwilling, do your best to kindly explain why it should happen. If they are still unwilling, escort the person to wherever they feel safe, then report the incident yourself.

If this fails...

You may find yourself in trouble. Do your best to extricate yourself—and if possible, the harassed person. If you must leave alone, find con staff immediately. If you are pulled into the conflict, ask for help from passer-byes.

If You Aren't Alone (or, If You Have a Phone)

Call a friend, call staff security if there is a number to do so, or call the police first. Or have your friend who is with you do so while you go to help. Inform the proper authorities of the situation—or make sure your friend knows to—then help the person being harassed. Depending on the level of the threat, you may avoid calling for help, but you'll want to be err on the side of caution. A young man cornering a girl is likely to be waved off by a strong personality, but a trio of men are likely to be more trouble. Please use your best judgment.

Wear a Ribbon

I will be attending RT Booklovers and TeslaCon this year. I will be wearing a purple ribbon attached to my badge. This proclaims me as a safe person. If you are in trouble, or if you're feeling uncomfortable or scared, and you see this ribbon, you know that you can approach me and I will intercede as an escort, a safe person to sit beside, or a voice of reason when you need one.

I will be carrying extras with me. If you want a way for people to identify you as a safe person—no judgment, just backup—then find me, and I will give you a ribbon to wear at your cons.

Edit: Those looking to order your own ribbons or to pass along information on how to acquire them to con organizers may do so here.

Cons Are Responsible for Your Safety

But the only way for cons to know when there's a problem is if there is a report of the incident. So, for your edification and safety—and the personal responsibility portion of this article—I am listing the safety contacts  for both of the cons that I will be attending.

TeslaCon: No Means No
TeslaCon: No Means No

RT Booklover's Convention

One of the great things about this convention is that it is chock full of volunteers and staff from top to bottom. Jo Carol, the contact point for all things convention-oriented, is usually there from dawn to the wee hours, and just about any member of the staff can locate her. However, if you are more comfortable emailing her directly, you can do so at JoCarol@RTBOOKREVIEWS.COM. (Edit: As of October 2013, RT Convention is working on a formal harassment policy with updated contact information. As soon as it's available, I will post that information here. -K.)

If you have an issue, any volunteer or staff member can direct you to the appropriate place—and almost always, I've been escorted personally when I needed to find someone.

TeslaCon: Corsets Do Not Mean Consent
TeslaCon: Corsets Do Not Mean Consent

TeslaCon

TeslaCon is filled to the brim with actors and staff who are all in costume, in character, and every bit responsible for your safety as if they were in plainclothes and radioed up. TeslaCon's staff is briefed on how to handle harassment issues and personal safety concerns, and every single one—even the actors—can direct you to the right place.

The con's security wear burgundy military uniforms, and their head is named Don Dawson. However, know that any of TeslaCon's staff—from the actors portraying villains and the Queen's own guard to the Tea Lady to the military men and women in burgundy—are prepared to step in. Don Dawson and Lord Bobbins, who runs the con, will hear the report, but all of the staff is capable of providing support when needed. All you have to do is ask.

Miscellaneous

O. M. Grey created a steampunk-centric signal of safe haven called the Order of the White Feather. According to the website, they use a white feather "incorporated into Cosplay, our outfits, or even in our daily wear, [...] to show survivors and victims of assault that we are a safe haven for them. By wearing a white feather, we take this vow: We will believe you. We will listen to you. We will support you."

This may be a good alternative for attendees of TeslaCon who worry that the purple ribbon might be mistaken for the villainous SWARM motif.

Yes, my shoulders are exposed. No, this does not mean you can spread your hands over them.

Seize the Moment

In the end, though we aren't to blame for being harassed, we do have the right, the responsibility, and the power to report the harassers, the abusers, and the consent-blind encroachers. Cons are powerless to handle what they don't know about, and only we can break that trend.

So speak out. If you don't want to speak up in public, speak up in private. Talk to your con security, talk to your friends and ask them to go with you, send an email, whatever it takes. Do it, and do it as soon as you possibly can after the incident.

And remember: I've got your back.

A Final Note

Life is dangerous, uncertain, and often unpredictable. Cons are no more full of jackwagons and assaulters than parks are of pedophiles. Every community has its bogeymen, and like most bogeymen of the modern world, they're real and we should all prep ourselves on how to handle it if it ever comes up.

As a woman, I am constantly aware of what could go horribly wrong. As a con-goer, that doesn't change. As a person who chooses to ride public transport, it still doesn't change. The more people you crowd into an environment, the greater the chance assholes are among them.

Don't hide, don't assume that an entire community is colored by a few douchebags—but do remain prepared.

An Addition, June 28, 2013

Over at Chuck Wendig's Terribleminds, Elise Mattheson writes a post about how to report harassment at conventions—and to the company the harasser may be representing, at professional settings. As the natural follow-up to this, it's worth reading.