TW: PSH & Sexual Harrassment
This weekend, I returned to the comic convention scene after a long time away (thank you, COVID, and various other life events). I’ve been attending comic cons as a creator for around ten years now, selling the independent comics that I co-create with my best friend. The UK comic convention scene, particularly the section of it devoted to indie comics, is one of my favourite places. While cons can often be exhausting, and a little overwhelming for this introvert who definitely to rest and recover after a weekend of bright colours and theme music played on loop, I’ve met some of my favourite people through the indie comics scene, and it’s a space where I’ve been able to develop my creativity and learn more about a medium I love.
Sadly, for creators who are women or marginalised genders, comic cons are not always friendly spaces. In addition to gatekeeping about “fake geek girls”, and the extreme harassment, stalking, and violence associated with movements like Gamergate, women and non-binary people in geeky spaces have often reported experiencing public sexual harassment at conventions. Cosplayers who wear “sexy” costumes, or who cosplay as characters who are flirtatious or sexualised within their franchises, are frequently subjected to sexualised comments, uncomfortable staring, and interactions that can escalate into sexual assault. The issue of sexual harrassment and assault of cosplayers gave rise to the movement ‘Cosplay is Not Consent’, which took a zero-tolerance approach to public sexual harassment of cosplayers and refused to let perpetrators hide behind weak excuses like “I’m just playing along with your character!”, or “What do you expect if you wear that outfit?” Of course, cosplayers also experience harassment when wearing costumes not generally deemed “sexy” or “revealing”; however, cosplayers who do wear these outfits often have to deal with victim-blaming about the “scantiness” of their costumes in addition to the initial harassment.
The sexual harassment experienced by cosplayers is unconscionable - and, sadly, it is not the only sexual harassment enacted in convention spaces. As a comic creator, I have heard many stories from other creators, particularly women, about the harassment they have been subjected to while working at conventions. Indie comics creators are in a uniquely difficult position when it comes to public sexual harassment at cons. Our profit margins are generally incredibly small, and, as anyone who has worked in retail knows, smiling and acting nice to customers even when they’re making you feel uncomfortable can sometimes be your only option. When you’re working at a convention, you’re essentially trapped behind your table - you can leave briefly, but if a harasser is determined to target you, they can always find you again.
Over the years, I have heard of many instances of harassment from customers and other professionals through the kinds of whisper networks that always spring up when women and marginalised genders experience sexual harassment that they are, at least initially, unable to challenge. I’m not going to shout any of those whispers, which I heard in confidence; but they are serious, and add a layer of difficulty and upset to the already exhausting work of trying to make it as a small press creator. I am fortunate in that I have “only” experienced one instance of public sexual harassment at a comic con, which did not escalate beyond being tedious and irritating - but I shouldn’t even have had to deal with that. The men - and it’s almost always cis men who carry out harassment - who attend conventions should attend them seeing the women and people of marginalised genders who are also present as their peers and colleagues, not as targets. (In the spirit of fairness, the vast majority do, and I have felt welcomed and supported by nearly all of the cis men I’ve encountered during my time on the convention circuit).
Conventions are also responsible for ensuring that guests and creators are protected from public sexual harassment in any form, and there are an increasing number who have zero-tolerance policies on harassment, something that is extremely welcome. However, not all conventions have strong enough (or strongly-enforced) policies; the whisper networks, which would cease to exist if harassment was eliminated, are as strong as ever. I look forward to a day where freedom from harassment at a con is something that can be assumed, and the steps that women and marginalised gender creators take to keep ourselves safe can be discarded so we can focus on the reason we’re actually there - making, selling and sharing comics.
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Cover Art & In-article image courtesy of Karolina Jonc Buczek (@jajonc on IG)