The following is a guest post from Mariah Huehner:
Trigger Warning: Description of sexual harassment
San Diego Comic Con is rapidly approaching, and amidst the stress of figuring out my flight, hotel, booth duty, and what the hell I’m going to wear so I don’t feel uncomfortable but also don’t look crappy for 4 days…I’m thinking about two incidents that happened at my first SDCC (which is about 5 years ago now, maybe even 6) that have forever colored the way I view it and every other convention I attend, and likely will attend, for the foreseeable future.
In short: during the 2nd night, at the Hyatt, I experienced two separate physically and sexually threatening situations. The first was a groping that I was too shocked to register until the next day. The other was being cornered, touched, and made uncomfortable by two drunk men.
Both left me feeling shaken, upset, and like I had done something wrong. I kept thinking: how did I get in that situation? What did I do to provoke it? What mistakes had I made? How did I allow this to happen? Why didn’t I make a huge scene? Basically, I immediately started blaming myself for being a woman who did not prevent someone else from making me an object. Something that I had absolutely no control over, did not deserve, and yet still feel responsible for in some way, to this day.
First, the groping. I was standing with a group of fellow professionals I had worked with for years. Most of them I knew quite well, one not very well. They were all drinking, I was not. I suddenly felt a hand trail down my back and cup my right…er…posterior. My stomach immediately flip flopped and I turned to the guy, shocked. He was talking to someone else and then stumbled away. He did not look at me once. I said nothing, because I had already started telling myself it hadn’t really happened, I must have imagined it, who does that, no way.
The second happened about an hour later. I had drifted away from the group I had been talking to, to write an idea down in my sketchbook. I was against one of the large windows. There were many groups of people around, as there usually are. I did not notice the two men until they were towering over me. I was stuck and felt very small and uncomfortable. I looked around to see if anyone I knew was close by, but they weren’t, and in any case, couldn’t see me because these two men had neatly blocked me from view. I didn’t know them at all and, the clearest thought I can remember when I realized I was cornered, is that I wished I was wearing my boots. I had left them at home because they’re a pain to deal with at the airport. I was wearing flats after a day of standing on my feet, and I suddenly felt about two feet tall (I’m actually a little over five feet tall). They started asking me what I was so intent about, why was I so serious, what was I doing at SDCC, was I a friend of someone there. I said, no, I’m an editor. This was a mistake as they were then curious about why a girl worked in comics. They moved closer. I backed up, but there wasn’t anywhere to go. I could tell they had been drinking, likely a lot, and for some reason I felt compelled to be…nice. I was scared to be mean or just get away, afraid they’d get mad or rough. I felt like I was stuck to the sidewalk. One of them men reached out and touched the front of my jacket, telling me I looked like a Tim Burton character. He tried to run his hand down the stripes and that’s when I unfroze. All I could think of to do, because for whatever reason I just couldn’t yell, I said…oh, I see some people I know, bye. And I quickly moved away. I had to squeeze myself against the window and duck. I practically ran to open the door and went up to my hotel room where I proceeded to have a very hard time sleeping.
My mind raced. I had every cliche thought you can think of. Had I been wearing something “wrong”? Not unless you think being covered from neck to ankles in baggy black, with a striped jacket is “revealing”. Had I somehow suggested I wanted attention? Not unless being shy and a little freaked out at my first SDCC indicates that. Had I acted inappropriately? Other than a bit awestruck and not drinking (which might be considered weird at a convention), no. Had I, in short, done something to deserve what happened?
Although I am rationally aware I did not, and that you can’t “deserve” being objectified in any case…emotionally, I was convinced I had done something wrong. Namely: that I had moved away from people for a brief moment, thereby allowing myself to be in an unpleasant situation. I had not been vigilant. I had not been “smart”. The groping I felt less responsible for, because it had just…happened. And I was sort of convincing myself it hadn’t, like somehow someone’s hand would trail down your back and cup your ass by accident. I just couldn’t process it. And it didn’t occur to me at the time that experiencing both in one night was perhaps a lot to deal with and that I was having a panic attack. I felt sick, I remember that.
The rest of the convention I didn’t really go out at night. I avoided the bar. I was at my industry’s largest event, with all kinds of people I admired right downstairs…and I was scared to leave my room. I felt wrong, that’s the only way I can describe it. I spent the rest of the convention nervous, on edge, and not because of how big it is or the fact that it was the first time I’d been there. That was overwhelming enough. I had wanted to be this strong, independent professional…and instead I felt like a groped, disrespected, thing.
In the years since, I haven’t had a single experience like it at SDCC or any other convention. And yet, it colors the way I view every nighttime event. I don’t always have the option to go to something with a group, and professionally, going to the bars or hotels to interact with creators and publishers is important. It keeps you visible, lets people get to know you a bit in a more casual setting, and can lead to opportunities. And it can also be cool to run into the various other people who go to cons, you never know who you might get to chat with. It’s supposed to be, you know, fun.
But for me, it rarely is. I can’t not think about what happened that night. I still blame myself, if I’m being really honest. It’s a big reason why I don’t drink, although it’s not the only one. I might have a beer I’ll nurse all night, but that’s it. There are plenty of reasons that’s not a bad thing, and I don’t wish I could get smashed. But I do wish I didn’t have to spend every second being vigilant and on guard. That I didn’t have to feel scared, way down, most of the time.
Women tend to get criticized for bringing up scenarios like this, because most people want to believe we did do something to “make” it happen. And I’m sure someone reading this will think, well, you SHOULD have been more vigilant. Honestly, it’s exhausting. And no one can keep that up 24/7. Then there are the people who will say it was either complimentary, or I took it too seriously, or they were drunk so what did I expect? Well, I’ll tell you what I didn’t expect. To have my personal space invaded, to be touched without permission. No one should be assuming, no matter how drunk they are, that other people’s bodies are a free for all. The fact that they did shows a profound lack of respect for me personally, and women in general. It’s not a compliment, I can tell you that. As for taking it to seriously…no. Other people don’t get to define what is threatening to me, and cornering a young woman in the dark is, by definition, threatening. Every man on the planet should know better.