Don’t Touch Me: Harassment at San Diego Comic Con

The following is a guest post from Mariah Huehner:

Mariah Huehner has been a comic book editor for over 10 years. She has recently co-written the NYTimes bestselling True Blood: All Together Now comics and Angel. She really likes squidly octopi.

Trigger Warning: Description of sexual harassment

San Diego Comic Con International logoSan 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.

An overhead picture of the crowd at San Diego Comic Con

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.

I didn’t feel like I could talk about it because I’d be confirming all the stereotypes about women being harassed at conventions…and I was worried people would blame me. That they’d say I should have done something different, not been alone, yelled…or worse…that it was something I would just have to get used to. 

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.

And anyway…shouldn’t the men, who acted like that, be responsible for NOT putting me in that position? Being a woman is not a reason to harass me or any other woman. Drinking isn’t an excuse. Just…don’t do that, okay? It’s awful. And I won’t be forgetting it any time soon.
(Originally posted at Mariah’s blog)

19 thoughts on “Don’t Touch Me: Harassment at San Diego Comic Con”

  1. It is nonsensical to blame yourself for things you can’t control. We are victim to the will of other individuals at times but not we are not defined by it.

    Your harassment is unfortunate; something that happens all too common. It would be moot to make any sort of argument about what led up to it but there is value in discussing your reaction. It is understandable that one might feel powerless and that emotions might lead to making ill decisions when things like this happen (we can’t reason our feelings, etc) but it is important to refuse to be a victim. What I mean is that you should try to take as much control of the situation as possible and maybe just as importantly you should trust yourself. Being nice to two drunkards who are blocking you off doesn’t seem to set you up to be in a position to get you out of your predicament but maybe it was the right choice, maybe those two would have been worse if you were aggressive, I think only you can judge.

    I have the privilege as a guy to not have to worry about these things most of the time but I am not immune harassment. I can feel like in the worst situations I can rely on my own ability to get out of anything even if that means fighting my way out (I am not the strongest guy and I can be gullible at times, but I trust myself to take control). I have been sexually harassed in the past by guys and girls alike at work and casually and it is unsettling. Even if they get away with it or I just am at a loss and feel that I have been violated, I can’t ever see myself being in a position where I would let it change my world view.

    1. For someone who admits to being aware of male privilege, you sure act like you aren’t. Comments like these are exactly why articles like these are needed.

    2. So I’m not the only one who thought this comment was a massive display of mansplaining!

      Shit dude! You “don’t see yourself letting it change your world view”? Great! Neither do I, and I’m sure neither does the author. I’m guessing you see the world as a pretty okay place where bad things *sometimes* happen but you don’t have to worry yourself about them every waking moment of your life. We, however, live in a world where sexual violence against us is normal and an expected outcome of our continued existence. Getting harassed only serves to confirm what we already know is true.

      Shit like this shouldn’t be happening at all. There is no amount of vigilance that will keep you 100% safe as long as the society you live in trains one half of its population that it’s okay to victimize you because of your gender, that it’s “no big deal”, and so on.

      1. Could you refrain from using the term “mansplaining”? I say this also to every other person who uses this word here. It suggests that only men can be arrogant and that only men preach at others. Every time I read it, I get the impression that a man’s arguments are supposed to be ignored just because he is a man.

        A word used below by PlusSizedWomanist (“privilege splaining”) seems to be a much better term.

        1. You’re right, that’s a better option. “Mansplaining” was more familiar but I will switch to “privilegesplaining” henceforth. Thanks!

        2. No, there’s nothing wrong with the term “mansplaining”. It doesn’t suggest anything about ALL men, it’s a funny name for a specific–and very annoying–expression of male privilege. If the word makes you feel defensive, maybe you should examine that, instead of telling commenters on a blog that you aren’t in charge of not to use a certain word.

          Whitesplaining, cissplaining, ablesplaining, straightsplaining are all OK as well for the same reasons.

          If you still have a problem, you can email the editors address: editors at borderhouseblog dot com.

          1. “there’s nothing wrong with the term “mansplaining”. It doesn’t suggest anything about ALL men,”

            The problem is that it suggests that only men have certain negative qualities. That’s why it is sexist. Judging from examples I’ve found even on feminist sites that discuss the term, it looks like that: if a woman says something arrogant and tries to look smart by giving unneeded advice to another woman, she’s just called arrogant or foolish or something to that effect; if a man says the same, it is said that he is mansplaining. The very word suggests that he does that because he is a man. Do you see the double standard?

            I’ve also noticed that on this blog this term was very frequently used to say the following: you are a man + I don’t agree with you = you are mansplaining –> shut up!

            “instead of telling commenters on a blog that you aren’t in charge of not to use a certain word.”

            I was not telling anybody what they should do, I was politely asking to stop using a word I find offensive. Should any controversy arise, I wanted to discuss this issue. If only editors and/or people running this blog are allowed/ supposed to discuss such matters or call attention to them, then please write clearly that this is the case and I will gladly comply.

            1. “Mansplaining” is not sexist. If you want to keep arguing, email the editors, but stop derailing this thread.

    3. I’m sure you meant well here.  But you kind of put your foot in your mouth and came off as condescending and dismissive. 

      Just saying.

  2. I am so sorry that you were sexually harassed like this. And PLEASE ignore the privilege splaining of Ronny. You have every right to view the world the way you do, especially in an industry that constantly blames women for their own harassment instead of expecting men to take responsibility for themselves.

    And you are correct: Men should not put women at risk like this. It is the sole responsibility of men for this.

  3. It is horrible that this happened to you. I thank you for writing about it and giving it voice, however. It holds weight and has meaning. No one DESERVES to be physically harassed or sexually harassed, it is not your fault at all. Even if you were cosplaying as Ivy from Soul Cal and dancing on top of the bar counter, no one has the right to put their hands on you.

  4. It’s horrible to hear this happened to you, and yet I’m (sadly) not surprised. I used to cosplay at conventions and would .often get sexually harassed or assaulted

    . It also seemed the more ‘sexual’ the character I dressed as looked, the more people seemed to think it was ok to cop a feel or smack my ass whenever I walked by. And god forbid I dressed as a character that was generally disliked by fandom! Once I went to a con dressed as Paine from FFX-2….daaaaamn, last time I do that! All day I got my hair pulled, my arm slapped, I got thwacked over the head with somebody’s mage staff. I got told I ‘ruined Final Fantasy’ and that I’ll ‘never be Lulu’.

    It was as though completely forgot that I, as a cosplayer, was a person just like them. I wasn’t really the character! (But even if I was, I don’t think I deserved that kind of treatment!). I felt like getting a megaphone and screaming; What gives people the right to physically assault me just because they don’t like the character I’m cosplaying! What gives people the right to grope my breasts just because they’re attracted to the character I’m cosplaying!

    I now go to conventions either cosplaying as obscure characters that not many people know, or just not cosplaying at all. It certainly takes the fun out of conventions when you have to put up with crap like that. :(

    1. “All day I got my hair pulled, my arm slapped, I got thwacked over the head with somebody’s mage staff. I got told I ‘ruined Final Fantasy’ and that I’ll ‘never be Lulu’.”

      Jesus. That’s insane. I’m sorry you had to experience that.

      1. Sif, thanks for showing your support for Tiffany, but please don’t use “insane” as a pejorative. Thanks!

    2. I have to say I’ve heard so many tales of unpleasant doings at cons that despite being a passionate and committed geek (gaming, music, SF, manga) it really puts me off going, especially to those events where it seems that the attendance demographic is highly skewed towards the male.

      Being sexually assaulted is bad enough but in my own experience there is just something particularly horrible about being sexually assaulted while doing something you love – something that brings you joy. I won’t go into specifics, many of us have our own stories, but reading what you wrote made me feel like crying just a little. My sympathies to you.

      1. I think you hit a great point here: it’s not just something that happened on the train with random creeps, it’s something that happened at an industry event, basically “at work” and yet in a scene that’s hard to fight against methodically.

        I’ve never been to a con; what sexual harassment policies do they have? I’d love a zero tolerance, forget-your-refund boot out the door and possible banning from future events for that sort of behavior.

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