Years and years ago, when my oldest was still a baby, David and I spoke at a tiny video game convention. David did Design in an Hour, we both talked indie publishing, then I talked about women in gaming to a huge crowd of six people. Maybe seven. We talked about women’s stories in games. I talked about Samas, how it was more than just about her turning out to be a girl. It was about her choices later in the series and so on. It was a neat and intimate conversation and only one dude wanted to grandstand and make it about him, he was easily deflected.
After, it got weird. David was getting ready for his panel, I had baby Tina. It wasn’t the grandstanding dude, but a quiet one. One who had been listening very very closely. Intent. Like I had a secret code in my words that he could unravel if he just ignored what I was saying and listened for what he needed to hear. (I get this a lot with men, or used to with men who wanted sex.)
“How do I get girls to come back to my house to play games?”
It was weird, an alarm bell went off, but I wasn’t all the way aware of why yet. “I’m sorry? You mean how do you make your table more welcoming to female players? I mean, that’s really what I just talked about for an hour. There are some web articles you might want to…”
“No, I mean, you know, I want to play with a girl, get her come back to my place and play. I don’t have a group or anything.”
At this point, I expected him to ask me if his napkin smelled like chloroform. I became aware of my exits and where other human beings were. I said, “well, if you want to use gaming as a way to meet women, that’s um, cool, you probably want to game in very public places with other people. Save the one on one play until you really get to know someone and you have her full consent.” I tried to use my psychic powers to drive ‘her full consent’ into his thick head, but I’m not sure how successful I was. “I mean, a girl is just a gamer with some different plumbing, right?” I laughed anxiously. David was approaching and the guy kind of slithered off, back to his van with no windows or wherever he came from. I wondered if I’d even have to describe him to the FBI later. (To date, I have not had to.)
In fairness, dude was probably a harmless under socialized guy. Probably not his fault he worded things so unfortunately. I seriously hope he found a lady love and his basement gaming table is one full of laughter, making out and Metallica, (the tshirt he was wearing.) But the thing is, you never ever know.
Skip ahead a few years, not many. Gencon back, eh, a few years? Two? Anyway, I was in between children, David and I were tagteaming some panels, had no booth, no kiddie to watch, so you know, we were living the high life! (Or something.) Maschine Zeit was out. It was a total party and I was my own personal rock star and felt like it.
So I have this tattoo.
Actually I have a few, but at the time, this was the visible one. It’s a poem from the Gospel of Mary. It’s on my upper chest. I have big breasts. It has the word ‘whore’ in it. At the time, my body was okay, and I was feeling pretty confident. I have this tattoo in this location for a reason. I want to see it. I want it to be a conversation piece. Almost every human being I have ever run into has been super cool about it. They’ll look, and choose to ask or not ask depending on the time frame, my body language and so on. It’s fun. I get to make jokes like ‘it’s form the Gospel the boys club doesn’t want you to read’ and ‘it’s the most fun at PTA meetings.’ It’s also a great opportunity for grumpy unhappy stuck up people to self-select out of interaction with me. Soccer moms especially glance over, frown, and skitter off without giving me the time of day. Which is good. I don’t want to be mistaken for that kind of mom, ever. But the point is, at a convention, you get a lot of eyes if you’re a woman, even if you aren’t wearing a clever tshirt, only on your chest. So I got a lot of eyes. When I had time, I’d stop and talk. When I didn’t, I’d tell them where to google it and run off to whatever I was doing. It never felt creepy or weird.
David had just finished his Design an RPG in an Hour. He’d run off to get us some lunch while I prepped for my Design a Setting in an Hour. (World building: You’re Taking Too Long, in other words.) It was gonna be cool. I was alone in the hallway outside of the panel rooms, hanging, waiting, it was all good.
So a dude comes up to me. He’s short and already grinning strangely. I figure it was the ‘he he, cleveage’ effect that’s a little sad, but easy to tolerate because it really in a minority occurance. I nodded to him, and noted that he had some friends way down the hallway who were waiting for him, and thought nothing of it.
“Can I read your tattoo?”
“Sure.” I wasn’t doing anything else, though dude did not strike me as someone I wanted to have a conversation with at length. I’m expecting he’s reading, because his eyes drift down, and the next thing I’m aware that there’s a hand on my boob. A full grope. Not a brush or an accidental touch. There was no reason for it to be there. It was just there, uninvited. It didn’t process. It was so …weird… for it to be there I didn’t even process the whys and wherefores of its existence. Some sort of crazy French existentialist hand coming from nowhere and for a heartbeat, meaning nothing.
Except, of course, it meant a lot.
I looked at the dude, to whom the hand belonged. Before I could say or do anything, dude laughed and ran away. Like a ten year old putting a frog down a girls jumper, he laughed and ran. He ran to his friends who were waiting to congratulate him and follow him in his escape. It was a planned event. An event where a handful of MY flesh was the prize.
This is the point where people will tell me that I should have punched him. Or kicked him. This is the point where all sorts of people will tell me how I should have reacted. I’m going to politely tell you to keep it to yourself and save your advice for when you’re in a situation like that yourself. Save it for your anecdote. This is mine. This is what happened. Not because I’m not a black belt, or because it was my fault for having a provocative tattoo, but because sometimes in these situations, you are so outside of expectation that you can’t process. It happens. And if you think I need training to make sure that I process better in the future, excuse me again, but fuck off. Dude needs training not to grope strangers. I don’t need to change who I am or how I live because other people are scum. Sorry. Not debating that point AT ALL.
So then there’s other people who show up and say, ‘what, he grabbed your tit, not that big a deal, get over it. He didn’t rape you or anything.’ And, yeah, okay sure. I’m grateful I wasn’t raped at a public event where I was working as a professional. If that’s the bar you’re going to set, that’s um… Really pretty sad for you as a human being. Other things that didn’t happen to me at Gencon that year: I didn’t have my genitals mutilated in an outdated and cruel religious ceremony. I didn’t get murdered. I wasn’t beaten to a pulp. I didn’t win an Ennie. (Well, I guess that last one wouldn’t have been so bad. ) What I’m saying is, I had my personal space and my flesh invaded. I had my body used for someone else’s entertainment without my permission. I was used as an object. My humanity, (and my professional presence, let’s not forget, I had Speaker or something like that written on my badge quite prominently) was taken away from by a stranger because I had breasts and he didn’t. He decided that I was a part of his fun, no matter how it might have felt to me. I spent the convention feeling unsafe. I still do not travel anywhere at a convention by myself if it can be helped and certainly do not stay in any open to the public location by myself. Period. I’m not the only female professional that I know who can tell you similar stories, some worse, some about the same, that they have experienced at conventions. My list of Gencon experiences specifically is pretty long. And that gives me a sad.
And worse, if I’m not with a group of people, or behind a table at a booth, I cover up my tattoo. This is not something I feel a need to do in public in the real world. It is something that seems necessary at a convention because there is a seriously different vibe at a convention. I am there, like a booth babe, to entertain men in the way they decide, not in the way I have chosen. I am not the norm, and therefore, I am a curiosity for their pleasure.
Why bring up the two separate events? Well, I guess because they were both weird creepy events at a con. One went harmless, one very much did not. One left me with an amusing story, one changed the way I had to behave at a cons to feel safe. (Or to go at all. Still a pretty big part of me that hates the idea of ever setting foot in any convention ever again.) At the onset, there is no way I could tell which event would go bad. No way. In fact, I was getting far bigger warning signals in the harmless encounter than the groped one. These things happen to women at conventions. For real. And worse. And molesters do not wear tshirts or special con badges to let you know that they are molesters.
Do I see it changing? Nope. Statistics say that with any large population you’re going to have a bigger change of dragging out the shitheads, but there’s a difference between the numbers and a culture that doesn’t make those sorts feel welcome. So long as the environment of ‘us and outsiders’ remains with women as outsiders and white cis dudes as ‘us.’ Do I think there are ways to ease the pain, yes. PAX, for all my loathing of Penny Arcade dudes themselves, has at least made gestures. It’s a fun con. Not one that feels like it’s full of creeps waiting and lurking. There are groups like Project Backup, hoping to help change the environment with advice and support. Some conventions are considering an open and obvious anti-harassment policy. Does your local con support stuff like that? Does your favorite? Because it needs to.