• Dear Gaming as Women: Harassment Policies at Conventions

    by and  • October 10, 2012 • Dear GAW • 3 Comments

    It’s that time again! Time for another installment of Dear Gaming as Women! We do invite our fair readers to send us questions, and today’s question is from a convention organizer (we’ve been asked not to specify which convention) regarding implementation of anti-harassment policies at conventions. There’s some great stuff here, so let’s dive right in:

    [Note: This has been slightly edited to remove personal details]

    I read your recent post on harassment at conventions and GenCon’s stand on it with a lot of interest.  I’m married and have two kids, one of them is my young daughter.  I think of myself as very friendly toward women, but probably my white anglo-saxon midwest male background works against me at times.  So I have some questions for you and I want to know your thoughts, because you seem like a really reasonable person who has beliefs that match my own.

    I’d like for our convention to adopt an anti-harassment policy.  I want women to feel welcome at our event.  It makes me really sick to think that my wife or daughter might have to deal with unwanted attention at conventions – luckily, neither of them have experienced this (my wife, got slapped on the ass once by a drunk friend, but we both don’t count that!)

    My question has to do with “sexualized imagery.”  I have a really hard time with that aspect of a harassment policy.  So much of our hobby involves the female form displayed in various “fantasy” ways – swordswomen in bikinis being the classic example (in the Elmore style, not so much the Vallejo style, but if you like that, more power to you).  If a convention or other event adopted a policy that prohibited “sexualized imagery,” would an Elmore painting be out of bounds?  How does one distinguish between “sexualized” and just “sexy?”

    And what about women who choose to wear chainmail bikinis and the like – do they count as being sexualized?

    Look, let me explain why I’m asking.  I realize that we could make a policy that just ignores that part of the definition and not worry about it.  Honestly, at a games convention, that’s probably appropriate.  But I want to get your view as someone who has done a lot of thinking, reading, and talking about this topic.  What would be the best balance between making gamer women feel welcome and not going totally off the deep end in terms of restrictive definitions?  We don’t want to be PornCon, but we also don’t want to be PuritanCon.  How does the enlightened gamer strike a balance?

    This is really me, as a member of the organizing team for a convention, asking for advice and help thinking about this issue.  I think I probably waaaay underestimate the amount of discomfort women feel on an everyday basis.  I think it’s easy for me to say things like “Come on, that’s not a sexual image, that’s just a girl without a top.”  I don’t want to be like that.  I want to be fair and just to others.  I thought maybe asking you would help me organize my own thoughts.

    I really appreciate your time – but mainly, I appreciate your stories, as they’ve made me think about this issue in a way I never would have before.  I can literally feel myself growing up as I write and talk about this, even though I’m 38 years old.

    Thanks so much.


    First of all, let me take a moment to thank you for taking this issue seriously enough to want to implement an anti-harassment policy at your event. This is the sort of thing that delights me, because this is exactly the sort of change that we need to see.

    Now, regarding your question… Language regarding sexualized imagery in harassment policies is a bit of a complex issue. This is more of an issue for tech conferences and other types of conventions mainly structured around panels and lectures, because the issues there are a bit different. There is a long and checkered history of (mainly male) speakers at tech conference including pornographic images in the slideshows or visual material accompanying their talks. Because games conventions tend to be structured differently, this can be less of an issue depending on the event. If you plan on having a lot of panels and talks, it might be worth it to mention that it is not appropriate for speakers to include pornographic or otherwise highly sexualized material as part of their talks. But in general, it’s something that tends not to be as applicable to gaming events because of their more de-centralized nature.

    So sure! As an organizer, I’ll agree there’s not a lot you can do to address the sort of cheesecake that game publishers choose to put on their products. And you’re right that the culture is different in that you do have a cosplaying culture that includes women who choose to wear skimpy outfits. However, you can have an environment that doesn’t censor cheesecake and welcomes women who choose to cosplay in revealing costumes and still takes pains to make women feel safe. If language about sexualized imagery doesn’t feel pertinent to the subculture of your convention, then don’t include it. What’s important is to clearly define what is considered harassing behavior, what will happen to people who engage in harassing behavior, and what steps someone who is feeling harassed can take to have the anti-harassment policy enforced by convention staff.

    The Geek Feminism Wiki has a fantastically clear definition of what constitutes harassment here as part of their sample policy. It does include sexualized imagery in public places, but that is language that could be removed. If you’re looking for something more concise, SkepChickCon’s harassment policy is one of the best that I’ve seen in terms of setting clear expectations without tons of wordage. And something I’d recommend looking into, if you have the budget for extra signage, are maybe looking at signs in the vein of what they had posted at this year’s CONvergence. Even just some simple text-only signs setting out designated safe areas and reminding people that costumes do not imply consent would be a huge thing that would make it clear your convention takes the safety of women seriously.

    Thanks again for the email and good luck!

    Vivian Abraham:

    A lot of gaming and other fannish material is highly sexualized.  But as Wundergeek said above, you can create a family friendly environment at a gaming convention without completely censoring sexualized images.   Harassing behavior is really the thing to come down hard on (and the signs for cosplayers linked above are awesome!)  I find that you can get a good idea as to what sort of images you want prominently displayed at your gaming convention by looking around in other public places.  Go to your local mall and find the Abercrombie & Fitch store.  Take a look at the posters and other art they have in the store.  Now head down to Victoria’s Secret and take a look at their stuff.  These are going to be highly sexualized images of men and women, but they are generally tolerable to the public.  Breasts, genitals, and bottoms are covered up.  No one is performing an overt sexualized act on another person.  There is no violence against women on display.  So a rule of thumb might be:  if it could be shown in a mainstream store in a mall, it is probably ok.  This gives the people displaying images a good feel for what would be acceptable.


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    I’m an occasional game illustrator, and game designer, long-time LARPer, and player of tabletop roleplaying games (mostly indie games). I have a terminal addiction to board games. I also play both PC and console games – mainly RPGs of all stripes, but I do enjoy puzzle games like Katamari as well. My main source of gaming notoriety, however, is the feminist gaming blog Go Make Me a Sandwich. In addition to being a cranky feminist blogger, I am a photographer and somewhat half-assed writer living in the wilds of Canada with a wonderful spouse and two slightly broken cats.




    I am a gamer, a lawyer, and a mom. Not necessarily in that order.

    3 Responses to Dear Gaming as Women: Harassment Policies at Conventions

    1. avatar
      October 10, 2012 at 18:57

      The backup ribbon nproject http://backupribbonproject.wordpress.com/ was created to help anyone who felt harassed at conventions. I haven’t been to a con in quite some time, but there was some controversy about how Defcon handled a harassing convention member.

      A lot of people go to conventions to be looked at, whether they’re wearing chainmail bikinis or a t-shirt with provocative text. I don’t know why some people decide this is license to grope.

      Jim C. Hines has some great commentary about harassment in his blog, including his own experience: http://www.jimchines.com/2012/07/reporting-sexual-harassment-in-sff-2/. I adore Jim and would like to buy him a beer or six.

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    2. avatar
      October 10, 2012 at 21:13

      This isn’t a gaming convention, but the Ada Initiative published a report on the first hacker conference to have an anti-harassment policy here http://adainitiative.org/blog/2012/10/02/report-out-from-brucon-first-hacker-conference-with-anti-harassment-policy/

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    3. avatar
      October 11, 2012 at 16:59

      I want to chime in here and thank you, as a con goer, for creating an anti-harrassment policy. My husband and I have brought our young daughters to GenCon for two years now, and I’m very familiar with that “hoo-boy” feeling that you can get as a parent when you and your child see something that could be viewed as not-so-kid-appropriate. But I think your conscience as a parent, especially as a dad to a daughter, can help you guide how to shape the anti-harrassment policy at your con. Essentially, what behavior would you not tolerate when it came to your daughter being on the receiving end? Food for thought: sure, you have a wife/female significant other, but being an adult, sometimes it’s easy to think, she can handle it when (…) happens and because of that, I don’t need to list that in the policy. I know my husband tends to back away and let me assert myself in uncomfortable situations while he stands behind me and acts as the silent muscle, so to speak. Not everyone has that capability, especially younger girls who haven’t necessarily developed the social know-how to handle that. So thinking from a more parental perspective could help you better shape the policy.

      All the best to you!

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