Convention Sexual Harassment and #EAFail

Sin To Win - Dante's Inferno SDCC Contest


I haven’t spoken up about the failness that is #EAfail, partly because I’ve been doing detective work, collecting many of the links you see in this post, keeping tabs on what’s going on in the Twitter stream, and just gathering my thoughts on it after several days of perspective.

If you haven’t heard about it, this post gives a good overview of the Dante’s Inferno “Sin to Win” contest, which EA Games ran at San Diego Comic-Con this year.

I think there are several interconnected issues at play here, and a broader context that many of the articles I’ve read about this incident that I feel people have not discussed enough, which I will cover towards the end of this post.

First is the misogynistic, sexist, and heteronormative bent of the contest itself. It appears targeted to males of a certain mindset (immature) and social aptitude/ability (incompetent) and/or Males Who Don’t Give a Shit About Women. It presupposes that straight women and gay men are not interested in buying this game, therefore part of the prize EA and the Dante’s Inferno development team offered up were just”two hot girls”, no equivalent prize for straight women or gay men. This is setting aside the fact that awarding people as prizes is gross objectfication. I feel it’s safe to assume they didn’t consider that lesbian and bisexual women play games, either, because the language and imagery used by EA were quite sexist and disrespectful of women, in my opinion. The graphics for the contest, a woman’s chest and cleavage, and the tattooed silhouettes of two women, on their hands and knees, with their asses in the air in a provocative position that presents themselves as sexually available and subservient was just gross.

Further, labeling women ‘girls’ is, to many women, sexist as well, because it infantilses them. A girl is a prepubescent human female. Do adult males get called ‘boys’ all the time? No, they’re usually called ‘guys’. But it’s different for women. Women are taken a notch down, they’re ‘girls’—they aren’t adults, they are children. “You throw like a girl!” is a common insult—just one tiny, tiny facet of society’s partiarchal power structures in which men are raised up and women are devalued. I know many women who don’t mind being called ‘girls’. I’m cool with that. It’s their choice. I don’t look down upon them for it, because it is a woman’s own personal choice in how she identifies. Personally, I won’t rip your head off if you call me a girl, but it gets on my nerves because I haven’t been a child for a very long time. In the specific context of this contest, however, the terminology, combined with all of the other sexist content, further stresses the disappointing lack of respect for women.

The second issue is treating women as objects (that men are entitled to). They were being given away as prizes. Booth workers/models/”babes” are there to do a job. Whether people approve of booth babes or not, they are human beings and deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity afforded to any other human being. Dangling a couple of booth babes as prizes in this contest is not respectful in my opinion. I don’t feel the need to elaborate further on this point, because it seems pretty obvious why this aspect of the competition was problematic.

Thirdly, there is the objectification of women. Just because EA or any other company hires attractive women to work at their booth does not mean the women are “asking” to be objectified or harassed. Supporters of this contest argued that “booth babes know what they are getting into” and that the possibility of being groped (in other words, assaulted) is “part of the job”, which is a dumb argument. Why? Because employers have a responsibility to ensure their employees’ safety. Sexual harassment or assault should never be “part of the job”. To put this into a little perspective, so that people of the dude persuasion can perhaps understand better:

As to the guys saying “if your job is to look pretty and pose for pics in a bikini, you’re asking to be harassed,” well gee, your “package” is out on front of your body—I think you’re asking for it to be smacked. I have the right to decide that, don’t I? IMO, if you aren’t wearing a cup, you’re asking for it and it’s fair game. If you don’t like it, then either wear a cup, cut it off, or get used to it—because you’ve asked for it.

Both the above statements are ridiculous—but that’s my point: assuming that a woman’s clothing (or lack thereof) is an invitation to harass her makes just as much sense as a woman assuming a guy not covered by a cup is asking to be hit in the package with a 2×4. Since when does *she* have the right to assume you’re asking for it, get into your personal space and flatten your package, based on her own ideas about how a man should properly hide his goodies?

These above two points—the fact that people objectify women, and the fact that women are being treated like objects—are different, but related. As Eleniel said, “Just because people objectify models doesn’t mean models become objects when they do their job!”

Fourthly, there is the ignorance of convention fan culture on the part of EA, which fans  who have some awareness or critical thought know, is rife with misogyny—sexual harassment, incidents of stalking, assault, and just general badness towards women. Geek conventions can be a safe, accepting haven for many who have been derided or shunned because of their hobbies in other social environments, but geek fandom is a very male space, where women, unfortunately, get treated poorly with disturbing regularity. I’m going to elaborate on this point by discussing one of my own personal experiences with creepiness at an anime convention. Before I begin, I’d like to note that this incident happened when I was much younger; I would probably behave differently these days (hindsight is 20/20):

I was hanging out in the Video Game room, watching people play a fighting game, and I wasn’t really bothered to play it. This guy walked up and stood beside me to watch the others play the game, as one does. This fellow was a very large man, in terms of height, and in terms of girth. He had thick glasses, unkempt clothing, and dark, messy, curly hair—in short, a typical geek. However, he was standing so close to me that I felt a little on my guard.

Like many people at anime conventions, my badge name was different from my real name. In this case, my badge name was ‘Samus Aran’, because I like Metroid so much. He started the conversation with me by looking down at my badge—keep in mind he was already standing very close to me—and saying, “So you’re a Metroid fan, huh?” We started talking about Metroid and fighting games. That was okay. He started talking about his online girlfriend in Taiwan, who he was going to visit very soon. That was fine, too. But then he started bragging about how he spent over £100 on anime porn at a previous convention. He kept going on and on about his girlfriend, their long distance relationship, and his porn collection. The fact that he discussed his porn collection and his girlfriend at the same time disturbed me and creeped me out, because he was just so keen on bragging about both. He wasn’t talking about her like she was an actual person, but a trophy, another part of his collection. I also felt undertones of Asian fetishisation/exotification in the way he talked about his girlfriend, and this racial dynamic also made me uncomfortable, as someone who identifies as Asian.

At this point, I really wanted to leave, I didn’t want to hear about his porn or his girlfriend anymore, and I was thinking of how to extract myself from the conversation without making a scene. Luckily I spotted a friend of mine, and excused myself.

In hindsight, I consider what happened to me to be sexual harassment. Uninvited, a total stranger launched into a discussion of a sexual nature completely out of the blue. This dude had no sense or understanding of social boundaries, and it made me feel very uncomfortable. I’ve experienced a few other incidents of general creepiness from men at conventions (and outside of conventions), and they were uncomfortable experiences as well.

My experiences were tame in comparison to what many women experience at fandom conventions. Sexual harassment, stalking, and even physical and sexual assault, are not recent problems at cons, either. The incident I described above happened to me nearly a decade ago.

I don’t live in fear of going to cons. I’ve been going to and working at cons for a long time. If I didn’t enjoy them, I wouldn’t go. My good experiences of conventions outweighs these few negative experiences, so I hope people don’t get the impression that I am against fandom or conventions. I’m against people getting hurt at conventions.

I have insight on this issue from another point of view. I’ve been on Otakon Staff for ten years* now. Otakon is the second largest anime convention in the United States. Every year, about 23 000 people attend. When you work behind the scenes in running a convention you know that there are incidents where convention staffers have to help out a member who is having problems with another member, and sometimes those incidents involve sexual harassment. That is reality. I won’t get into details, but there are definitely a lot of disgusting and creepy people out there.

SDCC has continuing problems with sexual harassment. Last year, people called for a no-tolerance sexual harassment policy to be instituted. The convention administration has remained silent and not addressed the concerns of women and members who complained. I looked through the SDCC website and found no policies on sexual harassment or any type of behavioural policy**. The pleas of fans last year seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. This year, there were yet again incidents of sexual harassment at SDCC.

For EA to run a contest like this in complete ignorance of the problems that fan conventions have with stalking, sexual harassment, and other problem behaviours, was not a good move, in my opinion. Many men at fandom cons already have problems recognising social boundaries and the personal space of women who are fellow attendees, without any external prompting or encouragement. Contests like the Dante’s Inferno “Sin to Win” promotion invites contestants to go beyond social boundaries by committing “acts of lust” with any booth babe. It puts not only EA employees workers at risk but also the employees of other companies. Furthermore, it leaves the door open for this type of inappropriate behaviour towards regular attendees, who may not have the same protection or power as those with exhibitor badges.  As the link round-up post concludes, “It encourages behaviour that makes cons unsafe for women.”

EA’s response? A not-real apology (saved here, in case they try to take it down again), the kind that blames you for being offended and “confused”. It didn’t actually address people’s concerns.

While EA may learn from this, I wonder whether this even registered on the radar of SDCC convention staff.

* At the moment I’m not active because living on the West Coast makes travel to Baltimore to staff a con impractical.

** Full disclosure: Shortly, after reading the blog posts about what happened SDCC last year, as well as the ridiculousness of the Open Source Boob Project, and after the establishment of the Con Anti-Harassment Project, I proposed to other Otakon Staffers that Otakon institute a sexual harassment policy. Convention leadership felt that the very broad existing disruptive behaviour policy already included sexual harassment and was adequate for the con.

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