Content Warning(s): Consent issues.
My name is Fey, and I'm one of the founding members of CSSN.
We work to hold cons accountable for providing strong safety policies to protect their attendees, with clear definitions for what constitutes harassing behavior, what the consequences of engaging in harassment are, and where someone can go for help. Trickssi and I hold panels to educate attendees on consent culture, and the safe environment they have every right to demand from events.
One of these panels is usually called Yikes! Real Con Horror Stories, where the audience can share stories of bizarre experiences they have had at cons, from roommates who didn't observe basic hygiene to being treated as a character, not a cosplayer. Although it's presented in a humorous, commiserating manner, it has helped audience members to realize that maybe behavior that they've experienced isn't actually something they should be expected to just brush off, or accept as 'just con culture.'
A story I usually open with is one (relatively mild compared to my other experiences) that occurred to me in 2008. I was at a small convention on a college campus with several friends, running a promotional booth for our local con. We were speaking with the attendees who approached us, encouraging them to pre-register for our event.
So when a young man approached us--my friends nicknamed him Whitewash, based on the 90's style jeans he was wearing--I was happy to engage in conversation.
I was wearing the most fabric I had ever been wrapped in in my entire life. It was a minimum of 20 yards of an elaborate kimono based on a CLAMP character--a child house spirit, the Zashiki-warashi. Next to me was my friend dressed as a schoolgirl from the hentai Bible Black. We were quite a contrasting pair, although I'd made both of the costumes. I assumed that was what caught his interest rather than any of our fliers or our small banner.
It was really uncomfortable. He wasn't making eye contact--seeming to be staring at my friend's chest-- or even listening to my standard "come to our show!" schpiel--he kept interrupting, including to ask if my friend was cosplaying from a "hen-tay." Still, I didn't think much of it when he asked for a photo--I was surprised that he asked only me, when he was clearly more interested in my friend's costume. I walked up from behind the table and posed for a shot on his disposable camera.
He then asked if he could have a photo *with* me. Again, that's a pretty standard request for cosplayers, I didn't really mind. He placed his arms on my shoulders (without asking) as his friend snapped a photo.
I was about to head back when he asked me those infamous, cursed, convention words.
"Can I have a hug?"
Not a big deal, I thought, I want to show him how friendly our local convention is so he'll want to pre-register! Plus I was wearing like, twenty yard of fabric, it's not like he was planning on groping me, right? So I stepped forward for what I thought was a quick, friendly embrace.
A normal hug is what, 2-3 seconds long? You wrap your arms around someone, rest a beat, and release.
This man hugged me for thirty. full. seconds.
Take a moment to time that out. It's a lot longer than it sounds for a strange person to have their arms tightly wrapped around you.
I kind of went to step back at about seven seconds, when he began to sway. I was severely weirded out at this point, but it just got weirder when I began to hear a camera click and see a flash.
He was taking pictures of himself hugging me as he swayed back and forth.
Now, please remember that I had several friends who were witnessing this. They all looked pretty horrified when he finally released me and walked away without another word.
I asked why none of them had stepped in. I remember my best friend's boyfriend's bemused response, his face looking like he couldn't quite comprehend what he'd just seen. "I mean... it wasn't like he was obviously creeping on you, he was just... hugging you for a really, REALLY long time..." My friend thought I should report it to security, but at the time I thought I was overreacting to be upset. It was just weird, right? Not actually harmful, and that was all security was supposed to handle, right?
We saw him a few other times at that con, but my friends made a small barrier or went the other direction when we saw him. It wasn't until we got home that my friend realized he'd scanned and posted the photos online. I shared the one with his arms on my shoulders on my friends' list, thinking my clearly forced & uncomfortable smile was kind of amusing and that it was a funny story because of how bizarre it was.
What bothers me the most, even now, was a friend's offhand comment that "but you look so happy in that picture." They either genuinely could not tell that I was mentally screaming for help, or they thought I was exaggerating and actually hadn't minded. I'm still not sure which, but that response still irks me a bit.
I've had a couple similar responses when I share this, things like "Maybe he was, y'know.... on the spectrum." I believe people are genuine, trying to find an excuse for this weird behavior that would make it "okay."
But even well meaning, that's completely erasing how *I* felt about what happened. I was wondering when he was going to let go, was he going to try to do something else, and I felt like I couldn't stop it. "Don't make a scene, you don't want anyone to think you're the problem, you're representing a company here! You don't want to give your con a bad name, do you?"
Intentions do not matter, ACTIONS do.
Social awkwardness, even a mental disability, are not get-out-of-jail-free excuses. Nothing anyone could say about him would make me feel "Oh well, since you've explained that, I guess I actually was comfortable and okay, everything's all better now!" And if this actually WAS someone who genuinely didn't recognize that was a pretty violating thing to do, someone needs to tell them it's not okay!
Women especially are socialized to not make a scene, to put the well being of others in front of our own. We're shamed when we won't accept excuses or apologies for behavior that left us feeling everything from slightly icky to outright traumatized.
This is the kind of thing I use this story to illustrate--it doesn't matter how other people--ESPECIALLY the perpetrator--may perceive an action. YOU define what your boundaries are, YOU define what harassment is to YOU. No one else gets to decide what should or shouldn't make you uncomfortable, what you should or shouldn't consent to.