Fear As A Way Of Life: Why Women In Comics Don’t ‘Just Report’ Sexual Harassment
“If the harassment is so bad, why don’t women just report it?”
“I want to believe these women, but if they’re not willing to come forth and put their name to these accusations, I just can’t.”
“These claims of harassment are all so overblown. I never see it happening.”
I have been a woman in the comics industry for a few months now. It has been wonderful. It has also been terrifying.
Terrifying in a way I’m used to, though. When you grow up enveloped in the miasma of “tits or GTFO,” “attention whore,” and “fake geek girl,” fear becomes the price you pay to enjoy your hobbies. You don’t even think of it as fear most of the time. Sometimes you join in the fear mongering yourself, enjoying the a**hole glamour of not being too pussy to call another girl a slut. Sometimes you hide in woman-heavy spaces, which go maligned elsewhere (“Tumblrinas!”) but do a pretty solid job of keeping you safe. The fear comes back eventually, though, as a slew of graphic rape threats or a simple joke about “feminazis” you are expected to chuckle along with. It might be in response to a screed worthy of Andrea Dworkin—or maybe you just tweeted something about disliking Guardians of the Galaxy. What matters is that you were a woman with an opinion on the internet, and now you must be punished. You must be made to fear.
Fear is also meant to keep us safe from sexual harassment, assault and abuse. We’re told not to stay out too late, not to go out alone, not to drink, not to lead anyone on, not to go home with anyone, not to ever feel safe in any situation that a man might take advantage of. If you fear the (implicitly common) worst from the men around you, you will escape it. When harassment, assault, and abuse take place anyway, fear is often a distinctly purposeful element of the encounter. Sometimes, this is subtle—it might take place in a deliberately secluded spot, or the perpetrator might be in a position of power over your future. Or, in the case of rape-and-death-threat style online harassment, the naked point of it might be to instill fear. After the harassment, assault, or abuse has taken place, it is fear that keeps women from speaking out. Fear of being branded the whiny bitch, of enduring the Anita Sarkeesian experience, or having one’s career torpedoed by a thousand nerds high on a lifetime’s worth of entitlement and vitriol.
Fear is what keeps us silent. Fear is what keeps men from understanding the ubiquity of these experiences. Fear is what keeps us from attaching a name to our allegations. Fear is what makes harassment, assault, and abuse a rite of passage for women in this industry and the world beyond. Fear, in this society, is what makes you a woman. And fear, in extinguishing discussion of its cruelties, keeps us from understanding its nature and better dismantling it.
So it’s no surprise that men react with astonishment to claims of overwhelming mistreatment of women. They don’t see it. We don’t talk about it. The threat of male anger harms women, then ensures their silence—and teaches them that this is normal, that it’s no big deal, that they can handle it. It’s just little things, right? Just a grope or a word or a threat here and there. Little things. Little things that, invisibly, circumscribe the freedom of half the population.
Let’s say that one day, the guy who works in the next department over starts hovering over your desk. He leans in way too close. He’s always putting a hand on your back and asking why the other girls in the office don’t dress like you. Every single day he offers you some variation on this milquetoast line, and you smile weakly and make some kind of pliant noise at him and you only feel yourself unclench as he disappears into the break room. You consider telling Human Resources, because, well, you’re pretty sure it crosses a line. Right? But, you reason, it’s not a big deal, really. It’s not like he’s sliding a hand into your bra or asking if you’re on your period or calling you a slut. You can deal with it. You’d feel silly if you went to someone about it, and really, he’s not like, groping you. It’s only two minutes out of your day. And he’s good at his job—would he get fired if you went to someone? Would people know? Would you become the office bitch? It’s not worth it. You can deal. You wince imperceptibly when you see him across a crowded room and you go out of your way to avoid his usual haunts, but really, you assure yourself, you can handle it.
Or maybe one night at a convention, when all the old hands are welcoming you, the promising ingénue, into their ranks, something happens. This guy, an established talent, keeps hitting on you. You smile placatingly the first time, diffusing his advances as best you can. He presses on. You grit your teeth and deploy your trustiest deterrent: “oh, ha ha, I don’t think my boyfriend would agree!” He makes some stupid joke about the boyfriend who may or may not exist. He follows you back to your hotel room. You’re not feeling well, or you have to get up early, or you’re rooming with your sister, you protest. He has a way around every single one, and he’s growing more insistent. Come on, he wheedles. He’s drunk and desperate and embarrassing and his come-ons are getting aggressive—you end up literally needing to shut the door in his face.
The next day, you see him at his booth, and he smiles. You turn it over and over again in your mind: maybe he doesn’t remember? Maybe he’s too embarrassed to mention it? You feel uneasy about the whole thing. You wonder if you should tell someone—but who? There’s no central authority to report him to. And, well, he was drunk, right? People do embarrassing things when they’re drunk. It happened, but it’s over now. And that’s just guys, right? Years pass, and you hear more and more reports of this guy and his predilection for preying on neophyte girls. The women around you all shake their heads and sigh, and you do your best to warn others. His star rises. He gets signed to a prominent reboot. You remain silent.
Or maybe you start a forum focused on women in comics. Or you question the firing of a publisher’s sole black creator. Or you criticize a particularly beloved creator’s style. The next day, your inbox is overflowing with bile. Death threats, rape threats, outright lies. At first, you are angry. You want to do something with this, show people, fight back against such outright tactics of fear and intimidation. You sleep on it. And you realize, maybe it’s not worth it. You don’t want to admit it, but you are scared, and you know it can get worse. You know people could find your bank account and your address and you know it’s not right to give in, but you’re not sure that you’re up to becoming the newest target of fanboy spleen-venting. You’re shaken. You imagine what might happen if you posted these threats online.
Support, sure. You’ve managed to surround yourself with a pretty decent crowd. But beyond those committed few lie thousands of others eager to make any woman who protests a symbol of what they can do. You can’t do it. You’re not strong enough. Men will not believe you. Women might, but even those who sympathize will be too scared to do so publicly. People will say you’re lying, that you Photoshopped whatever screencaps you took. They’ll say you poked the hornet’s nest, and what did you think would happen? Now you’re fainting theatrically, they’ll say, victimizing yourself for attention and support. You can’t do it. You can’t handle it. You’ll stay quiet, and limit your complaints to a small circle of friends. Anything else would be too much of a risk.
Or maybe you’re working the booth at San Diego Comic-Con, and you’ve stepped inside with a coworker to see if you have any more t-shirts in stock. You turn to leave, but he grabs your arm and forces a kiss onto you. You’re stunned. You have nowhere to go. You’re in the middle of the busiest day of the weekend and no one needs drama right now—and you know that’s how it would be seen, as drama. You feel sick and ashamed and angry and you know this crosses a definite line, but there’s nothing you can do in that moment. You tell yourself you’ll report him, but days pass and when people ask how the con went, you can only muster a vague smile. If you report him, will he be fired? Will people know it was you? Your coworkers seem decent, but he has a lot of friends among them and you know your name won’t stay secret for long. He’ll get it out there, far beyond your organization, out into the suffocatingly small industry at large. Some would believe you—but how many wouldn’t? How many would get angry? You’re pretty sure your boss would support you, but beyond him, there is no guarantee of safety. You can’t take the risk. You tell a few trusted friends about him, put the word out to women in the industry: don’t be alone with this guy.
This is the reality of being a woman in the comic book industry. These are the conversations we have. These are the bargains we strike with ourselves as we juggle career, sanity, and safety. And none of these fears are unfounded. We grew up in anonymous online spaces, among men who did not know we were there, or did not care. We know it can get exactly as bad as we fear, and often does. We have watched as teen girls are sent pictures of their heads photoshopped onto porn models. We have seen literally thousands of anonymous social media accounts created to threaten any woman who uses the word “misogyny” in earnest with bloody gang rape. Chatrooms full of men conspire to harass and abuse Zoe Quinn with a view to inspiring suicide, then to troll whatever hashtag pops up to memorialize her. Anita Sarkeesian is threatened so violently that she leaves her home, and is then accused of faking said threats. For years, we have laughed and rolled our eyes at women and girls are sacrificed to the maw of male anger—remember Jessi Slaughter?—only to be forgotten as a new Terrible Lying Whore Bitch emerges.
Men in general, but especially nerdy men, are used to having their whims satisfied as swiftly, entirely, and luridly as possible. It comes as no surprise, then, that their anger knows no lines. A woman’s family, friends, career, and sanity are all fair game. If they’re angry, and she’s a woman, they must be in the right.
As women decide not to take this treatment any longer, they leave a tide of confused men in their wake, wondering at their passion and swelling ranks. They (confident of their cool, masculine, logical objectivity) don’t see all this so-called harassment. And it doesn’t seem like it really gets that bad. It seems entirely possible to them that the more violent threats are faked by the women themselves. They (impartial observers that they are) know that, well, women really do crave attention, and get sort of carried away with their feelings. Games and comics have no place for them, really! That’s just the market—the perfectly rational, not-at-all-affected-by-fluctuating-cultural-mores market! If women are going to put controversial opinions out there then they should be ready to handle blowback! I mean, they, as guys, get yelled at all the time on Xbox Live! These men roll their eyes. Guess women just can’t handle real gender equality.
I’m indulging fear right now. There are names I could be plastering everywhere, men I could be calling out, reports I could be making. But I’m afraid. I’m afraid of the power these men wield and those who might rush to their aid. I’m afraid of how it might affect my family and friends. I’m afraid of how it might affect my career. I’m afraid of how it might affect me. And I’m afraid of how utterly reasonable every single one of my fears are.
And somewhere, a man is asking: Why don’t women speak up about harassment?
Illustration by Erica Henderson