Sexism at Nerd Events: Helping Women Feel Comfortable In Your Space

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I was hanging out with my friend at a Magic: the Gathering tournament, and the guy in charge commanded the attention of the whole room to say: “Anybody who isn’t participating needs to leave now,” and then looked pointedly at me. I sat down, leaving my decks in my backpack until my foe had been chosen, and he came over to my table. “Are you playing?” he asked. “Yeah,” I said, a little taken aback by the question. He gave a surprised little head-nod and backed off. At first I was confused, but then I realized-- girls don’t play Magic. Though the man was not trying to be rude, the clear message was that I was an outlier. All nerds have felt that way, but it shouldn’t have had to come from my own “kind.” Many, many people have had this same experience, and it needs to end.

I should add a disclaimer: I am not a woman, but I am often mistaken for one, due to being transgender. I don’t pretend to speak over them, but rather to use my position here to get the word out about the experiences of myself and others.

Throughout this article I will be using the word “sexual harassment” as an umbrella term to mean: making people feel sexually threatened, unwanted touching, aggressive behavior, condescension based on gender, exposing others to sexually explicit media without their consent, rape, etc. Of course these things happen to people of all genders, but for cultural reasons, are centered around women and feminine-appearing people.

If you want everyone to enjoy your nerd event as much as you do, I suggest you take sexism into account.

I have designed this advice to apply whether you’re attending Friday Night Magic, or you’re the organizer of a large convention. It boils down to “treat women like humans!” but, with the way our culture trains us, we are not always very practiced in that art. Here are some specifics.

VIGILANCE: OF YOUR OWN BEHAVIOR

  • Stop with the rape jokes. This issue affects people of all genders, but is still an especially sensitive topic with women. It’s a traumatizing experience, and it has been shown that rapists consider these jokes a show of solidarity with their actions. Don’t throw the word around when you win in CoD.
  • Don’t constantly point out the fact that they’re women. Now, this takes a bit of subtlety, because your first reaction might be that this sounds extreme. However, it’s totally fine to mention their feminine traits (“I like your shirt, my girlfriend has a similar one”) but not to reduce their traits to their gender (“Of course Loki’s your favorite, you’re a girl”).
  • Don’t buy into the “fake geek girl” idea. Interrogating women about their favorite superheroes and scoffing about their answers is obnoxious, but it’s also a sure way to ensure they don’t show up to your event again. Also, if you think about it, it shows a lot of weird ideas about women: why do we think their interests aren’t genuine?
  • Don’t use events as a way to pick up chicks. Yes, it’s totally possible and totally fine to meet someone that you really hit it off with, and it’s also totally fine to politely let people know that you think they’re attractive. But if you assume that ladies are interested in advances (no matter what they’re wearing), you are probably wrong. Their priority is to have fun and roll dice and eat pizza, just like you.
  • Don’t crowd women just because they’re women. Girls get a lot of attention at nerd events just for being girls, and this can get extremely uncomfortable. Often, a girl will say she’s never played a certain game (etc) and will then get rushed by a bunch of guys trying to introduce her to their favorite thing. Your intentions may be golden (you’re not hitting on them, you’re just trying to make sure they have a good time!) but it can still be condescending or threatening. 
  • Don’t take pictures of cosplayers without their consent. This can be surprisingly violating, especially for female cosplayers. Believe it or not, being out in public, no matter what you are wearing, does not give anyone the right to take photos of you without your explicit consent. She doesn’t know what you’re going to do with those pictures, or whether you got an upskirt shot as you snuck around behind her. And especially don’t post pictures on the internet without permission. Just don’t do it, for a variety of reasons.
  • Stand up for others. If you see people doing these sorts of things, correct the perpetrator on their behavior without drawing too much attention to the victim. (For example, “Dude, rape jokes aren’t funny,” instead of “How do you think Hannah feels when you make those jokes?”) Also, if you find out that someone has harassed or insulted someone, take the victim’s side. Many people worry about false reports of sexual harassment, but very few of them are fake.
  • If it applies, remember that you’re a stranger, too. You may think you’re saving a girl from an uncomfortable situation by adding yourself to the mix, but she doesn’t know your intentions any better than she knows that other guy’s. You’re not Batman-- if you think something untoward is happening, privately ask the girl if she’s okay, and/or report it to the closest authorities.

SUMMONING THE HORDE: EVENT PLANNING


  • Don’t ignore women in your planning. Does your allotted space include women’s or gender-neutral bathrooms? If you have guest speakers, are any of them women? My school’s nerd convention has a room where they sell necessities like food and energy drinks, but they have yet to expand into menstrual pads/tampons for emergencies. Ideally, get one or more women to help with the event planning.
  • Let it be known how people can report others, especially for sexual assault. Have security very clearly present, and include a sexual harassment policy in the program if there is one. If not, consider hanging up a clearly visible poster that lets people know it isn’t tolerated, and what to do about it.
  • Take reports seriously and act in accordance with whatever policy has been articulated.


If you have anything to add, please comment! I am not the final word on feminist issues (by a long shot) and there are probably many, many situations that I didn’t think of or haven’t experienced. Your voice is always welcome!

Jace Harr is a queer, twenty-something writer, blogger, and theatre professional based in Rochester, New York. His credits include poetry journals, plays, and being Mr. Spock for Halloween in fourth grade. Check out his blog, Internet Diderot, for TILs in history, linguistics, and literature.

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