On Sexual Harassment In The Comic Book Industry, And Choosing Empathy Over Incredulity


For the past week, the biggest news story in the comic book world has centered on sexual harassment within the industry.  Here’s a timeline of the events, but the short version is that after talking about being harassed by an unnamed though easily surmisable comic creator, artist Tess Fowler got several emails from women with similar stories about the same man, called out the creator, Brian Wood, publicly, and people have been talking about sexual harassment in comics since, not just about Wood but about how common it is throughout the industry.  There have been many thoughtful and powerful posts on the subject, and mine will be just a drop in the bucket, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it and thought I’d say something.

Several women have come forward to talk about their experiences, and these reports have obviously been disheartening.  I expect better from the comic book community.  We have all the superheroes; we should be the good guys.

However, the bravery of the women speaking up about these issues has been inspiring.  It can’t be easy to talk about harassment, dredging up past feelings and dealing with the inevitable blowback.  Coming forward in the hopes of changing things so other women are safer within the community is a noble purpose, and I’m blown away by their courage.  I also know that for every woman who comes forward, there are several who can’t, either for painful personal reasons of for fear of professional repercussions.  These reports have shown what a widespread problem sexual harassment is in the comic book industry, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What’s astounded me most about this situation is that so many people have responded to these reports with suspicion.  Lots of people have rallied around the cause, to be sure, but there’s also been a great deal of incredulity.  I’m not talking about morons who dismiss these reports of harassment as outright lies by women who just want attention; those people are idiots, and there’s no point in trying to deal with them.  I’m talking about a more insidious response, along the lines of “She’s making a bigger deal of it than it needs to be” or “It was probably just a misunderstanding.”  For many, it seems that the go-to response is one of doubt, defending the harasser at the expense of invalidating the experience and feelings of the harassee.  This makes no sense to me.

First, having compassion for someone who’s been wronged is just basic human decency.  Second, more than any other group in the world, the comic book community should be sympathetic to harassment.  You may be surprised to learn this, but we’re a bunch of nerds.  As such, at some point we’ve probably all been harassed to some degree.  Not in as offensive and demeaning a way as sexual harassment, but harassment nonetheless.  Most of us are likely to be familiar with the experience of someone with a superior size or position preying on us, making us feel small and worthless, and the shame and humiliation that goes along with that.  It’s deeply unpleasant, and it sticks with you.

Thus, when someone reports that they’ve had a similar, worse harassment experience, how can we react with anything but empathy and support?  We know what it’s like to be on the bad end of that equation.  We shouldn’t be turning things around on the harassee, throwing suspicion at them and treating them dismissively, trying to protect the harasser.  Innocent until proven guilty is all well and good, but that doesn’t mean that our immediate sympathies and concern should go to the harasser and not the harassee.

The reason so many women don’t report sexual harassment is because they’re automatically faced with harsh suspicion.  People try to discredit them, and the whole thing gets turned around on them.  The comic book community needs to be a place where people can talk openly about their experiences so we can learn from them and be a better, safer place for everyone.  To do that, we need to have empathy for those reporting harassment.  It really shouldn’t be that hard.  If your immediate response to a story of harassment is to doubt the woman reporting it, you need to stop and put yourself in her shoes.  It might feel more familiar than you’d think.

The art at the top of the post is from Kate Leth’s “Say Something” strip at Comics Alliance.


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5 Responses to “On Sexual Harassment In The Comic Book Industry, And Choosing Empathy Over Incredulity”

  1. Karl Says:

    I recall reading Cat Yronwode’s autobiography some years back, and her experiences of this, how she was offered the comic-book equivalent of the casting-couch, and also how one fan of her work followed her home one night. Its a terrible, pernicious nasty little business this sexual harassment, and its like an acid that eats away bit by bit. Unless we get finely-tuned legislation that points how exactly and precisely what defines it in the workplace so that theres no room for lawyer interpretation or perpetrators weasling out of accusations, Im sadly afraid it will continue.

    • Tim Hanley Says:

      Yeah, sadly this is nothing new. In the discussions surrounding these new revelations, I’ve seen a lot of past accounts of sexual harassment in comics mentioned that date back decades. My hope is that the ever-growing presence of women in comics will lead to this being an issue that stays in the forefront, and that the repercussions for this behavior will shift from the harassees to the harassers. I know that not everyone is in a position to call out their harassers by name for professional reasons, but I’m optimistic that Fowler calling out Wood will make other predatory men stop and think before harassing someone else for fear of a similar call out.

  2. Te Says:

    And this is why I’ll be following your blog forever, I think. Most of your posts aren’t about things which intersect with my particular (obsessive, nerdy, represent!) fannishness, but your writing is always thoughtful and intelligent.

    Your voice is a needed voice in the community as a whole, and I thank you for sharing it.

  3. Carin Says:

    An intriguing discussion is worth comment. I believe that you
    should write more about this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but usually
    folks don’t speak about these topics. To the next! Kind regards!!

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