A lot of people I know and follow on Twitter have talked about boycotting PAX over the dickwolves controversy. Recaps abound all over the internet, but here's a timeline and a summary from my point of view:
PAX is a very large gaming con run by the guys who write the webcomic Penny Arcade. Last year, they wrote a strip (see "dickwolves" link above) making fun of quests in MMORPGs. Typically these quests go like this: Save five slaves. Leave the other fifteen to rot. Move on to next quest while more slaves spawn in behind you. The joke is that games don't make sense, and in fact encourage our fictional-selves to be jerks.
The controversy is over the use of rape in the joke. The (male) slave declares that he is going to be raped to sleep every night by dickwolves, but not even this persuades the heartless hero, who has other quests to complete.
Most of the controversy arose months after I read this strip (and LOLed). Gabe and Tycho issued a funny apology where, in spite of the humor, they make it clear they do not condone rape. Later they pulled their dickwolves merchandise, but not the comic. Again, that first link is the quickest way for you to get up to speed here.
Gabe and Tycho have actually received death threats over this, so yeah, it's a pretty big deal.
Nevertheless, I happily attended PAX Prime 2011. The subject came up in Twitter several times over the year, and each time, I tried to describe in 140 characters or less why a boycott is the worst possible reaction (second to making death threats). But Twitter is a poor place to make effective arguments about sensitive and complex topics such as these, hence a post.
I've been attending cons since 1995, and of them all, PAX is the most female-friendly. I want to support that. More, I want to continue to influence con culture by being a strong woman with strong opinions. That's how culture improves. Each of us makes our little waves in the best way we can, trying to persuade. We don't take our toys and go home. That doesn't persuade anyone. As con culture improves, we need to continue to participate fully. Now is not the time to abandon the community just because we're all now more aware of what has always gone on.
Fact: Geek culture is hostile towards women. It always has been. It won't always will be. This past year there have been a lot of other controversies, which in my opinion, are far more worthy of outrage. Like actual harassment at Apachecon against a speaker and board member. After that a lot of women came out of the woodwork to tell their own stories, and I realized I have a few of my own that I could look at in a new light. Instead of feeling shame, which was my original reaction, I realized I could feel empowered and set boundaries and push back.
If you're a woman who attends cons, you've probably already been harassed, whether you knew it or not. Someone has touched you without consent, or oggled you when oggling wasn't invited, or catcalled you, or made an offensive remark about your gender. It's happened to me plenty of times. You just take it, as part of being a gamer who happens to be female.
But it shouldn't have to be something we "just take", which is why the Con Anti-Harassment Project was formed. Their goal is to get every con to enforce a strict anti-harassment policy. PAX does this, and has done it every year I've attended (since at least 2007). This isn't exactly a standard policy, and some actively resist, which is why CAHP works so hard.
That said, in a culture like this, real rape happens at cons all over the world. It doesn't take a web comic by the founders to create a culture wherein rape will happen. What helps prevent it are things like awareness and strict policies against the steps leading up to rape... like harassment. Which PAX has done.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The dickwolves joke was offensive for two reasons. 1. It's triggering. 2. Rape jokes encourage rape culture, and the dickwolves strip is one of those jokes.
For the first point, that's true. The word "rape" and references to it are indeed triggering. Let me get scientific for a moment: Victims of trauma often suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). "Triggers" are words, sights, sounds, or smells that bring back the memory of the trauma or cause the trauma-survivor to feel afraid when they otherwise wouldn't have anything to fear.
I understand this and sympathize with people for whom rape is a trigger-word. I have my own PTSD symptoms for childhood events that I don't even fully remember. It's been a long journey for me to overcome some of those triggers so I can enjoy a full life.
I can't really argue with someone who boycotts PAX because they don't feel safe there. You're not statistically any more likely to be hurt at PAX than anywhere else, but triggers are triggers, and you have to deal with it in your own way. I have a panic response when anyone grabs my thigh (even safe people I love and trust), and will completely lose control if I feel cornered in an emotional situation, even by safe people I love and trust. That doesn't mean either thing is actually unsafe, but I draw clear lines on both counts: Don't grab my legs, and don't corner me in emotional situations.
Likewise for anyone who avoids PAX for the same reason. By all means, avoid PAX and I truly wish you the best of luck on your journey.
The use of trigger-words in popular culture is a trickier subject. Should Penny Arcade have avoided the use of "rape" because it triggers some people? I don't think so. I have belonged to survivor and recovery communities where trigger-words were either banned or required trigger warnings. Survivors join those communities to experience a safe environment, so those are the rules.
But in culture at large? No. We have to talk about these issues, in all kinds of ways -- in serious or funny or irreverent or solemn ways. My horror novella, Make Willing the Prey, is full of potentially triggering material. Is it any more redeemable because it's scary and serious? Because I make it clear that Rape Is Bad?
Why is rape in fiction any "better" than rape in humor, if the humor continues to imply that rape is bad? The joke didn't even make light of rape. The rape content was there to exaggerate the slave's predicament, to make you sympathize with him, so you would question your own behavior in video games.
It's hard to see myself as any different from Tycho and Gabe, when my novella also capitalizes on the horror of rape. But no one is talking about banning the topic of rape from novels and novellas - oh wait, people are. It's hard for me to see the difference here.
Which leads me to point #2: Rape culture.
Yes, rape culture is a very real thing. There are plenty of rape jokes which make light of rape, wherein the message is "rape is good, women are bad". They are a lot like racist jokes, which dehumanize non-whites and make light of lynchings and other violence. Both make violent acts seem justified. If you want to see some examples of real rape jokes, here you go. Warning: TRIGGERS and OMG I didn't even read very far because that is just how offensive they are.
(As a totally side tangent, Jezebel has a thought-provoking article on "Are Rape Jokes Ever Funny".)
The thing is, as women we can react to these things in a lot of ways. I think the fact that Penny Arcade is now in Wikipedia as an example of a joke promoting Rape Culture is really bad for making the point. It's a terrible example of how jokes promote rape culture. It's become a straw man. People who don't understand are not going to be enlightened by this example, and if fact will have their notions reinforced: that feminists are reactionary, overly-emotional whiners who complain over nothing. In other words, it fails to be persuasive. And isn't that what we want? To persuade?
Here is a much better reaction to counter rape culture. Duke Nukem Forever was just released, and it disgustingly promotes rape culture. Thankfully the game also sucked in a lot of other ways, so almost no one played it. But women are in a double-bind about complaining about this sort of content, because doing so promotes lots of negative stereotypes that undermine our argument. It was solved brilliantly in this video: Women React to Duke Nukem Forever
So I don't think the dickwolves joke promoted rape culture in any way.
That being said, even if it does somehow promote rape culture, the good that PAX does far outshines the bad. Not to equivocate, but again, geek culture sucks for women. It always has. We don't live in the perfect utopia where all geeks are enlightened, socially conscious members of polite society.
I've always felt PAX has come the closest to that ideal vision. Here are some examples:
1. PAX has an anti-harassment policy. See above. And there are Enforcers (security) everywhere to report to. And I saw a number female Enforcers, if you are more comfortable reporting to one.
2. PAX has more panels on women's issues than I've ever seen at a con. This year, I went to one called "Fat, Ugly, or Slutty: Exposing Harassment in Online Gaming", put on by the staff of FatUglyOrSlutty.com. All the seats were filled, and now a very large ball room of gamers know more about this topic. Many were undoubtedly persuaded that online harassment of women is bad. On the way out, I overheard a girl explaining to her male friends how gender-based harassment is different from trash-talking an opponent. She otherwise might not have gotten that opportunity.
3. PAX does not allow booth babes. By booth babe here, we mean a scantily-clad woman hired specifically to market games when she doesn't know anything about games, designed to lure sex-starved male gamers into the booth.
PAX culture has not tolerated them even before the ban. In fact, at my first PAX in 2007, I recall a mini-controversy over the only scantily-clad woman on the floor: A pirate in a corset. Some people thought she was a hired booth babe, and there were negative murmurs, until she came onto the forums and chewed everyone out. Yes, she was a real gamer girl, and yes she really liked to dress that way, and yes she actually played and loved the pirate game she was promoting. That's what PAX gamers want. Even the guys.
That year I spoke to several people that year who were upset at booth-babe-types passing out party invites. I'm sure that party was well-attended by a few creeps who go for that, but prevailing attitudes were about how disgusting it was. That sort of marketing doesn't fly at PAX. It never has. This year, almost all pamphleteer women I saw were wearing t-shirts.
4. PAX gives women a chance to speak out against scanty armor. This year a game called Firefall was being hugely promoted with the most ridiculous scanty armor I've ever seen, because it's on a powered mech suit. There is never any reason to expose your belly button in a mech suit! The women's bathroom had a picture of one of these suits with the face cut out so we women could laugh at how stupid the character designers are and how clueless their marketing team is.
The idea of scanty armor is hilarious to many PAX attendees, and again, it's about culture. If lots of people are mocking the sexist armor design, those in favor of jerking off to it at night just might overhear. If the booth-babes trend shows any evidence, this kind of subtle influence is important to making the changes we want to see.
5. PAX culture provides a petri dish where all sorts of enlightened conversations happen. In 2009, the big controversy was over EA's promotion of a game at Comic Con, wherein guys were encouraged to commit "acts of lust" against the booth babes, for which they'd win a prize that bordered on prostitution. Lots of people were talking about it, and no one in a positive way. I've had lots of these types of discussions at PAX. Not so many at other cons.
PAX does not transform into a hostile environment just because of one web strip. Let's compare it to, say Defcon, where something happened that I'm a little afraid to talk about in a public forum where everyone knows my name. I've thought of emailing Defcon directly with a complaint, but haven't yet because that's how intimidating this is.
I didn't see this myself, but Roland did. Guys were walking around the hallways with a sign reading "Shots for Tits". This in and of itself is not too unexpected. After all, we're talking Defcon here, which prides itself on irreverence and rebel behavior, where even the elevator computers are fair game. I rolled my eyes at Roland... whatever. It happens. It's a con, and the guys want to see tits. Lighten up.
But here's the scary part: Goons were participating. Goons fill the role PAX Enforcers do. They're security. They're the ones you might normally go to for help.
One girl took the bait, and started to lift her shirt. She was immediately surrounded by guys. Completely. Some of them were Goons.
I'm sexually liberated and all. I've flashed at cons before, for a lot less than a shot. But when con security participates in an activity like this, it makes me feel unsafe. It institutionalizes the behavior, sanctions it. When real authority asks you to show your tits, it stops being consensual. How are they supposed to take complaints of harassment or reports of rape seriously, if they're the ones holding the signs?
That's what I have to compare PAX to. And that's why I'm going to keep on going to PAX. Because geek culture is getting better. Guys are starting to wise up. And PAX is a shining example of what we want.
We've come this far. Let's not throw it all out.
Update 1/3/2012: I've just learned of an organization called Men Can Stop Rape. If you are still angry at Penny Arcade and PAX over the Dickwolves controversy, maybe spend some of that steam supporting a positive organization which takes positive actions to change rape culture, to remove ignorance from men who don't believe it exists, and to encourage good men to protect the women around them. Send them some money, speak out in favor of them as often as you speak out against PAX, or even better, volunteer. Yelling at people will not change their minds, so if you really want to prevent rape, do something positive.