Photo of a single pink ribbon tied around a wire, shot against the sky by tanakawho

Signal boost: Dragon*Con, backup ribbons, and wolves in sheep’s clothing

As noted in Linkspam comments, there’s a dispute at the moment between the organisers of Dragon*Con and the Backup Ribbon Project. The Backup Ribbon Project is an off-shoot of the Backup Project and distributes badge ribbons for con attendees to attach to their badge, reading “Backup” in large letters, showing that the person wearing the ribbon is committed to backing up someone experiencing harassment.

On August 20, Dragon*Con released a statement, reading in part [my emphasis]:

At times, good intentions can lead to bad situations. Dragon*Con has become aware of a potentially dangerous situation involving a self-started project that provides ribbons for fans identifying themselves as people who are able and willing to help another fan in the event assistance of any sort is needed in a difficult situation. While we absolutely believe that the creation of this movement was done with the best intentions to protect fans, we feel that it presents a possibility for a person coming in as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” perhaps luring someone in distress to an even more dangerous situation. Providing a ribbon for someone to wear to give them any type of “official” sanction when no screening has taken place is quite frankly, scary to us. To that end, we have asked the individual to stop providing ribbons for Dragon*Con attendees. We think a lot of our fans and believe strongly in the message that if you see someone in trouble, you should always be willing to help out or get someone who can. We expect no less and you all have never disappointed.

The Ribbon Project responded on August 21:

Please know that, as of this time, Dragon*Con has informed us that it will NOT be sanctioning people wearing or distributing Backup Ribbons at the con, nor will it be confiscating ribbons. We regret this was not included in their official statement…

We stand by our conviction that the benefits of making the Backup Ribbon Project accessible to as many people as possible far outweighs the risk of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Yes, there will be a risk of some Bad!Person taking advantage of the situation, but we believe that risk is minimal.

What do you think? Which has the greater risk, false allies, or difficulty finding any allies?

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at with occasional appearances at Hoyden About Town and her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

10 thoughts on “Signal boost: Dragon*Con, backup ribbons, and wolves in sheep’s clothing

  1. Margaret Synnott

    What exactly are they afraid of. I don’t understand. I assume that the purpose of the badges is so that someone who is in trouble can choose someone who is likely to help. It’s not supposed to indicate how trustworthy the wearer is…

  2. GemmaM

    In addition to being potentially helpful to someone who is harassed, the Backup Ribbon also sends out a quiet social message that harassment is not acceptable, that we should not greet accusations of harassment by accusing the victim of lying, and that if we see something happening, we should stop it.

    These are really valuable social messages, and yes, I do think they outweigh the possibility of someone wearing one to fool other people into thinking that they are safe. I’m not sure that the ribbons will result in an automatic presumption of safety from strangers in any case. As a woman, I wouldn’t think “He’s wearing a ribbon, that means I can walk back to my room with him without being in danger of rape.” I’d still follow my own instincts one way or the other.

    The only time I might fall back on relying on the ribbon would be during or after an incident occurred. Even then, it might just come down to choosing to talk to someone wearing a ribbon about the incident. If that person was wearing the ribbon specifically to tell such people “no, it didn’t happen, you’re lying” then I think the knowledge that the ribbon means they’re not supposed to do that would give me the strength to ignore them and find a genuine ribbon-bearer.

  3. EROSE

    Seems like an overreaction to me. It’s not like the backup ribbons are there to distinguish trained therapists, bodyguards, conflict mediators, safe escorts or even nice people. They’re as much a statement as anything else, as another commenter noted. The organizers of Dragon-con seem to be reacting on the assumption that the mere sight of a ribbon will cause women to behave as though their common sense glands are broken – “oh, he’s wearing a ribbon, he must be ok no matter what.” Kind of insulting, actually.

    Obviously, they’re within their rights to ask attendees not to wear them. However, the whole “we think people do great at our con,” thing is such a cop-out. If con organizers and attendees really did so great with addressing harassment, there wouldn’t be any need for the ribbons.

  4. Sean R.

    I’d guess it’s a liability issue. If they give their blessing to it, they may feel they might be opening themselves up to attack should someone wearing a backup ribbon commit a crime.

    1. Beth

      That’s really not true at all, any more than selling Dragon*Con shirts is opening themselves up to liability because someone could commit a crime while wearing one.

      Besides, fan ribbons are A Thing. Most ribbons aren’t official. They could instead put up some posters or run an article educating their members about the Back Up project and highlighting that it was not official or sanctioned.

      Even if that were a concern, there are many other possible solutions.

  5. Beth

    One of these threats has happened multiple times every year the convention has been held. The other isn’t a threat: it’s blaming a tool someone evil might wield exactly the same way they wield any other tool.

    My guess? Someone in the in-club got told to Back Off, took offense and now they’re trying to stamp it out.

  6. Ju

    So… we should stay quiet and silent and not seek to make a statement against harrassment, or seek to provide visible cues as to people available for back up because Something Bad Might Happen…. when the Backup Ribbons are themselves in response to the fact that Bad Things Happen and we’re left to be responsible ourselves for it… seems a little ridiculous to me. Seems like more silencing, and more like preservation of the status quo in a misguided attempt to avoid Something Bad Happening. *head desk*

  7. Ms. Sunlight

    I would suspect the statement comes from a gross underestimation of how much sexual and other harassment women face in male-dominated events.

  8. Daniel Martin

    It’s possible that there’s something more innocent going on here — or at least, innocent on the part of Dragon*Con officials.

    I’m sure many women will be familiar with the phenomenon of outwardly pro-feminist men who can say all the right things in public, and yet in their direct interactions with women mansplain all over, harass, etc. If you’re a man, or even a woman who’s never interacted with this person face-to-face, it can be painfully difficult to identify these guys. I mean, nearly all of us suffer from some unexamined privilege, so it’s easy to write off the rare signal here or there.

    Now, suppose that you were on the Dragon*Con board and know some regular attendees who fall into this category (outwardly pro-feminist private misogynists) or whom you suspect might fall in this category but your creeper sense has never let you be alone with them, so you can’t be sure. Now suppose they make vocal declarations online that they’ll be wearing Backup Ribbons at Dragon*Con.

    What do you do? I still don’t think the initial Dragon*Con statement is the right response, but I’d like to hear more from the organizers about where they’re coming from.

  9. Amanda6

    I certainly think there is no malice intended on the part of Dragon*Con, but it does reveal an overestimation of random hypotheticals and an underestimation of Real Life on the part of the organizers. It’s no different from any other conversation in the geek/skeptical communities about a seemingly common sense idea (like, for instance, a sexual harassment policy) being derailed by “what if?”s.

    Yes, what if a *crazy, hysterical woman* (/s) reports an innocuous conversation as sexual harassment? Yeah, that could happen, but what probably will happen is several other women will actually be harassed and not report it because they don’t want to make trouble. Likewise, someone wearing a Backup ribbon could have unsavory motives, but it’s far more likely that the Backup ribbon brigade will, united, demonstrate that there are people out there who are committed to keeping people un-harassed at conferences and offering support if it does happen.

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