The Push for a Harassment-Free Comic-Con

The Push for a Harassment-Free Comic-Con

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Anna Kegler, Erin Filson and Rochelle Keyhan run Geeks for CONsent, a group that wants Comic-Con to create a detailed harassment policy.

A year ago this week, as the city approached the height of the Bob Filner scandal, the issue of sexual harassment was inescapable.

So it’s almost hard to imagine that a trio of women is in town this week trumpeting the message that San Diegans should be thinking more about sexual harassment. Almost – until you scope the harassment policy for Comic-Con, the mega-event that has brought more than 100,000 to San Diego.

It’s one sentence tucked inside the convention’s Code of Conduct: “Harassing or offensive behavior will not be tolerated” – and until women Comic-Con attendees and journalists started to share their bad experiences publicly, it wasn’t even posted online.

Rochelle Keyhan, Anna Kegler and Erin Filson want to see a more substantial policy put in place – one that Comic-Con makes visible to all attendees.

They run Hollaback Philly, a Philadelphia group that aims to end street harassment – basically any unwanted actions between strangers on the street, including leering, whistling, unwelcome comments and threatening or harassing behavior.

As part of that effort, the trio created a comic book to educate middle- and high-school students about harassment issues. That brought them to a comic book convention, where they encountered a whole new harassment ballgame.

They started to see firsthand how women “cosplayers” – people who wear costumes and dress up as certain characters – were treated at conventions. Think photo galleries of costumed women’s butts and outright groping of women in costumes.

That spurred Geeks for CONsent, the group they run dedicated to stamping out harassment at comic conventions.

San Diego Comic-Con is their white whale, basically.

I sat down with the Geeks for CONsent ladies to talk about what actions they want to see from San Diego Comic-Con, the experience of women convention-goers and why they believe the policy in place now isn’t enough.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Is there anything that sparked the Geeks for CONsent effort, and the focus on San Diego Comic-Con?

Rochelle Keyhan: We (were attending) Philadelphia Wizard World last year, and we always knew that harassment happened everywhere, but I think it was just the number of people who come to us when we’re talking about street harassment, and gave us examples of cosplayer-specific harassment.

We realized that while it’s all under this big umbrella, the cosplayer harassment is its own specific issue that deserves nuanced attention. That’s because it’s in a controlled space that has rules and regulations and it should be something that’s being regulated.

There’s presumably someone in charge, as opposed to just being random people on the street yelling at you.

Rochelle: And also the stories we get told, with street harassment stories, they’re a mixture of verbal comments and escalated comments. But the cosplayer stories we get are almost always immediately sexually vulgar, including groping, so it’s more menacing and threatening and scary in the Comic-Con setting, more frequently.

You guys have asked for people’s stories since you’ve started this effort. Have you heard anything Comic-Con-specific that’s really stuck with you?

Rochelle: We talked to a volunteer who’s volunteered the past five years, and she said that as far as she knows, there’s no harassment policy that’s detailed, that there’s literally no training for the volunteers and that there’s definitely no training on … what to do if someone reports it. She said as a volunteer, she was harassed every single time for the past five years, and she never reported it because she didn’t even know she could report it.

So when San Diego Comic-Con says that they deal with it, the volunteers themselves, when they experience harassment, don’t feel protected.

Anna: Can we talk about the white phones they rolled out for a second? Because this idea of using their phone lines to report harassment, and having to go through a phone instead of a person, it’s like their 9-1-1.

Erin Filson: We initially thought they were rolling out a harassment-specific phone line, but it’s just their blanket emergency line.

Rochelle: It’s what you’d call if you were having a stroke.

Anna: I think it’s already most people’s tendency to try and minimize harassment experiences in a lot of ways, so when you’re told that your recourse is just to call 9-1-1, you’re gonna think twice before you call that number. And you don’t know what’s gonna happen when you call. It’s just a very different interaction from being able to tell a trained volunteer and being able to tell a live person what’s happening and feel supported.

Rochelle: And it sends a message that the only situations they want people to call about are the ones where you feel physically unsafe. So not someone who’s making lots of comments and ruining your experience, but only someone who’s grabbing you and following you.

And walk us through what you’re seeking from them – training for volunteers, information for people to know what to do when they experience something, what else?

Rochelle: A full training for volunteers might be tough at this large-scale of a convention, but even so much as a pocket card that gives volunteers some questions that they should ask if someone reports harassment, and steps that the volunteer should take so that if someone walks up to them, they can just pull it out and make sure that they do the right thing.

Erin: Other conventions we’ve gone to have policies online, and have posters with people in cosplay or cartoon characters, that say things like “Do not harass” and “Harassment won’t be accepted here.” And they give you a breakdown of what that means underneath. And those are visible everywhere. It’s not something that people have to go looking for. Just that minimal amount of printing something out.

In San Diego we had a big scandal a year ago that brought down our mayor that was all about sexual harassment. The silver lining of that was that we were talking seriously about sexual harassment, but it still feels like we don’t talk about it anywhere except the workplace. Do you feel like harassment is taken more seriously in some spheres than it is in others?

Rochelle: When we launched our first public transit ad campaign, one of them said, “If your boss said, ‘Hey sexy’ to you at work, that’s not OK. What about if someone says it to you on the street?” We’re trying to directly analogize – it shouldn’t matter what the setting is, if it’s not OK, it’s not OK.

Anna: At a place like Comic-Con, it is a lot more like a workplace than it is like a random street, because it is a place that has set rules and policies. It’s a more controlled environment.

You guys have talked about how women who are cosplayers and are involved in Comic-Con put on costumes do it because they like it, and it makes them feel good. But that idea is lost a lot on men who think that putting a costume on means you’re inviting harassment.

Rochelle: That idea blows people’s minds.

Erin: There’s 100 percent that kind of attitude – there was a comic writer who basically said that the women who are at Comic-Con are just there for attention, which is total BS. Who would buy these expensive tickets, and put together these elaborate, amazing costumes and pick characters that obviously mean a lot to them just to go and be like, “Tra la la, look at me!” That doesn’t happen. …

We should all be able to enjoy the same things without men just feeling like the women are there for their enjoyment.

Rochelle: A lot of the guys who stop by our booth are either totally supportive, or they say: “How are we supposed to talk to the girls here then? You wanted to be in this setting. When you spend a lot of time on your costume, don’t you want compliments? Don’t you want people to take photos of you?”

And I say, “‘Sure, but talk to me like a human and tell me you value what I did.’ Or say, ‘You did a great job, can I take a photograph?’ Don’t just grab my ass or say, ‘Your tits looks great in that costume.’”

What’s the pushback been like?

Rochelle: I would say the two biggest pushbacks I’ve seen is that men are just being nice to us, and that we’re inviting attention and just couldn’t handle it when we got it. And the other is, “This is totally not a problem. We’re not welcome anywhere but Comic-Con because of our geekdom. This is the only place we’re accepted – stop making it look bad.”

And it’s like, “Wait, it’s the only place you’re accepted, but you’re still excluding me.” Great, so you feel accepted here, this is your safe haven. This is the place you go and totally be yourself. How would you feel if you didn’t have that?

So what’s your ideal Comic-Con?

Erin: There would be a thought-out and acted-upon harassment policy. There would be posters, animation – I like it when conventions have characters they’ve created that stand for the different ideals they’re supporting. A place where the fan universe is really respected, and something where everyone feels like they have a safe place to be as geeky and weird as possible.

Anna: I think publicizing the policy is the most important thing. I think first it has to exist, but it’s not going to change the social norms of how people behave at Comic-Con until everyone knows: This is what we’re supposed to be doing. We need to set a bar.

Rochelle: We can’t eliminate it, we’re not expecting it to be totally harassment-free. We’re just expecting people to feel like they deserve for it to be, and like the convention hopes for it to be harassment-free.

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Sara Libby

Sara Libby

Sara Libby is VOSD’s managing editor. She oversees VOSD’s newsroom and its content. You can reach her at sara.libby@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0526.

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25 comments
ltcollins
ltcollins subscriber

@SaraLibby you should have googled your subjects and see that they have an axe to grind against all men and promote man-hating feminist lesbian agenda.  I have a 4 day pass the Comic-Con every year and have never seen what these women call pervasive at Comic-Con of alleged sexual harassment of women by only men.  The male fans are very respectful of the female cosplay characters and will always ask before they take photos.  The Convention has a zero tolerance policy and security is all over the place and is only several meters away and will yank your badge if you do anything perceived as inappropriate.

I did witness some lesbians make cat-calls towards other women, but this is acceptable and tolerated unless it is an unwanted man.  People seem to tolerate abusive and unacceptable behavior from women and it is zero tolerance when a man acts up.  Women who attend the event share the same pass and are never scrutinized or challenged like the male attendees are by security and Comic-Con staff.  The problem here is that men are being held accountable to what is not acceptable and women are given a pass.


This is another typical feminist witch-hunt to ruin a traditionally male event and further the "War Against Men" creating an issue against men falsely accusing them of harassment and convicting them when nothing is happening.


Keyhan failed to disclose that she is a feminist lesbian attorney that is peddling around feminist sexual harassment training for these conventions and will be making a financial gain for herself and her feminist man-hating group or sue Comic-Con and other conventions if they don't pay her.  It pays to create an imaginary issue and provide a solution helping alleged feminist victims.  Like I said, I saw no women at Comic-Con being harassed and if they were there would be hundreds of white knights jumping to help them in seconds and the offenders would quickly be dismissed from the convention.


Your story is flawed and you should have dug deeper and would have discovered that what these feminist are really doing is attacking men and lying about something that is not happening at this event and they are getting all the press to see a program that they will ultimately gain financially from.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Firstly, touching another person without their permission is inappropriate and in many cases unlawful.

That said, while this comic/fantasy world is not something I consider of interest, a recent article in the New York Times noted that the television series “Game of Thrones,” for example, which I understand to be a prominent part of Comic Con has been “riddled with sexual brutality.” The Times says, “The franchise, which started as a series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin about a bleak, feudal world, has at various times included a warrior king who claims his child bride on their wedding night, and the gang rape of a young woman by “half a hundred shouting men behind a tanner’s shop.”” The article goes on in great depth.

This gives me the impression that some significant part of this fantasy world which some people are drawn to and dress up to emulate is one that itself has objectionable and objectifying elements. Moreover, it is in some cases apparently highly sexually charged.

While dressing up like a person in a sexually lurid fantasy world may not invite behavior that is out of the norm, it certainly doesn’t help to discourage it either.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/03/arts/television/for-game-of-thrones-rising-unease-over-rapes-recurring-role.html?_r=0

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher subscriber

The last time I went to Comic-Con (over 20 years ago), I was surprised that teen-agers and kids were admitted because of the themes and dress (mainly of some of the women). Had it been a film, it would have been rated an "R" (back then).

You'd think that the very nature of the business and how women are generally depicted in it would be addressed, but it's not. What's with that? To the extent that some of the comics/graphic novels are soft or hard pornography is not addressed, either, nor is the extent to which the depictions invite or develop objectification by the "fans".

Johnny Pappas
Johnny Pappas subscribermember

Anyone that has been at Comic-Con knows exactly what these ladies are describing.  While I have never seen any grabbing I have seen lingering and leering that would make any rational person uncomfortable.  Ask to take the picture, take the picture, move on. 

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher subscriber

Um, how "objectification" is depicted by the dress of two out of the three women in the photo?  The off-the-shoulder sweatshirt, the tank-top...

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher subscriber

When I first saw the headline in the e-mail "Holy Objectification of Women, Batman!", I thought it was going to be something about Mayor Filner's period in office, INCLUDING his DC time as a congressman, and an apology to readers for not covering it more aggressively. 

Matt Watkins
Matt Watkins subscribermember

Great interview, Sara. And, as you can see by the bulk of comments so far, the mens are out in force complaining about how they must not be restricted in any way in what they can say and do to women they find attractive. SDCCs lack of a comprehensive harrassment policy is pretty glaring; over the last couple years, most similar cons have been shamed into drafting one. Science fiction writer John Scalzi is in town to promote his upcoming book, but bowed out of the con proper precisely because of the lack of said policy:

http://whatever.scalzi.com/2014/07/24/san-diego-comic-con-addendum/

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

I’d suggest that they consult with Hugh Hefner. As I recall, the Playboy Clubs had an absolute rule against touching the bunnies serving the customers. Of course, the clubs did objectify women, which might be something to think about.

Joe Jones
Joe Jones subscriber

This is perfect for an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Nobody would believe it, but it'd get huge laughs. Kudos to Sara Softball for a wonderfully fawning interview. She's worth every nickel VOSD can't afford to pay her.

shawn fox
shawn fox subscriber

Examples given here are preposterous. Perhaps it should be illegal for a man to complement a strange woman. How about a horn honk? Uh oh. Better get that license number and call the police. I've heard it's only harassment if the girl doesn't like you.

Matty Azure
Matty Azure subscriber

If you're a litte girl and you want to walk the streets dressed in a costume and you don't want to be harrassed - then have your parent hold your hand.

Signed,

Trick? or Treat? (that is the question)

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

I’ve never attended Comic-Con, but before you dismiss me as a crank, let me point out a couple of things.  This is an interview with three female activists, none of whom allege they have personally been harassed by anyone at Comic-Con (or anywhere else, for that matter).  They refer to things that they say happened at a similar event last year in Philadelphia, where their organization is based.

The gripe here seems to be the lack of specificity and detail in the written Comic-Con anti-harassment policy, plus the lack of training for volunteers working the convention on how to handle sexual harassment.  Their single specific is a conversation they had with a Comic-Con volunteer who says she’s been harassed “...every single time in the past five years...”, whatever that means.  She voices disappointment at the lack of a “...harassment specific”  phone line (I’m not making this up).  The “white” phone is to handle all types of “emergencies”, totally inadequate, I guess. 

Maybe I missed something, but interviewer Sarah Libby seems more interested in rehashing former mayor Bob Filner’s antics than detailing Comic-Con problems.  If there are harassment problems at Comic Con, let’s have chapter and verse, instead of referencing how women’s costumes may invite unwanted advances (Hey, just because I wear a low-necked gown, you don’t have permission to look).

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

From that article.........

"Meanwhile, what Geeks for CONsent and others regarded as blatant objectification continued at this year’s convention. Scantily clad women were still used as decoration for some presentations, and costumed women were described as “vaguely slutty” by panel moderator Craig Ferguson. When Dwayne Johnson made a surprise appearance to promote “Hercules,” 10 women in belly-baring outfits stood silently in front of the stage for no apparent reason."

This is where I do not support them.  Obviously the scantily clad women, or vaguely slutty, are doing so of their own free will so its a big "so what"

Besides "10 women in belly-baring outfits stood silently in front of the stage for no apparent reason."

 Belly dancers need no reason. Their fabulous just being present.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

@Chris Brewster 

Despite the double message unwanted touching or upskirt photos they do rise to the assault category.

On the other hand boorish comments are also included in the sexual harassment umbrella.

Talk about 50 shades of grey.

clare crawford
clare crawford subscriber

@Bit-watcher can you clarify your comment?  I don't understand what you are trying to say here...

shawn fox
shawn fox subscriber

@Matt Watkins Bologna.  Not one single comment implies that a man should be unrestricted about what they can do or say to an attractive woman.  The interview provides zero evidence of even one single example of harassment.  Based on that article it seems like glancing in the general direction of a pretty girl is harassment.  They didn't even provide a reasonable definition of what they think harassment is which is why the whole thing is ludicrous.

Matty Azure
Matty Azure subscriber

BB,

You're not a "crank".  Perhaps a little cranky.

Signed,

Just don't snort it

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

And I only understand the first 10.