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.

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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