The issue of harassment at cons isn’t going to go away, and seems to get highlighted more each day as women, men, organizers, cosplayers and interne bystanders deal with the growing injection of actual hormonal humans into abstract fan scenarios. When I went to shows as a youngster, I thought of cons as a “safe space” believe it or not. Compared to the rock scene I was involved with, the relatively few women in comics were in a mostly hands off zone, mostly because most congoers were afraid of them, and should anything amiss happen there was a huge crew of friends to back you up. Notice that I just said “COMPARED TO THE ROCK SCENE”; it was far from a paradise of equality, but I felt safer at a comic con than I did at most places.
All that has changed. I don’t think that cons rate as horrible dangerous places like [jeez any place I name here will get me in trouble so lets just say Westeros] but incidents of harassment and inappropriate behavior that would be actionable anywhere are sadly growing. Clearly stated and defined harassment policies are one step in creating boundaries and reinforcing the idea that dressing up as your favorite character, no matter how scantily clad, does not make you a whore or mean you want to be touched or groped. And of course it isn’t just a cosplay issue but extends to women in all kinds of situations.
There’s been increasing scrutiny of which cons do and con’t have clearly stated harassment policies, and one of the shows that hasn’t been found to have what is considered an up to date harassment policy—as in clearly stated on the website and posted at the show—is the San Diego Comic-Con. In an effort to change this, a Change.org petition from Geeks for CONsent went up asking them to expand their stated policies to be more specific. The campaign is called “Stop sexual harassment at San Diego Comic Con, create a formal anti-harassment policy”:
We’re asking Comic Con San Diego to include the following in a formal anti-harassment policy:
–A harassment reporting mechanism and visible, easy to find on-site support for people who report harassment;
–Signs throughout the convention publicizing the harassment policy and zero-tolerance enforcement mechanisms;
–Information for attendees on how to report harassment; and
–A one hour training for volunteers on how to respond to harassment reports.
SDCC does have general language posted on its website:
Code of Conduct
Attendees must respect common sense rules for public behavior, personal interaction, common courtesy, and respect for private property. Harassing or offensive behavior will not be tolerated. Comic-Con reserves the right to revoke, without refund, the membership and badge of any attendee not in compliance with this policy. Persons finding themselves in a situation where they feel their safety is at risk or who become aware of an attendee not in compliance with this policy should immediately locate a member of security, or a staff member, so that the matter can be handled in an expeditious manner.
Now before we get into this kerfuffle any more, it should be noted that despite its massive Hollywoodization, Comic-Con was started by and run by FANS. Early pioneer fans who dealt with all kinds of things and came up with all kinds of policies to keep the show running smoothly. They sort of invented this thing. While I occasionally have criticisms of the Big Show, in every single interaction with the staff that I have had for the last 20 years or so, there has never been ANY area where I felt their primary concern wasn’t the safety os attendees. In fact all the policies they have regarding safety can be annoying and time consuming what with all the lining up, standing here, not sitting there and so on. These efforts have not been specifically aimed at the kind of harassment we’re talking about, but it is safe to say that Comic-Con and its organizers take safety very, very seriously, and there are many many things that they do behind the scenes to make the magical madhouse of con work smoothly.
Of course there are still random jerks, random weirdoes, pen-stabbers, upskirters and so on. In a population of 130,000 there will be deviants and criminals and Corey Feldman. And bad behavior needs to be labeled bad behavior and not tolerated by the community. But it does seem, at least in my cursory investigation, that people are concerned because SDCC doesn’t have a clearly stated harassment policy, not because there is a horrible culture of harassment at the show. I see many people have referred to “rampant” sexual harassment at SDCC. While any incident is one too many, you can definitely find some examples of bad situations, including this volunteer who was hit on by a creep and his buddies. David Brothers has a still unresolved issue with security. I don’t doubt that some guys go to Comic-Con to look at hot chicks and make them feel uncomfortable, but it’s so hard to get in there would seem to be easier places to go to do that. I don’t want to sound like an apologist for harassment, but I’m not sure that it is part of the DNA of the show, the way it is with some other events *cough PAX cough*. But, you know, I’m old and my goal at Con is to find a hot meal and some talk about George Carlson, not to be thrust into the maelstrom of excitement.
Anyway, back to the kerfuffle. In an interview with CBR about the petition and more, con marketing vp David Glanzer said this:
I will tell you, though, that because we’re really an international show, and have 3,000 members of the media, I think the story would be harassment is such an issue at Comic-Con that they needed to post these signs around there. Now, people within the industry, and fans, know that isn’t the case, but the general public out there, and I think the news media, might look at this as, “Why would you, if this wasn’t such a bad issue, why do you feel the need to single out this one issue and put signs up about it?” I think that’s a concern. I was reading somewhere about anti-harassment policy, and they say, the most important thing is to have an anti-harassment policy, and expectations of behavior. We certainly have that.
There are other security and safety issues that people need to abide by — costume weapon policies, things of that nature. By highlighting one, does that diminish the others? I just don’t know. I would be afraid to have several different signs for different things that are equally as important.
Obviously, in todays culture of addressing issues, saying “if we come out against harassment, people will think there’s harassment” probably wasn’t the best answer. Two prominent sites have already torn it to shreds, Jill Pantozzi at The Mary Sue with San Diego Comic-Con Responds To Fan Petition Asking For A Formal Harassment Policy, and Chris Sims at Comics Alliance with San Diego Comic-Con Doesn’t Want To Address Its Harassment Problem Because People Might Think It Has A Harassment Problem. Both of these article point to Emerald City Comic Con and it’s clearly posted anti harassment posters as the best way to deal with this, and argue that SDCC will adopt a similar policy.
While I applaud this as part of the social awareness campaign that has to happen, according to cosplayer Nicole Jacobs it didn’t work. A smirking idiot touched her against her will and then:
He smiled and laughed and despite being confronted by the convention staff, thought his actions hilarious. This is notok. This is not how we are to treat our daughters and sisters and mothers and wives. This is not how we are to treat ANYONE. While the man’s badge was removed and he was escorted from the building, never once was I given the option to press charges against him. I don’t know his name, and now I can’t do anything to potentially prevent this from ever happening again to some other girl who doesn’t realize she has the right to fight for herself. Suddenly the convention’s anti-harassment posters meant nothing. If security is unresponsive and entirely fails to do their job, who are they really securing? While I don’t fault the con for the actions of others, I do fault our society and how we handle these matters, and I think so much more could be and could have been done.
Obviously this is one incident too many, but as much as we’d like posted signs to stop abuse, they don’t. They DISCOURAGE IT, but do not stop it. I think ECCC has become the model of how a modern convention deals with the ongoing pressures and conflicts of modern fandom. As befits their place as industry leaders, I would love to see SDCC organizers really lead the charge on anti-harassment measures and zero tolerance, but that isn’t really their style. I’m sure the current kerfuffle will have some ripples but I can’t even guess where it will go. I do know that they will continue to make safety—as defined in a wider context than just harassment—as a major objective.
Harassment policies are a major tool for good in the ongoing battle to make bad behavior at cons and elsewhere in life less acceptable. SDCC adding its voice to the list of cons with specific harassment policies would be a powerful symbol, for sure. But we all need a massive, ongoing education campaign—backed up by everyone in the community, male and female—as to what is appropriate behavior. And if my twitter feed is any indication, there’s a lot of confusion about all that outside the con floor that’s being dragged inside the convention hall.
This isn’t my first post about all these issues, and it won’t be the last. Its only the one I put up this Tuesday.
Finally, there are several organizations that are working to stop harassment at conventions and create more awareness of the problems. There’s the aforementioned Geeks for CONsent that has various tools and information about combating inappropriate behavior. I also recommend Hollaback, an organization trying to end street harassment with various forms of outreach, including a comic book. These organizations and other like them have a lot of valuable information and tools for change, and more of us should avail themselves of them.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.