Let’s take a look.
Sexual harassment has become a high-profile issue from university campuses to Silicon Valley boardrooms, and now the comics community is dealing with this distressingly persistent concern. But even as we identify what the cosplayer harassment has in common with the harassment of women in other industries, we also face the same questions as to whether there is really a problem to solve.
In this post, I want to build on my previous installment in this series by addressing these questions directly — and in so doing, take more substantive steps toward assessing the agenda for reform. First up: what is a sexual harassment policy, anyway?
Design for LARPing
As we noted last time, sexual harassment law applies in rather limited contexts. For our purposes, since we’re dealing primarily with people who are not employees of Comic-Con International, the harassment policy for attendees does not serve the common purpose of avoiding liability under federal and state sexual discrimination law by showing that a policy is in place.
Still, the fact that SDCC has a harassment policy covering non-employees points to a role that such policies often play. Harassment policies serve several functions, and their effectiveness as a means of protecting people from unwanted behavior can actually be enhanced by understanding how their prohibitions, training and reporting fit with an organization’s more general goals.
One important aspect of harassment policies stood out at the latest San Diego Comic-Con, which featured two distinct approaches to promoting protection from harassment. Comic-Con International itself – a nonprofit exempt from federal taxation under Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code – included its anti-harassment policy in the official Comic-Con program and also posted in select public areas. More ubiquitous were signs associated with Geeks for Consent, including Cosplay [does not equal] Consent signs posted throughout the Convention Center as well as an alternative harassment policy posted in women’s rest rooms. Especially interesting from a legal perspective: the alternative policy used the official San Diego Comic-Con logo and header, giving the impression that the policy was that of Comic-Con International: San Diego.
Reconciling the two approaches is an issue that we’ll address as this series proceeds – for now, I want to highlight the key element that links them. Whatever one’s chosen strategy, developing a harassment policy is properly understood as a design project, except instead of a well-composed picture or convincing costume we’re creating a social environment. Where both SDCC and Geeks for Consent harmonize is in using harassment policy to provide constructive social cues – and as we have already seen in a few conventions that are substantially smaller than San Diego Comic-Con, it’s possible for a policy to be a widely accepted means of reinforcing the convention’s identity as a safe space for the entire geek community.
The mutual goal of designing a safe space for our community brings with it a number of shared strategies, not least of which is a subtle shift in language from the off-site debate. Critique tends to give way to more positive rhetoric, with shared recognition of a problem and a shared commitment to preventing it. SDCC policies in the program and postings don’t dismiss reports of harassment as a minor aberration, while talk of rape culture or sexist indifference morphs into a policy so closely identified with Comic-Con that it appears to have come from Comic-Con International Itself.
Since my articles are primarily concerned with this common goal, we’re going to try to set aside judgmental language. Such rhetoric can be useful for making an important point, but it can also get in the way of building a consensus toward putting values into practice. If at times the result sounds a tad domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, well, that’s kind of the point. Instead of questioning others’ motives or integrity, we’ll focus instead on the ideas and influences that shape the convention environment, especially but not exclusively from the perspectives of law and identity design.
Before we do, though, a quick caveat. Please note that my language choices reflect the fact that debate has largely been framed in male/female terms – I’m not making any judgments here about gender identity or sexual preference.
What the Lawyer Saw
Now that we’ve established a few ground rules, let’s move on to one of the most substantial obstacles to strengthening a convention’s harassment policy: the belief that harassment is not actually a major problem. Such a response to complaints about harassment can reflect a range of influences, but for our purposes there are two in particular that I want to address: the perception of reported incidents as mere isolated anomalies and the concern that harassment complaints inappropriately conflate benign flirting with inappropriate sexual aggressiveness.
To a certain degree, such reactions to the anti-harassment campaign reflect legitimate issues. For example, at the present time complaints against harassment in comic conventions are largely anecdotal – disturbing, yes, as anyone can testify who has read the Geeks for Consent site or watched the essential Scenes from the Small Press DVD featuring Colleen Doran, but to my (correctable, please!) knowledge not quantified and analyzed in multiple peer-reviewed studies. What’s more, complaints against harassment have indeed gone beyond aggressive touching to being hit on in a variety of ways, including verbal approaches that from a guy’s perspective may seem benign. To acknowledge these issues is not to concede that harassment is an illusory matter; to the contrary, it’s essential to developing an accurate response.
The evidence vs. anecdote problem is admittedly challenging. Even in the context of educational or workplace settings accurate and comprehensive data can be difficult to obtain; reporting harassment is risky behavior, bringing with it the risk of social stigma and retaliation. That said, requiring an irrefutable academic study before admitting that there’s a problem may be a counterproductive way to frame the issue. In addition to facing the reality of multiple reports within our midst, there is also the potential for reports of harassment to harm an organization precisely because of their rhetorical power. As the Catholic Church learned while quibbling about ages of consent and relative percentages of abuse, when you allow persuasive stories to multiply without a clear response an organization can be defined by offensive acts.
What’s more, certain acts bring with them a risk of substantial loss even if the behavior is not strictly speaking prohibited by statutes governing sexual harassment. Consider the events that got the most attention at the close of the latest SDCC: the pedestrian hit by a car during the Zombie Walk; the underage girl found injured in the Marriott fountain; the sexual assault on the model friend of Adrianne Lima. These events share several relevant characteristics: they all involve evident violations of the law; they don’t appear to show signs of substantial oversight by Comic-Con staff or contractors; and they all took place outside the Convention Center in areas associated with the event.
With regard to security within the Convention Center, complaints have already been made about the sufficiency of training, which, from the standpoint of someone looking to file a lawsuit is a routine point of attack. Still, the security exists, and SDCC has been taking demonstrable measures to buttress security staffing within the Convention Center as the event continues to grow. The space outside – well, that’s where things get a bit squirrely. If you look carefully at the SDCC program and trace other connections, a picture soon emerges of an event that is scaling up and out of control, escaping its traditional confines to encompass a substantial area that appears to have far less convention oversight.
At which point a lightbulb appears above the head of every entrepreneurial plaintiff’s attorney: negligence.
Once Upon a Contract
If the human toll and potential damage to corporate identity aren’t convincing, the risk of a viable lawsuit claiming a failure to exercise due care has spurred any number of organizations to strengthen their anti-harassment policies. The circumstances at the center of a lawsuit need not be an accident – an organization could be sued for a perceived failure to take appropriate action to protect attendees from sexual assault or battery, two concepts to which we will be returning later in our series.
This points to another core trait of harassment policies: they’re not just rules, they’re legal arguments, and central to making even the most technical legal provisions work is to understand how these rules work together to tell a convincing story. Effective policies and patterns of enforcement function like a splash page, a comic book or series of storyboards – they grab the viewer’s attention and convey a memorable narrative. Judges, jurors, journalists, attendees, sponsors, policy makers – an organization is telling this story to multiple audiences, and the best policies and enforcement practices can persuade them all.
As is typical in law, the story-telling aspect of a harassment policy can both help and harm. There’s a traditional belief in legal circles that silence is the most effective response – if you don’t say anything substantive, no one can use your words against you. In the world of sexual harassment, that’s one reason you often hear organizations assert that harassment is a minor issue even as they’re trying to deal with widely publicized incidents: in addition to a group’s natural tendency not to view itself in terms of sexual wrongdoing, the standard advice from many lawyers is that you should not increase the risk of liability by admitting that a problem exists.
To be clear, I’m not saying that a lawsuit would necessarily win against SDCC or any other comic convention. What’s certain is that as news spreads of comic conventions’ growth into a more than half-billion dollar enterprise, there are attorneys now looking for ways to tap the till.
Hey Baby Hey Baby Hey
The issues of an event’s scale and the extent of harassment are also pertinent to understanding why verbal flirting can be perceived as harassment.
To take this out of the realm of the abstract definition, let’s take a quick look at the experience of a female cosplayer whose mode of dress is interpreted as a sign of sexual availability or romantic interest. Guy 1 approaches and asks her out for a drink. She says no and the guy walks away. Although in the workplace this could still be the predicate for an actionable harassment claim, at a convention this sort of behavior is entirely legal as well as within the scope of even the most restrictive existing anti-harassment policy.
However, stay with our cosplayer throughout the day and over time a telling pattern emerges. Guy 2 approaches and asks her out for a drink. She says no and the guy walks away. Guy 3, same thing. Guy 4, Guy 5, Guy 6, Guy 7 — what to each guy seems to be an innocuous flirtation is to the woman a series of pings sending the signal that she is seen primarily in terms of her sexual or romantic availability. Her job may not be at stake, but there is a clear social quid pro quo – if she does not opt into interactions that at least from the outset define her in sexual or romantic terms, people with shared interests walk away.
What’s more, it’s important to note that for a growing number of cosplayers their professional futures may indeed be at stake. Cosplay is for many people a serious business – for example, it can be a gateway to valuable connections as a commercial make-up artist or costume designer, as evidenced by the prominent role played by the Costume Designers Guild at thematically-related panels and the annual competitive Masquerade. In addition, cosplayers such as Adrianne Curry use their garb as an means of furthering their careers as fashion models and media hosts, and as noted in my last post, I personally saw how a cosplaying woman’s attempt to market her own comic met with a guy’s insistence that her real agenda must be to get in his pants.
How Not to Pick Up Geeks
So what does this mean for sexual harassment policies? Should photos be banned if there hasn’t been a sexually-neutral request for a full-body pose? Should conventions simply prohibit all forms of expressing interest in an attendee without an express, unambiguous statement of being open to an advance?
A convention is a veritable multiverse of expectations, and for some people the possibility of finding a likeminded partner is a significant plus – in this respect conferences can play a role similar to that of a college or university, which has to find a way to accommodate students’ interest in both professional training and social connections. Accommodating this social function while respecting the desire not to be objectified or viewed primarily in terms of one’s relationship potential is not impossible – in fact, these goals can go hand in hand.
The key is to remember that the ultimate aim of a harassment policy is not so much to punish or ban undesirable behavior as it is to cultivate an ethic of respect. The sense of empathy is key to establishing a valued corporate identity, and it’s also a vital part of a persuasive legal narrative. Conversely, prohibitions that convey a lack of empathy by impinging on behavior that is consistent with a community’s identity, goals or standards tend not to be respected themselves. The same is true of a laundry list of sanctimonious thou-shalt-nots — the sad truth is that far more people take anti-harassment training than take it seriously.
A more effective strategy is to integrate an anti-harassment policy within a group’s defining ethos, and the how-to spirit of the geek community offers a rather useful hook: artlessly macking on a cosplayer tends not to work. Now, I’m coming at this as a (happily married!) legal professional who is, as they say, only in it for science, but based on conversations I’ve had with a number of people struggling with this sort of attention it appears that the most effective way of making an impression is not to open with an overt advance. Instead, it’s far more helpful to express genuine interest in the person as a person, whether that means asking how they constructed a particular design or how they’re doing in a hectic day. Not only does initiating a substantive conversation show regard for the individual as something more than an object of sexual or romantic interest, but it seems to buffer the signal strength in a world of “hey baby” noise.
From a design perspective, a policy that fosters an environment conducive to such interactions would likely enhance as opposed to constrain an event’s social value. It’s equally important to remember that we’re developing a new set of social norms to buttress those that may have been more effective in a smaller social environment, where group cohesion and the prospect of repeat interactions could discourage abusive behavior that now seems to grown out of hand. In this wider context taking steps to steer people away from behavior that can be seen as objectifying does not identify the event as a gathering of potential harassers — instead, the convention openly pursues the positive goal of fostering a community of common interests and mutual respect.
Next we’ll take a deeper look at existing and proposed harassment policies to get a better idea of how they could improve. For now, here’s a little more about this post’s main Easter egg. If you happen to have studied ethics or philosophy and the advice above seems somewhat familiar, your spider sense was justifiably tingling. I just gave flirting advice based on the core ethical principle of German idealist Immanuel Kant: the categorical imperative, which calls us not to treat people merely as a means to an end, but to respect them as human beings.
Who says a humanities Ph.D. isn’t practical?