An estimated 130,000 people attended Comic-Con International in San Diego last weekend, but the annual celebration, where many fans dress as fantasy heroes, seems to have brought out a few villains as well.
At comic conventions across the United States, women, especially ones who arrive in costume, report being groped, verbally harassed and subjected to strangers taking “upskirt” photos of them.
To combat this, three women started an organization to highlight sexual harassment in the world of comics and create a new policy to make women safer at these conventions.
Erin Filson, Anna Kegler and Rochelle Keyhan launched Geeks for CONsent, which has lobbied the organizers of Comic-Con with a Change.org petition to write a new anti-harassment policy.
By the time Comic-Con started, more than 2,600 people had signed a petition for the event to create a new way to report harassment, put up signs to publicize the policy and train volunteers to better respond to reports of harassment.
Despite some of them saying they have faced harassment, the number of women attending comic conventions has increased in recent years. At the New York Comic-Con, female attendance has grown by 62 percent in only three years, making up over 40 percent of the audience.
The trio had previously formed HollabackPHILLY, the Philadelphia branch of the anti-street harassment advocacy group Hollaback!. As part of their anti-harassment outreach, they decided to create a comic book for middle and high school audiences.
This is the age, 29-year-old Keyhan said, “where the behavior starts.”
But in making a comic book and hearing more about cosplay events, where attendees dress up in character, they learned about the prevalence of sexual harassment.
Keyhan said the character a person is playing is sometimes viewed as separate from the actual person inside the costume. If that character involves a scantily clad outfit, other cosplayers might inappropriately assume that the person was asking for sexual attention.
“It’s another way people justify the behavior,” she said.
Comic-Con, which concluded on Sunday, said its code of conduct clearly covered sexual harassment, telling The Associated Press on Sunday that the event “has an explicit code of conduct that addresses harassing and offensive behavior. This code of conduct is made available online as well as on page two of the Events Guide that is given to each attendee."
But Keyhan said the event’s code of conduct was too vague, telling attendees to call an emergency contact number if they were harassed to the point of feeling unsafe, which she said was “almost like calling 911.”
“People already have trouble talking about this,” she said. “People just want to feel that if they do experience something [like harassment], that the convention is going to care. It shouldn’t be that someone literally has to squeeze my breast for someone to care.”
Karen Rivera, a New York-based reporter who has written about cosplay conventions for the site Pixelitis, including a piece about cosplay etiquette, says the relative newness of cosplay and comic-related events in the mainstream view has meant some attendees haven’t learned how to behave properly.
She said she has seen people openly leer at a female cosplayer in a revealing costume or photograph cosplayers without their permission.
“Being respectful of people and asking their permission to take a picture are the two most important things a person can do,” she said.
Geeks for CONsent’s Keyhan said the goal of her group is to raise awareness about harassment in this subculture, not to denigrate cosplay as a whole. While they received some negative reactions to their campaign, “we’ve gotten an abundance of positive feedback,” from both men and women attendees, she said.
“Our goal is not to demonize the convention setting,” she said. “It’s really just to get the conversation started, to make each other feel more included and make the space itself feel safer. And we’re hoping that that conversation will be enough.”