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Scanty Comic-Con Costumes No Excuse For Sexual Harassment

GeeksForCONsent says organizers of annual pop culture fest don’t do enough to stop harassers

Photo caption: Leaders of the advocacy group GeeksForCONsent Rochelle Keyhan and Erin Filson...

Photo credit: Andrew Bossi

Leaders of the advocacy group GeeksForCONsent Rochelle Keyhan and Erin Filson dress as Hermione Granger from Harry Potter and Marvel superhero Black Widow at a comic convention. Their hands have temporary tattoos with the message "Cosplay =/= Consent."

An advocacy group is targeting this week's annual Comic-Con convention in San Diego for failing to do enough to prevent sexual harassment. GeeksForCONsent has collected 3,000 signatures asking Comic-Con to beef up its anti-harassment policy and enforcement.

An advocacy group is targeting this week's annual Comic-Con convention in San Diego for failing to do enough to prevent sexual harassment. GeeksForCONsent has collected 3,000 signatures asking Comic-Con organizers to beef up their anti-harassment policy and enforcement.

Last week, the group also published an audit detailing ways it says the convention could improve its response to harassment.

The pop culture fest that each year takes over downtown San Diego for a week in July begins Wednesday night with a preview, and then continues through Sunday at the San Diego Convention Center and other nearby venues. The event attracts about 100,000 people.

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GeeksForCONsent Comic-Con Audit

GeeksForCONsent Comic-Con Audit

An audit from the advocacy group GeeksForCONsent detailing ways it would like San Diego Comic-Con to improve its anti-harassment enforcement.

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Photo credit: Alicia Ballenger

Model Alicia Ballenger dressed as Marvel superhero Tigra at San Diego's 2014 Comic-Con and said she was groped and harassed by a Comic-Con attendee.

Photo credit: GeeksForCONsent

A member of GeeksForCONsent holds a sign with the message "Cosplay =/= CONsent" at San Diego's 2014 Comic-Con to remind attendees that scanty costumes do not condone bad behavior.

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Comic-Con Statement on Sexual Harassment

Comic-Con Statement on Sexual Harassment

A statement from Comic-Con International on its sexual harassment policy.

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"They need to create a more thorough (anti-harassment) policy that has details in it and that you can enforce," said Rochelle Keyhan, a Philadelphia lawyer who wrote the audit and who heads GeeksForCONsent.

In a statement, Comic-Con International said that "harassment of any kind is clearly not acceptable and we take a hard line in enforcing policies that serve to protect all our attendees."

No one from Comic-Con has read the audit, so no could not respond directly to it, the statement said.

For many comic book and science fiction fans, Comic-Con is even better than Halloween. Convention attendees practice something called "cosplay," which means dressing up as characters in the most accurate costumes possible.

But for women, that sometimes means wearing revealing costumes. Keyhan said the message of her group is that cosplay does not mean consenting to being sexually harassed. She plans to hang up signs around the convention that read "Cosplay =/= CONsent."

"When you cosplay, normally it's a character you love and the goal is to have the most authentic costume to best highlight that character," she said. "Most of the characters for women are pretty scantily clad because that's how they're drawn and that's how they're presented, so to be authentic you're going to be a little scantily clad."

Keyhan said those costumes seem to encourage some men to behave badly.

"Men might be fantasizing about the specific characters and then you're walking around like a real life version of it. And then instead of them treating you like a person, they're treating you like what they want to do to that character," she said.

At last year's Comic-Con, model Alicia Ballenger posted on Facebook about an encounter she had while dressed as Tigra, a Marvel superhero.

"We were all in the super crowded San Diego Comic-Con International Gaslamp area taking photos with ‪#‎SDCC‬ peeps and fans," she wrote. "Some total A$$H0LE came up behind me and tried to stick his hands in my bottoms and then yanked my tail and pants down."

Ballenger said she enjoys dressing up and talking to fans about her costumes, as long as the attention doesn't turn negative.

"We do want to be asked about our cosplays, we like sharing details about the craftsmanship and about why we chose that particular cosplay," she said. "We value the appreciation of the Comic-Con community. We love taking pictures with fans of cosplay and comics. We don't dress up because we want to put ourselves out there to be manhandled and treated badly."

Keyhan said she would like Comic-Con to write a specific anti-harassment policy. Here's how the convention references harassment in its Code of Conduct policy: "Attendees must respect commonsense rules of public behavior, personal interaction, common courtesy, and respect for private property. Harassing or offensive behavior will not be tolerated."

She also suggests other changes, including publishing the policy in more places, better training staff and volunteers on how to respond to harassment complaints, and making it clear that people who've experienced harassment can call 5911 from the white phones in the Convention Center to report it. Even better, she said the convention could set up a separate phone line for people to report harassment.

"We asked multiple staff members of the convention where we could report harassment," she wrote in the audit. "Some told us vaguely to 'Go to Lobby C.'"

Keyhan also would like Comic-Con to follow the lead of New York Comic Con, which has a smartphone app for reporting harassment.

An app would allow people to report in real time, she said. If an attendee leaves to make a call on a white phone or to go to the lobby, he or she will likely lose track of the harassing person.

"It's overwhelming to be in that space because it's so packed, and that is the perfect breeding ground for stuff to happen and no one to be held accountable," she said.

In the meantime, Keyhan and others from GeeksForCONsent will monitor their Twitter feed for reports of harassment. She said if a convention attendee experiences anything that makes him or her uncomfortable, to tweet at her organization and report it to Comic-Con staff.

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