San Diego Comic-Con: Cosplay Sexual Harassment Takes Center Stage At 2014 Fan Convention

ComcCon
Allie Shaughnessy, who is dressed as Mystique, during the 2014 Comic-Con International Convention in San Diego, California July 24, 2014.

A group of self-described geeks is pressuring the country’s premier fan convention to crack down on sexual harassment.

For years, costumed attendees -- or cosplayers -- have complained that verbal and physical harassment is all too common at Comic-Con conventions. Fans of comic books, science-fiction or fantasy genres often attend the lively confabs dressed as their favorite fictional characters, but some women attendees say they are too-often subjected to lewd comments, catcalls, groping and creepy photographers who aim lenses at their breasts or up their skirts.

In response, organizers at Comic-Con conventions in some cities have adopted tough anti-harassment policies, but the largest such event -- Comic-Con International in San Diego -- still refuses to take the issue seriously, according to the activist group Geeks for CONsent. In advance of this year’s event, which ended on Sunday, the group launched a petition calling on San Diego Comic-Con to adopt a formal anti-harassment policy:

“Cons should be about celebrating our favorite games, stories and characters freely and without judgment. But for many fangirls, women and LGBTQ cosplayers, going to cons often includes sexual assault and harassment. Comic Con has refused to create a full harassment policy.”

The group is also asking Comic-Con to post an anti-harassment policy throughout the convention venue and provide one-hour training for volunteers, teaching them how to respond to harassment reports.

Comic-Con San Diego organizers told International Business Times that the event already has an explicit code of conduct that addresses harassment and other formers of 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,” a spokesman for Comic-Con said. “We have also sent the code of conduct to registered attendees by email.”

Specifically, the code says, “Harassing or offensive behavior will not be tolerated.” The spokesman said the policy is “intentionally broad” and allows event organizers to “quickly and effectively address any behavior that an attendee may feel is offensive.”

But Geeks for CONsent argues that the policy is too vague, and that other events -- Comic-Con Seattle, for instance -- have taken greater steps to protect attendees. At Seattle’s Comic-Con, large signs warning that harassment will not be tolerated and “costumes are not consent” are visibly posted throughout the convention.

The Comic-Con controversy is part of a growing discussion around the broader issue of street harassment, which women’s groups say is pervasive in cities and towns across America. Geeks for CONsent’s three co-founders -- Rochelle Keyhan, Anna Kegler and Erin Filson -- are the same activists behind the Philadelphia chapter of Hollaback, the anti-harassment movement that began in 2005 as a photo-blog on which women and girls could post cellphone photos of alleged perpetrators.  

Hollaback has since grown to include chapters around the world, and it continues to take advantage of the latest mobile technology to allow victims to share their stories. Last year, the group was awarded a $40,000 grant by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to develop a mobile app that will allow people to report street harassment directly to authorities.

Similarly, Geeks for CONsent launched an interactive Google map to collect and display the stories of harassment experienced by cosplayers at fan conventions. “I was cosplaying as a female anime character of somewhat large chest proportions,” one Comic-Con attendee wrote recently. “I happen to be large myself and wore a padded bra to slightly enhance it. Multiple times throughout the con, people asked to take pictures with me, and I agreed, but a few times men thought it would be awesome to grab a breast for the photo. When I got angry, they acted like it was no big deal and I was called a 'bitch' and other things for standing up for myself.”

As of Monday afternoon, Geeks for CONsent’s petition had more than 2,600 signatures. The group, which did not respond to a request for comment, said it plans to deliver the petition to the event’s organizers. Watch the group’s video presentation below.

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