Comic-Con’s dark side: Harassment amid the fantasy

SAN DIEGO — Amid the costumes and fantasy of this weekend’s Comic-Con convention, a group of young women drew widespread attention to a very real issue — allegations of sexual harassment at the annual pop-culture festival.

Geeks for CONsent, founded by three women from Philadelphia, gathered nearly 2,600 signatures on an online petition supporting a formal anti-harassment policy at Comic-Con.

Conventioneers told Geeks for CONsent they had been groped, followed and unwillingly photographed during the four-day confab.

Meanwhile, what Geeks for CONsent and others regarded as blatant objectification continued on the convention floor. Scantily clad women were still used as decoration for some presentations, and costumed women were described as “vaguely slutty” by panel moderator Craig Ferguson. When Dwayne Johnson made a surprise appearance to promote “Hercules,” 10 women in belly-baring outfits stood silently in front of the stage for no apparent reason.

Groping, cat-calling and other forms of sexual harassment are a larger social issue, not just a Comic-Con problem. And many comics and movies still portray women as damsels in distress. But Geeks for CONsent says things are amplified at the festival, where fantasy plays such a large role.

“It’s a separate, more specific issue within the convention space,” said Rochelle Keyhan, 29, director of Geeks for CONsent. “It’s very much connected (to the larger problem) and it’s the same phenomena, but manifesting a little more sexually vulgar in the comic space.”

“Comic-Con has an explicit Code of Conduct that addresses harassing and offensive behavior,” said Comic-Con International in a statement on Sunday to The Associated Press. “This Code of Conduct is made available online as well as on page two of the Events Guide that is given to each attendee.”

Earlier, Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer told the Los Angeles Times that “anyone being made to feel uncomfortable at our show is obviously a concern for us.” He said additional security was in place this year, including an increased presence by San Diego Police.

Keyhan’s focus on Comic-Con began with a movement launched in her hometown called HollabackPhilly, to help end public harassment against women and members of the LGBT community. She and her colleagues developed a comic book on the subject in hopes of engaging middle- and high-school students, which is what brought them to Comic-Con.

Costuming, or cosplay, is a big part of the popular convention, with male and female fans dressing as their favorite characters, regardless of gender. A man might wear a Wonder Woman outfit, and a woman could dress as Wolverine. Keyhan and her colleagues — all in costume — carried signs and passed out temporary tattoos during the convention that read, “Cosplay does not equal consent.”

In addition to the existing Comic-Con’s Code of Conduct, Geeks for CONsent wants the 45-year-old convention to adopt a clearly stated policy and says staff members should to be trained to handle sexual harassment complaints.

“It makes it feel safer for the person being harassed to report it and also for bystanders who witness (inappropriate behavior),” Keyhan said.

Toni Darling, a 24-year-old model who was dressed as Wonder Woman on Saturday, said the issue goes way beyond Comic-Con.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with cosplay or anything to do with costumes,” she said. “People who are the kind of people who are going to take a photo of you when you’re not looking from behind are going to do that regardless, whether you’re in costume or not.”

Still, she’d like to see an advisory in the Comic-Con program against surreptitious photography, and a clearer statement from Geeks for CONsent. She found some fans were afraid to take photos, even when she was posing at a booth on the showroom floor.

“The kind of behavior that needs to be modified,” she said, “is somebody taking a photo of you bent over while you’re signing a print.”

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