July 8 2015 10:20 AM

Comic-Con needs to step up sexual harassment policy

tigra_duluoz cats
Alicia Marie as Tigra (left)
Photo courtesy of Duluoz Cats / Flickr

Comic-Con needs to get more proactive in its stance on deterring acts of sexual harassment. The annual convention celebrates the universe of vintage Batman comics, zombie-themed TV shows and the next round of Star Wars sequels. The Con attracts 130,000 men and women, including an ever-growing number of cosplayers, who attend dressed up as superheroes and other fantasy-based, fictional characters. The overwhelming majority of attendees are conscientious and well-intentioned people, respectful of each other, and of race, religion, nationality and gender. The comics/science-fiction/fantasy industry, however, has long orbited in a galaxy where women have been objectified and demeaned.

The classic good-versus-evil storyline is playing out here in real life.

Comic-Con is a confluence of sweet, geeky innocence and commercialized sexual pandering. It's a Hollywood-imbued tinderbox potentially fueled by drooling trolls who forget their manners around colorfully dressed females.

More women are speaking up about verbal harassment, unwanted touching and drone-headed males who grab them for photographs and use photo-ops as an excuse to grope and fondle. Last year, model Alicia Marie was in the Gaslamp Quarter dressed as a character called Tigra when a guy stuck his hand down her pants, then tried to pull her costume bottom down by yanking her tail.

Rather than wait for other lunkheads to become even more emboldened, preventive action is necessary now.

Comic-Con has a fairly new "general principle" in place regarding sexual harassment. An advocacy group called Geeks for CONsent, however, is pressuring the nonprofit organizers of San Diego's mega-event to adopt a stronger, more legalistic code. They want better training of convention volunteers and onsite security staff, and more instructional signage geared at awareness of harassment and ways to report offenders. The Philadelphia-based advocates point to clearer legal policies put in place by the New York Comic Con (a for-profit entity), which included the creation of a smartphone app where incidents can be reported and dealt with immediately.

Attorney, ethics professor and comics blogger Jeff Trexler will moderate a July 9 Comic-Con panel that will explore the objectification of women. The one-hour panel is aimed at creating dialog about which comics-related, pop-culture topics journalists should be covering, including the gender-divided absurdity of Gamergate and the tragic murders of Charlie Hebdo staff. (Note: Veteran observers don't think enough time has been programmed to discuss all these topics.)

On dealing with sexual harassment, Trexler says it's a growing concern, especially for female cosplayers. From a legal perspective, he says San Diego organizers are at a difficult crossroad.

"Sexual harassment within a workplace can be very specific," he says. "With Comic-Con, though, the discussion becomes about the broader concept of street harassment, and encompasses sexually charged' acts and beyond."

Due in part to limited space inside the San Diego Convention Center, the activities literally expand onto the surrounding streets of downtown, for related parties and events in hotels, bars and restaurants. Outside the convention center confines, a female dressed in a Wonder Woman costume runs a higher risk of not being treated with Con-centric familial respect.

That's something the city of San Diego ought to remember when counting up the reported $135 million in Comic-Con-related visitor spending.

Overall, the convention's approach toward policing behavior has been communal, rather than contractual. It's discouraging for long-time conventioneers to envision a move from the former to the latter. But unlike cartoon characters like Bart Simpson, The Con has to grow up.

Organizers need to come out of the bunker and show they value the welfare of their community.

"Comic-Con's lawyers are surely telling them to be careful, so they don't set themselves up for a class-action lawsuit," says Trexler. "The first legal strategy is Don't say too much.' But eventually that can be counterproductive. Maybe there's a way to engage this beyond a PR statement every year."

Yes. It's time for a bold step. Put more teeth in prevention. Convene a panel of elders to draft an awareness campaign. Organizers need to get their heads out of the Tatooine sand before the actions of some rogue Wookie bites them on the ass. 

Write to rond@sdcitybeat.com

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