San Diego Comic-Con and the Issue of Harassment

Social media has enabled people to speak more freely about topics which, in the past, they may have shied away from. It has helped develop some progression in how companies and events treat their audience, as there is now an outlet where fans can directly speak towards the people in charge. As a result, one of the things the comics industry has seen is a rise in accountability.

From publishers to writers, retailers to convention owners, we’re in a position now where people can clearly state problems in the systems we used to take for granted, and establish a need for change. Such is the reason why comic conventions are now, one-by-one, starting to establish individual zero-tolerance policies for harassment. Now feedback can be instantaneous and shared widely, we’re all starting to see campaigns for various causes gain momentum and necessity. One of those is the way women are treated at conventions.

A watershed moment for this particular discussion came last year, as artist Tess Fowler described an incident where writer Brian Wood attempted to ask her back to his hotel room – and, following her subsequent refusal, verbally abused her. Following this, numerous other female creators and fans have taken to their sites, and to twitter, and described their own problems. Cosplayer groups have started documenting the idea that “cosplay isn’t consent” – just because they may be dressed in a sexually provocative outfit doesn’t permit men to harrass or touch them, or take photos.

Which is why an interview on CBR with David Glanzer, the director of marketing and PR for San Diego Comic Con – the largest convention in the US – has prompted recent discussion. In the interview, he responds to questions from interviewer Albert Ching about a recent petition campaign requesting that the convention draft a more up to date, stricter harassment policy, following several years of incidents and problems.

His response is to note that the convention does already have a harassment policy – which he cites, and does indeed exist – and that they’re happy to stick with it. Which is fair enough, in some ways. Just the presence of a harassment policy is at least some offer that the convention wants to make their event a safer one for everybody. The problem is that, as has been reported widely every year for many many years now – their policy is ineffective. 

That link comes from the comic critic (and now Image staffer) David Brothers, who has repeatedly found himself harassed by the security at SDCC. Whilst the immediate concern from the petitioners is that women are being harassed and nothing is being done, there is also the problem of other forms of harassment. Brothers is African-American, and has noted several times that he is treated far differently than the rest of the Image staff at conventions. He is questioned and searched and doubted with a depressing consistency, and it does start to suggest that the volunteers and security hired by SDCC are causing part of the problem.

Part of the petition calls for a very specific programme – one which I think may be the most important part of their campaign

A one hour training for volunteers on how to respond to harassment reports.

A common feature of complaints made at conventions – including SDCC – is that when an incident of harassment is reported, staff have been disbelieving, rude, and dismissive. This has been a big part of why many reports made by victims of harassment haven’t gone anywhere until now. They make their complaint, but are ignored because the security don’t believe them. If harassment is to be addressed, the line of report needs to be made firmer and more progressive.

The idea that training is required is important for two reasons. One: it informs the staff and provides a solid procedure for each complaint received. Two: it also protects the staff from harassment themselves.

In an article today on Comics Alliance, Chris Sims hits much the same point as this, although he goes further in depth and compares the half-hearted policy of SDCC with other conventions like the much-praised zero tolerance policy instituted by Emerald City Comic-Con. The key point is this: having a strict, enforced, active harassment policy has no downside. Glanzer states in the CBR interview that having a harassment policy is a problem because it then suggests that SDCC needs a harassment policy. Which is the same logic as saying that you don’t need to have a fire exit in the convention hall because there’s not currently a fire blazing in aisle 4.

SDCC was targeted by the petition in part because it’s the most visible target for the policy. SDCC is the largest convention in America, and one of the largest anywhere in the World. It’s a place where movie stars pop in to promote their films, and where the media pays real attention to nerd/comic culture. As a result, there really doesn’t seem to be a reason NOT to arrange a more strict and enforceable policy than the current one in place.

There’s no loss in doing this. There’s quite a lot to be gained. Being proactive about harassment is the smartest policy for a convention right now – because if you have a poor guideline, and people can get away with harassment? They have an immediate platform to let the whole world know about it. We’re in an age of accountability: the sooner conventions understand and redevelop their tolerance policies as a result, the sooner conventions can become a safer and more enjoyable place for everyone.

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