How Big of a Problem is Harassment at Comic Conventions? Very Big.

cosplayers at SDCC in 2012, with text added that 59 percent of comics fans and professionals feel that harassment is a problem

Cosplayers at San Diego Comic-Con in 2012. Original photo by Pat Loika, via Creative Commons.

It’s hard for comic conventions to shake the idea that they’re the sole domain of people who look like the Simpsons' Comic Book Guy. In reality, comic conventions are attended by an ever-growing number of female fans: Female attendance at New York Comic-Con has grown 62 percent over the last three years alone, making women to 41 percent of total attendees. As the number of female fans attending cons has grown, so have conversations about harassment in the comics industry and at conventions specifically.

As 130,000 people head to San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) this week, it’s important to recognize that while harassment can occur in comic shops and elsewhere, the bulk of complaints regarding gender harassment in comics happen at conventions. Yet SDCC has failed to put an emphasis on their harassment policy by not publicly posting signs about harassment or having a clear and well-publicized reporting process for incidents.

As a comics editor, writer, and fan myself, I got interested in how often people at conventions experience harassment. So earlier this year I conducted a survey on sexual harassment in comics, receiving 3,600 responses from people that varied from fans to professionals. The survey was distributed and conducted online, with people sharing it via Twitter, Facebook, and especially Tumblr and self-reporting all information. Of the people taking the survey, 55 percent of respondents were female, 39 percent were male, and six percent were non-binary (see the raw survey data here).

Out of all respondents, 59 percent said they felt sexual harassment was a problem in comics and 25 percent said they had been sexually harassed in the industry. The harassment varied: while in the workplace or at work events, respondents were more likely to suffer disparaging comments about their gender, sexual orientation, or race. At conventions, respondents were more likely to be photographed against their wishes. Thirteen percent reported having unwanted comments of a sexual nature made about them at conventions—and eight percent of people of all genders reported they had been groped, assaulted, or raped at a comic convention.

cosplaying classic batgirl and catwoman

Photo of classic Catwoman and Batgirl cosplayers by Ryan C, via Creative Commons. 

To put these percentages into perspective, if 13 percent of San Diego Comic-Con attendees have unwanted comments of a sexual nature made about them this week, that would be around 17,000 people. And if eight percent of SDCC attendees are groped, assaulted, or raped, that’s over 10,000 attendees suffering harassment.

It's not difficult to see why conventions can be rife with harassment. People in my survey report being harassed by fans, journalists, publishing employees, and comics creators, so there are issues at every level of the industry. Conventions involve cramming a lot of people into one space where ideally everyone gets to move around. This means there are a lot of brush-by maneuvers, awkward running into people, and a lot of general closeness. It can be difficult to tell in a crowd who is accidentally touching you and who is groping you. Even if you know for sure someone groped or assaulted you, it can be hard to figure out who they were when they can just disappear into a crowd. While many people never publicly named their harasser because they are worried about their career or the power of their harassers, 20 percent of survey respondents who experienced harassment said they did not name their harasser because they don't know the harasser's name. 

There's also the cosplay factor—many comics fans, anime fans, video game fans, and the like who attend comic conventions like to dress up as their favorite character. Cosplay is an impressive art that takes a great deal of time and often money. Unfortunately for many fans, their cosplay results in creeps following them around, trying to take up-skirt or ass photos, and thinking they can generally harass them, especially if they wear a costume that seems sexy. Plus, unfortunately there is still a small contingent of geek men who want to make women feel unwelcome at conventions so they will harass, berate, and belittle them. And after the convention ends for the day, the party moves to the bar. BarCon, as many call it, is a time for people to relax and chat after a long day at the convention. But it's also another crowded venue now with intoxication added into the mix.

To combat harassment, an increasing number of conventions have rolled out anti-harassment rules that they make sure have a central role in the convention. In April, for example, Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con put up impossible-to-miss posters about the convention’s “zero tolerance policy” toward harassment. Information about how “Cosplay is Not Consent!” was all over their venue, website, and event guide and the convention hosted a panel on preventing harassment (of which I was a participant).  

cosplay of an adventurtime character with text added: #cosplayisnotconsent

Photo of Fiona (from Adventure Time) cosplay by Josh, via Creative Commons. 

Meanwhile, after a group called Geeks for CONsent began a petition calling on SDCC to create a formal anti-harassment policy, the con’s Marketing and Public Relations Director David Glanzer told a reporter that publicizing an anti-harassment policy might be bad for the image of conventions: "I think the news media, might look at this as, 'Why would you, if this wasn’t such a bad issue, why do you feel the need to single out this one issue and put signs up about it?' I think that’s a concern.” Glanzer certainly has a very different idea of what's "concerning" about harassment at conventions—and pretending it doesn't exist isn't going to protect anyone.

This past week, SDCC finally took a step in the right direction, sending an email to all ticket holders that included a note about how harassing someone could lead to being banned from the con:

“Harassing or offensive behavior will not be tolerated. Comic-Con reserves the right to revoke, without refund, the membership and badge of any attendee not in compliance with this policy.

Persons finding themselves in a situation where they feel their safety is at risk or who become aware of an attendee not in compliance with this policy should immediately locate a member of security, or a Comic-Con staff member, so that the matter can be handled in an expeditious manner. If your safety is at risk and you need immediate assistance you may also use a white house phone and dial 5911.”

This is the first time ever that SDCC has made a specific anti-harassment policy so prominent and offered a clear course of action for fans who are harassed.

There are lots of comics people of all genders who know perfectly well how to behave properly at conventions. Unfortunately, just like anywhere else, there are always jerks ready to pounce when there is an opportunity. Readers might feel concerned about attending a comic convention, and it's understandable. The good news is that as these issues have grown in prominence and conventions can curb bad behavior if they listen to their fans and take responsible steps.

The data supports that there is a problem—and now it’s time for comic conventions to make sure fans feel safe and know how to act.

Related Reading: A Look Behind the Scenes at Gender and Comics Distribution. 

Janelle Asselin has a BA in English Language and Literature and an MS in Publishing. She uses those degrees as a feminist geek who edits, writes, and writes about comics obsessively. 


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Comments

32 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I used to cosplay and go to

I used to cosplay and go to some of these cons but I've become so discouraged I just can't bear to do it anymore...Thanks for reporting on this serious issue.

Treatment at conventions

I said it on facebook/twitter and I'll happily say it again here:

I've now officially been to a convention for computer hackers and comic book conventions. I can honestly say that the hackers were nicer and more welcoming than most comic book fans. Just sayin'.

Agreed: Hacker cons safer for women than comic cons.

I went to HOPE last weekend and in general there seemed to be very little harassment, lots of women (relatively speaking) present, lots of transpeople, lots of male-identified people in skirts, and plenty of space for dialogue. As a woman I felt perfectly safe and comfortable. Comic cons- well, I was raped at San Diego in 1986 and severely harassed by people who had the power to give me a job in the 90s, so not so safe in my experience. I was a guest at DragonCon last summer and I felt safe, but I think that was because at 46 I just didn't exist sexually to most of the youngsters there.

I was at HOPE too -- loved it

Small world! I was just at HOPE, too. Yes, i too felt 100% safe there and was never made to feel like i didn't belong there. (The social engineering panel was hilarious.)

That's absolutely terrible what happened to you in 86... unforgivable. :(

I wonder what the hell is wrong with people sometimes. Do they feel so insecure about themselves that they need to treat other people like pieces of meat or worthless animals to feel better about themselves? I was in some crazy friggin circles at HOPE (and not at HOPE) and never once was i made to feel like anything other than comfortable, welcomed, and respected as a member of the human race who wants to expand her technological/brain arsenal. It was bliss compared to what happens at some comic cons.

The *best* is when some dick head at a comic show makes the 'fake geek' remark... I just think to myself "Bitch? Please..." If they only knew. Hahaha!

Good.

I'm glad this topic has become one I hear more about as time goes on. I've worked in comics for many years - 14 years full-time, 2 years part-time - & the convention scene is a difficult one to explain to newcomers. I've watched the percentage of women in comics grow, both professionals & fans, by leaps & bounds, especially in the past 5 years. Congratulations to the conventions that have developed a clear, easy to comprehend policy about the safety of attendees & exhibitors at their events.

May the geeky comics scene continue to become one that grows in awareness & acceptance. & thanks, Ms. Asselin, for assembling this information.

The 25% number seems a little

The 25% number seems a little misleading. When it says comic book industry, does that mean all people that work in the industry including the ones that don't attend cons or that are overseas or is that just for people involved with cons? I can totally see this being a huge issue on the con circuit though.

Well said! Great article.

Well said! Great article. Sharing now.

Great article. I found the

Great article. I found the statistics to be great for highlighting or bringing to light how alarming the issue of harassment at cons is. People need not ignore the issue but to acknowledge it, for people's safety as well as awareness.

No, not a Big Problem

...because comic conventions are an oddity, a farce, not a meaningful reflection of broader society, and frankly not terribly important to anyone but the people who attend them. Harrassment at comic conventions is not a big deal because nothing at comic conventions is a big deal.

@fromtherealworld, sorry to

@fromtherealworld, sorry to disappoint you, but comic cons are real and the people attending them are real, and whether the event itself is serious, interesting or important is irrelevant. Following your logic, if a woman gets raped in the red light district, it should not be considered rape - she got what was coming to her, right? I think at this point it is safe to assume you are part of the problem, and I would not be surprised if you were yourself a harassor. I just wish people like you could at least learn to keep their mouths shut and let grownups discuss topics you clearly are entirely incompetent at. You keep wagging your tongue, sir, and you, too, will eventually get what's coming to you.

To say that it's "not a big

To say that it's "not a big deal" because Comic Con isn't a big deal is in and of itself a complete fallacy. This is a major event that will have as many as 200,000 people attending (possibly on ONE DAY, Saturday is the biggest at SDCC and it's always a madhouse). It's a huge event, it gets tons of press coverage, lots of big movie stuff premieres AT SDCC now. It's not some piddly little nerd yard sale, it's a major undertaking.

Yes, in an environment this huge, harassment is going to happen. Nothing makes that right, though. SDCC has been extremely sluggish in addressing this very real issue for attendees. People can say it's been a matter of logistics, but I don't really buy it. SDCC is so high profile, and so much money goes into it, they could have been proactive about this long ago.

Every attendee should be able to feel safe going to an event that's meant to celebrate the things that he or she loves. People can't always be safe, but they should always have recourse if harassment happens.

"Because comic conventions

"Because comic conventions are...not a meaningful reflection of broader society."

Not a reflection of broader society as a whole? Yeah, you're probably right.
Not a reflection of the geek community specifically? With 130K attendees, I should damn well hope it's a reflection.

Also, you say nothing at comic conventions is a big deal? How about 17,000 people who say that someone has made unwanted sexual comments about them, or 10,000 attendees who say that they've been groped, assaulted, or raped? What if one of those people was your friend or your significant other, and you didn't find out about it until the end of the day? Still not a big deal?

Next time, do the world a favor and think about what you're saying before you say it :P

Well good then, the people

Well good then, the people who are going to be harassed and assaulted at ComicCon this year can rest assured that their experiences are meaningless because they aren't a reflection of broader society, and their assaults are not serious because nothing else about their activities that night were. Thank you for delivering the criteria by which we can start taking sexual violence seriously.

What a shitty thing to say.

I guess this concludes this thread

In which another young man assumes the world is waiting eagerly for his opinion.

Suggestion

give each female attendee a stun gun upon entering the convention.
Any unwanted, sexually harassing comments? ZZZZAP!
maybe then, they will learn some boundaries.

How unfortunate that the

How unfortunate that the writer here blames those in cosplay for the harassment they get in their line: "Unfortunately for many fans, their cosplay results in creeps following them around, trying to take up-skirt or ass photos, and thinking they can generally harass them, especially if they wear a costume that seems sexy."

Whether poorly worded or an accident or not, language is a powerful tool. Their cosplay doesn't cause the creeps to harass them. The creeps have made their own decisions to harass; the costume didn't tell them to do it.

You misread that. She's not

You misread that. She's not saying that at all. She isn't blaming the cosplayers or their costumes but saying that many people see it as an automatic invitation to do creepy things.

Stats

Good article on a very important issue, but I can't in good conscience use those statistics as they're hardly based on a representative sample! Unless I've misunderstood, they show harassment is happening, but that's about it. Not how frequently or to how large a proportion of con-goers.

"To put these percentages

"To put these percentages into perspective, if 13 percent of San Diego Comic-Con attendees have unwanted comments of a sexual nature made about them this week, that would be around 17,000 people. And if eight percent of SDCC attendees are groped, assaulted, or raped, that’s over 10,000 attendees suffering harassment."

I agree that it would be good to know how representative the sample truly is, or how frequently the harassment is happening, but I think this shows the proportion of con-goers pretty well.

And, I mean, if anywhere from 17,000 to 27,000 attendees are reporting harassment at a convention with an estimated attendance of 130K, is the frequency of the harassment really such a big concern?

If we're nitpicking frequency

If we're nitpicking frequency of harassment, we're doing it wrong. NO harassment should be taking place. We should not be dismissing 20,000 instances (at the very least) of this occurring in a 4 day time span.

Harassment in this article goes from inappropriate comments to rape. How is that ok at all?

I wasn't bringing up the

I wasn't bringing up the frequency point to be dismissive of the problem myself. I was doing it because the original comment I replied to was nitpicking about how the survey data really didn't say anything about the proportion of con-goers involved or how frequent the harassment is, and my comment was basically saying the following: "1) Yes it does, and 2) when the proportion of attendees involved is this ****ing large, why the hell do you care about frequency?"

I totally agree that we shouldn't be dismissing so many instances, and it's not OK at all. Saying "[absolutely] NO harassment should be taking place" seems a bit idealistic to me, since there will always be a**-holes attending and the people organizing the convention can't really do background checks on everyone who buys a ticket; but I would argue it's not (or shouldn't be) too much trouble to provide resources and have a policy of friendliness/respect/Wheaton's Law such that any instance of harassment, however "mild", gets slapped down before it goes any further.

Maybe you misread the above reply. ONE is too many.

The fact that it's an epidemic is unacceptable. And yes, that is a fact.

"I wasn't bringing up the frequency point to be dismissive of the problem myself."

Yes, you were. Your intent does not always have the desired effects, and those effects are not much minimized by your good intentions.

I didn't misread it at all.

"The fact that it's an epidemic is unacceptable."

I never said anything to suggest that it IS acceptable, in any way. The only thing I said which was possibly to that effect is to say that "NO harassment should be taking place" seems a bit idealistic to me, and my point there was that unless you have people who can read minds, it's kind of hard to stop someone from making their first unwanted sexual comment or taking their first photo w/o permission (particularly at an event of this size). However, as I suggested in my last reply, I don't think it's too much to ask for resources and a policy of respect such that any incident, even a "mild" unwanted sexual comment, gets slapped down before it goes any further.

With regards to my comment about frequency, I am sincerely sorry. In retrospect, it might have been closer to my intended effect if I had said something along the lines of "if anywhere from 17,000 to 27,000 attendees...the frequency of the harassment should not be your biggest concern" (or maybe it would have been even further from my intentions - I have no idea at this point). Since there is no way to edit comments, though, all I can do now is say that I'm sorry, try to explain what my intentions were, and hope that we can all leave it at this.

Again, I'm not trying to disagree with you - I think it's completely unacceptable that there is this much harassment going on. All I'm asking is for you to understand why statements like "NO harassment should be taking place" or "ONE is too many" seem a bit excessive to me.

percentages of SDCC

I think you're misinterpreting the numbers for percentages of San Diego Comic Book Convention. Those numbers don't represent the number of people harassed during the single 4-day event, but the numbers who have been harassed in their lifetime attending all conventions.

Not a random sample

I think what the other poster was pointing out is that this survey was not conducted using a random sample. It used a snowball sample - people who are part of the community passed the survey on to other people in the community. Sometimes that's the only way to get information on subgroups, especially if you're studying some variety of social deviance. But it also means the survey could be biased in favor of harassment since people who were harassed were likely to pass it on to other people who they already knew had also been harassed.

It's great preliminary research, but quoting those numbers and pretending they're representative of the whole population of convention goers would be irresponsible.

That's a good point, and I

That's a good point, and I agree with that. Maybe the survey organizer could have contacted the convention organizers and asked them to send out the survey to a random batch of 10K (say) ticket holders, offering some sort of incentive for them to complete the survey? (I'm not sure what kind of incentive would be cost-effective to give to 10,000 attendees, but I'm sure they could come up with something.)

I would like to say something about the nature of the snowball sample, though. I'm not denying the possibility that the survey is biased, because that's always an obvious possibility... but if the survey was biased in favor of harassment and a large percentage of the participants were harassment victims passing it onto other people whom they knew were also harassment victims, then it seems like the statistics would be higher than they are.

I agree it's irresponsible to "pretend" that these numbers are representative of the whole population of convention-goers, but I think they at least serve as a decent indicator (however small) of possible trends in the community at large - emphasis on "possible".

The sample can be much smaller

Now that they know they're expecting a 60/40 response to the question of harassment being a problem, they can look up how many people they need to interview to get a good sample. It's pretty small - maybe 1200 or so?

IT IS A PROBLEM

First off, I'd like to thank the author for making this gender neutral, as it happens to both women AND men. It's rare you ever see any acknowledgement of that fact because we're "supposed to like it".

I've seen a lot of this behavior in the 11 years I've been going to conventions. I recall a Dragoncon where I was with a bunch of people in my Colonial Fleet fan group. We're a very tight knit group who consider each other family. Well, as often happens at Dragon, one of our girls got over-served and it was time for her to hit the rack. Some guy who was new to the Fleet that weekend and my friend Chad offered to escort her to her room to make sure nothing happens. When they get her there, this new guy turns to Chad and says "Do me a favor, bro. Leave." Chad looks this dude in the eye and tells him there no way in hell that's happening. He stayed there until the guy left, came down and informed us all about what happened. So, a bunch of us (including the guy in the group who's a bodybuilder) followed that guy around until the end of the night so he knew he was being watched.

This guy expected another person to turn a blind eye while he basically tried to rape our friend.

We need more people like you.

We need more people like you. Thank you for looking out for your friend.

MSNBC's coverage of this story on Ronan Farrow Daily

MSNBC covered this on RFD today, almost completely missing the point and using it as an excuse to crack jokes. I think the biggest problem was that their panel was made up of two comedians (Chuck Nice and Orange is the New Black's Lea Delaria), instead of having the writer of this story, anyone involved in the Change.org petition or any of the countless female professionals (Cosplayers, actors, creators... So many to choose from) who attend the show and have experienced this first hand.
http://www.msnbc.com/ronan-farrow-daily/watch/protesting-sexual-harassme...

A LITTLE HISTORY: I've worked SDCC for about 19 of the last 20 years, and those last 8 years were spent producing guests for live TV shows shot on the show floor. I've heard horror stories from cosplayers, but most of my experience with attendees assaulting/fondling/groping has been to our talent or guests who were coming to our stage. I have a good idea of how bad it is, and that other shows as stated by others above aren't anywhere as bad as what this show often brings out.

(see the raw survey data here).

"The document Sexual Harassment (Responses) has been deleted."

This entire article is based on non-existent data & should be removed.

link fixed

Thanks for noting that the link was outdated. It has now been updated and links to the data.


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