San Diego's Comic-Con International has a problem that it doesn't want to address. See, a few weeks back, a group called GeeksForCONsent launched a petition urging Comic-Con to adopt a formal harassment policy in place of the broad, basically unenforceable "code of conduct" that's currently in place. Like many conventions, SDCC has a huge problem with women -- particularly women cosplayers -- being harassed by other con-goers and dubious media "professionals", and the present policy offers victims little recourse.

Comic-Con's existing policy, which can be found in its 200-page programming guide and on the event's website, is as follows:

Attendees must respect common sense rules for public behavior, personal interaction, common courtesy, and respect for private property. 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 staff member, so that the matter can be handled in an expeditious manner.

GeeksForCONsent's petition asks that Comic-Con amend the policy thusly:

  • A harassment reporting mechanism and visible, easy to find on-site support for people who report harassment.
  • Signs throughout the convention publicizing the harassment policy and zero-tolerance enforcement mechanisms.
  • Information for attendees on how to report harassment.
  • A one-hour training for volunteers on how to respond to harassment reports.

As a response to the petition, David Glanzer, Comic-Con's director of marketing and public relations -- someone whose actual job is to talk to the media about this sort of thing -- gave a remarkable interview to CBR's Albert Ching where he suggested, astonishingly, that instituting a more explicit anti-harassment policy would be a problem in and of itself, because people in the media and the attendee base might think that Comic-Con has a problem with harassment.

...because we’re really an international show, and have 3,000 members of the media, I think the story would be harassment is such an issue at Comic-Con that they needed to post these signs around there. Now, people within the industry, and fans, know that isn’t the case, but the general public out there, and 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.

That's not really how rules work.

We have rules because there are problems; so that we know what to do when those problems arise. Harassment -- sexual and otherwise -- is a problem, and it's not an outlier at San Diego Comic-Con, it's something that can happen to anyone who wears a costume and even to a good number of people who don't. As anyone who's been to SDCC or follows media reports of the problems that arise there, the current rules against harassment are clearly not doing the job. But the organizers are manifestly more concerned with the patently false idea that even acknowledging the problem would create a bigger problem, rather than addressing the reality of the situation for the people who actually attend their event.

Glanzer's extremely dubious claim that a deliberately broad policy makes it easier for Comic-Con to sort out all of these problems (that the con doesn't want to admit it has) can be undermined by the briefest of challenges. Sure, on the surface the existing policy is not a bad set of rules, and if nothing else it does have that line about "harassing or offensive behavior." But then you hit that bit about "Common Sense," and that's where the problems show up.

1. As much as it might seem like there is given the name, there's no actual defined consensus of what "Common Sense" means. You might think that it's perfectly appropriate to ask someone dressed as Chun-Li to turn herself upside down and do the splits because that's what Chun-Li does in the game, but when you're speaking to an actual person, it's really not. All this policy tells you to do is to act the way you think you should, and creeps don't think they're doing anything wrong.

2. Vague platitudes about being nice to people don't really work that well. Specificity is the key to creating rules that are easy to enforce and hard to get around, because they lay out what the actual policy of the convention is. It stops being "well I thought it was okay" and starts being "it says here that you can't do that." It's why laws, the things we have to prevent this sort of thing in actual civilization, tend to be so precise.

Let's look at a convention that does have a more explicit harassment policy.


Emerald City Comic-Con anti-harassment flyer


This year I attended Emerald City ComiCon in Seattle for the first time, and one of the things I took away from the convention itself was how well organized it was. A big part of that came from the very well-publicized anti-harassment flyers that were posted around the convention, something that CBR's Albert Ching brought up in his talk with Glanzer,

Like SDCC's harassment policy, ECCC's flyer comes with some vague terms, although I'd argue that "Be Respectful" is a more direct than "Common Sense." The flyer does, however, tell people what not to do; expresses no tolerance for noncompliance; tells people what to do if they've been harassed; and, most importantly, it was posted everywhere at the convention. It wasn't buried in a program or on the website, it was a clear and bold statement about Emerald City's policies that was visible no matter where you were at the show.

It wasn't just the flyer, though. ECCC had more volunteers and staff -- in extremely visible green shirts -- circulating among the convention and making sure everything ran smoothly than I have ever seen before at a con. They were actively making sure there were no problems, and if there had been, you were never far away from finding someone who could help you.

Believe it or not, said conditions didn't create the kind of paranoid environment that Glanzer's worried about. Instead, they made it seem like the people who run Emerald City actually cared about the people who were there and making sure they had a good time and weren't harassed. As such, ECCC received nothing but good press about their actions. Indeed, everything that resulted from ECCC's proactive stance was the direct opposite of what Glanzer fears would happen if Comic-Con adopted a similar strategy.

It must be noted that SDCC is a sprawling mass of humanity. The sheer number of people crammed into a relatively small space makes it very difficult to manage even when everyone is on their best behavior. There are 130,000 people who show up for the convention, which is actually more than the population of the city where I live. Emerald City is a smaller affair than San Diego, but still, that's a show that had 75,000 people in attendance. If ECCC can make the effort -- and actually be rewarded for it in the form of good will -- then surely a convention that sells out of its passes in an hour can at least attempt to do the same?

And really, that's all anyone wants. Just make the effort, Comic-Con. Otherwise, you're just suggesting that you don't even care about what happens as along as people are still buying badges and perpetuating SDCC's fragile illusion that attendees are more interested in waiting in line for hours to see the cast of Avengers than in their own comfort and safety.

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