Philly Women Battle Sexual Harassment, Groping at Comic-Con

A Q&A with one of the founders of Geeks for CONsent.

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Photo | Andrew Bossi

Cosplay and Comic-Con-culture are huge right now, and so is the issue of sexual harassment at the Comic-Cons and similar conventions around the country. That’s the word from Rochelle Keyhan (left), Erin Filson (right) and Anna Kegler (not pictured), the three Philadelphia women behind Geeks for CONsent, an organization formed in 2013 to stamp out the problem. The group’s motto is “Cosplay does not equal consent.”

Their cause gained national attention over the weekend on the occasion of San Diego’s Comic-Con, and we got Keyhan on the phone to talk about it all.


Specifically, what is happening at these Comic-Con conventions that caused you to form Geeks for CONsent?

It's not just people taking photographs. When we dress up in costume, we are fine with the photographs, which are actually helping us validate what we're doing.

But some people are taking pictures when women are bent over, men will take a picture up her skirt. Recently, a man walked right up to a woman and took a picture of her breasts. It's those kinds of things in terms of the photographic harassment.

And then, there are also instances where there is verbal harassment, when it becomes sexually vulgar, like, "Can I motorboat those tits?" And when it escalates, women are being touched and groped. Their buttocks are being squeezed or hit.

Why do men think this is OK?

Part of it is that we are sometimes dressed as characters that people might already be fantasizing about, so instead of treating us like a person, they are instead treating us the way they would like to treat the character.

And yet, in the mainstream movies, I don't see people sexually harassing the female superheroes. Probably not a good idea.

Yes, with a lot of the characters, the female characters are being drawn hyper-sexually. But their actions are quite different. And this Comic-Con behavior doesn't comport with the nature of the characters.

So Geeks for CONsent travels around to Comic-Cons and does what?

We've been going to the conventions, sometimes with a booth, sometimes with signs. We've been talking to different cosplayers, taking testimony to try and gather information about the conventions. We've learned that places that don't have thorough anti-harassment policies, these places are where women limit their character selections or only dress up if they have a male in their groups, so they may feel safe.

Women are feeling excluded and unsafe, and so we've reached out to the conventions, asking them to improve their policies. Dragon Con and Emerald City — they are two big ones — have been working hard on this.

But San Diego Comic-Con has been keeping its head in the sand, refusing to acknowledge the problem. So we rallied the media and the geek girls in the community to help spread the word.

And Geeks for CONsent was at San Diego's Comic-Con this weekend. Did the organizers eventually step up?

Just before we left for San Diego, they updated their policy. But they didn't really advertise the policy, so we did it for them by posting the policy in all of the restrooms. We did what they should have been doing.

You've been at this for a while, but it seems like the story just caught on. What happened?

Well, the LA Times did a cover story on us for Comic-Con's opening day on Thursday, and then CBS did a TV interview [below] that helped us get on AP's radar. We did a story with AP on Saturday, it ran on Sunday, and then it spread like wildfire.

Clearly, you've gotten a lot of positive reaction and support. But what are the haters saying?

They say if you dress like a slut, you should expect it. People constantly comment that it's because we dress sexy. But we got a message from someone on Saturday who was dressed as a furry animal. She got followed by a man who was verbally harassing her. And because she didn't respond, he came up behind her, put his arms around her and picked her up off of the ground.

They also say that when you go into public spaces, it's a free-for-all and that you can't expect people to limit what they say in public. That's somewhat true. It's kind of a public space, but it's also a regulated space.

There are so many Comic-Con rules for which weapons you can and cannot use, and there are so many rules about taking pictures of the people on the panels. So why not regulate what makes women feel safe as well?

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