SAN DIEGO — Mariah Huehner attended her first Comic-Con as a newly minted comic book editor a few years ago, looking to network with artists. But at a nighttime party in a hotel by the bay, she realized that others had a different kind of connection in mind.
“One of the guys suddenly had his hand on my butt,” said Huehner, 35, who is best known as the author of the “True Blood” and “Emily and the Strangers” comics. “It’s a shocking reminder that you’re seen differently.”
Comic-Con International’s dense crowds, Bacchanalian atmosphere and mask-wearing anonymity make it prime territory for misbehavior, according to both men and women who have attended the event many times. Here, and at other similar events around the country, convention-goers have been known to grope, stalk and take “upskirt” photos with impunity. The behavior is so common that there is even a term for it: Creeping at a con.
But as San Diego’s annual convention opens Thursday, a backlash is brewing. One prominent science fiction author is holding his event away from the official Convention Center site to protest what he calls lax anti-harassment policies. And a group calling itself Geeks for CONsent submitted a petition with 2,500 signatures calling on organizers to post signs in the convention halls detailing its anti-harassment policies. It also wants convention volunteers to get training on how to respond to harassment reports.
“San Diego Comic-Con is the mecca of conventions,” said Rochelle Keyhan of Geeks for CONsent, who plans to hand out literature about what constitutes harassment while dressed as a steampunk Disney princess. “They should be leading by example. Instead they think they’re the only convention that has no harassment.”
Organizers point out that Comic-Con already posts its policy, that “harassing or offensive behavior will not be tolerated,” on its website and in a printed events guide.
“Anyone being made to feel uncomfortable at our show is obviously a concern for us,” Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer said in an email. “The safety of our attendees is a primary concern of ours. For this reason we have more staff and security than other events of our type. In addition we also have a command post in the lobby of our event that is staffed with members of the San Diego Police Department, fire and other emergency services.”
With about 130,000 attendees, Comic-Con is a place where fans celebrate superheroes and science fiction and Hollywood studios promote their upcoming geek-friendly fare. As comic book characters have broadened, so too has their fan base. More women have begun attending Comic-Con in recent years, and now comprise about 40 percent of convention-goers, according to Glanzer.
Women who attend these conventions say some of the men present still seem to think it’s a boys club.
Janelle Asselin, who has edited comics for DC and Disney, said she has been groped at half a dozen conventions. She said a male comic book artist once told her he would like to eat her “like a pie,” and she received rape threats in comments posted online after she had written a critique of a comic on her blog.
“It seems worse in the last five years or so,” Asselin said. “But I think a big part of that is that there are more women here, and more women saying, ‘I’m not gonna shut up about how women are treated in comics or how they’re treated at cons.’”
The uncomfortable moments aren’t limited to after-parties and encounters on the crowded convention floor. At a “Game of Thrones” panel at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con, a mix of cheers and groans rose up in the audience when actor Jason Momoa said his favorite part of his role on the HBO show is that he gets to “rape beautiful women and have them fall in love with me.” At a panel last year featuring female action stars called “Women Who Kick Ass,” audience members waiting for other speakers grew restless and complained audibly in the convention hall that the panel should be called “Women Who Talk Too Much.”
The atmosphere persists at conventions even as the comics world itself is becoming more inclusive. In the last week, Marvel Comics introduced a female Thor and a black Captain America, and a new “Archie” comic saw its red-headed hero take a bullet for an openly gay character.
There are signs Comic-Con is heeding some of the criticism — a last-minute email sent to badge-holders late Tuesday prominently highlighted its anti-harassment policy, and encouraged attendees to enlist security if they feel unsafe. Glanzer said it was the first time organizers had taken that step, saying “it seemed like a good idea to add to that with the email distribution.”
For some would-be attendees, including sci-fi author John Scalzi, organizers haven’t done enough. Last summer, Scalzi wrote a blog post titled “My New Convention Harassment Policy,” saying he would only be a panelist or guest of honor at a convention that has a clear, visible and enforced harassment policy. More than 1,100 people, including several other authors, co-signed his post.
“Every section of culture and society goes through this, where a group who has put up with a lot of harassment says, ‘No, we don’t want that anymore,’” Scalzi said recently. “There’s always that moment where the world shifts. Nerd culture is in the middle of that now.”
Though Scalzi’s publisher, Tor Books, had already booked him to attend Comic-Con this year, he decided to hold his event, a reading and signing, at a location outside the convention center.
“I found Comic-Con’s policy to be deficient,” Scalzi said. “It didn’t state clearly and unambiguously what they believe harassment to be.”
The culture of caddishness at fan and genre conventions is a long one — in a piece of correspondence from a 1962 science fiction convention in Chicago, an organizer suggested that writer Isaac Asimov deliver a talk on the “Positive Power of Posterior Pinching” and offered to supply some posteriors. Asimov declined, but asked to be pointed to a “girlie show” while in town.
In 2006, while accepting a Hugo Award at a convention in Anaheim, Calif., author Harlan Ellison grabbed the breast of the presenter, author Connie Willis. In the world of science fiction literature, it was the equivalent of the lead actor winner grabbing the lead actress winner’s breast at the Oscars.
“It was a slap in the face to me to see a successful, powerful and respected writer treated that way at the genre’s biggest award ceremony,” said science fiction author Kameron Hurley, who was sitting in the audience. “I didn’t go to many cons for a few years after that.”
Changing a culture where even minor tweaks to a character’s suit can be treated as blasphemy will be slow going, many in the genre world say.
“We have a saying, ‘If something’s done once, it’s a tradition. If something’s done twice, it’s a hallowed tradition,’” Scalzi said. “Not everything is gonna be solved immediately, but when people are becoming much more willing to publicly say, ‘This is a problem. This guy has done this thing and we want it addressed,’ I do think change is coming.”
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PHOTO: Erin Filson, from left, Anna Kegler and Rochelle Keyhan are representing a group called “Geeks for CONsent,” at Comic-Con, July 23, 2014, in San Diego. The trio will be handing out anti-harassment paraphernalia at the convention. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/MCT)