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Three Philly women seek civility on the street and equality in the world of geekdom

A trip to San Diego Comic-Con turned a local project into a national story.

Keyhan and Filson at Awesome Con, in Washington, D.C., where they led anti-harassment training. (ANDREW BOSSI)
Keyhan and Filson at Awesome Con, in Washington, D.C., where they led anti-harassment training. (ANDREW BOSSI)Read more

A FEW WEEKS ago in Rittenhouse Square, a man said something to a few other men in a car who were catcalling a group of women. One of the men, offended that someone should try to halt his verbal barrage, got out of the car and knocked the good Samaritan unconscious. The story blew up on social media and for a brief while people were talking about street harassment.

The irony is that it took a man getting beaten up to make it a story. Women deal with the problem every day.

It's those kinds of incidents that prompted Rochelle Keyhan, Erin Filson and Anna Kegler to form Feminist Public Works several years ago and, more recently, Hollaback Philly and the now-more-famous (thanks to their work at San Diego Comic-Con) Geeks for CONsent.

The Philadelphia women's goal is to change the way people think about street harassment - for the people who do it to stop and for the people who let it happen to step in. Using comic conventions as their laboratory makes sense, they say, because that environment is an enclosed community, the harassment of women who dress in costume is an ongoing problem and . . . all three women are comic geeks who like dressing up in costume.

"About a year ago," Kegler said, "we published a comic book about street harassment [Hollaback: Red, Yellow, Blue]. We did a crowdsourcing campaign to fund it and ended up going past our goal."

They used the extra money to go to this year's San Diego Comic-Con, where their anti-harassment campaigning attracted national media attention.

It's not about women getting offended over someone saying, "You look amazing," Keyhan said. "That's just an easy way to dismiss the real things that are happening."

It's guys (and it's almost always guys) taking up-skirt shots on escalators, grabbing women's breasts as their friends take pictures, taking a photo of a woman's butt when she bends down to get something from her bag.

Last month in San Diego, for instance, model Adrianne Curry - dressed as Catwoman, complete with bullwhip - beat the zombie snot out of a costumed creep, perhaps emboldened by his own anonymity, who tried to stick his hands down the pants of one of her female friends, dressed as Tigra.

Behind the masks

Considering that now nearly 40 percent of comic convention attendees are women, the women just want to feel as safe there as their male counterpart.

But in San Diego, many of their complaints fell on the organizers' tone-deaf ears. The group says that Comic-Con has a policy that harassment and offensive behavior will not be tolerated, but they won't define it or explain it.

Or enforce it.

"They're not going to make it look like a priority to limit that sort of behavior," Keyhan said, because then they have to acknowledge there's a problem.

Philly Wizard World, where the women launched their comic book and had a table in 2013, has "a slightly more specific policy, so we got a lot fewer stories about harassment happening in the convention space," she said. "When you set up a standard that says we're not going to tolerate that, it tells all the people at the convention that if you see something, you should say something, because the convention's going to have your back."

The same is true in society at large, but the trio says that something can be done about it if the problem is taken seriously.

"On the Penn campus, for instance, construction workers [long stereotyped for street catcalls toward women] are told very strongly that they will lose their jobs if they harass anybody," Kegler said.

To change attitudes where institutions won't step in, the Hollaback women speak with high-school groups and have taken ads on mass transit, with the hope of changing one bystander at a time into someone who steps in.

That herd mentality

At last month's Keith Urban concert in Massachusetts, a 17-year-old girl was raped as dozens of concertgoers stood around, watched and took pictures. Then one woman intervened, spoke with the girl and called police.

"On a SEPTA bus there was a guy masturbating," Keyhan said. "Everyone's ignoring it, but then one person spoke out and the whole bus rallied. You need one person and then the herd will turn."

The key, said Kegler, is getting to the root cause of this type of behavior and changing social norms. "What are appropriate ways to talk to people? When and how can you approach people?"

Keyhan described appropriate behavior this way: "Sometimes I'll be walking down the street and someone will say, 'You look beautiful in that dress,' and there will be a smile, and we will keep walking. . . . It's literally just a compliment. A genuine compliment with no expectations is the only acceptable thing. Or nothing."

Filson said that for convention photographers, courtesy is a good place to start.

"I always appreciate it if people ask first, so I can get composed and get in character," she said. "And no taking pictures of specific body parts."

With Facebook and Twitter, Filson said, "it makes it easier for people to tell their stories," but it also makes anonymous Internet harassment that much easier. The women received many nasty comments, for instance, when national media picked up their story in San Diego.

"It's really great that everyone has a voice," Filson said, adding, "and really awful that everyone has a voice."

But on the Internet, there's no physical presence.

On the street, the women say, one never knows when a simple catcall might lead to violence, or when relentless harassment could turn what might have been meant as an innocent remark into the final straw of aggravation.

For many women, walking around in public can be a nonstop series of lip smacks, ass pinches, vile come-ons and more.

"For some guys it's just a catcall," Keyhan said. "But they don't realize that the catcall is just a prelude to all the other awful things that can happen in a public space. . . . If all it was was just, 'Hey sexy, hey baby,' I would not spend all my free time on this. But when you never know what's going to come next, that's the problem."