A three-story building fills up as tens of thousands of guests–some in plain clothes, some in elaborate, funny, homemade, or store-bought costumes–go to panels, meet and greet creators of their favorite media works, buy posters, plushies, clothing accessories, and more at the marketplace. This is how they show off their love for their hobby.
As they enjoy their day at the convention, another guest asks for a photo. They agree. After the photos are taken, the guest gropes them and disappears into the crowd.
“Did that just happen?” They all stand there in shock. They try to find a staff member, but realize that they have zero proof of the incident. Even if they told the staff members, there is nothing that can be done.
This is a common experience for cosplayers, especially women, that face sexual harassment while attending conventions.
Lauren Flores—who goes by @yvonnesaintlauren on Instagram—is a cosplayer, who attends public events and conventions in extravagant and elaborate costumes of various fictional characters, also known as cosplays.
Born in Redwood City, California, Flores describes herself as a cosplayer, a sous chef, and a weed connoisseur. She has cosplayed as many different fictional characters such as Yoko Littner from Gurren Lagann—wearing her signature leather shorts and flame patterned bikini top—and the white cloak coat of Blue Snow from Shimoneta.
Her first convention was six years ago while dressed up as the pirate and archaeologist Nico Robin, from the popular Shonen Jump anime, One Piece, and she immediately fell in love with the hobby.
“I enjoyed dressing up and having other fans take pictures, so I have been doing it ever since,” Nico says.
While she attends conventions to share her interests with other fans, there can be some ugly moments that deter from the fun. Flores has dealt with her fair share of harassment and inappropriate behavior at conventions.
“I have seen the extreme and the subtle ways in which a cosplayer, even an inexperienced and ‘on occasion’ user of costumes, can be harassed and made uncomfortable,” says Flores.
By general definition, sexual harassment is behavior of inappropriate or unwanted physical advances or remarks. In the case of cosplay conventions, this usually pertains to unwanted groping.
Although she has faced forms of harassment, Flores continues to cosplay and attend conventions: “[harassment] was an unnecessary side effect, but it wasn’t something I would allow to control what I loved doing.”
But Flores isn’t alone in her experiences of harassment. Alexandria Ellsworth from the University of Central Florida wrote a thesis paper titled I’m Not Your Waifu: Sexual Harassment and Assault in Cosplay, Anime & Comic Conventions. The study focused on how women face sexual assault in anime and comic conventions and her results show that women are the targets of sexual assault and harassment, policies are poorly enforced or not enforced at all, and the people who work at conventions, such as staff or volunteers, are not trained to handle cases of sexual assault or harassment.
“In places often dictated to be men’s spaces, they may face even more issues with sexual assault and harassment, which has been documented for example within the video gaming community,” explains Ellsworth, specifying that men’s spaces include anime and comic conventions.
Another cosplayer that goes by Agent Paradox, whose name is kept secret to avoid online stalkers from getting her information, has been cosplaying for as long as she can remember.
“When I was in second grade, my mom worked for a video game company called Sierra. They created the Quest for Glory games so I spent a lot of time growing up and playing video games,” Agent Paradox describes. “When I found out years later there were conventions where people could go and dress up as their favorite characters I had to check it out. And well, the rest is history.”
Paradox went to conventions to enjoy things she loved with her friends: visiting her favorite comic book writers, talking with other fans, and getting artwork.
She specifically recalls a negative altercation while she was cosplaying as Harley Quinn: “The only time I really experienced harassment was at Wondercon one year while wearing my costume and someone grabbed my ass. This was pretty upsetting. The person was so quick though I didn’t even see them.”
Acts of harassment and the lack of consent for cosplayers at conventions has brought about groups such as CONsent to bring attention to this issue.
The twenty-seven-year-old San Francisco native, Elizabeth Schweizer, who is also known as Sushi Killer, is the speaker for CONsent. She works for a mobile company as her day job, but she is regularly employed by several conventions such as Silicon Valley Comic Con and Sac-Anime as a cosplay event organizer.
While there is no published record of harassment incidents, Schweizer says that she noticed a dip in the inappropriate behavior that can happen at conventions.
“By my experience, the con scene in California has gotten better about harassment as I have experienced and witnessed less of it than I used to during the late 2000s,” she states. “However, we are also now in the social media age, so more harassment is reported publicly on social media than it ever has been before.”
Schweizer also says that convention management has been more clear in their stance against harassment: “Cons of all genres have been posting ‘Cosplay is not Consent’ banners in their halls and publishing explicit, legally binding policies in their guidebooks at a noticeably increased rate since the CONsent photo project and Cosplay =/= Consent movement went viral.”
After being harassed at the age of fourteen, Schweizer used her skills as a photographer to publish an article that went viral on the 16bit sirens website. It got over 50,000 hits and it is still being reblogged to this day. Her photo project for CONsent was inspired by the #INeedFeminismBecause hashtag back in 2013, and she would have cosplayers send messages to their harassers in a series of photos along with her article.
In Ellsworth’s thesis paper, she says that anime and comic conventions have implemented the policies of Cosplay is not Consent, however it seems that all they have done is put up signs that warn and educate people about sexual harassment and the consequences for people that harass others. She writes, “There is no process for how to go about dealing with sexual harassment or sexual assault, nor is there any focus from security teams to combat sexual assault or harassment.” She additionally mentions the lack of statistics and research on this subject.
So while policies from Cosplay is not Consent and projects like Schweizer’s have had an effect in lowering sexual assault while spreading awareness about the issue, it seems like the problem is not being taken seriously enough as conventions fail to train their staff and security on proper handling of these altercations.
Diane Lieu, a talent development intern from Jacksonville, Florida, has worked in conventions like Schweizer. In her ten years of attending conventions, she has worked for three of them, and her complaint about the sexual harassment problem is the lack of authority conventions have in this arena.
“The most they can do is eject someone from the event and blacklist them for attending in the future,” Lieu reveals. “But that’s why you’ll see law enforcement at conventions now. Still, I know sometimes people don’t have enough actionable proof for the sheriff to go off on.”
Lieu believes that the most effective tool to reduce harassment is targeting bystander culture. If an individual seems to be stuck in an uncomfortable situation, a helpful response might be to interject and deflect negative attention from them.
However, she also says that it should not be the responsibility for guests to be the ones to combat this. Conventions should be the ones to address the issue and educate others on what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
In her thesis, Ellsworth provides a solution: “To effectively enforce a policy against sexual assault and sexual harassment, the author will set up a specialized security team known as Masumi’s Anime & Comic Sexual Assault Team (MACSA).”
MACSA would be trained in sensitivity training for LGBTQ people, domestic violence, and sexual assault/harassment. They would also take training from the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, and training from the Mentors in Violence program.
While safety improving efforts are in motion to protect people during large scale convention events, this issue persists through generations of fans.
Cape on, or cape off, a cosplayer is still a human being. A costume is not a “yes.”
A costume demands consent. The people demand consent.
Until then, hands off.