Staffers at this weekend's Anime Boston convention got proactive about preventing harassment in con spaces: They hosted a panel themselves to discuss consent.
Geek conventions are notorious for creating uncomfortable and inappropriate environments for people who enjoy dressing in the image of their favorite characters. This is especially true at fandom cons when lines get crossed between enjoying the spectacle of beautiful cosplay and making the cosplayer themselves feel uncomfortable, violated, or harassed.
Numerous fan movements have sprung up in recent years to raise awareness about the fact that “cosplay is not consent,” as well as to create safe spaces and teach guidelines for interacting appropriately with cosplayers. Anime cons aren't exempt from their share of cosplay-related scandals; but what is unique about Anime Boston 2014 is that the con itself put the issue forward in a staff-presented panel. The staffers discussed the boundaries of appropriate behavior and etiquette around cosplay, as well as what to do if you experience harassment while attending a con.
Anime Boston staffers Lyndsey Zusi, Brian Hulse, Kate Harrison, and David Burke led a packed Friday morning panel in discussing the issue of harassment. Like many cons, Anime Boston has a harassment policy to aid the safety of attendees. Anime Boston's harassment policy is simple and clear: “discrimination and harassment of any form will not be tolerated.”
But as the panelists pointed out, many attendees might be new to the concepts of consent, and might not realize when they've crossed a line.
Last year at WonderCon, cosplayer Elizabeth Schweizer introduced a movement that has become a staple of many cons since: “Cosplay =/= Consent.” Schweizer asked the cosplayers about their con experiences while wearing cosplay in order to highlight the wide variety of behaviors that can make congoers feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
Each of the panelists had personally experienced various forms of harassment while cosplaying at cons. Two panelists spoke of being grabbed or touched inappropriately; two others spoke of being stalked as a result of cosplay. Burke stated he had been stalked for over a year, while Harrison spoke of verbal and physical harassment.
“There are a couple of conventions where I will no longer bring that costume,” Harrison said.
Much of the discussion centered around well-intentioned friendly touching gone wrong. “One of the first times I was ever hugged at a convention, they glomped me from behind, and I fell face-first into a wall,” Burke recounted in another instance of his undergoing. Another fan in attendance spoke of being “clotheslined.”
Fans shared stories of being groped, verbally harassed, and even having their costumes destroyed by other fans—but also gave tips on how to avoid or diffuse inappropriate situations.
“If someone is running at you to hug you, holding a hand with your palm out in front of your body is a very effective way to stop them,” offered one audience member.
Audiences also debated the etiquette of photographing cosplayers without securing their permission first, especially when they're not posed. While contexts and opinions differed widely, most fans agreed that getting bombarded by a crowd of gawkers with cameras could be both uncomfortable and annoying.
The panelists offered a broad outline of behaviors that can easily be harassment, as well as what to do if you or someone around you is experiencing harassment in con spaces.
Types of harassment:
Verbal harassment of a sexual nature, such as that experienced by a Black Cat cosplayer at New York Comic Con in 2012. Along these lines, telling the cosplayer that you'd like to have sex with them (or variants thereof) is not generally a compliment.
Asking if you can grope or otherwise physically assault the cosplayer.
Failing to ask permission before any physical touching.
Failing to ask permission before taking pictures of cosplayers.
Instigating any kind of intimate or close physical contact without explicit enthusiastic consent.
Victim-blaming: “well if you didn't want pictures/touching/sexual comments, you wouldn't be wearing that costume.”
Requests for “shippy” pictures in cosplay with other cosplayers. “I'll do cute pictures, but I'm not making out with you for a picture,” Harrison said.
What to do if you are being harassed at a con:
One option is to get away. It is OK to just leave. You don't have to call attention to the incident, confront the harasser, or stand up for yourself. Removing yourself from the situation is a completely acceptable option. However, if you are disengaging, it's wise to find a friend or another group of people to support you, in order to ward off the chance of having the person continue to follow and harass you.
Another option is to call the person out on his or her behavior. How to do this, however, can depend on context.
The panelists advocated approaching the harasser in a calm, respectful manner. “Attack the behavior, not the person,” Harrison said. Raising your voice or making a scene could escalate the incident and increase the potential for violence. However, the panel also stressed that if you are the victim of repeated or extreme harassment, you are completely within your rights to get upset. As Harrison put it:
“Within this community, people doing this sort of thing in a convention may not be aware that what they're doing is crossing a boundary. In this context, the first thing to do is say it calmly, and then if that doesn't work, you are absolutely within your rights to raise your voice.”
Not all cosplayers may be able to be calm at the moment of their harassment, and it should be stressed that it's never on the onus of the cosplayer to watch their tone, or to be sensitive or polite in how they approach someone if that person is making them feel unsafe.
Once you have gotten away from the perpetrator, find a staff member immediately and give them details of the situation.
If at all possible, document the identity of the harasser. If you can do it safely, take their picture. Try and get their name/badge. If you are being harassed by a staff member, alert convention security or an executive level staff member.
What to do if you see someone else being harassed:
Approach them and ask them if they're okay.
Ask if there's anything you can do.
If possible, engage them in conversation away from the harasser so that they have support to remove themselves from the situation.
If the conflict turns physical toward another con-goer and you decide to step in, be careful only to be defensive rather than getting offensive or physical in any way.
Try to avoid the conflict escalating to physical interactions at all costs.
So what does mean consent? The panelists agreed that the ideal form of consent is an “enthusiastic 'yes'”—one that's not obtained while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
Harrison ended with a note of caution for the con-goers to carry with them through the rest of the con. “If you see something, say something,” she said. “You are our eyes.”
Photo via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 2.0)