Cosplay is Not Consent – The Growing Issue of Cosplay Harassment at Conventions and Beyond

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New York native Amanda Jade has attended the annual New York Comic Con for years. She’s used to dressing up as her favorite characters, posing for photographs with fans, and weaving through massive crowds just to find a bathroom. However being sexually harassed by another convention attendee is something she didn’t expect.

“While at New York Comic Con a few years back I was actually groped from behind. Someone felt it appropriate to put both hands on my behind, squeezing it so hard they left a mark,” Amanda said.

Amanda, who is known as “Undiesofwondy” online in the convention and cosplay community, was dressed as the popular comic book character Black Canary, and is one of many costumed attendees to be sexually harassed in recent years.

Costume play, or cosplay, is the art of dressing up as characters from comic books, video games, anime, TV shows, movies, and other forms of pop culture. Cosplayers spend months either gathering costume pieces, or hand-making each part of an outfit.

In recent years, cosplay has become a staple in convention culture. A major reason people attend comic or anime conventions now is to display their months of hard work in a costume for other attendees to appreciate and photograph.

Jerry Milani, a public relation’s representative for the Wizard World Comic Convention organization, summed up the growing trend.

“Cosplay is a way for attendees to express their fandom,” he said.

Massachusetts based cosplayer Micro Kitty had a similarly shocking incident occur while cosplaying the character Red Sonja at the popular Connecticut convention, ConnectiCon.

“A man lifted up the front flap [of my costume] and exposed my vagina to about 200 people at ConnectiCon in 2014. When I talked about my experience online, I was overwhelmed with, ‘Why weren’t you wearing underwear? You were basically asking for it,’” she said.

According to Micro Kitty, the perpetrator tried to walk away like nothing happened.

“I chased after him and sort of dragged him into a convention staff occupied room, then demanded that security and the police be called,” she said.

Micro Kitty Cosplay as Red Sonja. Photo by Cantera Image.
Micro Kitty Cosplay as Red Sonja. Photo by Cantera Image.

Harassment of cosplayers is not limited to only females though. Male costumer John of “Moderately Okay Cosplay” has been groped multiple times while dressed as anime and video game characters.

“It didn’t really affect me much. It surprised me more than anything, like a ‘Did that just happen?’ type of thing,” he said.

The alleged harassment these, and many other cosplayers, have endured has left the hobby’s community angry and offended.

“It’s really messed up. Cosplay isn’t consent. That should be common sense. If someone doesn’t consent to you touching them, don’t touch them,” John said.

As the number of attendees at these conventions continues to rise dramatically each year, more stories of harassment circulate, leaving many to speculate why attendees may be inappropriately touching cosplayers in the first place.

“I think people are bred to think it’s okay that things like this occur. Because I’m a woman, in costume, at a convention, I’m no more than an object to them. I’m like the toys on sale in the vendors hall,” Amanda Jade said.

Undiesofwondy cosplaying Black Canary. Photo by The Brotherhood of Evil Geeks.
Undiesofwondy cosplaying Black Canary. Photo by The Brotherhood of Evil Geeks.

John also thinks it’s the mentality of some attendees that is contributing to the issue.

“You have people who can’t keep their hands to themselves. I think it’s a little bit of entitlement, a little bit of lack of social skills, and a whole lot of ignorance,” he said.

Attendance rates to conventions have rocketed in recent years; some 130,000 people attended this year’s San Diego Comic Con, the most popular convention in the world.

Brian Stephenson is the brand marketing director for ReedPop, the organization that produces events such as New York Comic Con, PAX, and Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo.

According to Stephenson, 38 percent of the survey audience attended New York Comic Con for the first time in 2014, with 41 percent attending it for the first time in 2013.

“We saw a higher retention of attendees in 2014,” he said.

Similarly, Milani stated that returning Wizard World Comic Con shows in 2014 had about one third of attendees being newcomers.

The sheer growth of attendance rates at conventions in the past five years follows after Marvel’s massive success with its various movie franchises, and cult favorite shows such as The Walking Dead featuring its actors at many of these events. The growing popularity of anime and manga in the last decade has also weaved it’s way into comic conventions, and led to a spike in anime convention attendance as well.

“The days of silly Adam West Batman type movies are over. Super hero movies are now action, romance, and adventure with characters that are easy to relate to,” Micro Kitty said.

She also referenced the Big Bang Theory, stating that people are influenced by the media’s portrayal of geek culture and “suddenly they classify themselves as ‘nerds’.”

“I think that now that ‘geek is chic’, a lot of people who wouldn’t have been at conventions are now in attendance,” Amanda Jade said.

The sexual harassment problems at conventions are not going unnoticed by those who run them.

New York Comic Con rolled out a new anti-harassment policy at this year’s event that included multiple large signs placed around the convention floor with the words, “Cosplay is not consent” written in large font.

“We want people to feel safe at our show and they shouldn’t have to deal with unwelcome attention or harassment of any kind. We wanted to take a strong stand on the issue of harassment by creating a policy that we hoped would be seen as a standard that other conventions would adopt,” Stephenson said.

One of the numerous “Cosplay is Not Consent” signs around the Jacob Javits Center at New York Comic Con 2014. Image courtesy of Comicsbeat.com.
One of the numerous “Cosplay is Not Consent” signs around the Jacob Javits Center at New York Comic Con 2014. Image courtesy of Comicsbeat.com.

Stephenson and the rest of the ReedPop team collaborated with pop culture and geek news website The Mary Sue while forming the new policy. ReedPop even added the ability for attendees to report cases through the New York Comic Con mobile app during the event.

“The anti-harassment policy that we first implemented in 2014 at New York Comic Con will be rolled out to our other ReedPop shows, and this will be the standard for our shows going forward,” he said.

The signage and stricter enforcement of anti-harassment seemed to be beneficial at New York Comic Con. According to Stephenson, eight issues (not all involving sexual harassment) were reported during this year’s event, as opposed to 15 cases in 2013.

Milani states that Wizard World also has signs up at its various conventions around the country.

“We take the issue very seriously and are committed to providing an environment free of harassment,” he said.

Cosplay harassment has even spurred a movement within an already established organization.

Hollaback!, the international movement to end street harassment, has been popping up in the headlines recently due to a controversial video depicting a woman being harassed on the streets of New York City. The organization has various divisions in places such as Philadelphia and Ottawa that involves itself in the cosplay and convention world.

Most recently Hollaback! Ottawa has taken the plunge into spreading its anti-harassment message to convention-goers.

“This May, we attended Ottawa Comic Con, which was our first foray into formally being in geek spaces. We walked around the convention with large ‘Cosplay doesn’t equal consent’ signs and hosted two panels with cosplayers who spoke about their experiences,” a representative from the organization said.

Hollaback! Ottawa also handed out information on things people can do to be an effective bystander.

The organization’s representative stated that having a visible presence within convention culture helps to create more change.

“As a result, [the convention organizers] issued their own ‘Cosplay doesn’t equal consent’ signs everywhere at the con, which was really great at elevating the discussion,” the representative said.

The sexual harassment of cosplayers has grown into a larger problem since the popularity of the hobby soared in the past five years, with the word ‘cosplay’ making its way into the vernacular of many people.

21-year-old Monika Lee is one of the few who has become widely famous from the hobby. The Georgia Tech student successfully sells autographed photos of her modeling her costumes online, appears as a guest at various conventions around the world, and is asked to work booths to promote products.

“There was a time where I harbored cosplay like a creepy skeleton in the closet for fear of being shunned for doing something that is, to be honest, quite weird. But now that the quality of cosplayers, costumes, and photographers has greatly increased, people see what an awesome art form it is,” Lee said.

Monika Lee cosplaying Rouge from the X-Men series. Photo by Anna Fischer.
Monika Lee cosplaying Rouge from the X-Men series. Photo by Anna Fischer.

John of “Moderately Okay Cosplay” believes the popularity all has to do with how older cosplayers have marketed themselves.

“They took the hobby and made it into a lucrative business, and now everyone wants to cosplay as a job,” he said.

An example of one of these successful businesses is the cosplay empire of Yaya Han.

Han has been making costumes since the 90s, gaining prominence and eventually creating her own business where she sells costume accessories, signed prints, and costume materials. She is also a regular guest and costume contest judge at many conventions, and has appeared on television.

Cosplayer Micro Kitty believes that the media has become “cosplay crazy” recently.

“Shows out there make cosplay look like a constant competition around beautiful people,” she said.

She’s referencing Syfy’s recent reality TV show series, Heroes of Cosplay, which features cosplayers as they craft costumes and enter competitions at conventions. Both Lee and Han are featured on the show.

Because of this growing trend of cosplayers and fanbases, many in the hobby have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts where they can share their work with others, amassing likes and follows. However, the harassment from conventions can now become a part of cosplayer’s social media.

“People will go onto these well-known cosplayers’ pages, and just talk about their bodies and objectify them,” John said.

Lee has more than 280,000 likes on her Facebook page, and receives harassing and inappropriate comments on it on a daily basis.

“There has definitely been an increase of what I like to call ‘cosplay fans’- people that don’t cosplay themselves, but appreciate the hobby and the results cosplaying can produce. That being said, many of these people don’t understand the work and effort that go into cosplay and it’s very easy for them to be judgmental and hypercritical,” she said.

The harassment of cosplayers at conventions is part of a larger controversial topic involving media culture.

James C. Kaufman is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, and sees the correlation between media and society.

“I think that video games, comics, and television reflect and shape our society,” he said.

Moderately Okay Cosplay as Draven from League of Legends. Photo by Transient Shots.
Moderately Okay Cosplay as Draven from League of Legends. Photo by Transient Shots.

Lee also commented on the relationship between sexual harassment incidents and the media.

“These actions are reflected in various entertainment media through objectification of males and females as sex icons in movies, comics, and games. It’s kind of a vicious cycle in our society,” she said.

The activists at Hollaback! Ottawa also believe that harassment at conventions is directly related to street and pedestrian harassment.

“It all comes down to the idea that some people’s bodies are supposedly up for public consumption. If someone feels entitled to comment on my body when I’m walking down the street in broad daylight, it makes sense that they would take that entitlement with them in whatever space they go to,” they said.

However, Kaufman doesn’t necessarily agree with that reasoning.

“I think harassment at conventions is more rooted to the perceived anonymity – I think if any convention, such as a dentist convention, allowed people to truly feel anonymous, we would see some people use the anonymity as an excuse for horrible, anti-social behavior,” he said.

John of “Moderately Okay Cosplay” thinks that both issues are mutually exclusive but also have a lot of similarities.

“Convention culture is different than normal society obviously, but people still think it’s okay to say,‘They’re showing skin, they’re a slut’ or, ‘They’re wearing a skimpy outfit, they’re asking for it,’” he said.

While the debate on the relationships between different forms of sexual harassment continue, the ReedPop team have some words of wisdom that are relevant to everyone.

“We always say ‘Be Nice, Be Cool and Respect Each Other’. That is on our signage and in our policy. I think that statement can and should apply to all aspects of culture and society,” Stephenson said.

For more information on initiatives to end sexual harassment of cosplayers, check out these sites:

Hollaback! Ottawa: http://ottawa.ihollaback.org

Geeks for CONsent: http://www.geeksforconsent.org

Check out the cosplayers featured in the article:

Micro Kitty Cosplay: https://www.facebook.com/Microkittycosplay

Moderately Okay Cosplay: https://www.facebook.com/ModeratelyOkayCosplay

Monika Lee: https://www.facebook.com/London2191Cosplay or http://www.monikalee.net

Undiesofwondy: https://www.facebook.com/undiezofwondy

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Gabby first delve into the world of gaming with Pokémon Red. Being a 90’s kid, it was practically predestined for her to discover the wonder of the Gameboy. From there on, Pokémon, Zelda, Mario, Kirby, and Sonic became the staples of her gaming diet. At the age of nine, she received her very first home console: the GameCube. She entered the world of JRPGs and simulation games such as Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing. With the purchase of a PS3 in 2008, she began the third chapter in her gaming life, embracing RPGs such as Fallout and Mass Effect, action-adventures like inFamous, and even shooters. The well-rounded gamer is also an avid anime fan and devoted cosplayer, and has a fondness for film, writing, and photography that she hopes to take to the professional level after college.
  • Isaias Frias

    amazing

    • somegamergirl

      Thank you! 🙂

  • You know, I agree, cosplay is not consent, but I also feel like there needs to come a point where they realize they should not dress so sexily.

    There is NO ONE who should touch someone without their consent. Period. Does not matter what they are wearing or what they are doing, if you do not have permission you do not do it. However, you have to dress appropriately in order to prevent these actions as much as possible.

    I have found that some women and men use cons as a means to dress sexily without repercussions of being called an exhibitionist. I have a friend who, while she does have a nice body, tends to show off her breasts a bit. She has said before she wants to dress up in the shinobi version of Katsuragi from Senran Kagura…but it is way too revealing for my tastes. Some people want to dress up as Cammy White and have their butt only concealed by a thong leotard, or I have seen people dress up as Makoto Nanaya and have the bottom of their breasts hanging out. It makes me wonder exactly WHY they would dress so revealing knowing there is a high possibility that naughty things would be uttered… and the problem is exhibitionism. In fact, I have even encountered people who are dressing as a character with revealing clothing (Like Yoko from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann) without any prior knowledge of the character or the series it comes from.

    In a time where people are concerned about sexism and everything, even to the point where they are mad at “Slut shaming” for talking about scantily clad women in public, why would you not dress more conservatively? I find that, while the person who grabs or touches without permission is ALWAYS at fault, sometimes they are simply asking for it. Don’t dangle a meat in front of a lion and expect self-control, not everyone has it and that is something that should be accounted for.

    • somegamergirl

      No. Nobody is “simply asking for it.” Cosplay is for fun. People can wear whatever they want, whether it be a full on armor set or a bikini. Why should somebody have to think about dressing more conservatively simply because others can’t control themselves? Do you see what’s wrong with that kind of mentality? It’s not up to cosplayers to “account” for others’ behavior. It’s up to people to learn how to be decent human beings.

      I encourage cosplayers to wear whatever they want, because they should not be controlled by disgusting people who never learned how to be respectful or basic social skills. How about instead of trying to blame it on cosplayers and limit their attire, we focus on the real issue at hand: People think it’s ok to harass cosplayers in the first place.

      I also find your comment extremely hypocritical.

      • Find it hypocritical, I’m saying what I feel is on my mind.

        Personally, I would never do it because I do believe in that personal space. However, you do tend to attract more people when you dress a certain way and will most likely end up with negative results. There is no law which prevents me from walking down the street with a handgun, however, it’s probably best if I not do it because it may cause some disorder and make people act a lot differently than they are normally use to. In this instance, people may look at whomever is cosplaying more than a sexually object than someone who is portraying a character earnestly.

        Also, the issue is I have seen both men and women use conventions as a way to show off their bodies without necessarily knowing anything about the character they are portraying. Even Yaya-Han, a world renowned cosplayer has bashed on people for dressing too sexily in cosplay (But then she turned around and modified Chun-Li’s outfit to have a boob window like Power Girl’s, so I don’t know what’s going on there).

        But Yeah.

        • GabbyNu

          The problem with your mindset is that you’re still seeing it fit that the victims are the ones that have to “accommodate” other people, when that in itself is inherently wrong, and is a big part of this issue.

          I have friends who have worn skimpy cosplays and have never been harassed or catcalled. It just depends on who you run into at the convention. So no, you don’t need to always prepare for the worst and modify yourself for OTHER people.

          And if you’re referring to what she said in the show Heroes of Cosplay, Yaya issued a statement after it aired saying that the producers edited her comment, and she thinks people should cosplay however they want.

    • “In a time where people are concerned about sexism and everything, even to the point where they are mad at “Slut shaming” for talking about scantily clad women in public, why would you not dress more conservatively? I find that, while the person who grabs or touches without permission is ALWAYS at fault, sometimes they are simply asking for it. Don’t dangle a meat in front of a lion and expect self-control, not everyone has it and that is something that should be accounted for.”

      While I definitely see where you’re coming from, I do take concern in the fact that you stated “Don’t dangle a meat in front of a lion and expect self-control.” I understand the analogy, but I think this is a very dangerous mindset. Both men and women naturally have sexual urges, but in these situations it’s mostly men that are looked upon as the predators, the aggressors, the animals that have no conscious outside of their desire to “react” and to be honest, I really wish that as a society we could get away from this idea. Men are not savages. Men are living, breathing people with consciences and they inherently know the difference between instinct and rational. The phrase “boys will be boys” IS part of the reason why women are expected to be conservative because there is an assumption that bare skin or “fresh meat” MAKES these individuals act out of character. That is so far from the truth. My mother raised my brother to respect others: white black, male, female, and she instilled in him “home training” so that even if he sees a woman he finds attractive, which is very human and OK to feel, he knows not to physically touch her because he was raised properly and knows better. To those that weren’t raised right and truly don’t know any better….well……that’s honestly a personal issue and not the issue of the cosplayer regardless of how revealing they are dressed. I’ve had perverts touch my ass FULLY clothed lol. They don’t care what you’re wearing because they don’t care about invading other people’s personal bubbles as they’ve never been taught to ask for an invitation first before engaging.

      • You have to realize, we live in a world of perverts, rapists, and people who simply do not view some people as human beings. We do not let our children talk to strangers or go “Trick or Treating” on Halloween because we realize, while not all people are bad, they do exist out there. It is the same thing when you deal with cosplay.

        People should be able to where whatever they want without fear of being stalked, harassed, or molested. However, the reality is that those people exist. The point is to draw as less attention as possible while still being able to cosplay. It mostly does happen to women, I agree AND IT DOES happen outside of scantily clad clothing. However, I have found that does come from skin tight clothing or having barely any clothing whatsoever (It was even said in this article that a woman was walking around with NO UNDERWEAR over something that could have been flipped, wtf? What would have happened if she had tripped over something and fell back? ). But yeah.

        I get where you’re coming from, but part of it is prevention.

    • Understandout

      Whenever you say people should not dress in a certain way to prevent bad behavior, you are in fact (partially) condoning the bad behavior. I know you probably don’t mean to or don’t realize it, but that’s simply what you’re doing. You’re contradicting yourself by saying the perpetrator is always at fault, but then suddenly saying the victims should have done something differently.

      Humans behaving as lions belong in jail cells and need help. There’s a reason why we don’t let actual lions roam the streets or attend conventions.

      • You can say what you want, but sometimes people do use cosplay as a means to show off as MUCH of their body as humanly possible just for the sake of showing it off. That in itself is not right.

        • Understandout

          I don’t see what’s so wrong about that. It’s human nature to show off the things we’re proud of. Whether it’s our awesome comic collection, our sweet car or our nicely shaped bodies. That still doesn’t mean they go with the intention of being groped. Just like we don’t take out our awesome comic collection or car hoping someone will steal it, even though that is a risk of having something so appealing to people without self-control.

          So yeah, some cosplayers enjoy showing off their bodies. Most go to share their love for a franchise or character. It’s no use trying to distinguish the two and judge one while praising the other. At the end of the day, they’re not hurting anyone, they’re enjoying themselves and even bringing happiness to others, so let them be.

  • Some people just have no home training lol.

  • Kilthrax

    Great read, Gabby! Remember – I knew you before you were mainstream, SGG!
    In terms of cosplay, it looks like a great hobby to me, although I admittedly know very little about it. It’s unfortunate that it attracts so many creeps though. It’s also unfortunate that “Cosplay is not Consent” needs to be a campaign – it should be common sense.

    • somegamergirl

      Thank you! And what are you even talking about, I’m still a nobody! xD

      Thanks for understanding the underlying issue even though you’re knowledge on the hobby is limited! 🙂

  • Great post Gabby!

    • GabbyNu

      Thanks, Jade! ^__^

  • Krystal Carr

    Brilliant article Gabby! *claps*
    You covered really good points and this issue needs to be aware to everyone.

    • GabbyNu

      Thanks Krystal! 🙂

  • ryodinv2

    Complaining about this issue is like the people who complain about world hunger but have no solid solution to fix the problem. Guess what? Kids die of hunger every day no matter how many people complain. Complaining does not work people.

    There will always be that one person who goes out of their way to sexually harass or grope someone. Therefore instead of complaining about the fact people should not be harassing, here is a potential solution. Either get rid of cosplay or control it. For example people can only cosplay in area X which will be manned with security guards. Anyone caught cosplaying outside area X will be removed from the con.

    I know that cosplay is fun for the people doing it but that does not mean they need to be unaware of the dangers around them. Someone will be tempted and someone will potentially do something. Just because you are having fun does not mean its time to let your guard down. Reduce the risk of being sexually harassed. One solution could be to get a good friend or someone to act as a spotter that can look out for that type of behavior. Have they not thought about this or is it easier to complain and hope that everyone in the world becomes a model citizen?

    • GabbyNu

      These people are not simply “complaining.” They’re sharing personal stories about some messed up stuff that’s happened to them. There’s actually not a lot of articles on the internet that talk about this issue in depth as much as I did, so while you may think it’s not doing anything, it actually is. it’s opening up a conversation that needs to be discussed.

      Your first “solution” will never work. People should not have to be confined to a particular space of the con just to dress up in a costume. Nobody will go to conventions anymore.

      Your second suggestion is something most people already do. Almost every cosplayer I know doesn’t walk around the convention floor alone the entire time. There’s always friends around. But people still don’t care. If they really want to touch you, they’re going to regardless, and not give a damn.

      Also the article does discuss solutions that are helping. So yeah, it’s not simply an article filled with people whining about their lives, as you seem to put it.

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