Cosplay Culture: Dealing With Sexual Harassment While Donning Cosplay

By Jourden Sander, featuring an interview with Sally Sparrow.

I’m not completely sure why, but I’ve always been a fan of “geek” culture. I grew up watching Yu-Gi-Oh!, Teen Titans, Avatar: the Last Airbender, and whatever anime was on Adult Swim at the time. I collected Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, hoarded Hello Kitty plushies, and bought my first manga, Fruits Basket. It was a “phase” that my family wasn’t very fond of, so as I grew older, I shoved my geek interests aside and “grew up.” Well, this strategy didn’t work very well; when it comes to anime, comics, video games and Japanese culture, I can’t seem to keep myself away.

My love for anime and manga in particularly grew exponentially when I began consuming them again in my senior year of high school. By my freshmen year of college, I was immersed in the industry and was preparing for my first dive back into the convention world. For those who have never been to a convention, particularly an anime convention (con for short), let me begin by stating how ridiculously fun they are. Imagine a hotel filled with people who are obsessed with the same fandom that you are and who easily accept your “weird” interests (whether it be Sherlock, Marvel, anime, K-pop, cosplay, Disney or whatever else). I used to feel ashamed of my geeky interests, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize I don’t give a damn whether people think my interests are “weird” or not; it’s a part of who I am and who I will continue to be. However, as much I as I love the entire geek industry, and as anime con-addicted I currently am, as a feminist I have to step back and view the industry with a critical eye. When it comes to conventions, the worst thing about going to them, is being a woman*1.

I just got back from a four-day, whirl wind anime convention in Dallas, Texas. In order to afford the lavish and very expensive hotel that the con is held in, I acted as a volunteer and worked 24 hours over the entire four days in order to receive a badge and a hotel room for free. It was both my first time at Anime Fest and my first time volunteering. Despite being alone in a big city that wasn’t my own, I had a complete blast and made new friends. During my time at the con, I walked around while in full cosplay. For those who don’t know, cosplay is a term that acts as both a noun and a verb. A person can both wear a cosplay, and be cosplaying. The term, in my opinion, is different from just being in costume in that wearing a costume is a simple occurrence of wearing a store-bought outfit that happens typically during Halloween or other themed events. Cosplay, on the other hand, is an enriched level of costuming that involves becoming the character, acting like the character, or just appreciating the origin of the character. In addition, many cosplayers (such as myself) make the cosplays that they wear, and so take a lot of pride in displaying their hobby and skills (BUT many cosplayers also purchase cosplays from other people or stores, and there is nothing wrong or less “real” about that). To me, if you believe you are cosplaying, then you are. Simple as that.

Cosplay, on the other hand, is an enriched level of costuming that involves becoming the character, acting like the character, or just appreciating the origin of the character.

But with cosplay, there arises many problems; one of them being sexual harassment. If you’ve ever been to a comic or anime con (or seen pictures), you’ve probably noticed that a lot of cosplayers are scantily clad. And these cosplayers tend to be women. It’s very true that many (but certainly not all) female cosplayers don a lot of skin while wearing their cosplays. This is due to a number of reasons, but the most prominent one being the characters they cosplay. Many of the most popular female characters in anime and comics are often highly sexualized and portrayed in itty bitty outfits; bikinis, mini shirts, crop tops, and even pieces of tape covering nipples and nothing else. On the other hand, characters who are completely covered, such as many popular Marvel/DC ladies, are still in the tightest, clingiest, bustiest outfits made of spandex. These outfits, while they don’t show skin, still show the body by hugging every curve. I personally have NO problem with cosplayers (female or male) donning these sexy cosplays. By judging these people for creating or buying top-notch cosplays, and then becoming that character, you are devaluing the authenticity of the cosplay and the hard work of the cosplayer. Who cares if that woman is wearing a sexy cosplay? Let’s exalt how awesome her cosplay is rather than slut shaming her. Another reason that women frequent sexy outfits at cons is the trend of popular professional cosplayers who do the same. It comes as a surprise to some people that yes, there are people who dress up and show up at conventions and get paid. Sometimes it’s because they’re an attractive person, but often it’s because they make their own immaculate cosplays. One particular cosplayer that everyone is usually talking about is Jessica Nigri. Nigri is known for wearing incredibly detailed and well made cosplays (that she often hand makes), but is also very well known for her sexy rendition of many characters such as her recent gender-bending of Edward Kenway from the latest Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. While most of her fan base is male, I consider myself a fan as well. I can appreciate the beauty of her cosplays; the performance she creates while in them and the passion she obviously has for the geek industry. While at the cosplay contest rehearsal at Anime Fest this weekend (yes, I was in the contest) I overheard two of my competitors behind me talking about how Nigri’s cosplays were “distasteful,” and “unrepresentative” of the cosplay world. They also questioned her intelligence and criticized her overt sexuality, but I tried to ignore them so that I wouldn’t explode.

While my cosplay didn’t seem particularly revealing to me, in the presence of the convention, I started to feel the pressure. I became uncomfortable by the numerous men leering at my legs, covered breasts and exposed tummy. My guard went up when men attempted to flirt with me, and I wearily agreed when asked for my picture.

My problem with sexy cosplay has nothing to do with the said cosplayer: it has to do with the people around her. Women in the geek world have fought—and are still fighting—to be taken seriously as gamers, cosplayers, and “real” fans. Some male fans find female fans annoying, silly, “slutty” or “fake.” This definitely extends to the cosplay world at conventions. The first time I cosplayed seriously, I portrayed a character named Hydra Bell from the anime/manga, Blood Lad. And wow, was I surprised by the experience. While my cosplay didn’t seem particularly revealing to me, in the presence of the convention, I started to feel the pressure. I became uncomfortable by the numerous men leering at my legs, covered breasts and exposed tummy. My guard went up when men attempted to flirt with me, and I wearily agreed when asked for my picture. Of course, this was nothing compared to the convention I went to last year. While at Ikkicon, an anime con held in downtown Austin in the winter, I wore my Hydra Bell cosplay and made some new friends. Among these new friends was one quiet guy who seemed friendly enough. I hung out with these people for a few hours but eventually wanted to do my own thing, alone. But to my dismay, that quiet guy who seemed “friendly enough” didn’t want to leave me alone. He began by intensely flirting with me, to which I responded curtly that I have a boyfriend (which was actually very true and still is), but he completely ignored this and continued to profess unwanted interest in me. For the remainder of the day, he followed me around (while I continually tried to shake him off and tell him to go away) until I finally left in order to be free of my discomfort. I was sad, ashamed, and furious that I felt like I had to stop having fun and leave because of this random asshole.

Luckily, he never bothered me again after I resulted to a rude, angry confrontation, but it still angers me that I had to deal with him in the first place. But, having attended several cons since then, this experience is never unusual; whether for me or for other women I meet (sometimes in cosplay and sometimes not). Just this weekend I had to talk with a friend whose sister was being repeatedly stalked by a man at the convention. And I can barely stomach the horrible—and very unknown and unpublished—epidemic of sexual harassment and assault at the popular Texas convention, A-Kon, in 2013. I actually went to A-Kon for the first time this year and was furiously shocked to find no real rules or literature from the convention regarding last year’s violent epidemic; much less, information for cosplayers who feel in similar danger. And feel free to browse online: there are other testimonials of cosplayers having the same problem and talking about the issue.

At conventions, men seem to think cosplay is a visual way for women to consent to leering, groping, stalking, and even sexual assault. Wanting to gain more insight on this unfortunate trend, I interviewed a cosplayer who goes by Sally Sparrow. Sparrow is a cosplayer involved in the adult entertainment website, Cosplay Deviants. Sparrow and other cosplayers model in a controversially sexy ways as favorite characters in the geek industry. She also, however, is a part of a recent movement and organization: Cosplay is NOT Consent. Cosplay is NOT Consent is an organization that seeks to stop sexual harassment and assault of cosplayers, while talking about consent. Sparrow participated in the Cosplay is NOT Consent panel that was featured for the first time at Anime Expo in 2013 and still writes about the subject. My favorite responses from our interview our below.

What is your own experience with sexual harassment at cons?

My experience with convention harassment is a little different from your average experience – I work at the CosplayDeviants.com booth at every convention I attend, usually behind the register, so most of my experiences are just from seeing how people react and behave around the models I work with. We thought we were a great source of information for this movement because we are, quite literally, sexualized cosplay, which is something a lot of people complain about or blame when talking about convention harassment. We wanted to reach out as sort of ambassadors – we don’t mean anyone any harm, we definitely aren’t trying to sexualize the entire world of cosplay, and most of all, it doesn’t matter how someone is dressed, sexy cosplay or not, harassment is never okay. We occasionally have issues with fans who think that because we are sexualized cosplay, we are their sexual objects. We’ve had convention attendees grab us, sexually proposition us, or even proposition us for prostitution. This isn’t even kind of exclusive to the Deviants booth, either. In fact, we may even be a little bit safer because we’re prepared for this kind of thing to happen and know how to deal with it when it does—people attending conventions for the first time often have a lot more trouble just knowing how to react.

Why do you think women (primarily) have to deal with harassment at cons?

Haha, hoo boy, that is a question with a very long and complicated answer. For one thing, it’s not just conventions, it happens in everyday life as well. It’s more of a problem at conventions because comic books, video games, anime, sci-fi and tabletop gaming have traditionally been boys’ clubs. Since 2000, convention culture has exploded, attracting all kinds of new fans from all walks of life, including increasing numbers of female fans. Being nerdy or geeky is no longer something to be ashamed of, and has even become hugely popular in our culture, owing to the popularity of comic book movies, the mainstream rise of video games, and cult-classic TV shows and movies. Men who are used to male-dominated culture may have learned to only look at women as sexual objects, not as human beings, and may never have had proper education about consent and respect, which is sadly lacking in our country’s sexual education in schools. Combine this with a fandom-charged excitable atmosphere like a convention and you’ve got all kinds of people forgetting their manners in their excitement to meet someone dressed as their favorite character. Basically, it’s a combination of personal experience, societally ingrained ignorance, and nerd culture’s stubbornness against change.

Men who are used to male-dominated culture may have learned to only look at women as sexual objects, not as human beings, and may never have had proper education about consent and respect, which is sadly lacking in our country’s sexual education in schools. Combine this with a fandom-charged excitable atmosphere like a convention and you’ve got all kinds of people forgetting their manners in their excitement to meet someone dressed as their favorite character. Basically, it’s a combination of personal experience, societally ingrained ignorance, and nerd culture’s stubbornness against change.

Do you think women (or men) are ever “asking for it,” or “provoking” sexual harassment or assault by the types of cosplay they wear?

Absolutely, unequivocally, definitely not. Unquestionably. Period. This is one of the most common things I hear when people criticize Cosplay is NOT Consent or even just me personally – “Well, look at what you’re wearing, you have to expect this kind of thing to happen.” Which is exactly my point – I may EXPECT harassment when I’m dressed up in a sexy costume, but by no means does that mean I need to TOLERATE it. In a perfect world I wouldn’t need to expect to be harassed because everybody would already know how important it is to treat everyone with basic human respect no matter what they look like or how they’re dressed – but that isn’t the world we live in, just yet. If someone crosses a line, no matter what it may be, the most important thing is to speak up. Nobody has to tolerate being harassed, no matter how they’re dressed. Calmly confront the person, tell them what they did is not okay, and if you need to, get convention security involved.

How do you think sexual harassment at conventions relates to harassment in daily life? How do you think people at conventions respond to slut shaming?

Honestly, I don’t find much difference between everyday harassment and convention harassment. I may be less likely to be cat-called at a convention but slut-shaming is just as rampant and harassers have the same reaction to being called out. It’s especially hurtful when it’s directed at Cosplay Deviants by other congoers – we are not to blame for convention harassment, and we are fangirls and fanboys who genuinely love the things we’re cosplaying, just like you. We have our boundaries crossed and our just as uncomfortable with it as your average cosplayer. What we do for business and what we do in our personal lives don’t necessarily have much to do with each other. We want to see conventions be safe places for everyone just like you do!

What kind of advice would you give cosplayers to avoid being sexual harassed at cons?

The number one advice I can give is just to be prepared. Understand that it may happen and have a plan ready for how to deal with it if/when it does. So much of the time people get away with crossing boundaries simply because the harass-ee freezes up and doesn’t know how to react. Keep your head high, walk with confidence, if someone says or does something that makes you uncomfortable, stop them and simply say “I’m not comfortable with that”, “Please don’t do that, it’s not okay”, or “Please leave me alone”. Most of all, don’t be afraid to say “no”! People might ask for your phone number or ask you to pose for photos in ways you’re not okay with – you don’t owe anyone anything and if you’re not comfortable, say so. Remove yourself from the situation, take a breather, report it to the proper authorities if you need to. Know where to find convention security and familiarize yourself with the convention’s harassment policy.

Keep your head high, walk with confidence, if someone says or does something that makes you uncomfortable, stop them and simply say “I’m not comfortable with that”, “Please don’t do that, it’s not okay”, or “Please leave me alone”. Most of all, don’t be afraid to say “no”!

 

How do you think this harassment and violence can be changed? 

I think something that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is conventions’ official policies against harassment. Most conventions don’t really have specific rules in place or the ones they have are laughably vague. Information on where to go for help is vague and unhelpful. At Anime Expo in 2013 we handed out cards with every convention guide that gave specific guidelines on how to avoid harassment and what to do if you were harassed. Conventions need to take the initiative to start laying down specific rules about what is and is not okay when dealing with fellow convention attendees, and most importantly, consequences for those who disobey them. A stern talking-to or slap on the wrist is not enough – badges (and in some cases, press passes) should be pulled, and police involved when needed, especially when dealing with minors. Convention staff are afraid to take a stance on the issue and it’s time to change that.

Sparrow is entirely right when she says that this kind of harassment and violence happens in everyday life; while not unfamiliar to these women at conventions, it is still an unpleasant occurrence. People go to conventions to have fun, meet other fans, and forget about the real world for a weekend. Just as harassment and violence should not be tolerated in the everyday world, it should also not be tolerated at conventions. To assert that a woman is deserving of sexual harassment or assault because of her sexy cosplay is to assert that a woman’s body—whether naked or fully clothed—is deserving of sexual harassment and assault, period. As many prolific women and men in the feminist movement have pointed out, women will be raped whether they are wearing a mini skirt and bikini top, or a hijab and a fully clothed body. There is never a time in which women are deserving of sexual assault and there is never an excuse to justify sexual assault. And as Sally Sparrow aptly says: “Female fans aren’t going anywhere, we’re here to stay, and it’s time for nerd culture to make room for us and learn how to behave around us.”

Jourden V Sander and Friend Cosplaying

Jourden V. Sander and friend in cosplay

1| I would also like to note that this issue of sexual harassment and assault is, unfortunately, just one of many problems in the cosplay world. I also have issues with people who reject non-white cosplayers, non-skinny/fit cosplayers, differently-abled cosplayers, and anyone else who isn’t the cosplay “norm.” Several other issues are in need of addressing as well. I fully believe that an industry can be critiqued for its negative aspects while still being loved and appreciated for the positive ones. 

2| Follow along with the on-going series, Feminine Geekery as it unfolds.

		
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The author

Jourden Sander is the EIC of Feminine Inquiry. She is a writer, editor, tennis player, cosplayer, and anime geek who walks her stubborn corgi. She is a feminist and a fan of hot tea. She vaguely dislikes people who won't use the Oxford comma and finds it difficult to not repetitively use pronouns in a bio. She challenges you to a street race in her Mazda 3. She says hello.

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