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Community Con-versation: Female Safety

TW/CW: sexual harassment.

We need to talk. With the recent tragic death of Sarah Everard re-igniting conversations about women’s safety in their everyday lives we at FnC felt it was important to highlight these issues in relation to conventions and cosplay. Instances of harassment against women are an epidemic in life in general but are also widespread at cons. “Cosplay is Not Consent” became a well-known catch-phrase a few years ago and while convention organisers have begun to do their part to combat harassment it remains a conversation we STILL need to have.

Firstly, it is important that the male members of our community understand that we know it’s “not ALL men” but it is enough of them and EVERY woman/fem-presenting person has had multiple experiences of harassment which shapes and colours our behaviour in the future. Despite how harmless a particular act my seem, trauma is still trauma. This is a systemic and pervasive issue. For those who do not understand why women seem quite so worried about this, a very simple way of explaining it would be if you were given a box of 10 identical chocolates and 2 were poisoned. You know it’s not ALL of the chocolates that are going to harm you but still, you’re going to be wary of ALL of them.

The Problem

The cosplay community does seem rife with male predators (that is not to say predatory women don’t exist but that is not the topic of this article). Grooming of underage girls is a particularly worrying problem but that is a bigger topic for another time.
There have been a few high-profile instances of emotional and physical abuse in my twelve years cosplaying in which certain individuals have been outed for their behaviour around women inside and out of the community and rightly been run-out of the scene now that their crimes are known to the public and in some cases, the police.

However, all of these figures were at one point well-liked and thought of highly, although multiple women had bad experiences and gut feelings about them. Every time this happens there is a surge of support for the victims and calls for all of us to believe women and trust our guts but sadly this drops off until the next incident becomes public. This is not just a cosplay community problem but a systemic, societal problem. Women, in particular, have been raised to ignore our gut feelings, “He’s not so bad, his jokes are just a bit crass sometimes.” “He’s just being friendly. Don’t be a bitch.” We are so used to rationalising reasons why we should ignore that funny feeling about someone that things often get too far before the person’s real intentions become clear and at that point the victim gets blamed for allowing this to happen. It takes a lot of strength to learn to trust your gut when you get a bad feeling about someone but in my personal experience, my gut has always been right, even if it takes years for the reason for those icky feelings to become come to light

So, what are the unacceptable things that happen to women in the cosplay community in particular? Excluding online harassment-lewd PM’s and comments-at public events we have to put up with being groped in crowds and men with cameras (I refuse to call them photographers as that would be an insult to professional and amateur photographers) brazenly taking pictures of our backside or breasts.
Personally, I can remember an instance of being stood alone, waiting for friends, dressed as Poison Ivy in a corset and bending over to pull up my boot cover as it was slipping. I felt a presence stop close to me and looked up expecting to see one of my friends but found a man I didn’t know holding out a camera and snapping a picture directly at my boobs whilst I was half-bent over. He then ran into the crowd before I could register what had happened. I have also had this happen when walking in a group with friends through the busy convention centre. A man walking in the opposite direction held his camera out exactly a boob-height and snapped a picture as he walked past, giving me no time to react. I have also witnessed this behaviour multiple times around my female friends. This obviously happens more often when dressed in revealing outfits, for example a friend once dressed as the DC Bombshells version of Poison Ivy which is mostly body-paint. She looked fantastic but went from feeling so confident at the start of the day to very quickly having to borrow a large overcoat as she walked around the convention, hunched and afraid due to lewd comments and unwanted touching. It has become good practice to assign a friend as a handler when situations like this arise the problem being that this should not be needed.

Cosplay is Not Consent

We have all heard the ridiculous rape-culture philosophy of “Well, if she didn’t want that attention, she shouldn’t dress like that” and yet this mentality is still pervasive. Yes, the majority of female characters from comic series and sci-fi and fantasy media are designed in revealing outfits but this does not mean if a woman re-creates that costume they are automatically becoming your fictional fantasy object. Of course, we could choose not to wear these designs but if a woman feels confident, beautiful and powerful dressed as their favourite character they should not have to give up the right to embody them for fear of male harassment. This idea of a woman, especially a woman who likes to dress in costumes, being viewed as property is a problem that I have seen become thousands of times worse for any female cosplayer who has gained an online following. Again, just because someone is internet famous and has responded to your nice comment on her pictures this does not mean she owes you in person interaction.

Creeper-Critics

Following on from the notion of women being allowed to cosplay whomever they want, in whatever outfit they want, comes the entitled nature of many men’s comments on a woman’s appearance for the sake of accuracy. God forbid a woman cosplay a female character and have smaller boobs than the unreal image in a comic book. Men at conventions seem to have no problem telling women to their faces how much they love their costume but “Your boobs are too small.” Yet if the same woman decided to pad her bra to match the look of the character she will be accused of “trying to get attention” by faking her body shape.

Don’t Touch

A big problem at conventions is touching without consent. I have lost count of the number of times strangers have used their “Free hugs!” sign as an excuse to forcibly hug my friends and I. Fortunately the practice of carrying around these signs has dwindled in recent years and while the initial idea of spreading love and joy was a good one the way that this can be twisted so easily into physical harassment has caused its decline.
Despite this I can personally think of multiple occasions when I have been hugged by strange men who come up to me and ask for a picture then ask for a hug and ignore my words when I politely decline. There are also multiple occasions when I have briefly hugged these people because of the social conditioning we receive as a woman, sometimes it feels safer in the moment to do as a strange man says than risk their negative (and possibly violent) reaction to rejection. I have even had an event security guard ask for a picture, then a hug, then a kiss (of which I refused and pushed away)!
Another such personal moment that stands out in my mind is when a man I knew from college-but was not friends with-happened to be at the same convention as me with a group of his friends. We ran into each other in the crowd and he greeted me so I politely responded an indicated that I was on my way to meet someone. Despite this he went ahead and introduced me to his friends and complimented my Batwoman costume. At the same time he reached out and stroked my leg under the guise of asking what the shiny fabric of the bodysuit was. I removed his hand and nervous laughed while answering and saying my goodbyes as quickly as possible. This interaction was years ago and I would guess is not even something he remembers and yet I could feel his hand on my leg for hours after that brief moment and still remember it clearly.

Snap-Happy Stranger Danger

Within the fun of meeting new people at conventions also comes the danger of not knowing someone’s intentions. A big part of cosplaying at conventions is photoshoots and while these can be set up in advance with photographer friends you know and trust, you also can expect to be stopped by fans of your character and convention photographers that you may not know and asked for photos. This is fun and generally something a cosplayer will also agree to. While it is always preferable to find the most fitting location with the best lighting to get the shot, quite often photographers will stop a cosplayer they do not know and ask them for a picture only to then lead them halfway across the convention centre and away from their friends to get to that perfect location.
Another personal memory is being stood with a friend of mine in her amazing Captain Marvel suit when an older male photographer we did not know asked her for a picture. She obliged but he asked if she could go with him outside of the building and around the corner into an alcove. The friend looked at me and with an unspoken agreement I said, “I’ll come with you!” We asked the man to wait while my friend went and told the group we were with that she was just popping outside for some photos and that I was coming with her “so I don’t get raped.” Of course, this dramatic language was used in jest as we were all aware there was only a small chance the man did not just want photos but all the women in the group knew the sentiment was very real. The pictures that came out of this mini-shoot were actually some of the most beautiful shots either of us had seen but there was always a risk in following a strange man into an alcove. A risk I don’t think even crossed the man’s mind as a possible worry for a young woman at a public event.
This is not even going into photographers outside of cons meeting for shoots and how careful you have to be. Always bring a chaperone and don’t go to secluded locations you are not familiar with.

What Can Be Done?

The movement and protests in response to current events has been focused on the fact that all women are brought up to be aware of possible dangers when out in public, be it night or day. But men are not brought up with these same fears as they do not face the same harassment. Hence, while we are aware not all men are out to get us, we are also aware most men do not even think of how their behaviour could be perceived by the women around them. So, what can men, specifically men in the cosplay and convention community, do?

Look Out for Each Other

I know many men within the community that actively look out for and stand up for their female friends when witnessing distressing events. Please, continue to do this, give them a safe space but also be aware that if you do not know the woman you hope to defend, she is likely to be just as distrustful of your intentions. Don’t take this personally. Do not expect anything in return or you are just taking advantage and this only adds to the trauma and feeling that we have to watch out for ALL men. Try talking to and distracting the harasser instead of the woman, giving her a chance to slip away.
Yes, she will not be able to thank you for the help but know that it is deeply appreciated. Examples would be excitedly asking the guy about his costume “Dude! I love that character! Can I have a picture? How did you make that prop? That’s so cool! Did you see the latest episodes?”

Don’t Be A Creeper

Do NOT touch someone without their consent, this goes for people of any gender but it is especially important when it comes to women. If you want to feel the fabric of someone’s costume, ask FIRST and if they say no, respect that.
Do not follow women through cons. This is something that happens surprisingly often. For example, if you like a woman’s costume and want to stop her for a picture but can’t seem to get her attention there may be a reason. Yes, she may just not have noticed you yet but she may also not be in the mood to talk to strangers and is subtly trying to go about her day. Let it go.
Do not take pictures without consent. Especially not pictures of just their cleavage or other body parts… C’mon now. There is no plausible reason to do that which is not creepy. Even if you want a full body picture out of admiration for their costume, a no is a no, please respect that. Non-convention going public that may be walking past the outside of convention centres are particularly bad when it comes to this, especially the ‘bro’ type men. Look out for your female friends in these instances.

Practice Self-Awareness

Think, how long have you been talking to a female cosplayer you don’t know, even if you are complimenting her? Does she look uncomfortable? Has she told you she really should get back to her friends or to an event? Be aware when you have outstayed your welcome and try not to take it personally.
Be aware that if a woman seems stand-offish with you it is probably not do to with YOU as a person but as a man you are automatically intimidating. You may not think you come across as such but women are taught from an early age to be wary and at a con when dressed scantily and meeting lots of new people it is normal for women to be a little guarded with new people. It is not a reflection on YOU as an individual so please do not take offence. She may have been harassed by several other men that day and her patience is wearing thin. It is not an attack on you personally.

The convention scene does have a high number of community members who are neurodiverse and I am aware that it is not always easy for these people to read someone’s body language or subtle social cues. If this is you, try bringing a friend whom you know can subtly make you aware when you should end the interaction.
Also be aware that many women in the community are neurodiverse and may not know when they are in a dangerous situation. In short, be aware of your own behaviour and the behaviour of others towards more vulnerable members of the community.

Trolls

This community is also rife with online harassment. Again, please think; would you say what you did in that comment in person? Would you be happy if someone DM’d your sister like that? If a woman doesn’t respond to your “Hi.” Message, do not KEEP pestering her. People have lives and do not owe you their attention 24/7 or even at all.

Be Professional

Photographers; if you meet a new female cosplayer you want to shoot with and know there is a great location outside of the con, maybe in an area of greenery or a dingy alley (which will fit with the character) please be aware that to ask a woman to come with you away from the crowds and/or their friends is inherently a little creepy. A convention is an unusual, crazy, place anyway but you can still ask as long as you remain respectful and safety conscious. Ask if they want to bring their friends along. Just be aware that moving to a secluded location with a man you do not know is triggering for a woman and she will feel safer with friends around and be more relaxed for your shoot, ultimately giving you better shots.

Keep Talking

It is also important to have these conversations with your friends of any gender. You may think that none of your friends would ever be creepy to women online or in person but chances are a small percentage do things you are not even aware of. Hold your friends accountable and educate them.

All women at conventions want to do is have a fun with like-minded people but there is a much bigger mental load we have to carry in terms of constantly looking out for our own safety which is hard to grasp if you have never had to experience it. It would be helpful if men could take on their own share of this mental load by checking themselves every now and again to see if any of your behaviour could be intimidating. This may feel taxing to have to think about this when you are just trying to have fun but this is the reality for women in many situations, help make conventions a place of safety and joy for your female friends and family.

Keep having the hard conversations but most of all stay safe and have fun!

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