Cosplay, Consent and Those Who Respect Neither

Cosplay is fun! You watch, read about, or play a character that you fall in love with so hard that you decide you have to be them. This involves spending an enormous amount of time and money to create your costume, tweaking it with all the creativity you can muster. It means slaving over the entire ensemble day after day until the convention arrives and you finally get to slip it on. Wearing it makes you feel like a total bad-ass, like you can take on the world the way that character does. When you walk into the convention center you get tons of compliments, people want to take your picture, and you’re proud of what you’ve created. You feel awesome… That is, until you don’t – until someone decides to take that feeling away from you and you feel creeped out, violated, and in some cases unsafe. Harassment and stalking has taken Cosplay from a fun, creative hobby to a borderline dangerous one. As we count down the days to Denver Comic Con, this topic is of particular importance.

Charlotte Renken, Catwoman
Charlotte Renken, Catwoman

“Cosplay does not equal consent.” You may have heard the phrase before, but some people don’t seem to get the message. While this topic has just recently started to be addressed in the media and by convention organizers, Cosplayers have had to deal with all kinds of harassment for years. Mostly directed towards female Cosplayers, it can range from cat calling to stalking to even physical harassment. Being a Cosplayer myself, I’ve had to deal with this on numerous occasions; being told  how I should alter my Catwoman Cosplay to show more skin or being purred at as I walk down the hall.  Luckily I have never been stalked. Some people are not so fortunate.

Mike Rosenberg, Bilbo Baggins
Mike Rosenberg, Bilbo Baggins

One such Cosplayer, who wishes to stay anonymous, was forced to face both harassment and stalking at and leading up to StarFest 2014 in Denver. At Animeland Wasabi, an anime convention in Denver,  the Cosplayer had met someone.  The two became intimate quickly, but things stopped when the other con goer revealed they were underage. The Cosplayer then turned them down as they did not want to engage inappropriately  with a minor. This was the right thing to do; however, the con goer didn’t seem to agree. In the next two weeks, the Cosplayer began receiving messages to the point of harassment and asking for their address. The Cosplayer blocked them on all their social media accounts as well as their phone number. At StarFest 2014, the con goer began following all the Cosplayer’s friends in an attempt to find the Cosplayer and once the con goer did, cornered them. At this point, the Cosplayer ran away but later that night was chased into an elevator. Feeling panicked, the Cosplayer turned to their friends to calm them down, then later became angry as their stalker had now violated their security in a place they once felt safe.

This same Cosplayer, like many others, has also faced sexual harassment. However, much of this came from larger and older people, making them afraid to say anything. Many Cosplayers feel this way. Trying to balance your need to call someone out on their inappropriate behavior and self preservation is a difficult thing to achieve and the scale is usually tipped towards the latter. Cosplayers are forced to remain silent about these matters for their own safety, which only worsens the feeling of being violated. Con goers must become aware of the harm they are causing by being inappropriate this way. They need to understand that wearing a Slave Leia costume is not an invitation for them to act like Jabba the Hutt.

Jake Lichliter and Meg Coulburn, Superboy and Poison Ivy
Jake Lichliter and Meg Coulburn, Superboy and Poison Ivy

Denver Comic Con does not tolerate harassment of any kind towards anyone regardless of their ethnicity, creed, religious background, political background, gender, gender identity, sexual identity, sexual orientation, fandom, etc. They define harassment as “physical assault, verbal harassment, sexual harassment, stalking, unwanted physical contact, unwanted advances, or inappropriate media capture”or anything else that makes someone feel uncomfortable or unsafe. They go on to define inappropriate media capture as “photography, video, audio, or some other form of recording where the subject feels they are being stalked, exploited, degraded, or disrespected through being recorded.”

Their harassment policy is detailed on their website and should be read by everyone attending the convention. The important note on this page is that harassment is defined by the victim regardless about how the perpetrator may feel about the situation. If one is determined to be harassing someone, Denver Comic Con reserves the right to ask the perpetrator to leave the convention or even ban them permanently. Con goers are encouraged to report any harassment to the nearest Denver Comic Con volunteer or security personnel or call the police at either 911 or The Denver Police Department District Six non-emergency number 720-913-2800.

Stormy Cone, Human GLaDUS

There are a few rules that should be followed when interacting with Cosplayers. While most Cosplayers are happy to have their picture taken, it is always important to ask first. They may not want their photo taken or simply do not have time. In addition, asking a Cosplayer to pose in a way they are not comfortable with is not okay and can easily be deemed as harassment. It’s fine to have fun with the photos you are taking, but when a Cosplayer says no understand that they mean no. When speaking with a Cosplayer one must be respectful and steer away from inappropriate topics. While you may think you are flirting, they may not. Unwanted attention is never a compliment.

While the change needs to come from the perpetrating group, there are things Cosplayers can do to protect themselves both during conventions and outside them. While an online presence is important to grow your audience it’s more important to keep yourself safe online. Having Cosplay accounts separate from your personal social media accounts is a good start. Never display your personal information on these pages and keep an eye on who is liking or following your page. If something seems fishy, report it. Better to overreact than under-react.

Raya Jade Lieberman, Sherlock Holmes
Raya Jade Lieberman, Sherlock Holmes

Studies suggest that if you are being stalked, to change your routine frequently, instruct friends, family, and employers not to give out your information to strangers, take note of each incident, and in extreme cases, file a restraining order. If you feel your life is in danger, always call the police. If harassment occurs at the convention, remove yourself from the situation. Walk away but stay in a crowded area. Sticking with one or two friends is also a good way to stay safe. It is perfectly fine to report the harassment to a convention volunteer or security personnel, or call the police. They are there to make sure you have a fun, safe weekend.

Never enter the hotel room of someone you don’t know especially if you are alone. If you plan to drink at the convention, keep an eye on your cup and toss out anything you haven’t been paying attention to. If you come in contact with someone who you feel has been paying an inappropriate amount of attention to you, report them immediately. Too often victims of stalking and harassment ignore what is happening and try to rationalize the situation, and by the time they report something it is often too late for officials to do anything about it.

Conventions are one of the best things about nerd culture. They are exciting, often host some of our favorite actors, artists, and writers, and only come around once a year. They are one place were we undeniably know we can be ourselves without judgement. For some people, it is the only place they feel at home. It is our duty as nerds to keep these safe havens free from harassment and fear. We’ve faced enough of it already.

In order of appearance photos courtesy of Sydney Nicollette Hall Mayhew, David Chandler and Kat Colvin, Charlotte Renken , Mike Rosenburg  Jake Lichliter  and Meg Coulburn, Stormy Cone, and Raya Jade Lieberman 


Published by

Charli Renken

I am a multimedia storyteller with experience in investigative journalism, beat reporting, social media management, and entertainment news. While I write on a variety of topics, my work tends to revolve around the city of Chicago, queer culture, fan activism, and marginalized voices. I am also a skilled copywriter, digital marketing specialist, and productivity coach.

4 thoughts on “Cosplay, Consent and Those Who Respect Neither”

  1. I would just like to thank you for posting this article to not only give examples but explain harassment at conventions. Cosplay does not equal consent, and as an avid cosplayer and con goer I can definitely say that harassment is hard to deal with, especially in situations where you expect to feel safe. However, Denver Comic Con is very good at keeping harassment at bay and reprimanding/stopping those who won’t listen to the cosplayer –I know this from an experience last year. I wish you a safe time at DCC and hope to see you there. Thank you again for a great article.

    1. Thanks Max! That means a lot to me. I agree. DCC has a great policy and they do an amazing job of enforcing it. I think that has partially to do with the fact that it’s such a family friendly event and so the con organizers are extra vigilant when it comes to harassment. I can’t wait for this year!

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