Cosplay CONsent

Sexual harassment is never acceptable, so when minors are being sexually harassed in public, feminists in the gaming and comics community are calling for change in convention harassment rules.

Participants reported the sexual harassment of minors at both PAX East, a Boston convention held in March by Penny Arcade, and New York Comic Con, held in October.

“There are always issues of harassment on the floor,” says Virginia Lee Pfaehler, an amateur cosplayer and convention security volunteer. “People think because you’re in a skimpy costume, they can do things to you and you won’t care.”

Pfaehler, 23, is a transfer student in her third year at Columbia College, a women’s college in Columbia, S.C. She has volunteered as a staffer at Nashicon and Animazement, and she volunteered for security at DragonCon 2011 in Atlanta. Pfaehler has been attending conventions as an amateur cosplayer for four years.

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Virginia Lee Pfaehler photographed by Mike Tuffley

Cosplay, also called costuming, is the act of dressing in costumes and role-playing as pop-culture characters. Pfaehler has most recently cosplayed as the fifth Batgirl, Stephanie Brown, and Princess Bubblegum from the Cartoon Network show Adventure Time. Though some cosplayers are paid to wear their intricately made costumes at conventions, others, like Pfaehler, cosplay for their own enjoyment. Pfaehler also likes to see the reactions of young Batgirl fans.

“All the little kids come up to me excited, like I’m really Batgirl,” she says.

Cosplayers are a frequent sight at conventions.  A reported 1800 cosplayers participated in DragonCon’s Cosplay Parade in 2011, according to DragonCon Public Works. Pfaehler participated as a cosplayer and a member of the security team during the four-day convention.

While working as a crowd-control volunteer at DragonCon in 2011, Pfaehler witnessed convention harassment. Football fans who were also in Atlanta at the time walked into a women’s restroom and banged on the doors of stalls. The police were called to stop the culprits.

Pfaehler has also experienced cosplay harassment firsthand in a hotel bar.

“I was wearing a Star Trek dress uniform. He had fake handcuffs, and he handcuffed himself to me.”

Luckily, her friends were there to intervene and separate the two, says Pfaehler.

While statistics for cosplay harassment don’t yet exist, harassment at conventions is considered street harassment, a type of harassment that includes “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation,” according to Stop Street Harassment, a non-profit founded in 2012 with a mission to document and end street harassment internationally.

Even studies about street harassment are difficult to find, but a study done in 2010 by Holly Kearl, a researcher with a master’s degree in public policy and women’s studies, states that 90 percent of U.S. women, possibly more, experience street harassment by the age of 19.

The issue of cosplay harassment came to the fore in the gaming and comics community this year. After Meagan Marie, a popular cosplayer and model, wrote a blog post about her own experiences with harassment in cosplay, others have come forward criticizing the convention attitude that provocative cosplay invites sexual harassment.

Women in the comics and gaming community are flocking to hashtags such as #INeedFeminismBecause and #CONsent to tell their stories. CONsent is also the Flickr tag for 16bitSirens’ project , which photographs cosplayers with messages speaking out against harassment.

Pfaehler offers advice about interacting with cosplayers.

“Treat cosplayers like they are dressed in everyday clothes,” she said.

“If I was walking down the street in jeans would you be asking me to go take photos with the backdrop in your room? No, skeezy, that’s gross.”

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