Conventions and Beyond: Protecting our community from predators

By: Contributor January 30, 20190 Comments
Anime Expo 2016's South Hall Lobby, crowded with attendees

CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of sexual harassment, assault, and preying on minors

Let’s get straight to the point: a number of incidents, in person and online, have made harassment, both at conventions and through social media, a hot topic in the anime fan community. In the decade-plus I’ve been cosplaying, I’ve seen a lot of harassment and other predatory behavior, especially aimed at the most vulnerable members of our community. In light of recent discussion, I want to talk about things that everyone can do to help.

Photographer's-eye-view as he takes shots of a cosplayer's bust
All images from Complex Age

If you’re a bystander at a con and you think you see harassment happening

For many millennials, the mantra, “If you see something, say something,” strikes up memories of the propaganda-laden atmosphere in the wake of 9/11. Despite these associations, it’s truly the most effective way to help cut back on this sort of predation in real life.

Conventions are a time for many people to party and cut loose, making them rich hunting grounds for predators. Someone I know once found a sober man in his twenties trying to take a drunk teenager back to his room; her roommates had no idea that she had been drinking, let alone that someone had his eyes on her.

If you see a camera pointed at a strange or suspicious angle, it could be because the photographer is trying to take an upskirt shot. I’ve personally forced someone I found doing this to delete the images from their phone. Don’t be afraid to make a big scene calling them out—these kinds of creeps depend on going unnoticed or ignored.

Nagi puts her hand in front of a camera lens, blocking the photographer from taking a pantyshot

If you see someone looking uncomfortable and trying to remove themselves from the situation, they may be a victim who’s too afraid to make a fuss to get away from a predator. Most of us are terrified of actually screaming “HELP!” and being accused of “causing drama.”

Please don’t be afraid to approach them and ask if they’re okay or need something! Conventions come with a loosening of certain social guidelines that make striking up a conversation with a stranger significantly more acceptable than it is in day-to-day life. Use that to your advantage.

Defusing the situation can be even more effective than going in guns blazing and threatening to haul the offender to security. That said, always remember that you can go to con security. They are there to help keep the con safer.

And keep in mind that it’s not always male predators and female cosplayers; some of the most horrifying stories I’ve heard in my years of congoing have come from other gender combinations. There have been multiple female serial con predators who used that exact assumption to fly below the radar. If you notice someone who seems uncomfortable, don’t change your interpretation based on their gender—check up on them regardless.

A woman looks shocked and hurt as a man says, "They disgusted me. She's so old."

Cosplay, with its heavy stage makeup and unreal costumes, erases a lot of age markers. While you might find it easy to tell people’s ages in normal life, you probably can’t really tell if a cosplayer is 15, 25, or even 35.

A lot of predators use that fact to mask levels of predation they wouldn’t attempt in other settings. If your con offers minor badges, keep a close eye on the people around you; and if you see a minor badge holder chatting with someone who isn’t using one, try to monitor the situation.

No matter the age and gender of attendees, most of the people who prey on others at cons in plain sight count on the fact that other people will handwave anything that looks a little strange because, “It’s fine, it’s a con.” It’s not fine, and if we all ignore it, nothing will change.

A screenshot that says, "Aya-tan the slut lives in Nakano Ward. lololol Everbody come visit! lolol

If you see someone publicly engaging in harassment online

If the harassment or threat was over a website or social media, first use an archiving utility like to snapshot it for future proof, then take screenshots, and then report the threats via the site’s own internal reporting mechanism.

Some abusers like to harass cosplayers and other industry personalities by creating social media accounts impersonating them and making embarrassing or defamatory tweets. If you find such an account, inform the person they’re impersonating, since some serial harassers will also block the original person to make it harder for them to find out, especially on Twitter.

Something as simple as questioning the harassing behavior can also be effective. It’s like shutting down a racist joke by shrugging and saying, “I don’t get it; why is that funny?”

With online harassment, both in public and in private, almost every harasser or abuser is after some form of power; they don’t like being made to look silly or having the mockery turn back around on them. The court of public opinion can be the fastest and most effective way to get them to stop. Step in to defend your nerds-in-arms if you can! You’ll be saving the survivors a lot of time and mental energy.

At the same time, though, don’t feel like you have to force yourself if you can’t. Not everybody has the mental stamina to argue with harassers online. If you’re not up for it, then reporting and informing is plenty.

Manga page of a woman uncomfortably walking away from a bar table. Another woman thinks "What do I do? It's happening again. And there's nothing I can do."

If you’re at a room party and someone’s behavior seems like it’s crossing some boundaries

Say something in the moment. Don’t just let it slide. The danger of harassment and crossed boundaries grows substantially when substance use and inebriation become factors. Step in and get a handle on what’s going on; find out as much as you can by asking everyone involved.

After everyone is sobered up, check in again, then go from there. If everybody involved feels like the situation was something they are okay moving past or overall a misunderstanding of boundaries, just talking to the people involved may be enough.

Anything more substantial, and you may want to spread the word not just in your circle but beyond, since predators exploit having multiple social circles with no overlap. Refuse to go to parties if you know they’ll be there and encourage others to do the same. If their behavior crosses the line from “creepy” (unwelcome flirting or dirty jokes) to “abusive” (groping, upskirt shots, preying on minors), don’t be afraid to post about it publicly or even go to the police.

Alcohol and drugs can remove inhibitions, but they do not remove accountability. Remind everyone that if they can’t trust themselves to be respectful of others’ boundaries when they’re under the influence, they shouldn’t partake in public.

If it’s your party and a guest brings someone who isn’t welcome, tell them to leave. Likewise, if you’re at someone else’s party, you’re not obligated to stay. Protect yourself and leave, but tell others why.

Manga page of a short-haired woman grabbing a long-haired woman's sleeve. The short-haired woman says "Why do we have to run? All we're doing is having a good time doing what we love."

How to protect yourself at a convention if you’re being stalked

You shouldn’t have to quit going to cons because someone decided to stalk you, but it can’t hurt to take extra precautions while you’re there.

Tell your friends you have a stalker and and describe what they look like so your friends can help you be on lookout for them. Be wary of anyone in a fully masked costume, especially if the costume is from a series your stalker is known to enjoy. Use the buddy system at all times.

Warn the con, preferably in writing. Unfortunately, they might not do anything, but having the paper trail that proves you told them could come in handy.

Many conventions require you to have your name or other personal information printed on your badge. Ask for a fake name to be displayed as a safety precaution, and if they refuse to do that much, use washi tape or a permanent marker to blank out your personal info.

If you’re a cosplayer, it also can’t hurt to follow some basic personal safety tips to help keep your personal information from less dedicated stalkers. I have a few I follow myself:

  • Don’t geotag your photos.
  • Don’t tell people what neighborhood you live in via public posting anywhere.
  • Don’t post photos of yourself taken with highly identifiable backgrounds—a pic taken at an obvious local landmark gives more info about where you live compared to a pic taken at a Starbucks.
  • Don’t post pictures of your car or license plate.
  • Don’t tell people where you work or go to school.
  • If you’re traveling somewhere known, don’t tell people exactly when you leave or arrive on social media, since this makes it possible to calculate how long it takes you to get there and therefore what route you likely took.
Manga page of two young women at a cafe talking about online harassment. One asks if they could get the messages removed and the other says the person will just "change their name and set up a new thread somewhere else."

If you’re being harassed by someone in the industry or who has more social capital than you

If you’re targeted by a convention staffer, industry member, or special guest at an event, file a complaint with security while the convention is still running. Enough complaints can lead to guests being blacklisted from the con or specific staffers being asked not to return, but complaints filed after the event ends have lighter consequences. Hit that creep where it hurts—their social standing—and do it as fast as possible!

Afterwards, whether it’s a prominent member of the community or a guest/industry figure, consider using a “burner” or “throwaway” account to talk about your experience if you’re too afraid to deal with the backlash from their fans on your main account. Temporary handles won’t carry as much weight as an established main account, but it may keep you safe from further harassment at the hands of their fans.

Remember, even if it doesn’t seem like your story changed anything, sometimes it’ll help bring the situation to its tipping point.

Close-up of a woman's eye with speech bubbles reading: "The guy who took it is a jerk. But those creeps aren't gonna get me down."

The overall most important thing to remember about all of these situations in every category, however, is that the onus of stopping harassment is on the harasser. These tips are not a guarantee that you will not be harassed, nor is a lack of following them a valid reason to be harassed. These are all harm mitigation techniques. Until the culture changes and harassers don’t feel empowered to harass others, the best we can do is attempt to lessen the damage.

There are so many possible scenarios for harassment to happen both online and offline, but one of the biggest ways we can all help prevent it is by never assuming that everything must be fine, or else someone would have done something about it. Instead, be that “someone” who does something about it. If enough of us are proactive about protecting our community, we can help make cons a safer place for everybody.

If you want more information about safety for cosplayers and con attendees or just need somewhere to turn, check out the Cosplayer Survivor Support Network. You aren’t alone.

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