On Harassment, “Cosplay is Not Consent,” and the Purple Ribbon Movement

I love conventions. I go to as many as I can in a given year, anywhere from two to five in a twelve-month span. It’s expensive, and I come home exhausted, sore and usually bruised, but the friends I make and the experiences I have make it worth the aches and pains of being jostled in lines, and the dismay of leaving many dear friends behind, usually for another year at least. I’ll say this – there are few greater pains than leaving a good convention behind.

But as I go to more and more events, the female-to-male ratio seems to be evening out, in some cases exceeding that golden 1:1 that some events strive for. To make a long story short, the ladies are coming, and there’s no stopping us from attending what has long since been a male-dominated genre of event, dating all the way back to the Star Trek conventions of the 1970s and 80s, to the Comic Cons of today. But the ratio of sexes isn’t important. It’s the attitude toward the increasing female population, and what conventions are doing to address it, that has me worried, and in some cases, outright fearful.

Coordinating a convention is no walk in the park. My “home con,” if you will, has over a hundred day-of staff, for an attendance of just over 3,000 as of 2012. I’ve been proud to count myself among that staff, both officially and unofficially, since 2009, with positions in leadership since 2012. It’s given me incredible insight and valuable work experience that I feel will benefit me for the rest of my life. But wearing that security uniform, and being the go-to-girl for things that come up, how am I supposed to handle accusations of a guy groping? Or people catcalling, and touching inappropriately? I won’t name my home con, out of respect for the event, the staff, and the attendees, but the fact remains that we are one of the few that takes harassment seriously, without tolerance of any kind. Offenders are given one chance to clean up their act before we tear their badge in half and tell them to get out without a refund. It’s a hard policy, and so far, it’s worked. Our convention is considered to be incredibly safe, with only a handful of minor incidents in our ten years of running it.  We’ve taken the catchphrase of “Cosplay is Not Consent” from other sources around the internet, and having those posters on our walls have been met with positive reactions, including attendees thanking us for having them; the consensus seemed to be that it stopped a problem before it had a chance to really get started, which means as convention staff, we’ve done our jobs correctly.

Sadly, not all events are as (dare I say it?) enlightened as ours. Some run the gamut of good policy that remains unenforced to a straight-up lack of rules when it comes to their attendees’ conduct, which leads to obvious problems at every turn, even outside of the harassment issue. At one event in 2009, I was followed, catcalled, and jeered at based on the prop I was holding, and the event security told me with a straight face that unless they saw it happen, there wasn’t anything they can do.

From my experience as a security coordinator, a cosplayer, an attendee, and a woman, I can say with confidence that this is not true. I don’t want to say that harassment only happens to women; one of my dear male friends attends conventions wearing what’s affectionately known as “The Power Kilt,” and I can pretty much guarantee that he’s had it flipped up, or had inappropriate comments about what he wears underneath. That being said, the majority of harassment does tend to happen to women, and while I won’t get into the feminist double-standard of nerd culture, I hope that my views and discussions of this niche issue can at some point help someone in the convention circuit.

The reason I take such umbrage against harassment at conventions is twofold. Conventions are meant to be Safe Places, capital S, capital P. They’re meant to be places that parents can leave their children, that those so inclined can come in drag, that people can dress to the nines in pieces they bought or made by hand, and not worry about getting stared at, or disparaging comments about Halloween. They’re meant to be places for people to express their sexuality and gender identity, often in otherwise hostile environments, without fear of being attacked verbally or physically. But when harassment occurs, that Safe Place title is lost, and suddenly, not only is the harassee in an often unfamiliar situation or locale (as was the case with me in 2009), but they are often surrounded by unfamiliar people. To be thrust into a hostile environment while not knowing who to turn to or where to go can be traumatizing, leaving a person scared, uncertain, and even sometimes, unwilling to give the event a second try the next day. There’s also the often understated fact that people pay to go to conventions, and no one wants to pay that much money to be jeered at and bullied.

So what can be done to prevent harassment at conventions? The first step should always be to loudly tell the offender to knock it off, that you do not appreciate being touched/talked to/looked at/followed that way, to assert your own autonomy, and report it to a staff member. I’ve personally seen this work on several occasions, and the high volume alerts surrounding attendees that you’re being creeped on. The philosophy my security group uses is “Strength in numbers,” and if you sit there and accept it, those numbers will never come to your aid.

But what if the offender doesn’t back off, you might ask. Some offenders find the assertion funny, or angering. The touching, jeering, or inappropriate comments may get worse at that point, although I don’t want to alarm anyone by saying it certainly will. As I mentioned, probably seven out of ten times, telling someone to stop is enough. However, in that one-off situation that it doesn’t, your safest bet is to grab all of your things, including your friends if you can, and find the nearest staff or security member. Most conventions will distinguish their staff in some way, with any combination of badges, special t-shirts, safety vests, or sashes. Some conventions allow their staff a more relaxed dress code, including cosplay.

If at all possible, find the registration desk, or the security desk (If applicable – not all conventions have a dedicated area for attendees to find security). Inform the staff, with details, about what happened, and be aware that they may ask you to point out your offender, and interact with him until the situation is resolved.  Make sure the staff is given details such as badge name, height, eye color (even if they’re wearing contacts!), anything that stuck out to you about your harasser.  Most conventions (“most” being the operative word) have a zero-tolerance policy for harassment, and it’s almost always possible to work your way up the chain of command to find someone to hear your side of the story. In my bluntly honest opinion, any convention that doesn’t take the subject of harassment seriously is not a convention worth going to, or remaining at. It all comes back to that Safe Place mentality, and if attendees can’t feel safe, then staying in an unsafe situation can potentially lead to other problems.

But what about the Purple Ribbon movement? It’s an online campaign meant to combat harassment at geek events, signified by wearing a purple ribbon, not unlike other causes (Pink for breast cancer, puzzle pieces for autism, yellow for military, etc.). Supporters wear them to signify that they are safe people, able to be approached or counted on if a situation occurs with an attendee and a harasser. A similar movement with “Creeper Cards” showed up in 2012, in which people were given cards based on their actions at events – green for supportive, yellow for mildly creepy, and red for major harassment.

The idea seems noble on the surface, yes. Who doesn’t want easily-identifiable supporters in the instance that you’re being stalked or groped? But both movements put forth some problems that I was unable to ignore when they first came up.

The first, and most major from my perspective as a convention staff member, is that a convention staff is entirely responsible for its attendees’ safety. Because of that, the staff must be able to regulate things like the purple ribbons and creeper cards, and ensure that the people passing them out comply with convention regulations – some of which apply to staff, instead of attendees (Such as our own code of conduct). When attendees take what is the equivalent of a vigilante stance on harassment, then the liability for it falls back on the staff if things go south, which is not a situation I ever want anyone, staff or attendee, to find themselves in.

The second problem is still pretty severe, in my opinion. These campaigns are seen propagated through the internet – Tumblr, Facebook, the various convention forums, and other mediums. These are the same venues that harassers frequent, meaning the purple ribbon movement has the very real potential to be abused. It’s impossible to tell by looking who will and won’t harass or assault at a convention, and wearing a purple ribbon only gives harassers easier access to people in a vulnerable state. My own event takes a very discouraging view on both campaigns, not because we disagree with their intents, but because they’re impossible to regulate. Harassment is an issue that should be brought to, and taken care of by staff members, as we have the training and the knowledge to properly confront the issue, hopefully without making things worse.

Now that I’m done with that ray of sunshine, I want to go back to my opening statements; conventions are a fantastic way to meet people, see new sights, and if you’re like me, get your name out for your craft, especially in the artist alleys. While this essay might seem doom-and-gloom, portraying conventions as hotbeds of inappropriate activities, many conventions are perfectly safe, if attendees exercise a little common sense (Such as not going back to rooms with unfamiliar people and/or alone, or not drinking to the point where you’re not in control of yourself).

My altercation in 2009 was eventually handled by the event security’s coordinator, who was much better trained and much more sympathetic than the staff member I initially spoke to, and the group that had followed me were eventually removed from the convention, and I ended up having one of the most amazing times of my life, able to meet the guest of honor I’d flown halfway across the United States to see. I made some amazing friends I’m still close to today, and my souvenirs are some of my most treasured possessions.

Conventions are one of the few places we get to be liberated as geeks, nerds, and obsessors, without the fear of judgement. It’s my sincerest hope that this essay addresses some of the remaining issues that attendees can face, and that people reading this truly benefit and find themselves in a safer, more enjoyable atmosphere with this knowledge.

This post was originally written by Molly K, @turntechGodtier.

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