If the Cosplayer Survivor Support Network is all about cosplayers' experiences with being harassed, stalked, abused, sexually assaulted, and more, why don't we like it when conventions and attendees use the phrase "cosplay is not consent?"
When this phrase was introduced, there's no doubt that it had a significant impact in raising awareness that cosplayers do experience a specific, consistent kind of harassment. That's great! We couldn't do the work we do without this as a foundation.
However, over time, it's clear that "cosplay is not consent" has become shorthand for "people get harassed when they're in cosplay and we're saying don't do it." It's a replacement for sustainable, actionable harassment policy that would protect more than just cosplayers. Its implied situation stops with harassment (e.g., catcalling, photos being taken without permission, unwanted touching by someone who wants to have a photo taken with you). There is no additional education to be found on most convention websites and/or physical printed material as to what qualifies as harassing behavior, or even "creepy" behavior that some people may not realize is creepy or harassing. And while "I didn't realize what I was doing" is no excuse for the behavior, being able to distinguish what qualifies as harassment or assault through education is irrefutably important, and something that not everyone in this country has access to in public or private school systems.
There is no such thing as common sense when it comes to consent. Consent isn't static and can vary widely from person to person, as well as from experience to experience, as well as within each experience itself. Every individual has the right to establish what feels comfortable to THEM, and should be expected to communicate with and respect what feels comfortable for every other individual. No catchphrase fully encapsulates the meaning of consent and the nuances it will have for every individual. Therefore, expecting "cosplay is not consent" to suffice as a substitute for communication between individuals about their personal boundaries invariably leads to failure (as we have seen and continue to see).
So while the intention of the phrase may have been innocent, and even courageous for its time, it has outgrown its use in encouraging actionable, sustainable change. For attendees who have never been harassed or assaulted in a worst-case way, its presence might be a "reminder" that such harassment/behavior exists, a "reminder" not to Be That Jerk; but for anyone who's endured the worst-case scenario, for a convention to physically post that and no other resources for when you needed them shows where their interests truly lie, and it's not standing with you. Because if they, as an organization, cared for your well being over your hypothetical offender's, they would be creating an atmosphere that wouldn't need a phrase to remind people not to offend. They would be following up with consequences to keep alleged offenders accountable, and they would be providing consistent victim-forward signage.
We don't believe that any con or group in particular was responsible for this shift. We often say in panels that conventions developed into what they are organically, that there's no guide to the "ultimate anime convention where nothing can possibly go wrong and everyone has an exclusively amazing time." Unfortunately, this also means that there's trial and error for what works and doesn't work for harassment, and there are victims/survivors who get hurt as a result.
Here are six reasons we don't endorse the phrase and culture of "cosplay is not consent."
- It implies that cosplayers are the only ones whose boundaries are violated. Anyone who has attended a convention knows that cosplayers aren't the only ones who can be harassed. For example, a guest might be groped while greeting a fan. A person wearing a regular outfit that shows some skin might have someone attempting to creep shot them. All of these people and more deserve to be protected. "Cosplay is not consent" tells would-be offenders that the only type of offenses a convention is looking for are offenses related to cosplay.
- It does not define consent or the context OF consent. Cosplay is not consent... to what? To touch, to photograph, to post online without credit, to heckle, to stalk? And what is consent? For that matter, what is harassment and how can we define it? This phrase does not inform individuals who are being harassed of what harassment is, nor how someone might be violating their consent in any way other than the implied situation. For some people, "consent" only means a sexual situation and not boundaries that have been crossed in other ways. The confusion only results in more victims.
- It does not describe the consequences. If there are no specific consequences listed for the violation of someone's boundaries in this or any situation, offenders are more likely to continue offending. Writing out and displaying consequences for various situations of harassment discourages the harassment from occurring in the first place. Writing out "cosplay is not consent" tells the offenders that nobody can turn around and show them the consequences if they do offend.
- It does not educate anyone about how to avoid BEING the harasser/what to do instead to encourage a positive interaction. Wagging your finger and telling a toddler "don't do that!" is only going to encourage the toddler to continue the behavior for the attention. Likewise, it's best to use signage as teachable moments. Instead of saying "cosplay is not consent," implying "don't be inappropriate," you need to say, "instead of acting that way, these are ways you can interact."
- It strongly implies one situation: female cosplayer, male photographer/offender. This is not always the case and reflects a flawed societal structure. Cis men get harassed, groped, etc. and often, their cases are not taken seriously because they're expected to "man up." Trans people (especially trans POC) experience the HIGHEST rates of sexual assault of all populations, and not only face stereotypical harassment, but misgendering as well when these situations occur.
- IT IS NOT A HARASSMENT POLICY. Per our guidelines on the Harassment Report Card and above, it does not explain what should happen if you are harassed nor where you should report/go to/call for help.
We encourage you to join us in expunging the use of this phrase as a cure-all for complaints in the realm of harassment. While we do not recommend it, if you would still like to use the phrase, we implore you to add a context: "Cosplay is not consent to photos being taken." "Cosplay is not consent to roleplaying with costumed person." "Cosplay is not consent to be touched and such consent can be revoked at any time at the cosplayer's discretion." As you can see, it gets a bit clunky. That's why we urge you to utilize a harassment policy instead. Saying "harassment policy" and linking/referring to a page or resource where you list your policies is much more effective than a catchphrase for your convention.
One way we're replacing the use of the phrase is holding conventions accountable for their harassment policies via our Report Card. We are always accepting additions to the report card, so if we haven't graded your favorite convention yet, please let us know by emailing Fractali at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are an attendee, here is a guideline for reaching out to conventions directly to ask them to change their policies.