Thursday, October 17, 2013

Cosplay Harassment at NYCC: What Happened and What to Do About It

It was Sunday at New York Comic Con and I was up in the press room, resting my feet. I overhead someone telling her friend about her partner's harassment on the floor of the con. Considering that I was on my way to the anti-bullying panel I was on, I had to say something.

This is how I met Diana Pho, the woman in question. I just want to say this about what you're about to read. This sort of thing happens all the time and it's absolutely, positively unacceptable. That said, it's going to continue to happen the same way taxes, bad pizza outside of NY and traffic in LA happen. Unfortunately, you can't prevent harassment completely.

So ... I wanted to write this piece to focus on awareness and prevention instead of saying "bullying and harassment=bad," because we already know that. I also wanted to get you all the info about this incident. The only way to change this sort of thing is to make people aware of what's going on and why cosplay does not equal consent and what to do it if happens to you. I spoke to Diana and Lance Fensterman, Global Vice Presiden of ReedPop, which runs NYCC to talk about the issue. Here is what they had to say.

DIANA (who wrote about the incident on her blog here) tells us what happened:

I was at Artist Alley of New York Comic Con with a friend on Saturday when a film crew approached me about doing a quick interview. I had just completed one with a very polite and professional group earlier, so I didn't think this interview would be an issue. A warning bell went off, however, when they were reluctant to give the name of their show, and as soon as the host started asking questions, I was on my guard. The interviewer (which I later found out was Mike Babchik of the show Man Banter), asked me several sexual and racially fetishizing questions -- like whether he could pay me to stand next to him with my parasol if it rained (because he wanted "to buy an umbrella with an Asian girl"), whether I was a geisha (which immediately implied that I was submissive stereotype of an Asian woman), and finally, he made a disgusting comment that girls who stood next to him got a cream pie.  

I could feel the immediate anger boiling inside of me ready to unleash as the conversation went on, and only when I threatened to slap him did he and his crew flee the scene. I am usually a very sunny and cheerful person, and rarely get angry, but the objectifying way he treated me was too much. It also reminded me of all the other women and girls I know who had been creeped on at conventions (or worse) over the years, so I didn't want to let his crew get away thinking they were cool and macho to do something like that. 

 LANCE tells us when he learned about the incident: 

I am very aware of the situation since it was first reported. Since that time I’ve been working directly with the two victims that have spoken up directly.  I was alerted to the issue by our security team Saturday evening and our PR manager got immediately involved as it included members of the press. 

 DIANA talks about the response to her blog post about the incident.

It had been uproariously positive. Part of me was a bit afraid of backlash -- but a larger part of me was so very angry -- and not for me, but for all of those other young women that were probably also creeped upon by those guys. I didn't even realize that it would go viral so quickly. I wrote the initial tumblr post half-sleep at 1 AM Sunday, and when I woke up a few hours later, the post had already had hundreds of notes, and even more piled on once I had identified Man Banter. Because people tweeted at NYCC and then Lance Fensterman, I was able to connect with Lance quickly and he addressed my concerns within 10 hours of the post; and I was fielding responses all Sunday morning before leaving for the convention for the last day. There, of course, I had the pleasure of sitting on the anti-bullying panel and met you and the rest of the talented, dedicated advocates, which was especially inspiring, and to talk to Lance face-to-face.

I was totally taken back, however, to find major websites like Boing Boingthe Daily Dot and Mediabistro covering the story when I came into work on MondayOn Tuesday, the Asian-American activist group 18 Million Rising also contacted me saying that they wanted to hold a petition campaign against Babchik to hold Sirius XM Radio accountable in investigating him and his actions at NYCC. I never thought that one post could attract so much attention, but I think it sparked another fire in the on-going conversation about treatment of women in geekdom. 

 DIANA tells us about the response from NYCC:

Immediately after the incident, I tried looking for the group to take their photo, but they were no where to be found. I didn't want to go to on-site con security because I didn't have a picture ID to use to track them down, and at the time, I didn't even know the group's name. On top of that, I had my panel moderating duties to think of, and the panel I was able to moderate -- Geeks of Color Assemble: Minorities in Fandom -- was too important for me not to miss. (I greatly appreciate my panelists to being the first ones to listen and support me as I vented right before we went on stage!)

After I wrote the tumblr post and had a secure ID on the culprits on Sunday, I then went to the NYCC website's contact page to see who I could talk too. Unlike the rest of the senior staff, Lance's title as show manager and his description "ask me anything," seemed the most appropriate choice. I wrote him a letter explaining the situation and asking for his assistance in stopping Man Banter from continuing their actions at NYCC. I also tweeted to both him and the NYCC twitter. By then, my tumblr post had gained serious traction, and others were tweeting at NYCC as well, until Lance responded around 11 AM. I hadn't expected something to come so quickly, and he really did a great reply to my letter, which I posted.
However, I was concerned about a couple more things: 1) how did Man Banter get in? and 2) making sure that security policies were clear enough for other cosplayers to get the help they needed if they were in the same situation I was. By then, I had read Bethany Maddock's account online and how she had been harassed by Man Banter before me, tried to get con security to get rid of them, only to see them still on the floor hours later. So a greater concern of mine was to ask Lance what measures would be taken to be sure attendee complaints about harassment don't slip through the cracks. I got to talk to Lance briefly after the feedback session, and I hoped I had made those point across. Just because my experience had a happy ending doesn't let NYCC off the hook from preventing this from happening again at future cons.

LANCE tells us what to do if it happens to us:

Report the issue to the nearest staffer or security agent.  We take the safety of all attendees of any ReedPOP event as our first and highest priority.  Once alerted the reaction varies based on the incident.  If we witness something as it happens we will immediately intervene.  If it is presorted to us after the fact we then attempt to find the perpetrators and ascertain precisely what transpired.  But no matter the issue, when it comes to harassment, we react, investigate and take action, this issue is of the utmost importance to us as the event organizer.

In terms of raising awareness of the issue, LANCE says:

I think the responsibility of the cos player is to make the issue known to any representative of the event organizer immediately.  From that point it is really the responsibility of the event organizer to take immediate and appropriate action.  I would also suggest the cos players research prior to the event if the event the intend to attend has a clear and actionable anti harassment policy.  We do.  That indicates a commitment to creating a safe environment for all.  It is not a guarantee, but it does clearly show that the organizers care and commit to taking action on the behalf of victims.

DIANA says:

I think keeping the conversation alive is key. There have been fan-driven anti-harassment groups out there like Cosplay is Not Consent, the Backup Project, the Order of the White Feather, SFFEquality. There are also proactive solutions people are proposing to check in on convention policies; before NYCC, I had signed John Scalzi's pledge concerning convention harassment policies -- that I would not attend a convention that didn't have one in place. Over 1,000 professional writers, artists, creators and fans in the SF/F community also signed that pledge, and it's been a good way for people to be mindful of maintaining safe spaces. I hope to see other fandoms and geek communities do that more: help protect each other mutually in the spaces we share.

If I can give a piece of advice to people who have suffered from abuse and harassment, I say this: it is not your fault this happened to you. It is never your fault. And the most important part is for that person to feel safe again, and there are many ways of doing so. You can speak out, you can find support, you can leave a space if you need to heal yourself. I shall also emphasize that you don't need to speak out if you feel that it would be too unsafe. 

I understand that in my case, I spoke out and took a big risk, and I was very, very lucky not to get any major blowback. But I know that all victims of harassment and bullying may not be in a position where they feel like they can take that risk, whether it is because they are already marginalized (as in the case of transgender people) and risk suffering even further violence, or even if they know that they do not feel comfortable with all of the possible negative flack they would get (because victim-blaming is still a big part of our culture).  If a victim needs to protect themselves first after harassment happens, that's OK too.

And there are two things I'll tell people who witness harassment: one, don't be compliant. And two: always believe someone if they tell you they had gone through harassment. Don't blame them or force them to do anything they feel unsafe doing. Support, listen, and respect them - those are the key things are absolutely necessary. 

Finally, let me add the statement from LANCE about the NYCC policy:

We regret that this happened at New York Comic Con and want the community to know that we have always been and will continue to be extremely dedicated to making our events safe for everyone.  If anything, these incidents have only strengthen our resolve to do more to create a safe, fun, supportive, bullying and harassment free environment for all.  Enough cannot be done to insure this.

Well, guys, there you have it. 

Perhaps it's time to get these groups together. How about a panel about what to do if this happens? Perhaps a page on the official site. Maybe we can get groups like Cosplay is Not Consent and NYCC together to talk about things like getting fraudulent press passes, making the no tolerance policy very clear and what to do if it happens to you. 

So, sound off below. I want to hear what you guys have to say.


  1. I think if you look at the Man Banter's YouTube page - that you can see they have been coming to this con for several years - even as far as BOASTING that they were allowed back in one video - and at other "cons" doing similar things - Maybe before press passes are issued a little research into what kind of "press" these people tend to do on their blogs and youtube channels would be in order - What is the most disturbing is that there were more than one instance of this group harassing people - that were reported "to the right people" and nothing was done as they were still seen on the floor of the con after that fact - a policy in place that is not enforced by all equally - is not a policy at all - but smoke being blown up someones behind in a gesture of good faith

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  2. We have been following this story as it broke. My Show TwistedMyth has recently been rebranded but have been covering NYCC since it began. We are a group of 1 who do internet Radio and Video/Photo Coverage of the Conventions in NY. This has been an issue for 3 yrs now but this is the First time the con has addressed anything. Whether its Fixed or not is another story but as far as Press Requirements go, My experience is jaded I will admit for the past 2 yrs I was denied a press badge and given a list of reasons made up by the one person who approves or denies them without any research what-so-ever even if all requirements are met. I was denied access due to a review they did not like and sources Close to NYCC have told us outright we werent allowed because of a bad review given 2 yrs ago when we interviewed people at walked dead panel who came from LA and were denied entry when panel opened due to the prior panels room NOT being cleared and Press who came in as VIP interviewing people then going right in which is a big no no unless your a camera crew. We have posted numerous blogs on this. We are all about the Con and the Fans and everytime we contacted the Con about this they refused to comment to us because we were not a tv crew.
    The People or person that approves Press badges ask for research info but never do, I never received a call or email to verify anything, nor was my website checked (i was watching visitor numbers). I described myself as 1 person applying for press and was denied because me and the rest of my press group were related, did not have a camera crew and did not have over 10k viewers, I was also told i did not have a blog or website (which I did for a few years).
    Its sad how these women were treated and I feel bad this happened to them. When I goto a Con as Press I introduce myself and ask permission for an interview about the cosplay outfit, how long it took to make, what inspired them, what their favorite thing was so far at con and what was the worst thing, then i ask for a photo of the cosplayer specifically using the words I ask for your permission to photograph and record you for our show and website and present them our business card. I have never crossed the line and any decent press rep never would. Those that do are ones that are trying to get their numbers up by breaking rules and getting into the spotlight just to be seen and that is what NYCC allows. We tried to speak with anyone at NYCC and Not one person would comment about our issues. Oddly enough Naked news was their last yr with a camera crew...Really now?

  3. Ok I may get some grief for this but please give it a read (and a big thank you Jenna for getting this out to a wider audience).

    I staff one SF Bay Area SciFi convention as a member of Con Operations (read security) and I am the HEAD (well 2nd but I have the full authority to act as the lead if need be) of Con Operations at another SF Bay Area SciFi convention.

    Both conventions have pretty cut and dried harassment policies (break it and you are gone). Both conventions are held in a hotel and in each case we have a great relationship with Hotel Security (bear with me for why that is important, least in my case).

    I am sorry that this happens and continues to happen, with any con goer, cos player or not. I am truly sorry that anyone (and for this Diane) had to go through it.

    There is some great advice here, that Diane and Jenna put forth but if it does happen to you (again it shouldn't happen at all). If it does...

    1. Find a member of Con Operations/Security and report it. If you can't find a member of that particular division grab any staff member. The staff members I work with are great about reporting an issue and will usually go with the person to Con Operations so that they can report it there. Yes there maybe a form you have to fill out but that is so there is some form of evidence in case (and I could see this crew using it) folks pulling the "legal card." For us you don't have to have a picture of the folks. I name or badge number works just as well. Con Operations or security should be able to retrieve a list of folks attending, along with their badge number fairly quickly.

    2. Least in my case I have no issues with "pulling someones badge" and showing them the door. Hopefully any anti harassment policy should have this spelled out. Working with Hotel Security means that if I do pull a badge, even a press badge (I have no issue pulling their badges too), the Hotel can also come along to the offenders and tell them they are not welcome on the property and will be arrested if they are found on said property. I have seen this in action and it does work. (see number three).

    3. This does happen to both sexes. Much more prevalent with a woman than a man but again it does happen. The one issue were I did pull a badge and had Hotel Security escort the person off hotel property was a female con goer harassing male con goers. Yes it is far less frequent than the other way around but it does happen. If you are male and it does happen to you see step 1.

    I really question humanity when I see and read this continually happening. Having a harassment policy is just the first step, but the step before that, and I am quoting Will Weaton, is

    "Don't be a dick".

  4. Just a small comment as I was reading along I noticed " I was altered to the issue by our security team Saturday evening and our PR manager got immediately involved as it included members of the press. " I believe it should be ALERTED. Not trying to be a dick I just know I would want someone to let me know if it was my article.

  5. That is a direct quote from Lance, cut and pasted from the email he sent. I'll change it, but to be clear, I didn't make the error.

  6. My daughter, Roth Cornet, may have attended that event since she travelled to NYC from LA at that time: thus I fear what she might have experienced. In the 80's a somewhat unhinged fellow named Ugly George with a video-cam in tow would convince young females on the streets of New York to disrobe for him just to get on TV. Even local access. These are the seeds which bore the fruit of these characters who trouble you today.

  7. Thank you so much for posting this article. My husband and I cosplay a lot and decided to do an entire Podcast on the issue of Cosplay =/= Consent where we interviewed male and female cosplayers, including a member of 16 Bit Sirens who started the Cosplay =/= Consent movement. We discuss what has happened to us in the past, but most important of all, we discuss the next step: Solutions!

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