[UPDATED] Fan Expo Canada’s “Cuddle a Cosplayer” Controversy and Ignorance Of Convention Harassment

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Fan Expo Canada is presenting Toronto Comicon this weekend, March 7-9. Celebrity guests in attendance this year include Eliza Dushku, Tatiana Maslany, Sean Astin, and more. But if you’re a cosplayer headed to the show, you might need to keep an especially close eye on your fellow attendees. Why? Because an email blast sent out by the convention proposed physical contact with cosplayers as a way to sell tickets.

The situation was brought to our attention four days ago by cosplayer Dee Pirko. She, and countless others on their list, received an email advertising Toronto Comicon. It promoted some of the celebrity guests, the convention hotel, and other details. It also let people know tickets were still on sale by writing “escape the deep freeze this weekend – cuddle a cosplayer.”

My immediate reaction was shock. An organization which has been putting on conventions for twenty years couldn’t possibly be this oblivious to the implications in their statement, could they? Especially not after the last year or so in which harassment at fan conventions has become a growing public issue in the community. We specifically covered the lack of official harassment policies at conventions last year and have kept a running list of those which post a clear and easily found policy on their websites.

I tweeted at their official account @FanExpoCanada and included Pirko’s screenshot above. The hope was they hadn’t realized the problematic wording and would issue a public apology and retraction. Others got in on the conversation, some shared my feelings, others thought I was making too much of the phrase, saying “cuddle a cosplayer” didn’t explicitly imply non-consensual touching. My feeling was – don’t leave it to chance. There are those out there who would use something like this as an excuse for inappropriate behavior as well as people who simply do not understand the meaning of consent. One reply I received while conversing on Twitter was:

I thought consent was implied in the word “cuddle.”

Pirko has been cosplaying for over eight years and attends 6-8 conventions a year on average. She’s attended Fan Expo conventions in the past, most recently in 2008.

“At first I couldn’t quite believe it, clicking on the link and seeing that it brought me through to the Toronto ComicCOn tickets page. Then I got frustrated and angry. I didn’t think anyone at FanExpo was malicious, but rather just clueless,” Pirko told us. “Over the past few years cosplay and consent has become a big deal, and many people i’m friends with have shared their stories of inappropriate things that have happened to them, including groping and touching that’s firmly in the assault category.”

Pirko said she reached out to us because she wanted Fan Expo Canada to know this wasn’t just one fan’s opinion. “This was a major convention, promoting this sort of behaviour. Even if it’s meant as a joke, it’s not cool, and potentially very dangerous and could lead to more inappropriate behavior and harassment.”

While writer, podcaster, and cosplayer Amber Love has never attended a Fan Expo show, but she too took offense to the email’s message, saying it made her cringe.

“If it had been some other show with a sketchy reputation, I’d probably roll my eyes but this was a specific case where I’ve always heard great things about the professionalism of the convention,” Love said. “Using that phrase as a mission to get to people to buy tickets is akin to saying it’s perfectly acceptable to touch someone without permission and there would be no repercussions for those actions.”

Love also emailed Fan Expo and said the reply she received was “inadequate” and felt like a complete brush off. Pirko had a more worrying response. [Update #4: A previous version of this article quoted Pirko paraphrasing part of her conversation with the Fan Expo representative. It has been deleted upon receiving a copy of the email.]

A direct quote from the email  ‘We thought about clarifying that cuddles must come with consent, but we thought if we’re always putting the rules in front of the fun – well that hurts the spirit of Fan Expo as much as the people that try to abuse our rules.” They also stated that they hadn’t gotten around to putting their harassment policy up yet, but had made it a priority.

Reminding people not to harass other attendees only makes the convention less “fun” for those who were inclined to harass in the first place. For everyone else, it reassures them they can have real fun in a safe environment with fellow fans.

Both Pirko and Love have directly experienced convention harassment while cosplaying, both by attendees and members of the press.

“I have been verbally humiliated several times, had inappropriate pictures taken of me at cons, and been physically touched without permission,” said Love. “My experience recently with the member of the ‘press’ – meaning someone who is not a journalist but submits posts to Bleeding Cool – was well after our global geek community had been banding together to champion that conventions institute specific harassment policies.” Love documented the experience on her own website.

Others directed their worry over the statement at Fan Expo Canada directly but by the next day there was still no public response. It was even more glaring when their account tweeted about cosplay but had yet to respond to concerns. So I checked in with them again.

The tweet had a misspelled email address and similar tweets, missing the “not retracting” part, were sent to other concerned fans on the social networking site. The messages were from Shelley Mantei, Communications Director of Fan Expo HQ, and after a quick google search I acquired the correct address and sent off an official request for comment. Among others, I included links to the Cosplay is not Consent campaign, other major instances brought to light of convention harassment, and writer John Scalzi’s plea for shows to institute official harassment policies.

We received a reply from Mantei saying the team was “extremely maxed” with the show so close but she would reply soon. I quickly informed her of our proposed deadline for posting the story and later that day heard back with a message saying they would not be able to have an official reply by then. She also told me:

I can update you that our harassment policy is now on all of our websites. Here is the TCC: http://www.comicontoronto.com/faq/ We had this written in the summer and the delay in posting was Fan Expo’s new ownership required a different approval process. Again sorry that I can not meet your deadline, but after the expo weekend I’ll be spurring a larger conversation with our team and your email will be part of that.

A second email blast was also sent out with altered wording but no retraction of the previous phrase.

Fan Expo have updated their websites with a PDF-linked harassment policy in their FAQ, which itself is linked at the top and very bottom of the site but fairly hard to find if you’re not looking for it. I wonder if they, and other conventions with hard to find policies or no policies at all, feel putting one up front will make people think harassment is a big part of conventions rather than looking like they take a strong stance against it.

In contrast, Emerald City Comicon, taking place in Seattle later this month, publically released this poster along with a strongly worded message about their stance on harassment.

It’s an extremely positive stance and an example for others to be sure.

But it’s not just cosplayers who are concerned with Fan Expo’s recent misstep, creators are too.

Steve Niles, writer of 30 Days of Night and Breath of Bones, has been a guest at Fan Expo Canada in the past and told us he couldn’t believe the convention would “put something so irresponsible in their ad.”

“Would they be comfortable with adding ‘Punch a Con Promoter’ in? No, I don’t think so because it could incite violence,” he continued, “Well saying ‘Cuddle a Cosplayer’ could be seen as inciting groping and harassment.”

Niles said the whole situation made him sad, “Everybody’s safety needs to be taken into account at shows.” Pirko and Love feel the same.

“Conventions should definitely have policies explaining how any person in attendance is expected to behave and also what steps to follow if they feel that they have experienced inappropriate behavior by anyone – guests of show, staff of the show, attendees, people walking outside of the con hall, anyone!” said Love. Pirko put it simply, “Too many people tell stories about how it happened to them.”

Our suggestion to conventions remains the same. Have a harassment policy, post it clearly and in plain view on your website, post it at the convention itself, and most importantly, attach it to ANY AND ALL ticket sales so no one can claim they didn’t see it. While attendees “fun” should certainly be a top priority, their safety should come first.

[UPDATE #1] Mantei has posted a status update on the Toronto Comicon Facebook page which references our article and the safety concerns:

Thanks for an amazing start to 2014!! While we’re all bathing in post-con glory we’d like to address some safety concerns brought up last week.

Fan Expo has a great history of ensuring fans’ safety, so on behalf of my team we quickly responded to last week’s enquiries on our cosplay position. Unfortunately this was in the final days surrounding our March show so expressed to a journalist that officially addressing concerns in time for their deadline would be a hasty response and wouldn’t be giving an important issue due attention. As an act of faith we did escalate rolling out the policy we’d been working with it’s unfair to say we “hadn’t got around to it” when it’s an important policy and any legal document will move slowly. http://www.comicontoronto.com/faq/

Instead of seeing our genuine interest to respond after the show what resulted was an inflammatory style of story that most alarmingly included false statements. Inflammatory journalism can incite irresponsible companies to respond, but when that’s not the case it can instead hinder a company from working with the community. So rather that respond further to that journalist we prefer to find a journalist or group in Canada who knows our shows and track record (and ideally has been to our show more recent than 2008), and who’d work with us with the bigger picture in mind to rollout something for our August show in Toronto.

Much of our team are on a break from a very successful show weekend and on their return I will be trigger finding that person/group and determining what we can achieve together for all of our fans including the cosplay community. Your patience is appreciated, and please keep watching here for updates. In the meantime if you have any suggestions for a media person or a group – please direct message or comment below!

Shelley – Fan Expo HQ

We’ve replied to their post asking them to let us know if there are any corrections to be made.

[UPDATE #2] We’ve yet to hear back from Fan Expo as to any inaccuracies they’d like us to correct but after many con-goers and fans replied to their original posting, they’ve left this follow-up comment:

This posting isn’t on the defence nor is our aim a retraction…that’s too shortsighted. We want the article to be given credit for bringing forward some valid concerns, but it did so in an inflammatory and poorly paraphrased manner. This isn’t the ideal way to communicate with us (or anyone) so we flagged this in the hopes this style didn’t set precedent in our community. So instead of giving the article more ado we’d rather put our time and attention toward a long-term plan with our community’s assistance to help identify other journalists who are knowledgeable on this issue (not to write a counter story) or cosplay groups to work constructively with us. There are a few recommendations and offers started — please keep those coming!

We’ll keep updating the post as necessary.

[UPDATE #3] Fan Expo reached out to Geekosystem Weekend Editor and The Mary Sue contributor Sam Maggs (a Canadian!) on Twitter about recommendations after their initial Facebook post. She eventually spoke with Mantei on the phone and together with Geekosystem’s Associate Editor Victoria McNally, put together another update on the situation. We’re still hoping we hear back from Fan Expo ourselves and would like to see positive steps taken in the future.

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Jill Pantozzi
Jill Pantozzi is a pop-culture journalist and host who writes about all things nerdy and beyond! She’s Editor in Chief of the geek girl culture site The Mary Sue (Abrams Media Network), and hosts her own blog “Has Boobs, Reads Comics” (TheNerdyBird.com). She co-hosts the Crazy Sexy Geeks podcast along with superhero historian Alan Kistler, contributed to a book of essays titled “Chicks Read Comics,” (Mad Norwegian Press) and had her first comic book story in the IDW anthology, “Womanthology.” In 2012, she was featured on National Geographic’s "Comic Store Heroes," a documentary on the lives of comic book fans and the following year she was one of many Batman fans profiled in the documentary, "Legends of the Knight."