Why Anime Conventions Are Still Inviting Sexual Predators As Guests

When the Squeaky Stair is Silenced By a Body Pillow

by Erica Friedman and J. Lynn Hunt

Anime, Japanese animation, does not make it into mainstream media coverage all that often. Despite rising profits, sold-out theatrical releases and the top US comics publisher in 2017 being neither Marvel nor DC, but Viz Media, a manga company, most North Americans will never have heard of them, or seen even their most popular titles.

Nonetheless, in 2019, anime made media headlines as voice actor Vic Mignogna embarrassed himself — helped along by his fans and his lawyers - in an agonizing lawsuit against his former company Funimation and former coworkers. The lawsuits, which Mignogna lost, were meant to punish people who had been the subject of assault by Mignogna and were — and still — on the receiving end of harassment campaigns run by his “stans,” fans of his committed to supporting him financially and emotionally. Mignogna and his IStandWithVic fans were — and still are — angry that multiple occasions of sexual assault, harassment and general creeping were made public when a number of people came forward with credible statements that he had been known for years for “unwanted affection” towards young, often underage female fans. He was removed from roles by at least two companies for whom he did work, Rooster Teeth and the aforementioned Funimation.

Now that that headline case is settled, in this post-Vic world, it would seem obvious that anime events would do better in regards to hosting known predators, which would invite close scrutiny of policies, past incidents and potential future lawsuits. That seems obvious, doesn’t it?

This is not the case.

Despite all of this, we learned this week of another anime convention that has announced a known predator on staff. This isn’t a whisper-network unknown, Ryan Kopf has been banned from at least one convention for predatory behavior and has faced criminal charges. Mignogna was uninvited to several conventions, then quietly re-invited, which triggered cancellations by other invited guests.

Anime cons are still inviting known sexual predators as Guests or having them on staff. The question has to be asked is…Why?

The answer is complicated in the sense that there are a lot of moving parts to a convention and many of those parts have no connection at all with other parts. Even setting aside the brotherly support sexual predators show one another, and the desire to protect sexual predators we see in their fandoms of wannabee-predators, one has to wonder how the “good” cons don’t step far away from guests that will open them to legal and financial consequence.

Here’s why.

Let’s look at each of these in order.

Lack of Training
Con chairs are usually mostly-untrained volunteers with a staff of untrained volunteers. Even the largest cons tend to draw chairs from their own volunteers, so there’s no competence required beyond years of experience and your team of volunteers not walking out on you. No one receives training in sexual harassment policies, or, frankly, anything. Worse, many of the leadership structures in conventions encourages those seeking power and rewards those willing to be assholes. In our experience, we’ve seen volunteers who exploit or abuse their staff allowed to continue because no one feels comfortable removing them from that position. As people around them leave, they rise in the ranks, filling holes they cause. Abusive and exploitative leaders report to no one, especially at small conventions that are privately funded. AnimeMidwest is a perfect example of this. Having been banned from one con, Kopf created his own. Who will be in a position to police him? No one.

Policies Without Procedures
With no professionals on staff to handle serious accusations of assault or harassment, what teeth do con policies have? None. We’ve all seen the signs — “cosplay is not consent” and warnings that the con reserves the right to remove people. Policies at anime cons are inconsistent, from the ineffective to the ridiculous. Otakon, the second-largest anime con in the United States has a policy that reads:

We also have a general policy that we do not tolerate disruptive behavior or harassment of any sort, and we can and will take action when we see something we feel is dangerous or disruptive. The type of action we take may range from a quiet but stern word in private to forcible ejection from the convention, revocation of your membership in Otakorp, Inc., or even criminal charges. (Action taken is solely at the discretion of Otakorp, Inc.)

Emphasis is mine. What all this means is that Otakon can freely do absolutely nothing if that works best for them. Imagine yourself, having been sexually harassed by a stranger in a crowd of 30,000. You go to a random staffer, and report it. They tell you to go to Security, where you find another person you don’t know. You tell them again, getting to relive it every time. What happens after that? You may never find out. Does that make you feel safe? Do you feel comfortable bringing your child? It is very common for people to view the victim as the “disruptive” element. What happens when you report a problem, and find yourself escorted out of the event.

Imagine yourself, having been sexually harassed by a stranger in a crowd of 30,000. You go to a random staffer, and report it. They tell you to go to Security, where you find another person you don’t know. You tell them again. What happens after that? You may never find out. Does that make you feel safe? Do you feel comfortable bringing your child?

Anime Expo, the largest anime convention in the United States, has a code that is more specific. “Among their “prohibited” actions and activities are “Assaulting, threatening, behaving inappropriately to another person, discriminating conduct of any nature whatsoever, making racial, religious, ethnic, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, or other slurs, bullying, and/or expressing any act of hatred towards another.” Great! What are the consequences of these actions which, by the way, are listed along with, and presumably treated as on par with, riding hoverboards?

Violation of this Code of Conduct may result in forfeiture of your Event badge, your expulsion from the Event and/or termination of your position with SPJA.

Oh. Well.

These situations are a nightmare for a victim of sexual harassment or assault. Staff is given no meaningful training, we can attest after having staffed/attended many events. An untrained, unpaid volunteer “takes a report” and gives it to whom? What happens? What’s the next step?! There is none. The victim is left hanging.

Cons still fail to list concrete steps on behalf of victims and they fail to list concrete consequences for harassers. “Harass at this con, and we’ll send you to jail, perv,” would be a tad more comforting to a victim than, “you may lose your badge.”

Lack of Organizational Memory
Cons run on fresh meat. Volunteers cycle in and out and there’s very little paper trail for the vast majority of them. Con chairs don’t train the next one in line, because they burnout and leave or move on, except in very unusual circumstances. From year to year, very little info is passed along. Even at big cons where there are lists of people they won’t let back into a venue, who keeps that? Who checks it? Do Department Heads get briefed on events and people from the year before, or does the old chair leave and their friends leave with them, taking all that experience with them? In the most common scenario, the con chair has no idea, so no one tells the next chair. Or their comm heads. Or anyone. Information isn’t passed along, the org has no long-term memory.

Cons do not have a pre-con meeting that includes “Last year there were three reports against Guest XYZ.” Individual reports aren’t kept, and it’s all one-to-one-communication. Victim to volunteer to dept head to con chair, maybe. Mostly it’s only victim to volunteer, without anyone doing anything at all. The con chair may never hear any of it, because they are “too busy” and no one wants to “bother” them. Con chairs I know and have worked with retired after years without having heard of a single negative harassment experience during their tenure. People were harassed, but no one reported a potential legal problem to the person who chaired the convention,…because there was no procedure in place to do so. The policy has no *where* to go, so nothing happens, no record is kept, no one thinks to pass it along, no one thinks to ask.

Tribalism
It’s fair to say that almost all, if not all, volunteers for an event are fans of that subculture. “I like XYZ,” “zOMG, I get to meet XYZ!” and “How dare you accuse XYZ!” are all a continuum that we’re seeing over and over and over online and off. This is hardly new. From bar brawls over sport teams to online harassment over popular culture franchises, we’ve all see the tribalism associated with human behavior. Once a person decides that their interests are aligned with a person, team, anime franchise, they will throw down if they perceive that thing to be threatened. As we have seen with endless online attacks of marginalized individuals and groups, with no negative consequences for even the worst threats, hordes of people will gladly dogpile on anyone they feel threatens their hegemony. This is , of course, coupled with….

Misogyny
I won’t bother explaining this. Women receive more and more violent harassment than men. Women of color, queer people, disabled people even more. When a man is credibly accused of any form of harassment, there is an endless number of people willing to vilify the victims.

***

Most fans assume that conventions are run by groups of fans just like themselves or conversely, by professional event companies. With cons like Anime Expo and Otakon (run by the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation and Otakorp, Inc, respectively) leading in attendance in the US for fan cons, and Reed Pop and Comic-Con International events as examples, this assumption seems sensible. It’s also not true. The vast majority of conventions in the United States are privately funded, run by an individual or small for-profit company. (Both non-profit and for-profit indicate specific tax status in the United States and have absolutely no relationship to whether a venture is “profitable” in any sense.) And that leads to a host of reasons to shield known predators.

Financial Incentives
A truth that isn’t spoken about often enough is that most cons run on razor-thin margins. Even with the abundance of volunteer staff at their disposal, most conventions need to maximize their registration sales to break even. Vendors and sponsors can provide supplemental revenue streams, but butts in seats are the make or break factor. Every registration badge is a tiny step toward solvency and a convention’s reputation comes from how many people attend and how fast is the show growing.

When you need to get as many butts in seats possible there are all too many opportunities to not just look away from a predator, but rationalize it. Cons don’t dismiss problematic guests wholesale, but weight the nuisance factor against the number of tickets they can sell. The higher their butt in seat index, the easier it is to shush whispers and insist the problems emerging on the con floor are not as bad as what people are saying. Even as Google results pile on and the chatter grows, as long as convention management never looked deep they could justify booking a cash cow and brush off murmurs of predatory behavior as exaggerations.

Beyond celebrity, financial incentive plays heavily in the problems in the industry behind the scenes: Industry members and convention management who have either contributed to or covered up sexual assault in cons and larger industry as a whole.

As discussed earlier, the system of volunteer staffing creates a whirlwind of rapid turnover and clumsy handoffs. Many convention staffers last no more than a few years and move on to better paying (or just paying) ventures. On the other end of the spectrum are those who have found a way to last and entrench themselves in positions of leadership. One of the reasons behind some of this longevity is that many of these senior leaders have found their own revenue and profit streams from the convention space that creates additional layers of challenges in accountability around predators and abusers.

Many of these senior leaders have found their own revenue and profit streams from the convention space that creates additional layers of challenges in accountability around predators and abusers.

Examples of this include showrunners who also act as talent booking agents within the convention space. With them getting a percentage of the revenue from booking at their own convention as well as others, there is direct incentive to not speak about problematic figures. Even those who are not clients, could be or they have friends who are, fueling justifications as to why they will continue to work with and collaborate with predators.

Still, others may have a company, vendor or service that the convention contracts through and thus earn a profit amid a culture of volunteerism. Predators in this industry can exist in plain sight and treated as indispensable because the conventions become financially reliant on their relationship with the predator. Even in the case of a longstanding industry pariah like Ryan Kopf, his registration software was a tool for keeping him at least on the fringes of good standing even after report after report after report after report emerged about his behavior. Undeniable monsters can escape meaningful retribution because enough people have a stake in their undesired existence. Even when one show excises themselves from one predator, they don’t dare speak openly about those actions, leading most predators to simply move to the next show and the next role.

All of this contributes to an industry where everyone has a vague idea of who the predators in their midst are but just as many reasons to keep it quiet. In a small industry, nobody wants to be “that guy” who calls out the predator — even the worst of the worst have friends and supporters — and put their own necks and their shows’ necks on the line.

The conflicts of interest can pile up in ways that allow not just predatory celebrities but problematic industry and convention staff continue for years where insiders warn one another about the broken stair in their midst but insist they can’t fix it.

These aren’t the only reasons we’re still having this conversation, of course, but they are some of the many reasons that, every time we have it, we’re forced to be heard past blank, confused looks and and complete bewilderment, either feigned or real.

Assuming that the con admin isn’t actively covering for a predator, or one themselves, at best, they have never dealt with, thought about or have any interest in doing anything about the predator in their guest suite or on their staff.

And that’s a problem for all of us.

Speaker, Writer, Information Pro, geek marketing, LGBTQ manga tastemaker, culture junkie, essayist.

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