It was a conversation that quickly crossed the line. Malaysia-based cosplay model Kino Mikii was approached online by a man who claimed to be a Singaporean photographer named "Michael Alex" to pose for some photos.
It was a common enough request. Kino Mikii is a professional cosplayer, charging fans as much as $250 USD a month to see photos where she poses in costumes inspired by anime franchises like Sword Art Online and re:ZERO.
But the photographer wasn't all that interested in her costumes. Instead, he quickly shifted the conversation to sex toys before offering her SG $2,000 ($1,483 USD) for a private photo session and sex, writing "I want to taste your beautiful body."
Kino Mikii shut the conversation down and posted the entire exchange on her Facebook as a warning to other cosplayers in Southeast Asia. Her post touched a nerve. Some of her followers accused Kino Mikii of making the whole thing up. Meanwhile, other women started to share their own stories about conversations with the same photographer. While it wasn't big enough to spark a #MeToo moment in the region's cosplay scene, it did start a conversation about how often female cosplayers are sexually harassed by their fans, both in the real world and online.
Here in Indonesia, some of the worst harassment comes online, explained Pinky Lu Xun, an Indonesian cosplayer who has been active in the cosplay community since 2004. She told VICE that it was fairly common to see harassing comments on her Instagram page or sexually explicit messages in her inbox. And it's gotten worse in recent years, she said.
"Usually the perpetrators are people who feel safe hiding behind their online ID," she explained. "They think they're free to commit such conduct."
The problem is that a lot of people don't understand how traumatizing it is to be sexually harassed. And plenty of others in Indonesia think a woman's dress, her choice to cosplay in a "suggestive costume" is an invitation for sexually explicit remarks or pervy behavior. But even modest clothing doesn't protect women from harassment, Pinky explained.
“The worst harassment I experienced didn’t happen when I dressed in something sexy," she told me. "It happened when I was 11 years old and wearing my middle school uniform. I would like to remind you that harassment, whatever the motivation is, may change the victim’s life.”
Convention organizers in the United States and Singapore recently instituted a code of conduct for attendees in the hopes that it will curb instances of sexual harassment. The Singapore Toy, Game & Comic Convention and the Anime Festival Asia have anti-harassment policies that aim to protect cosplayers from "sexual harassment, stalking, unwanted physical contact, unwanted advances, unwelcome sexual attention or inappropriate photography."
In the US, a shocking survey of attendees at the San Diego Comic-Con—the biggest in the country—discovered that 13 percent of the more than 130,000 surveyed said they had experienced some kind of sexual harassment, either physical or verbal, at the convention.
The “Cosplay Is Not Consent” movement came out of the scene in 2014 to address what was quickly becoming a toxic environment at comic and anime conventions. The New York Comic Con now has an anti-harassment policy of its own displayed prominently throughout the venue. The San Diego Comic-Con, sadly, still hasn't addressed the allegations with an actual sexual harassment policy, aside from a few vague words on its website.
And here in Indonesia, we don't even have that. Pinky told me that the situation is so bad that she sometimes has to change her mind and choose to wear a less revealing costume when she's attending conventions in Indonesia. She even took some Krav Maga and Jiujitsu lessons to feel safer at conventions and on the streets.
At photo shoots, she prefers working with gay or trans photographers. She only cosplays "sexy" characters during private sessions with photographers, she told me, and just doesn't feel as safe being photographed by straight men.
“A women’s position is pretty vulnerable,” Pinky explained. "If we report the harassment, we might get more than just embarrassment back. Our safety might be jeopardized. Sometimes the people around us don't even provide support. Some of them might even blame you."
Aphin, another cosplayer, told me that she's harassed way less when she cosplays a male character—an activity called "crossplay." When she's a male character, the photo requests aren't as fast, or as demanding. But when she's a woman, few people actually ask permission before taking a photo and many don't seem to care what what she's actually comfortable with before sliding over for a picture.
"You can tell some people don’t see cosplaying as a hobby,” Aphin told VICE. “Many people think that they’re just free to take pictures with you. People often forget these personal boundaries, especially when it comes to cute girls.”
Photographers themselves can also work to make the scene safer for cosplayers, explained Alf, an Indonesian cosplayer and photographer who currently lives in the US. Alf told me that he tries not to touch his subjects at all when directing their poses during a photoshoot. That's one way to help curb the kinds of harassment that permeate so much of the scene.
But a nationwide anti-harassment policy at cosplay events is still the best approach. The country's conventions need concrete zero-tolerance policies on harassment that define banned behavior and require people to respect models' personal boundaries.
“In Indonesia, perpetrators can easily find a way out, and the victims are left with very few choices of action,” Alf explained. “Every time I told a friend to report their experience, they were hesitant and didn’t want to ‘exaggerate’ the situation.”
And whenever someone is harassed, it's important to speak out and identify the harasser. Staying quiet about the harassment can create a culture of silence that allows these kinds of behaviors to fester.
“I think we shouldn’t be afraid to speak out now that we have all these technologies,” Aphin told VICE. "I’m sure many people would support us. This is our collective hobby. If one part of it is tainted, then everything is tainted.”