Consensual 2011by Georgia Blair, Jan 18th 2012
Consensual (or "conSENSUAL" as they write it) is the first of its kind in Australia, an anime convention dedicated to yaoi and yuri with an 18+ age restriction. While fans of homoerotic manga, anime and fan-created work often attend cons to sell fanart, cosplay, host panels and squeal a lot, venue restrictions and the increasing number of younger attendees inhibits discussion of anything construed as 'adult', let alone homosexual. Cosplayers have been disqualified from masquerades for vaguely salacious comments, and artists are forced to sell adult-oriented works practically wrapped in brown paper to avoid eviction, or having to pry them from the hands of overly enthusiastic fourteen year olds.
An opening for an adult-only convention has existed for some time and I looked forward to not having to deal with teenagers with yaoi paddles, but I had my worries on how well fans of yaoi and yuri would get along--while there is some crossover between the two fandoms, they are separate, and a small number in each have the consideration and tact of half a brick. What I found instead was a different, deeper divide, between what I had understood (and perhaps, incorrectly assumed) a yaoi and yuri convention would be like, and what the organisers seem to think it should be.
For the most part, the issues Consensual had were common to first-time conventions and the awkward location of its venue, the Bayview Hotel (the con's original venue having fallen through). Compounding the effect were unavoidable problems the organisers had to deal with, which impeded publicity and preparation leading up to the event.
I immediately noticed the low number of guests and at times, the hotel felt desolate. But the smaller audience also aided the more intimate, comfortable vibe hotel cons often possess compared to larger events at universities or convention centres. Attendees were on the whole friendly, cheerful and not as creepy as you might fear (though a few had their moments). A giant Twister mat set the tone for the convention, including a few matches of pantless Twister, which was exactly what it sounds like.
Of course, a screening room for an adult anime con was to be expected. I only ducked in to watch that hoary classic My Sexual Harrassment (unfortunately missing the legendary corn scene), but the program held a wide selection of titles containing everything from innocent subtext to seiyuu moaning loud enough to make me wonder if the lobby below would call security. Some issues, subtitles being in the wrong language for instance, could have been avoided with sufficient testing, but the audience, while small, seemed to appreciate the stream.
The trader's room was sparse with only a few trader booths and no artist booths to speak of. I heard from other attendees that the asking price for tables was exorbitantly high for a convention of its scale, and communication issues prevented at least one group of traders from attending. This was a real disappointment, as the yaoi and yuri fandoms are infamous for their creative output and I had looked forward to picking up doujinshi of dubious character. On a positive note, I haven't been to one of Oztaku's con booths with free-to-use Copic markers before and I'm impressed by this initative, as Copics are popular with manga artists but expensive to try out. Many 'interesting' pictures were lined up on Oztaku's tables by the end of the convention.
The crossplay competition was popular, with a photographer on hand for photo shoots, and a few cosplayers managed to stay in character for most of the convention. The auction was a muted affair with more people being auctioned off than items; I feel that with more publicity this could be a notable feature for Consensual, with the potential for unique auction items and the increased income of older attendees. Singer Elodie Adams, who previously performed at Manifest 2011, closed the convention with an impressive acoustic performance.
For myself, the highlight of the convention was the panel stream. A variety of topics were covered with drawing workshops (though they were general workshops like you might see at other conventions; people may have expected more on human anatomy and uses thereof), discussions on fan culture and fandoms, and a quiz/variety event. The two stand-out panels were an illuminating discussion on the issues and dangers in regards to Australia's poorly-applied laws regarding pornographic content, presented by an engaging law lecturer from the University of Victoria, and a presentation given by none other than Fiona Patten, the leader of the Australian Sex Party. How many conventions can you say had a wildly popular panel presented by a politician!? (How many politicians can you say would go to a convention and post odd photos from it on Facebook, for that matter...)
Part of why the panel streams worked so well for me is because its topics appealed to fans and provided an insight into fandom and how it operates. I am not certain that the con's organisers had the same perspective, and this formed the basis of my dissatisfaction with the event.
A perfect illustration was the shibari workshop event on Saturday night. Shibari is the Japanese art of rope bondage, making appearances in its pornography and often referenced in mainstream works (such as Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei's striking opening sequence). The Bayview Hotel's inconvenient location made finding dinner difficult so I missed the first part of the event, but I was in time to see the male demonstrator very much enjoying typing up his female models, and it made me feel more unclean than even huge cons full of bad body odor have managed.
It's an adult convention and yuri features women, so what was the issue and do I just hate fun? Explaining myself requires a brief burst of history: yaoi and yuri both had their beginnings in the 1960s with the works of the Year 24 group, a collective of female mangaka (including luminaries such as Moto Hagio, Riyoko Ikeda and the creator of the first shounen-ai manga, Keiko Takemiya) famous for revolutionising manga aimed at women and paving the way for future female manga authors. Likewise, yaoi works based on existing manga were created by women, and it was women who founded Comiket and still make up a majority of its sellers. (This is similar to the beginnings of slash, the American fandom's rough equivalent, which also began in the 60s back when William Shatner was attractive and long before he became attractive again in Boston Legal.)
Yaoi (or BL, as it's usually called in Japan nowadays) is a whole different animal from bara, comics written for gay men, and comes from an different planet to real-life gay porn. The same goes for yuri, even if it has slightly more crossover with mainstream pornography and general-audience works. Both genres have their own (sometimes controversial, often unrealistic) tropes, their own slang terms and language, and their own distinct fandoms.
The point is, it's a little more complicated than 'anime fans who like sex a whole pile'. However, I suspect parts of the con had been designed with this idea in mind. The shibari demonstration was a prime example, culminating in a woman who literally turned 18 that day (which the website updates make a distressingly cheery point of) with her hands tied behind her back eating cake from a plate while the shibari demonstrator held her hair out of her face and invited everyone to sing Happy Birthday. Frankly, I'd rather contend with the yaoi paddles.
The demonstrator also dismissed off-hand a request to demonstrate shibari on a man--though to be fair to him, I think he incorrectly assumed they wanted him to do it on a man with no pants on. I suspect assumptions were a major failing of the convention on everybody's part. Maybe I should have paid closer attention to the Consensual website to get a better idea of what the con would be like--then again, I wasn't the one organising it. Reading some of the publicity leading up to the convention, it appears the convener became interested in yaoi and yuri through a borderline-ironic interest in hentai and assumed its fans worked in a similar way, which could not be further from the truth. My nerdy run-down is information I picked up over years of being an anime nerd, but I checked: it IS all on Wikipedia. For their part, the organisers couldn't even spell "fujoshi" properly for a while there.
I'm not saying all yaoi and yuri is high art above and beyond crass hentai. Let's get this elephant out of my room: I'm totally a fujoshi, I'm basically Ohno from Genshiken if you replace cosplay with video games, and I think a lot of is ridiculous fapping fodder. But it's still more nuanced than 'Japanese cartoons have sex in them, also tentacles!' (Tentacles! What is this, 1996?) The con billed itself as a yuri and yaoi event, and what I was seeing instead was a bunch of people who think yaoi and yuri fans enjoy constant sexual posturing and being showered with sex toys and NOOO, you can't be more wrong!
While the focus on the legalities of liking porn in this wonderful, aggravating country and LGBT(AQISetc) issues provided some of the con's most amazing and illuminating moments... well, at the risk of upsetting people, this is not the sole focus of the yaoi and yuri genres. I say not the 'sole' focus because in reality, despite where these genres came from, there are as many reasons for why some people like looking at cartoons getting it on as there are fans, and this does (and should!) include pride in real-life queer identities.
But these fans also include comparatively "vanilla" people, people who appreciate it on a level that doesn't interact with their real-life sexuality, and people uncomfortable or uninterested in being invited to play pantless Twister. This might come as a surprise to the organisers, but some of the biggest pervy nerds I've ever met are asexual and don't want or need sexual interaction in real life! They read this stuff for the plot, or for the themes, or the art, or the new insight into characters, or just because they like looking at smut but have no use for the free lube people kept giving out.
Mixing up 'yaoi and yuri fandom' with 'queer and alternate sex culture' gave the event a massive identity crisis and while most attendees had a grand time, it did not sit well with some, myself included. Consensual made a notable effort to set out clear guidelines on behaviour and respecting other attendees ('your fandom is okay' being included in the code of conduct), but I suspect if more yuri and yaoi fans attended, friction between them and those acting like the con was their stage to show off how much more liberated they were than the 'terrified heterosexuals' may have resulted in far more bad feelings and genuine hurt than my own cranky-old-fangirl grumbling.
Consensual has a very real potential for success and I would put the low attendee rate and occasional blunders down to advertising issues, its niche subject matter and first-con blues, which can be fixed over future conventions. However, if the organisers want to run Consensual next year, they need to either research what yaoi and yuri entails and get detailed input from its fans, or they might as well take 'yaoi and yuri' out of the convention's sub-heading and market it as a nerdy Sexpo. This is not mere snark: I truly feel that if the organisers intend to run a convention where people can get their raunch on and fight with dildos, they should just do it, instead of trying to cater to a fandom they have little interest in understanding. If this divide is not addressed one way or another, it will not only disappoint future attendees, it would be a recipe for disaster that could lead to Con Drama on a scale as yet unprecedented in Australia. (but is probably a Tuesday for America....)
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