While sexual harassment in roleplaying games isn’t front page news in the same way that the rags and tatters of Hollywood pretence are, it happens. And, unlike the real world, it can sometimes seek to excuse itself by relying on not having happened in reality. However, I don’t think something is automatically acceptable just because it’s a story rather than a “real” event or because that’s how the game world is.
At it’s core, roleplaying games are about not being oneself; about exploring not just life that isn’t one’s own, but one that is significantly different. And, as with any storytelling medium, that portrayal of difference can include moral challenges as well as physical or mental ones. For example, Vampire: The Masquerade (and other vampire games) has the central premise that characters were human but now need to drink blood to survive; which offers players the chance to explore being a parasite/predator to one’s own species.
However, to create these explorations of moral choices a system must define the world as having those sorts of issues and present rules that support resolving them; for example, as Stoker’s Dracula and many other vampire stories show, seduction is a good way to get to the point of teeth-in-neck, so vampire RPGs will have a world where some vampires feed by seduction and rules of vampiric powers to aid this.
On the face of it, this all seems reasonable. But what about player agency? To continue the example, if a player decides their vampire character will seduce another character but the other character’s player doesn’t want their character to end up in bed, who gets to decide? Does the idea that vampires have magical powers of seduction mean they can force someone to sleep with them, and if so, is objecting “not playing the game the way it’s played”? While things that happen to characters don’t physically happen to players, players do invest heavily in their characters (even more so in games designed to explore the emotional side of other lives) so – even if it isn’t identical to being assaulted – the sexual assault of a character can feel like violation by the player.
And, in a live roleplay situation the boundary is even narrower: instead of a description while sitting around a table, the outcome of being hypnotised might be pretending to be intimate with the other character.
Thus, if we are to make roleplaying a comfortable place for everyone, the presence of uncomfortable things (such as magical compulsion powers) in games has to be based on everyone present (players and GM) actively consenting that they want to explore something that is uncomfortable and that consent being continuous; in much the same way that we treat that other deeply emotional act: sex.
So, GMs bear a responsibility to check people are comfortable with aspects of a published world and system, and either ditch aspects that cause OOC discomfort or ditch the world all together. And, if GMs don’t raise it, players have a responsibility to support each other if one of them wants to raise an issue.
To sound a slight note of hope, it can be done. I’m in a 7th Sea LARP at the moment where one of the rules is that there have been on instances of sexual assault in any character’s background and their won’t be any during the game. As anyone familiar with 7th Sea will realise, this doesn’t fit neatly with the way certain nations and secret societies are described in the vanilla setting; however, the Refs have decided that the possible fun of being part of liberating oppressed women is less important than having a clear rule against any IC non-consensual sex acts.