Sound the alarms, everyone! Con season is upon us! It’s time to get your Naruto headband out and prepare yourself for the mental breakdown you’re surely going to endure after spending your entire life savings on figurines and fancy cosplay wigs. This might sound like gibberish to some of you, but not to a nerd (geek, fangirl, or whatever we feel like calling ourselves) who has patiently awaited the arrival of their favorite con, or dreamed about attending one. Unfortunately, if you’re a nerd girl who’s already experienced a con, you may have also experienced the sexism that female con attendees are often times faced with. This is especially true for cosplay enthusiasts, who have go out of their way to make sure con goers understand that cosplay isn’t consent.

For those that are unfamiliar with the wide world of geek, a con (short for convention) is a massive gathering for all things “nerdy.” Fan conventions have been going on since the 1930s, beginning with science fiction gatherings. Today, they typically consist of tabletop gaming (think DnD), cult celebrity panels, vendors, and contests. For many talented men and women, cons serve as the perfect place to showcase they’re bangin’ cosplay skills with chances to win prizes and perhaps join the ranks of cosplayers who make their living off their art (check out Ginny McQueen, Yaya Han, and Linda Le to have your mind blown).

In my experience as a con goer, I’ve been met with only kindness, good manners, and the sense of fellowship that these gatherings are designed to promote. However, cosplayers (namely female participants of the movement) have reported harassment, ridicule, and even violence from their fellow attendees who often seem to justify their shitty behavior by blaming it on the revealing outfits cosplayers might wear, which essentially means they don’t get that cosplay isn’t consent.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have probably heard this same old song and dance: female characters are often portrayed wearing skimpy and unrealistic outfits in anime, video games, fantasy franchises, and comic books. Some geek feminists feel that this is unacceptable, and some feel that the way a character is dressed doesn’t undermine the empowerment that character presents. For cosplayers, replicating every single detail of their character’s garb is key to their craft, and portraying, say, Power Girl in a moomoo doesn’t exactly hit the mark.

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to attend Pensacola Pensacon 2016 with my husband. I was there, admittedly, for selfish reasons (I got to hug Michael Rooker). But I couldn’t help but notice a troupe of people walking around in costume with signs that read “COSPLAY ≠ CONSENT.” While I have attended a handful of fan conventions in Florida, this was undoubtedly the first time I had seen anyone openly discuss the issue of sexism and harassment at cons. Naturally, I had to find out more about this real life super heroes fighting to spread the cosplay isn’t consent message.

I was granted an opportunity to chat to Maria Paoli, one of the sign wielders, who was charmingly cosplaying as “liberated” Dobby from the Harry Potter series. It turned out that Maria is a mental health therapist at the Lakeview Certified Crisis Center, located exclusively in Pensacola, Florida. According to Maria, they have been certified for over seven years, and have a prominent role in their community providing victim’s advocacy, mental health resources, and counseling. They specialize in providing services to predominantly victims of sexual violence.

So what were they doing at Pensacon, besides looking hella adorbs in their cosplay and encouraging attendees to take pictures holding their cosplay isn’t consent speech bubble signs? “Our main goal is to provide information for visitors to our county who wouldn’t know where the hospital is, or where to go if something were to happen while attending the convention,” Maria stated. “They might not even know the Florida laws. A lot of con goers are from out of state. We just want to provide them with the crucial information they might need to know if the worse were to happen.”

It turns out that this is the second year that Lakeview Center has sent representatives out to Pensacon. I asked Maria if there was a specific reason that conventions were such an important place for this type of awareness and the cosplay isn’t consent message. “Absolutely, yes.” She responded. “Basically there is a high propensity for violence and harassment to occur wherever people gather in masses, such as a convention. Then, you throw in alcohol consumption, revealing cosplay outfits, and the chance of violence tends to go up.” She continued. “Of course there is no justification for any harassment, violence, or abuse. It doesn’t matter how much someone might have had to drink, or if they felt another con goers cosplay was an invitation.”

Maria explained that Pensacola Pensacon had been incredibly welcoming and inviting to their presence, going as far as giving them free passes to carry out their work. The representatives for Lakeview Center spent the weekend inside and outside of the convention center, engaging cosplayers and posting pictures of their cosplay isn’t consent sign wielding supporters to their Instagram.

I couldn’t help but ask if Maria had heard any horror stories from the cosplayers she was engaging with throughout the weekend. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, at least in regards to Pensacon 2016. “I’ve had a few people tell me about things that happened to them at past cons, but nothing negative has been said about their experiences Pensacon.” That’s a relief!

After speaking with Maria, I began to notice the efforts that Pensacon was making as well to provide a safe, inclusive event. Not only did the Lakeview Center host a vendor booth right across the street from the con in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza, but Pensacon had set up “safe zones” throughout the convention center for not only people that were feeling uncomfortable, but for attendees that needed a quiet place to process any anxiety or negative feelings.

As a final thought, I had asked Maria if they were planning on frequenting any of the other Florida based cons, like Megacon in Orlando, or Supercon in Miami. Unfortunately, she informed me that they would most likely be sticking exclusively to Pensacon as it is essentially held in their backyard. In my experience at cons, I had never felt more comfortable and at ease with a crowd of people. I firmly feel that Lakeview Center’s presence made a huge difference in the mood that people were entering the convention. Although Maria and the representatives from Lakeview were incredibly friendly, their message was firmly planted for every visitor to Pensacon: COSPLAY ≠ CONSENT.

Photo by Christopher Brown