On a brisk January evening in New Orleans, a crowd gathers. They point, take photos, plan for the spectacle they’ve anticipated for weeks or even months. It’s Wizard Con—for local geeks, it’s the Big Dance. Fans plan their photo ops and cosplays strategically, making the most of this one weekend when they know they’re surrounded by people like them.

Cons are a unique environment—one that tolerates, even encourages, the weird or defiant. For young women, this is an opportunity to literally and metaphorically let their hair down: to engage in and act out their fandom. For some, this is a chance to embody the characters who represent an inner part of themselves—maybe a part that they don’t reveal anywhere else.

The women I interview know the con attendee archetype. They talk about the olden days when basement dwellers emerged to ogle their fantasies live and in the flesh.

While female-identifying participation has grown, the traditionally male environment has caused problems with harassment and even assault. Findings like this 2014 surveypublished by Bitch magazine—and events like the 2013 Aki-Con where a guest DJ sexually assaulted a minor—led to the con community stepping up awareness. The “Cosplay is not consent” movement gained notice in 2013, after Elizabeth Schweizer (aka Sushi Killer) wrote about it on 16 Bit Sirens. It led to many events adopting publicized codes of conduct and taking other measures to make sure all attendees feel safe and welcome. Although Wizard Con itself did not have this signage, the women I interviewed all knew about it and appreciated the deterrent—although they didn’t feel it was necessary. There used to be a problem, they said, and now it’s fixed. But as they talked about their con experience, it was less clear: Has awareness brought about real change? Or is it a veneer of concern that covers a still-present issue?

“It used to be a problem”

Women attend cons in groups. You notice after a while that you seldom see any who aren’t with at least one friend. Part of that is because it’s a social event. Chelsea, 29, and her friend Zataia, also attend Comic Con in New York and San Diego, as well as Dragon Con in Atlanta. They met because they kept running into each other at midnight showings of geek movies. Ty, 36, the third member of their group, says she wanted to attend cons for a long time, but was reluctant to do so alone. “I didn’t want to go by myself,” she says.

Safety was a concern, they tell me. Chelsea thinks it’s more of a problem for those who are well-known in cosplay. “With having a name comes harassment,” she says. “Fans think they have a right and it’s like no, absolutely not.” A cosplayer herself, she says that people still have issues with boundaries. Zataia also says that she’s run into attendees who ask personal questions and ignore cues to back off. “It’s like, I see you and I’m giving you an opportunity to apologize before you keep being a dick about it,” she says.

“I try to be nice”

The posters and codes of conduct have increased awareness, which makes some attendees feel safer. The young women think that the signage is an improvement: forewarned is forearmed.

But sometimes women are followed around by male attendees. Kyrsten, 18, who says that her cheerleader cosplay is sexier than what she normally wears, has a way of handling this. “I try to be nice, let guys take the picture, and move on,” she says. Being nice, it seems, is how to deal.

The women I interview know the con attendee archetype. They talk about the olden days when basement dwellers emerged to ogle their fantasies live and in the flesh. There is no doubt that the spectacle of cons is intense—people are there to see and be seen, as demonstrated by that Thor taking a picture of that Picard, or the Eleventh Doctor posing with Belle for Scully’s Instagram. It’s a big, colorful mass of fandom—but there are rules.

Olivia, 22, and Kendra, 24, say that the rules help. “Generally, I feel more comfortable here than in the general public,” Olivia says. “I feel looked after. I feel like the community makes it safe here.” Still, Olivia says she was “hesitant to wear anything revealing” and Kendra, who did take the plunge and is rocking a full-on Poison Ivy cosplay, says that she didn’t have any concerns about harassment beforehand. “Not until I got here,” she says.

“It’s not a petting zoo”

“One of the first people who wanted to take a picture kind of…” Kendra pantomimes someone beckoning her over. “He said, ‘Give me a pose.’ Then he went around behind us and…took a back pic.” They roll their eyes, suggesting it was a minor annoyance. But it obviously took the bloom off the rose, even if it was just in that first moment of entering the world of con.

Photos seem to be a problem across the board—there is agreement that you should ask before taking the picture. Kendra and Olivia agree that the attendees who don’t cosplay are more problematic, but Kendra feels that there’s a subgroup that tends to be less respectful overall. “It’s the old ones you’ve got to watch out for,” she says. Maybe this is a carryover from the good old days—a lack of understanding that the times have changed. Although their avoidance might apply to anyone over 30, there has been an uptick in the number of attendees who are older than 55. The event director for New York Comic Con and Chicago’s C2E2 said in 2016 that the Chicago event had seen a 60 percent increase in this demographic. That’s a lot of “old ones.”

Photos also present an opportunity for unwelcome contact. Many people complain about wandering hands or overly close posing. Chelsea, a cosplayer, says, “People used to touch my hair a lot. It’s not a petting zoo, don’t stick your hand in my hair.” She also says that, while she hasn’t dealt with outright groping, she has had to fend off unwanted touching, even if it’s ostensibly about her costume.

“If you go to the root”

I talked with a young woman who said that when she was a freshman, she came to her first con dressed as Poison Ivy “and it was fine except for this one guy.” She didn’t elaborate on this, except to say that she didn’t recover from the experience until a woman dressed as Black Canary came over to help her. “It’s like women have supported other women in cosplay, and now men are, too,” she said.

Not all women at cons are in costume, and those who are adopt looks from full-coverage (think Professor McGonagall) to minimal coverage (think Underoos stretched to fit an adult). Olivia—who said that she purposely chose more-conservative costuming—says that she thinks there is a problem extending much deeper than a low-cut top. “If you go to the root, why are girls given teeny tiny costumes?” she says. “Why are we [female characters] dressed so revealingly? Guys don’t have that objectification.” Indeed, in a day spent walking the convention center, I encountered one guy in a cosplay that was clearly intended to show off his body—and he was drawing in participants at the booth for Sci-Fi Speed Dating.

Women are leveling the numbers of con attendees, especially for those focused on sci-fi and fantasy. If they start demanding representation of female-driven and female-created comics, books, TV shows and movies that place less emphasis on overt sexuality, perhaps the marketplace will help to reinforce a bottom-line message: we can be this, but we can be much more than this as well.