Procedure Fail: WisCon, Feminism and Safe Spaces

This is a crosspost from Hoyden About Town.

Many SF fans are very disappointed that a serial harasser was allowed to attend WisCon 38 despite reports against him laid during WisCon 37, and that the official response to much criticism during and since the convention has been to provisionally ban him for a few years rather than ban him in perpetuity.

Readers who are already part of SF fandom have probably seen a lot of this WisCon 38 fallout already, and there is a great deal of related/background reading that might seem daunting to those anyone who hasn’t heard about this at all (I certainly haven’t read everything myself), but this situation is worth people outside SFF reading about because one of the major revelations that has come to light about how/why this was mishandled so badly was that decision-makers were not made aware of nor did they factcheck all relevant information before reaching their decision: precedents regarding a similar situation at a different convention in recent years that was mishandled in a way that should have made WisCon more alert to avoidable mistakes,  past accusations/confessions against/from the accused, details of reports from accusers in this situation not conveyed, the accused was given further followup and input into the final decision but the accusers were not, and claims about legal obligations made by the accused have since been revealed to be false.

Since this sort of institutional memory-holing of relevant history regarding serial harassers and non-transparency of procedures to the accusers is precisely the sort of social convention that serial harassers rely upon in order to keep getting away with what they do, alongside the fallacy that harassers are obvious deviants who could never be part of my well-ordered community (when in fact they are commonly those with the well-liked/respected status to be given the benefit of the doubt when/if reports are made against them), it’s worth reading about the mistakes of communities with which one isn’t familiar so that one can learn about patterns to watch out for and procedural standards which need to be known and practised by decision-makers.

Geek Melange: Debunking the Fairy Tale of WisCon, Feminism and Safe Spaces

I’d fully intended to have a glowing, gushing and rather fangirlish entry about my WisCon experiences up within a week of returning from the con, but that cold bug decided to fight eviction for nearly a month, things at work got busy and life generally got in the way.

And then the first rumbles of “All was not right in the state of WisCon” started showing up on my radar.

[…]

If there’s one advantage to how technology has changed the way we communicate, it’s that news no longer stays buried until long after the initial furor has died down. In response to public demands for accountability and an explanation of what in the hell the Subcommittee was thinking, the news that’s been coming in a steady and quickening pace from within the ConCom and Subcommittee about how the Frenkel decision was made has been more than a little disturbing. Not only were some of the committee members unaware of the particulars of the ReaderCon/Valentine/Walling situation and how that provided a roadmap to avoid repeating their mistakes (one of the results being the entire board resigning because they had messed things up so badly that nothing they did would be trusted by the community), they were unaware of the sum total of Frenkel’s behavior and history because that information had been cherry-picked by the person who was appointed as the Member Advocate and ostensibly supposed to be advocating for Frenkel’s victims. Further, Jankowski and Matthesen were not followed up with during the process, nor was their input solicited regarding the Subcommittee’s decision before the decision was announced – but guess whose input was solicited instead.

Frenkel asserted during his interview(s) with the Subcommittee that due to a NDA with his previous employer he was not allowed to speak publicly about anything related to his departure from their employment, and that this precluded him from addressing or even apologising for his actions. This factor was apparently crucial in the Subcommittee’s decision to make the ban only provisional and subject to reconsideration upon expiry of this purported NDA, but the Subcommittee reportedly never checked with the employer whether Frenkel’s assertion was true before making their ruling. Surprise – it wasn’t true.

A known harasser, someone who has been an industry missing stair for decades, whose questionable work history has led to many who worked with him as their editor to ask each other, “Have you been Frenkeled yet?”, who claimed contrition for similar actions in 2010 but apparently didn’t actually learn anything, who had the arrogance to show up at WisCon 38 to “prove he did nothing wrong,” lied to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. 

I am Jane’s total lack of surprise.

Elise Mattheson has just had a guest post published at several blogs about her perspective on the procedural failures at WisCon since she first submitted her report on Frenkel’s harassment. Unsurprisingly she has lost a lot of trust in the competency of WisCon to responsibly and transparently deal with harassers so that con-goers are adequately safeguarded.

The Geek Feminism Wiki: Jim Frenkel at WisCon 38 has a comprehensive outline of the situation with links to many responses/analyses. Those who wish to learn more about relevant patterns/precedents/procedures regarding other harassment events in a variety of communities can check the GF Wiki’s Incidents page for frequently updated information.


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10 comments for “Procedure Fail: WisCon, Feminism and Safe Spaces

  1. EG
    July 31, 2014 at 6:08 am

    There’s also a lot of useful info in the comments on this blog post. It’s worth noting that the blogger followed up with a pretty comprehensive apology.

    It’s also worth noting that one of the main players in this business, Debbie Notkin, has guest-blogged for Feministe, so it’s good to see the site addressing this comprehensive and utter meltdown.

  2. Matthew
    July 31, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Thanks for this tigtog – I’ve been following this on Natalie Luhrs blog in the last week or so, and it’s very depressing how WisCon responded.

  3. Donna L
    July 31, 2014 at 11:55 am

    I will never understand how a group composed of intelligent, feminist women could have reached such a decision and prioritized the potential “redemption” of an unquestioned male abuser over the safety of the women he harassed.

    • Jenna
      July 31, 2014 at 12:48 pm

      I am saddened, but not surprised. This sort of procedural train wreck happens all the time. Just because we are supposedly Feminists doesn’t mean we aren’t soaking in cultural garbage and also capable of completely fucking things up at least occasionally.
      Just because there might be a procedure in place doesn’t mean anyone has had practice with the procedure or practice in enforcing the procedure.
      Someone might make the decision to not “bother” or “inconvenience” someone, with the evil result of a harasser getting to testify and not his victims. Someone could have assumed that the evidence on hand was enough, but, the result was that the person who got to testify was the person believed. (slightly off topic-this is why successful uses of the stand your ground laws are always when the person who was shot is DEAD. No competing narrative being given by a live person)
      The testimony of victims and witnesses may have been paraphrased, and the person doing so may have(possibly without meaning to) changed the wording in such a way that it reduced the impact. Not having the witnesses and victims there giving their own testimony may(must have) have reduced the impact substantially.
      People in general want to believe the best of people, and the redemption narrative is STRONG in our society, especially for white men. How many bad guys made good can you list in just Hollywood movies?
      Once again, there may be a procedure, but, it may not be enough of one. The victims and witnesses SHOULD HAVE BEEN INVITED TO TESTIFY. Regardless of anyone’s convenience, they needed to be able to tell their own stories to the decision makers. As humans we are so dependent on narrative to make sense of the world and I think this would have made a huge difference if the harasser weren’t the only person available to actually speak.

    • Jenna
      July 31, 2014 at 1:14 pm

      Oh, and!
      It was a disciplinary committee, instead of a safety committee.
      If you are focused on the “justice” aspects of it, instead of the safety aspect, then you do all sorts of things to make sure that you aren’t punishing someone more than is just.
      If you focus on the safety aspects, though, you are mostly concerned with the safety of the con goers, and removing one person from a once a year event permanently seems much more reasonable.
      This isn’t a criminal justice trial where someone will go to jail even for a day. This is a decision on whether a person will be permitted to attend or assist in running a once a year event.
      The focus could have been on the safety of people at the con. This would have been better. Frenkel’s possible redemption is irrelevant.

      • August 2, 2014 at 12:25 am

        It was a disciplinary committee, instead of a safety committee.
        If you are focused on the “justice” aspects of it, instead of the safety aspect,

        This is such a good point. Thank you!

    • July 31, 2014 at 3:47 pm

      I will never understand how a group composed of intelligent, feminist women could have reached such a decision and prioritized the potential “redemption” of an unquestioned male abuser over the safety of the women he harassed.

      I have only heard of this case today from reading this article, but it seems like tigtog is saying that said feminists were not basing the ‘provisional’ nature of the ban on his potential redemption, rather they were basing it on the erroneous information that the abuser was legally unable to defend himself. Yes, as she points out, they did not have to take him at his word about the non-disclosure agreement, but from what I’m picking up in my brief assaying of this case today, ultimately it’s the same as a permanent ban if he provides no evidence that he wasn’t actually guilty of harassment. I don’t believe the provisional ban takes into account any remorse or redemption.

      • EG
        July 31, 2014 at 5:30 pm

        That’s what they’re now claiming; it’s not what their decision actually said.

    • Angel H.
      July 31, 2014 at 4:13 pm

      C’mon now, Donna. You know better.

      • Donna L
        July 31, 2014 at 5:50 pm

        Good point!

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