This isn’t a post I wanted to write. In early April, I wrote a 900-word letter to the chairs of Wiscon 38 in hopes that, not only would I not have to write this post, but I would be able to write a much happier post instead. The letter started:
I am, of course, writing to you about Jim Frenkel.
I’m a long-time WisCon attendee, although I haven’t attended the last two years due to a scheduling conflict. I still consider WisCon one of my “home” cons even though I live in Minneapolis.
I’ve also been in the middle of the sexual harassment storm in the atheist and skeptical movements. I led the push to get policies in place for our conferences. I’ve consulted with organizations writing policies. I’ve written extensively about the topic. And I’ve both whipped up and eased anger on the topic as I felt it was appropriate and could be productive.
So when I say WisCon is headed for an internet explosion, I both know what I’m talking about and am invested in heading it off. I’ve been talking to several friends who have received their programming information, and the chatter isn’t pretty, as I’m guessing you already know. I would much rather see WisCon be an example of what to do right than end up a patch of scorched earth. To that end, I’m offering some unsolicited advice and some help to make my recommendations easier to follow if you think they have merit.
The rest of the letter consisted of three specific recommendations and a template for a statement proactively addressing the return of Jim Frenkel after a harassment complaint last year led to the sharing of additional harassment complaints* and ultimately Frenkel’s parting ways with the publishing company for which he had long been an editor. I sent the letter because friends had noticed Frenkel’s name showing up in the preliminary programming for this year. They had written to the co-chairs or to the concom (convention committee) and not been pleased with the responses they received.
So I put in hours of work on that letter and statement, covering both the possibility that they were lacking only in communication and the possibility that they hadn’t worked the decision through in an organized fashion. I did some of the work they would need to do in order to get ahead of the problem and offered to do more or to find them a person acceptable to them who would. I didn’t insist that Frenkel not be allowed to return, but I did make it clear that they would need to be able to explain their decision if he came back.
This is the response I received a few hours after I sent my email.
Thank you for your input.
Piglet Evans, firstname.lastname@example.org
WisCon 38 co-chair
Frenkel was taken off of the panels he’d been assigned to. However, he was still allowed to volunteer in the con suite, where snacks and light meals supplement local restaurant fare for people who can’t afford the time or money to eat out all weekend. Another person who had been reported for anti-immigrant harassment at a prior con was unexpectedly found to be working registration.
Additionally, it came out that another person had reported Frenkel in 2013 for harassment that was possibly gender-based but not sexual in nature. When she inquired why Frenkel was attending Wiscon this year, she was told that Elise had requested that Frenkel not be banned from Wiscon. This created some bad feelings toward Elise until it was straightened out (the sort of thing I had warned against), then additional bad feelings against Wiscon afterward.
In short, there is almost no way in which Wiscon did not screw this up. They are in the apologies and action stage, but it remains to be seen whether they can pull themselves out of the hole they’ve dug themselves into. I honestly don’t know. They’ve lost people, even at great cost, for next year. They’re going to have to show a Readercon-level commitment to getting things right in order to pull the majority of those people back, and there are some they’ve already lost forever.
Because Wiscon is still one of my home cons, and because I would still rather see them get this right than fail, here is some more unsolicited advice for the concom and the subcommittee that’s been formed to deal with these protracted issues. I don’t know whether they’ll take this to heart, but I do know I’ll be unhappy if I don’t at least offer it and give them a chance to get this right.
So how should event organizers deal with people who have been reasonably found to have harassed one of their attendees (hereafter referred to as “the harasser” out of convenience rather than any essentialism)?
We are accustomed and encouraged to use frames of reference in thinking about harassment that aren’t helpful, so let’s clear a couple of those up right off the bat. Harassment is not an “interpersonal issue”. Having your boundaries violated is not something a person does. It is something that is done to them. When someone says how they want to be treated (either verbally or through body language) and this is ignored, this is a unilateral action on the part of the person who chose to ignore their boundaries. When things outside the bounds of the broadest social norms or outside of a local code of conduct are done to people without them being consulted, this is a unilateral action on the part of the person who took action without consulting the target of that action.
Treating harassment as a back-and-forth between two people simply because it requires that two people be present elides the one-sided nature of these interactions. It elides the responsibility of one person who acts on another to be aware of how that action will impact the person it targets.
Worse, it places some of that responsibility on the person acted upon, the person whose boundaries—stated or reasonably assumed—were violated. It says that either the target of the harassing behavior had an obligation to stop the behavior themselves or that it is reasonable for another person to assume they consented to whatever happened. When we’re talking about code of conduct violations, this means that treating harassment as an interpersonal issue is telling people that it would be reasonable to assume they consented to being the target of racist or sexist remarks, consented to being followed or photographed, consented to being touched—simply by attending your event.
If you’re going to treat these things as reasonable assumptions when it comes time to evaluate a complaint, they shouldn’t be listed as code of conduct violations in the first place. If your intent is to create a space where anything should be expected to happen, a code of conduct is false advertising. Don’t treat someone who relies on your code of conduct as though they’ve done something wrong.
Additionally, a harassment investigation is not a criminal case. You, as event organizers, are not the government of a country, a state, or even a city. When you investigate an allegation of harassment, you are not interfering with anyone’s liberties or rights under the constitution. You are determining who will and who will not attend your event.
This is true however your investigation and decision comes out. If you bend over backward to give the accused the benefit of the doubt and end up allowing a harasser to continue to attend your event, you will lose attendees who feel that harasser has now been given official permission to continue. These people are innocent of violating your rules, but that doesn’t keep them from being excluded by your decision. This is true every bit as much as if you exclude someone who is innocent of harassment on the basis of an unfounded accusation.
So, all that said, how do you go about determining when a harasser can rejoin your community?
First off, stop asking that particular question. We don’t spend time agonizing over when “that person who set off the fire alarms and caused an evacuation” or “that person who held someone’s head under water in the pool” gets to come back. This is not about the harasser and their needs. Harassment is a health and safety issue, and you’ll get a whole lot further if you treat it like one.
Wiscon is moderately famous for another health and safety issue that occurred six years ago. Given that the issue was a particularly aggressive outbreak of norovirus, they should be infamous for it. Instead, they took the problem seriously from the moment they knew about it. They set up an epidemiological survey on site (using the expertise of an attendee, if I recall correctly) to identify whether the virus had a single source. They restructured how food was delivered in the con suite the next year. They added a programming item the next year to educate people about norovirus.
When the issue was a virus, Wiscon acted promptly. They used the expertise that was offered to them where they didn’t have it themselves. When they changed con suite procedures, they fixed structural issues that might not have been related to the outbreak but could still put people at risk. And they treated the whole thing as a matter of broad interest to the community in their communications afterward.
I don’t have a health or safety issue from the last couple of years to compare reactions to, but Safety has been one of the more robust areas for Wiscon for a long time. I don’t believe this has decayed recently. That leaves two possibilities. The first is a catastrophic failure at the top, among the group to which Safety reported issues for final decision-making, which would likely have produced visible problems with other areas of Wiscon this year. The second, more likely, possibility is that harassment was neither viewed nor treated as a health and safety issue.
I’m sure there are readers at this point who still don’t understand why harassment short of assault would be considered a health and safety issue if no one was physically injured, so I’ll break it down briefly. The mild forms of harassment are still stressors. They still make their targets outsiders, less than human beings with full agency in the spaces in which the harassment occurs. They require that not just targets, but the entire classes of people who tend to be targeted, make decisions bout how to navigate these spaces in ways that allow them to remain safer.
Even before we get to behaviors that (nearly) everyone agrees constitute sexual violence, even before we talk about the fact that the presence of harassment reasonably makes people question whether they’ll be subject to to violence, sexual harassment not only adds to people’s stress–a health issue in and of itself–but it requires people to spend their limited time and energy to protect themselves. We would not tolerate events held in places that required participants to track down safe water for themselves, whether or not the water at a venue was ultimately safe to drink. We don’t allow fake weapons for cosplay to be carried in a way that may threaten people. We don’t have any better reason than cultural inertia to make a special allowance for sexual or gender-based behavior that is stressful and threatening. That just isn’t what safety means.
Now, once you’ve decided to treat a harassment claim like any other health and safety issue, your main decision still remains. Do you or don’t you allow the harasser to remain at or return to your event? There are two main factors in deciding.
- Do you reasonably think the harasser will continue to violate your code of conduct?
- Will your guests reasonably feel safe if the harassers remains or returns?
The trick, of course, is defining “reasonably”. We’d all like to think we’re more reasonable than we are. Still, it’s possible to work through these issues.
What kinds of things make it reasonable to think a harasser will stop? Here are a few:
- They were unaware that their behavior was a violation of your code of conduct. This could be true if your code of conduct is not well publicized or the language is vague or ambiguous. Of course, if this is the case, the behavior in question would also have to be reasonably acceptable outside of your event. For example, groping someone, trapping them, and screaming in their face are all broadly condemned even outside of areas with codes of conduct. No one should be reasonably unaware that these behaviors are unacceptable. If the behavior in question is the sort of thing that would be hidden from bosses, organizers, or the respected voices of the community, a harasser doesn’t have a reasonable case that they “just didn’t know”.
- They express understanding of their behavior and remorse about it. In the case of honest miscommunication that results in harm to one of the parties, the person who caused the harm should also be upset. They should accept that what they did caused harm, and they should want to prevent causing more harm by repeating the behavior in the future. If they aren’t remorseful, then they consider their original behavior to be justified and are more likely to repeat it.
- They understand and accept the consequences that apply to their behavior. This is sometimes easier to see in the negative than the positive. Someone who argues that they shouldn’t receive consequences or, worse, that you “cannot” apply consequences to them feels entitled to your spaces and your events. They don’t see that their access is legitimately tied to and dependent on their good behavior. This can be a particular problem when a harasser is friends with decision-makers. Communicating to that friend that what is happening needs to be taken seriously is far more difficult in that situation than it is when it’s not mixed with cozy interpersonal relationships.
- They don’t have a pattern of unacceptable behavior. One event may be a fluke. More than one event, even if every one of them is a “miscommunication”, points to an underlying problem. In order to reasonably believe that a harasser’s behavior will change in these circumstances, you’ll need to see some kind of evidence that the underlying problem has been addressed.
Notice that I suggested you should apply a different standard to guests at your events than you apply to yourself as an organizer (feeling vs. thinking). There are two reasons for that. The first is that, as an organizer, you’re privy to more information about a harassment complaint than your guests are. The second is that your guests have signed up for a different kind of experience than you have.
When you agree to organize an event, you take on extra responsibilities that your guests don’t have. They’re at your event to have a good time, socialize, and (depending on the nature of your event) learn something. You’re there to facilitate that. This means you take on a responsibility to consider their experience as it is, not as you think it should be. In other words, you may feel that your guests or potential guests are being irrational about a situation, but that won’t stop them from deciding they don’t want to show up. People get to stay home if they want to. It’s up to you to make them want to attend instead.
What kinds of things make it reasonable for guests to feel safe with a harasser attending your event?
- They trust you to handle violations of the code of conduct promptly and fairly. People are more comfortable taking risks when they have backup. Attending an event with a harasser is a risk. If you ask them to take that risk for you, you have to show them that you’ve earned that trust.
- They can avoid the harasser at little cost to them. This gives people control of their interactions with the harasser. If you put the harasser in a position of authority or require people to interact with them in order to access a service at your event, they won’t feel they can maintain their safety without unreasonable costs. Volunteer-run events sometimes argue that they need the volunteer, but I’ve yet to see one account for the volunteers they’ll lose by handing power (yes, volunteer positions involve some degree of power) to a harasser.
- Their prior interactions with the harasser are not painful to recall. To be blunt, you may well have to choose between having a harasser attend your event and having the person or people they harassed attend. Dealing with memories spurred by seeing one’s harasser, or someone whose harassing behavior you witnessed, does not make for a pleasant event experience. If people don’t want to cope with that, you can’t require them to. Attempting to shame them for it won’t work and will only lead to the impression that you care more about the prestige or financial success of your event than the people who make it what it is.
- They know what to expect. Surprising your guests with the attendance of someone they believe to be a harasser is not a good idea. Yes, your hands are tied with regard to how much information you can safely share about a harassment investigation and follow-up without incurring legal liability. Nonetheless, issues that get broad attention, as so many do right now as we figure out as communities how they should be handled, will require basic communication now or more communication in more detail later. If you have the staff to handle a storm of bad PR, you should have the staff to get out ahead of the problem.
That isn’t a long list of requirements for successfully reincorporating a harasser into a space they’ve abused. As much as some people like to suggest that nothing a harasser can do to be allowed back, these are not impossible hurdles. That doesn’t mean they’re not tricky to navigate in practice, but the principles that make people likely to be safe in reality and make them subjectively feel safe are not rocket science. They don’t require divination. They don’t require reading people’s minds or bowing to unreasonable demands.
And if you’re an organization facing these problems and feeling like you’re swimming in treacherous waters, there are people who want to help. We’ve been working on this issue, in our organizations or with multiple organizations on a consulting basis. We are invested in people starting to get things right. We want the good examples for everyone to follow. We want good decisions that, while they aren’t going to be comfortable, are going to make things better for all the people who aren’t part of the problem.
Let us help you get things right, because ultimately, it’s going to be you who bears the blame and criticism if and when you get it wrong. You can’t afford that anymore, not even if you’re Wiscon.
* Disclosure: I did not make a harassment complaint to either Wiscon or Tor, though I did blog about my own experiences with inappropriate behavior by Frenkel. They helped establish a pattern of behavior (three or four other women had experienced the same thing), but they didn’t themselves rise to the level of harassment in my opinion.