Another con wrecked by casual sexism

You’d think people would learn: take anti-harassment policies seriously. They aren’t just well-meaning words that you post on your website to make yourself look good.

Odyssey Con, a science-fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin, is suddenly hemorrhaging guests-of-honor who are bailing out because a) a known harasser was working as the guest liaison, which is a bit like putting a pedophile in charge of the ball crawl at the playground, and b) the con administrators seemed to think they just needed to explain things carefully to the guests to make them change their minds, which makes it obvious that they are unclear on the concept.

It sounded to me like an epidemic of mere cluelessness on the part of the con, until I learned who the harasser was. Holy crap. It’s Jim Frenkel. This guy was a major blow-up in 2013: Frenkel was banned from WisCon for harassment. He was fired from his job as editor at Tor Books over these acts. How could you not know Frenkel was bad news, and how could you even consider appointing him to be a liaison with a woman guest?

There are two possibilities here. One is that SF organizers cannot remember anything older than 4 years ago (their childhoods must be great voids of memory, lost to them for all time) and they also don’t know how to use google, or some people at the con are consciously dismissive of harassment concerns and decided that this was the year they’d sneak their good buddy Jim back into the ball crawl, and hoped that all of those SJW pests had 4 year memory limits and were unable to use google.

Neither alternative speaks well of Odyssey Con.

You should also read this response by Brianna Wu.

What stands out to me the most in the whole harmful affair was a single line by Gregory G.H. Rihn, writing about “what would be fair.” He suggested a compromise between Monica and Jim Frenkel, the known serial harasser. In a world where sexual harassers are on one side, and women wanting to be treated with respect are on the other — women can never win. Rihn saw himself as an impartial observer, but he’s part of the problem in a way he can’t understand.


  1. johnson catman says

    Looks like a perfect opportunity for the sad puppies et. al. to make a resurgence. (PUKE!)

  2. Alverant says

    Con staff are volunteers. My bet is a bit of both from your suggestions. Some may not have thought to check the background of their fellow staff members while others may have dismissed the seriousness of what Frenkel did. Also they may have felt that after four years he deserved a chance to show he changed. I don’t follow Frenkel so for all I know he’s doubled down on trying to justify his behavior. There’s also a lot of politics involved (speaking from personal experience). Staff who objected to Frenkel were likely ignored because one or two people really pushed for Frenkel.

    “he’s part of the problem in a way he can’t understand”
    Then someone needs to explain things to him until he does understand.

    I was considering going to Odyssey Con next year. Now I may have to re-think it.

  3. says

    Read Wu’s article. One of our big problems is that people take this attitude of fairness and apply it unfairly: bend over backwards for the poor accused guy, demand that the victim also do the same retro-contortion. I could see it if it were ONE incident and the accused was contrite, but when it’s a whole long serial history of the same problem, same person, you need to stop tying yourself in knots to make excuses for him.

    The “volunteer” excuse is old and tired. Yes, they are. But there is also a tremendous amount of institutional memory in the management of cons, precisely sculpted to accommodate the use of volunteers. With a few exceptions, they’re ALL volunteer-run and have been this way for decades.

  4. says

    And there should really be some solid requirements before giving someone another chance with this. The conference guests (and staff) deserve “a chance” (more like a guarantee) to have a good conference, too.

  5. Allison says

    It’s also worth noting that sexual harrassment was at one time considered “part of the fun” at SF conventions. Isaac Asimov was in particular famous for groping women, with other con goers holding the woman so she couldn’t defend herself or get away. Granted, most of the women in question didn’t find it fun at all, but in those days, women weren’t considered part of the SF community anyway (cf.: Rabid Puppies), so who cared? (Where “who” was of course defined as male since women weren’t people, just accessories for men. Cf. “the Playboy philosophy.”)

    It’s only been in the past 10-15 years that women have begun to more or less successfully push back (I can’t help thinking that the availability of the Internet for organizing played a role), so it’s not surprising that there are large parts of SF fandom that still thinks that what Frenkel et al. were doing was just “part of the fun” and that those who are complaining are just killjoys. But as PZ points out, in contrast to Asimov’s day, there’s been enough noise about previous blowups that we know that they already knew that people might object. But that hasn’t stopped them; they’re going to keep on having their “fun” until no one will let them any more. They need to be sidelined and, if necessary, banned.

    Rape culture is hard to extirpate, and I suspect that this particular struggle won’t be over in my lifetime or yours.

  6. Ogvorbis: A bear of very little brains. says

    Alverant @2:

    “he’s part of the problem in a way he can’t understand”
    Then someone needs to explain things to him until he does understand.

    But, but, but, if someone explains the problem, and explains it in a way that he understands, he might have to change the way he does things. And we all know what happens when men are asked to change the way we behave, right?

    We have volunteers where I work. And it seems like, about every four or five years, we have to learn the same lesson about volunteers. Yes, they are volunteering their time, knowledge, skills and abilities, to help us fulfill our mission. Yes, some of them are quirky, weird, odd, or just plain strange. And yes, some of them do, and say, things that are not acceptable in a workplace environment. And about every four of five years, we remember that, yes, we can fire volunteers. And we do. And then we forget about it.

    This is where policies come into play. Not just policies for those attending the con (or visiting the park (the visitors are not handed the policies (called the compendium at each park) but we do post safety and firearms information everywhere), but policies for staff — paid and unpaid. And both paid and unpaid staff can be disciplined if they fail to follow the policies.

    We also have a great deal of institutional memory at my park, and in my organization. In my office, we have over 100 years experience as park rangers. And we have to be so, so, so careful to both listen to new ideas without dismissing them (hey, I’ve been here almost 26 years, if this was a great idea we would have thought of it long ago). And we also fall into the institutional memory trap of, well, we’ve always handled it this way.

    What we forget, quite often, is that what was acceptable a quarter-century ago may not be acceptable today. In the early 1990s, no one would have raised an eyebrow if a serial harasser volunteer for a convention was given a second chance. Or a third. Or a tenth chance. That has changed. Harassment, for many of us, is no longer a wink, wink, nudge, nudge, ‘hey, don’t do that’ thing. Nor is casual misogyny. Or bigotry in any form.

    I’d be willing to bet dollars to donuts (it is a local thing and I don’t understand it either) that those running this con are trying to run it the way they remember it from way back in the days when they were the front line volunteers. But they need to learn that (1) times have changed, (2) you can’t sneak your buddy the harasser back in without consequences, (3) you can fire volunteers, and (4) institutional memory has good points and bad points.

    I have no idea whether or not the decision to employ Frenkel as a volunteer was intentional or an oversight. The decision to make slightly more than half of the human population potentially feel unwelcome even after the problem is pointed out is intentional. Which goes to show that even someone who may not be a misogynist can still be part of the problem.

  7. bryanfeir says

    Oh, hiring Frenkel was intentional all right. Take a look at K. Tempest Bradford’s take:

    Quick points:
    One of the other OdysseyCon committee members, and president of the corporate board, Richard Russel, was removed from the WisCon concom at the same time for being abusive towards volunteers and other concom members. (Note: not banned, no matter what Richard kept telling people; just removed from the concom.)

    Gregory Rihn, mentioned above from Brianna Wu’s take, was someone who stood up at WisCon the next year and defended Richard based on an extremely twisted account of what had actually happened that cast Richard entirely as the victim.

    This isn’t a case of a few bad apples, this is a case of rotten to the core as all of the people who were being kicked out of other cons for bad behaviour found a place where they could have each other’s backs.

  8. feministhomemaker says

    This invisibility of women and our need to be free from sexual harassment in work spaces in the minds of so called progressive men is very similar to their cluelessness regarding our need for abortion access. We stay invisible–our economic need for abortion access never enters Bernie’s economic mind. He is willing to negotiate away our bodily autonomy as just one issue we progressives must be flexible on while his own economic issues are non negotiable and no one who crosses his pet issues can be a progressive! And wouldn’t you know it, women’s economic concerns about abortion access are not part of his issues!

    We are invisible to so many progressive men, when it comes to sexual harassment and when it comes to this, abortion access. I am so sick of the double standards.

  9. Alverant says

    I stand corrected then. The concom knew what they were doing and didn’t understand the ramifications of their actions. No doubt many of them consider themselves the victim. It’s really too bad because it will only discourage people from involving themselves in cons and that’s bad long term.

    In my experience in working with a sci-fi con you have the “old guard”, the people who have been in the same key positions for years or pass the positions around a cliche of people. It’s hard for new people to break in or do anything more than be a back-up. Worse, is the lack of communication and documentation. There was a lot of [this person] has to do [position] because they’re the only one who knows how to do it. That’s where the “volunteers” problem comes in. It’s hard for some cons to fill all the positions because of the lack of volunteers so they have to take what they can get. And you can’t hold the “old guard” accountable because if they leave other people would leave too and the con can’t replace them quickly. It’s a community and as such resistant to change.

    What all cons need to do is document everything. No one should be indispensable. Anyone from the chairman to the gophers can be replaced with minimal disruption to the con. But that’s work and few people want to do it. Ideally the whole staff can be replaced at once if necessary.

  10. bryanfeir says


    And you can’t hold the “old guard” accountable because if they leave other people would leave too and the con can’t replace them quickly.

    And based on K. Tempest Bradford’s piece I linked above, a chunk of the Wiscon concom did leave when the concom voted to kick Richard Russel out for his abusive behaviour. Of course, balance that against the people who had previously left because of Russel’s behaviour…

    And, really, it sounds like the only reason Russel’s behaviour became a topic of debate was somebody pointing out that it was rather hypocritical to kick attendees out of the convention for activity that someone on the concom was also guilty of.

  11. Usernames! (╯°□°)╯︵ ʎuʎbosıɯ says

    Read Wu’s article.
    — PZ (#3)

    One of her key points was something that keeps coming up: others see themselves in the perpetrator’s place (“there but for the grace of god go I”) and so THEY would want a second chance if/when it happened to them.

    Much like the suckers who support the GOP: they might be rich some day they think, so best to give the rich all the tax breaks and concessions.

    My view: ban the fuckers forever. You lacked enough home training to recognize other people’s boundaries, then fuck off. Learn your lesson and go find another org to join, hopefully with the understanding that your behavior determines your future participation.

    And you can’t hold the “old guard” accountable because if they leave other people would leave too and the con can’t replace them quickly.
    — Aleverant (#10)

    Nope. You don’t fix broken windows by leaving them broke. You throw away the broken ones and replace them. Those who love broken windows can go to BrokenWindowCon — filled with idiots just like themselves.

    B-b-but we’ll not have enough people to volunteer/greet/speak/workshop, you cry. The solution is to recruit a better class of people and raise the standards.

    And when you lose the losers who want to hold you back? Take a lesson from Coach Carter:

  12. DanDare says

    On the same site l recommend the Quantum Ogre articles you will find in the big site index.

  13. DanDare says

    Actually similar subject. I run an open table D and D session twice a month at a shopping mall. Yesterday we had 14 players 2 experienced DMs abd one novice DM. We have to work out how to be welcoming and inclusive and deal with immaturity physical and mental difficulties and the occasional bigot or harrasser.