Procedure Fail: WisCon, Feminism and Safe Spaces

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.

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, social justice

Tags: , , ,

8 replies

  1. I go to very few cons, but I did visit WisCon once years ago. I was so impressed by the egalitarian, considerate atmosphere, and by how much fun it was, I even wrote an admiring blogpost about it.
    The most surprising and repugnant thing about this whole crappy incident — aside from the crappy incident itself — is that it happened at WisCon. How was that even possible?
    I wonder if that was part of the problem for the various committees looking into it. Not that that’s any excuse. But I wonder if they weren’t sitting there in stunned disbelief. “Who did what? Here? Couldn’t be!” And then the old standby of committees everywhere kicked in: let’s do something half-assed and hope it goes away.

    • And then the old standby of committees everywhere kicked in: let’s do something half-assed and hope it goes away.

      Yep. Way too common in all sorts of orgs, especially those with a history of the co-founders being friends with all the extra feelpinions thus involved.

  2. There seems to me to be a bit of ‘these hysterical or lying women’ tang about it too. It seems strange that they asked the alleged offender and based their response on that rather than asking the victims for clarification if that’s what they needed.

  3. Mindy: I know a lot of the participants reasonably well at least in electronic form, and I am not getting that sense. Elise is herself a long-time, well respected fan (I still can not figure out why Frenkel picked her to harass, as he otherwise seems to have a superb knack for picking vulnerable newcomers).
    I am getting a lot of complete cognitive dissonance – the best I can come up with is that a whole heap of fans just cannot get their head around the idea that their friend is a harasser. I have a feeling that, watching this, you get some idea what might have happened in the church, or the BBC entertainment section, for so many years.

  4. Sorry AotQ, I didn’t mean to suggest that about the victims. I meant that I thought that must have been part of what made the people making that decision make the decision they did.
    Less garbled: that’s what the people making the decision thought (IMO) not what the victims actually are.
    My sincere apologies for not making that clear in the first place.

  5. I don’t think the people making the decisions thought the victims were lying or exaggerating. But there was a disconnect between what they thought of the victims and their decision-making. Probably because they had no experience or training to fall back on.
    I’ve been following this on Scalzi’s blog, and one of the commenters (Grace Annam) had a good point. When people are in stressful situations that they have no experience with, they often do things they would never imagine they would do in that situation and which don’t make sense, even to them (later.) She’s a police officer, and so has some experience in situations like that. She describes, for instance, people who are choking to death running away and hiding when someone asks if they can breathe.
    Her point was that you need training, especially walking through (and role playing) a variety of concrete situations. You need procedures, detailed procedures (which you revise as necessary based on previous incidents.) And you need people to understand that you have to follow them even when they think, “Oh, we don’t need to do _this_ Micky-Mouse step.” Being smart and/or caring are no substitute. Because in the stress and confusion of the moment, you can’t think clearly. As this incident shows.
    This is why airline pilots spend hours in simulators dealing with situations you hope never happen in real life. It’s why good police departments don’t just tell their officers how to handle situations, they _train_ them to handle them that way. (And do post-mortems on situations to see how they could have been handled better, and add that knowledge to training. Cf.: Attica Prison Riot.)

  6. Yes, I think it’s got to be something like AMM describes.
    Sorry Mindy, I didn’t think you were claiming the accusers like Elise were hysterical or lying, but that the committee might have thought they were. I still find that hard to imagine, because as mentioned, Elise is a fan of long standing and friends with the people who are making these incomprehensible decisions. (I can fully understand if she isn’t friends with them anymore!)

  7. Thanks AotQ and AMM for clarifying those things. I was looking for a rational explanation where none existed.

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