Elise Matthesen Guest Post: What Happened After I Reported

ETA: Comments are open.

[This post is written by Elise Matthesen, in regard to her experience reporting Jim Frenkel for sexual harassment last year. It is being simul-hosted by a number of other sites.

I'm going to be afk for much of the afternoon, so comments will be disabled until I have time to moderate them.

The "I" in the following post is Elise, not me. I am hosting it here on her behalf.]

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What Happened After I Reported

Last year at WisCon 37, I told a Safety staffer that I had been treated by another attendee in a way that made me uncomfortable and that I believed to be sexual harassment. One big reason I did was that I understood from another source that he had reportedly harassed at least one other person at a convention. I learned that she didn’t report him formally, for a lot of reasons that aren’t mine to say. I was in a position where I felt confident I could take the hit from standing up and telling the truth. So I did.

I didn’t expect, fourteen months later, to have to stand up and tell the truth about WisCon’s leadership as well.

More than a year after I reported, following an outcry when WisCon revealed that they had lost other reports of misconduct — and after the person in question had not only attended WisCon 38 but had been one of the volunteer hosts in the public convention hospitality suite — WisCon appointed a subcommittee to investigate my report, along with others they had received about the same person, and to determine what action would best benefit WisCon.

That subcommittee made their statement on Friday, July 18. Their decision seemed to focus on the rehabilitation of the person, and to understate the seriousness of the conduct. I found their decision inadequate and troubling, and could not understand how they had arrived at it. A week later, on Friday, July 24, I compared notes with Jacquelyn Gill, a member of that subcommittee. (I am incredibly grateful that she made a public statement about her experience on the committee, which allowed me to reach out to her.) We discovered to our mutual dismay that WisCon leadership never gave her all the details I had reported as evidence upon which she could make her decision. Instead, WisCon leadership gave her a version that watered down my account of the harassment, including downplaying the physical contact significantly enough to make the account grossly misleading.

I don’t know whether the relevant details were removed or summarized away from the report I made, or were never written down in the first place. As yet I have seen no evidence that the safety logbook itself contains them. I wonder whether the chairs at WisCon 37 were ever even given the details.

When the subcommittee was formed this year after WisCon 38, Debbie Notkin chaired it. While I can see the sense of having the Member Advocate – which was also Debbie — participating in the subcommittee, I was shocked to learn after the decision that the Member Advocate was also the chair of the subcommittee. To my way of thinking, that was a clear conflict of interest which I would have balked at, had I been informed. Still, since she was present when I reported in detail, I can’t imagine why she didn’t see that the watered-down summarized version presented to the subcommittee was materially different than what I reported. Despite that knowledge, she allowed the subcommittee to base their decision on inadequate and frankly misleading information. And the subcommittee cooperated with that. The subcommittee performed no follow-up with me or the witnesses, or with other reporters and their witnesses.

What has happened here is beyond my comprehension. People other than me will have to figure it out and do whatever needs to be done. I hear Ariel Franklin-Hudson has built improved systems for collecting information on incidents, and that’s needed, but what went wrong here is deeper than that.

A proper harassment investigation takes some thought and training, but it is well within the abilities of a good-faith WisCon committee to conduct one. Experts who train people on harassment investigations emphasize the essential elements of an investigation: (1) act promptly, (2) gather all existing written information and reports, (3) based on those, thoroughly interview the complaining witness, the accused, and any witnesses to the complained-of conduct, (4) ask those witnesses for other witnesses or evidence (like documents) that might help illuminate the situation; (5) document what you learn and maintain control and privacy of the documents, and (6) make a decision based on all of the information that you’ve gathered in a methodical and effective way. WisCon, instead, lost reports of complaints, selectively interviewed only the accused, failed to conduct follow-up interviews with complainants and other witnesses, and failed to probe whether the reports on which they relied were complete or accurate. In other words, in addition to disputing the result, I think that the process was haphazard.

I will not blame Debbie for everything that went horribly wrong, because this isn’t just one person. Debbie made a grave error of proper investigation and decision-making, but this is not just Debbie. This is the safety chairs who didn’t investigate further. This is the con-chairs who didn’t follow up and didn’t ever interview me and Lauren. This is the subcommittee members who didn’t push further and contact me and Lauren and Mikki. This is lots of people, some unwitting, some just preferring not to look at the ugly stuff, not to learn something that would require that they confront someone — or confront their principles.

This is a system. And it is fucking powerful and it is fucking broken. I’m not the only one who’s said so. I don’t like putting these details out here. But this is all I have left to do, at this point: stand up and tell the truth.

I would prefer that what this has cost all of us not be wasted. If you care about WisCon, rebuild it. I wish I knew how. I’m at my limits. But as Kameron Hurley said,

“There’s a future that needs building, but somebody who’s actually courageous and principled needs to take up the fucking spade and build it.

“Is it you?”

You’re going to fail no matter what. Make your damn choice.

So, this ate my morning:

Storify my conversation on Twitter.

Tl;dr, Having a harassment policy is a basic first step. IMPLEMENTING it is going to be harder.

Conventions are fan-run, volunteer things. We have the problems of a conference AND the problems of a family. We are not trained detectives, or judges, or victim advocates, or forensic investigators. (Most of us.)

Do banning policies work? What is the goal? Life-bans inhibit reporting, we KNOW this. No bans leave harassers free to continue. Partial bans force conventions to be parole boards.

Here’s the takeaway, and I truly want you all to take this into your hearts:

Every convention EVER from here on out will piss people off with their harassment policies and enforcement.

EVERY ONE. ALL OF US. ALL OF YOU.

We have to decide which way we want to fail.

Do we want to allow probable harassers in our conventions, and defend everyone’s right to presumed innocence and evidentiary rules?

Do we want to blacklist and ban people on hearsay and rumor, and protect abused victims at all costs?

Do we want to strike a middle ground of calm reasonableness, and offend everyone on every side through milquetoast half-measures?

Take your pick.

No, I mean it. Choose how you are going to proceed and fucking proceed.

Someone will rake you across the coals no matter WHAT you do. So pick a damn position.

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We have got to be better than this

Executive function, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is that part of the mental and cognitive load that handles high-order decisions. Executive function includes the ability to categorize things, to recognize similar features, to establish hierarchies, and to make decisions. Executive function is the thing that runs out when, at the end of a long day, you find yourself unable to decide between pizza or Chinese delivery for dinner.

Executive function is what lets us make the hard decisions.

Now, I always liked to think of my executive function as somehow separate from my feelings. (Of course, personally speaking, I like to think of EVERYTHING as separate from my feelings. But that’s a different topic.) I liked to think that I could make decisions based on facts and values, and that my feelings in the matter would not make a difference in the outcome.

This is silly. I was wrong.

When Elise Matthesen reported Jim Frenkel to Wiscon staff for harassment, I had lots of feelings. Elise is a friend. Frenkel had made many of my friends uncomfortable over many years. I knew where I stood. What I felt like doing and what I believed to be the right thing to do were in alignment. All my decisions were easy ones. There was no strain on my executive function.

When it came clear that Wiscon as an institution had not handled the harassment in ways I supported, I felt more conflict. I am friends with the people who run Wiscon. I wanted to believe better of them. I … didn’t want to call them out. I wanted them to take better actions without me having to say anything negative. Knowing what I wanted to do was in conflict with how I felt, and it made the decisions harder.

I said recently that I know my generation has come into power because we are the ones screwing up.

And yet.

And yet.

And yet we have to be better than this.

The fact that it is hard does not mean we can avoid doing it.

The fact that implementing sexual harassment policies is difficult, the fact that it involves our friends, neighbors, coworkers, or loved ones, does not remove from us the burden of making the effort.

We must change our culture. We must stop supporting harassers and abusers. When we find them out, how do we prevent them from causing further harm? When they have apologized, made reparations, expressed contrition, and effected personal change, how do we let them back in? We must let our communities know that we will investigate harassment reports responsibly. That there will be appropriate consequences.

We all have to do this together, whether or not we are on concoms and boards. We all have to educate ourselves on appropriate actions, on reporting, on supportive things to say to victims of assault and harassment. We can be a part of the process. We all have to decide to be better than we are now.

I know it’s hard. It strains the executive function, trying to figure out what to do. But we can be better than this.

Think of the last convention you were at.

A sexual assault occurs on average every two minutes.

How many people were at this convention? How many minutes did it encompass?

How many people were sexually assaulted at the last convention you attended?

Groped. Verbally harassed. Grabbed. Touched. Intimidated. Threatened. Forced. Raped.

Every two minutes, remember.

Tick, tick.

We have got to be better than this.

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Wiscon Panel Proposals!

1. Wiscon 38 is May 23-36th this year, in Madison, WI.

2. Programming at Wiscon is created by the convention attendees.

3. Register for the convention. Then go to My Account. There will be a section, “Program Suggestions Submit an idea for WisCon 38 & SFRA.” This is where YOU, Wiscon Attendee, can suggest the sorts of panels YOU want to see.

4. Panels are collated and then voted on by the community. All attendees get to say which panels they 1) want to be ON, 2) want to moderate, or 3) want to ATTEND. Panels get selected based on interest. (With some exceptions for events that just get grandmothered in.)

5. I pitched a number of panels so far. There is no guarantee whatsoever that any of these will be selected, of course. But I am excited!

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A couple things on my return

1. I am returned from Geek Girl Con!

My convention report is, erm, abbreviated, because I did something godawful to my back on Friday and by Saturday afternoon I was spending most of the convention in my hotel room, in a hot bath, with my girlfriend fetching me ibuprofen and tea.

However! A few observations.

I have no insider knowledge of how Geek Girl Con is run. I don’t know any of the organizers. But, damn, y’all, that operates like a finely-run fan convention. It was like a professional media or comic-con, except run by cheerful, enthusiastic, friendly volunteers who all cared enormously about what they were doing.

The thing I will remember most about Geek Girl Con is how HAPPY everyone was to be there, how HAPPY everyone was to see everyone else and to all be doing this awesome thing, together, at the same time.

2. Pretty Deadly #1, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles, comes out tomorrow. I’d be ever-so-pleased if you could pick up a copy. And perhaps give the title a pre-order. It’s a good story, gorgeously told. I highly recommend it.

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Things, in a list

1. I liked this post on Nerd Fitness about how to look like a celebrity in a big action movie. I don’t know about you, but I need these sorts of reminders from time to time.

2. I will be at Geek Girl Con in Seattle, October 19-20! I hope to see many of you there!

3. I also liked this ranting post from Stumptuous about things a person might want to consider by age 40. Yes. A person might want to consider those things.

4. I like this Melody Pond fanvid:

I Tremble | Melody Pond, by catminolte. Music “Help I’m Alive (Dubstep Remix)” by Metric.

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Virtual Micropolis

As some of you may know, the adults I live with, Tern and Cavorter, are very into Lego. Specifically, they build and display micropolis standard cityscapes. (Other things, too. But micropolis is the subject of this post.)

The purpose of the micropolis standard is to allow builders across the country or world to work on an urban landscape project together, sight unseen. The modules meet certain standards of conformity. When micropolis builders come together at Lego shows or events, they buildings fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, revealing a hither-to-unsuspected city.

Here in the Twin Cities, Cavorter and Tern are being asked more and more frequently to bring their micropolis modules for display at various events. This afternoon and evening, Micropolis will participate in the re-opening of the Saint Anthony Park Public Library. As more people see Micropolis, they have questions, and want to know more. To meet this desire for further information Cavorter and Tern have put together Virtual Micropolis.

Virtual Micropolis is still a work in progress. The entire collection of micropolis standard modules existing in our house has not yet been cataloged. But if you have found yourself wondering what the heck micropolis is, the module list is a fun place to start.

And if you’re in the Twin Cities, might I recommend you stop by the Saint Anthony Park Library today, between 6 and 8 pm? Come on over, and see Micropolis for yourself!

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