Last Memorial Day weekend, I headed up to Wisconsin to attend my very first WisCon. WisCon is a feminist sci-fi convention held each year in Madison, WI. I cannot even begin to tell you how mind opening my first WisCon was. The panels at WisCon went far beyond Feminism 101. It challenged the way I think about certain types of pop culture and even helped me identify some of my own biases on race and culture that I can work on fighting now that I am aware of them. WisCon also has one of the most well-written anti-harassment policies of any con and makes it clear at the con that no harassment will be tolerated.
I’m telling you all of this so that you understand why I was so devastated to hear that WisCon broke their promise to create a safe space for attendees. Simply put, WisCon let a known harasser, someone who was reported by two different women the previous year, attend WisCon38 and even volunteer in the con suite. This not only created a lot of stress on the women he has harassed in the past but created a situation where he was free to harass new and unsuspecting women who mistakenly believe that WisCon is a safe space.
If you want a longer version, my friend Michi wrote about it over at her blog Geek Melange. No seriously, go read it. It’s a detailed account of all the ways WisCon failed in their handling of harassment reports and really cuts to the core issues.
This whole situation really got me thinking about the rise in anti-harassment policies at geek, skeptic and atheist cons. Many of the writers here at Skepchick have written in the past about anti-harassment policies and much of that revolves around the language used and content in the policy itself. What types of harassment are covered? How do you make a report if you are harassed? What will happen to a person who is harassed? The hope is that a well-written policy that addresses these issues will discourage harassment from happening in the first place and create a culture of respect among attendees.
We can evaluate the content of the policy and determine the general rate of harassment and culture by attending the con, but what we can’t do is test the con’s methods of dealing with harassment that actually happens and this is where many cons end up failing. Unless you attend the con, are harassed, and then make a report, you have no idea whether the con staff will actually take the complaint seriously or try to sweep it under the rug. Even if a con is generally good at dealing with harassment complaints, what happens when a report comes in that names a harasser that has connections with the staff at the con as happened in this WisCon case? The con may claim that everyone will be treated equally, but it’s impossible to know for sure until it is tested.
WisCon did come out this week and state that they will be banning harasser James Frenkel from all future WisCons. Although I’m glad they finally came to the right decision, it’s criminal that it took them over a year to get there. When a con like WisCon blunders in their response to a harassment complaint, it can often create even more stress for the person who made the report than the original incident of harassment. The two women who reported their harassment at WisCon37 should have never had to think about it again. They shouldn’t have had to worry about running into their harasser at WisCon38 because he never should have been allowed through the door in the first place. It shouldn’t have taken them over a year of fighting for WisCon to finally do something to address their reports.
Back at Chi-Fi 0 in Chicago, I was on a panel discussing anti-harassment policies and I told the audience that if the methods a con or event has for dealing with harassment create more anxiety for the victim than the actual incident of harassment, you’re doing something wrong. At the time, I said this referring to an incident that happened to me a couple years ago at TAM where the security hired by the event pressured me into reporting a minor harassment incident, took me into a storage closet and questioned me about the incident until I cried, then told me I couldn’t tell anyone about them or their questioning. It all seemed suspiciously like an overreaction meant to protect the event organizers rather than the attendees. You can have the most well-written anti-harassment policy of any con ever, but if a harassment incident is reported to you and you conveniently ignore it to avoid dealing with the fallout or if you make the response to a report so traumatic for the victim that making a report is just not worth it, then your well-written anti-harassment policy is insufficient.
Having a good policy on harassment is wonderful but it’s only the first step and means nothing without good implementation. My hope, because I’m nothing if not a naïve optimist, is that publicizing huge fails in the execution of policies by cons such as WisCon will help bring to light problem areas so other cons can avoid the same pitfalls. I want to go to WisCon next year and have as good a time as I had this year. I won’t go though unless I believe that they’ve fixed the holes in their implementation of their anti-harassment policy, and even if I believe they have I won’t ever know for sure unless another incident happens