WisCon, Harassment, and Rehabilitation
On Friday, WisCon posted a statement that read in part:
The WisCon committee has completed our harassment review process with regard to Jim Frenkel, who engaged in two reported violations of WisCon’s general and harassment policies at WisCon 37, in 2013 … WisCon will (provisionally) not allow Jim Frenkel to return for a period of four years (until after WisCon 42 in 2018). This is “provisional” because if Jim Frenkel chooses to present substantive, grounded evidence of behavioral and attitude improvement between the end of WisCon 39 in 2015 and the end of the four-year provisional period, WisCon will entertain that evidence. We will also take into account any reports of continued problematic behavior.
Natalie Luhrs has posted a roundup of some reactions. There’s a great deal of anger and frustration over poor communications, procedural failures, and more. I’m still reading, but my initial reaction is that the whole thing has been a mess that went rolling down a hill of mistakes, snowballing into a giant boulder of crap.
I’m still catching up on the conversation, and a lot of people have weighed in more thoughtfully and eloquently than I could. (See Natalie’s roundup for links.) One thing I wanted to talk about, however, was the “provisional” aspect of WisCon’s statement. Because my initial gut-level reaction was that it seemed reasonable to allow for the possibility of growth and change.
A little while back, I responded to an article titled, “The Naive Idiocy of Teaching Rapists Not to Rape.” The thing is, rapists can learn not to rape. People can and do change, especially when they’re confronted with consequences and forced to look at their own actions.
I’ve worked with college students, mostly men, in an early intervention program where we tried to help people recognize and change their own aggressive, boundary-crossing, harassing behaviors. I’ve sat in on batterer’s groups. I’ve spoken with pedophiles after their release from jail. My wife has designed and run domestic violence groups. My father spent much of his life working with juvenile offenders who had committed assault, robbery, rape, and more.
People can change. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Our behavior changes throughout our lifetime. We learn new habits, new values, and new choices. I’ve said and done things in the past that I wouldn’t dream of doing today, because I’ve learned better. We all have.
Does that mean all rapists and harassers will come to see the error of their ways if we only give them another chance? Of course not. Some people go right back to the same pattern of hostile behavior. But others can and do come to recognize the harm they’ve done to others, and find a new path.
I believe very strongly that there should be consequences for our actions. But I also believe in education and rehabilitation.
I don’t know if Jim Frenkel will ever truly accept responsibility for what he’s done, or if he’ll change a pattern of harassing behavior that goes back decades. He seemed genuinely remorseful when he spoke to me about this several years ago, but his behaviors didn’t change.
I hope this time is different. I hope the consequences of his loss of employment and being banned from his local convention force him to confront his choices, and that he comes out a better man.
The problem is when we choose to make his growth and change more important than the safety and security of his victims and potential victims.
When you’ve wronged someone and they throw you out of their life, you don’t get to force your way back in to prove that you’ve changed. You don’t get to violate their boundaries because you want to apologize. If the wronged party chooses to forgive and to allow you back into their lives, that’s one thing. If they choose not to, then you need to accept that loss as a consequence of your actions.
WisCon banned a known serial harasser on a relatively short-term “provisional” basis. While I share the same philosophical hope and belief for change, they’ve taken the choice away from his victims.
WisCon is not a judicial body. They are not a rehabilitation program. In my opinion, they are not qualified to judge the sincerity of serial harassers, many of whom have spent years or decades learning to hide their behavior behind the mask of the “nice guy.” Their job is to investigate complaints, and when those complaints are found to be valid, to take steps to protect their membership.
Protection for Frenkel came in the form of WisCon’s investigation process. I believe every complaint should be investigated and decided based on evidence and testimony. In this case, there have been multiple people reporting incidents, with multiple witnesses backing them up. According to the WisCon Harassment Policy, Frenkel also has the right to appeal the decision. Again, I think that’s reasonable.
But throughout this process, despite what I believe to be the best of intentions in a difficult and ugly situation, WisCon has failed to protect its members.
July 22, 2014 @ 11:27 pm
Thanks for this, Jim. I struggle with the knee-jerk reaction I tend to have of “no more, never again” when, in all honesty, that does exclude the possibility of growth and change. It precludes rehabilitation in favor of a purely penal system. But couched in these terms, we do have to weigh the needs of the victim higher than the needs of the offender. That helps make some sense for me of the consternation I was feeling.
July 23, 2014 @ 12:32 am
I once made a very bad choice and revealed some thing I should not have. It lost me a friend I valued a great deal. It also taught me not to do that again, and it have been extremely diligent about respecting privacy and confidences. In other words, I learned from my mistake and rehabilitated myself. Yay me.
I do not expect that former friend to give a shit. My bad choice had very bad consequences for her, and they were not at all her fault. Just because it’s been 34 years since so disastrously violated a confidence doesn’t mean she owes me forgiveness or a place in her life.
In fact, one of the things I owed her was working out my redemption (such as it is) well away from her. I lost a few mutual friends who got tired of having to segregate me from her in their dealings with us. And that was appropriate, too.
I know from other mutual friends that the person most badly hurt by my actions has gone on to have a good and largely happy life. I am glad. I have been told that said victim believes she, also, learned some important lessons from the incident. I am glad, too, that it wasn’t merely an awful experience for her, that some good came out of it for her, too.
Rehabilitation is fine, and admirable when it occurs. But even though I consider myself completely different from the person who fucked up so spectacularly, among the many reasonable and just consequences of my behavior is that I lost friends. Just because I have consistently avoided a repetition of that behavior does not somehow randomly impose some obligation on anyone else to read it me to those social circles, to acknowledge my growth and change, or to pander to me in any way.
Assume Jim Frankel changes and rehabilitates himself. That would be awesome for him and even better for the people he does not harass after his rehabilitation. It still doesn’t earn him a damned thing with regard to the people he has already hurt and the places he has already made unsafe. Tor is not obliged in that case to rehire him. He has no right to demand that all his prior victims acknowledge his reform and give him a cookie. And he is not entitled to return to spaces he has defiled.
Having screwed up big time is a lonely place, as it should be. Just managing to make yourself better and to keep from acting that way going forward does not, cannot, and should not be expected to, undo what harm has been done.
July 23, 2014 @ 1:47 am
I don’t understand why WisCon brought themselves into that situation:
a) By limiting the ban to four years, they assume an automatic rehabilitation after that time. How can they assume that?
b) Calling the ban “provisional” makes it sound like “not a real ban”.
c) The phrasing of “We will also take into account any reports of continued problematic behavior” seems to exclude evidence of previous incidents and “problematic behavior” is also not the best choice of words.
They made their decision complex and invited criticism and misunderstanding. I am very in favour of the idea of rehabilitation and forgiveness. But i do not think it an automatic process.
If i were in their placed and wished to entertain the possibility of rehabilitation, i would have phrased it like “Due to violations of our harassment policy, X has been banned from Wiscon for the time being. X may appeal this decision. The decision may be reviewed upon request. In that case, interested parties will be invited to present evidence and opinions on why the ban should be upheld or lifted.”
July 23, 2014 @ 6:34 am
I was on the other side of a situation like SorchaRei’s – I argued with a friend in high school and she (and, as a result, my other two best friends) stopped speaking to me. Forever. It didn’t start out as that big of an argument, but it…escalated somehow. Unfortunately, she wasn’t as aware as SorchaRei and when we ran into each other several years later, she told me that she had matured and wasn’t that person anymore and wanted to be friends again. It was HER FAULT because of HER ACTIONS that we stopped being friends in the first place, and somehow she thought I should care that she said she had “matured” and “changed”?
No. It’s nice to hear that she won’t do that to anyone else (assuming it’s true), but it’s got absolutely nothing to do with me.
I suppose I should be “over it” after all these years, but seeing her name brings up all the old memories, which I found out when she sent me a “happy birthday” message on facebook this year. I have trouble believing she’s changed that much after all, really, since she seems to think there’s a time limit on “no, I don’t want to be friends”.
July 23, 2014 @ 12:51 pm
My impression of the WisCon mess is that having a sexual harassment policy and a means of taking reports is meaningless if you don’t also have the infrastructure, policy, and procedures for following through on those reports all the way through a resolution of the incident and, where applicable, implementation of the resolution.
Symbolic opposition to harassment in the form of an official policy may show good intentions or attempt to define a convention’s opposition to harassment in principle… but if a harasser simply shows up again at the following year’s convention, is on staff hosting the con suite, and is scheduled for programming (and only removed after specific protests are made), etc…. Then that convention is no different, in any realistic or practical sense, from a con that has no harassment policy at all.
I think the whole sum of the missteps at WisCon demonstrate that writing a “we don’t accept harassment here!’ policy is just for show unless you do the roll-up-your-sleeves work of ALSO setting up the structure, policy, and procedures to DO something about it if/when a harassment incident is reported at your con.
Every con that has a policy statement against harassment ought to be looking at itself right now to determine if its got the means and methods in place to back up that well-meaning statement.
Jim C. Hines
July 23, 2014 @ 7:03 pm
Yes! This was something that came up at Detcon this weekend. (Where several of us commented on a noticeable lack of Laura Resnick, by the way!)
A harassment policy is good and important, but you also have to have the process/procedure sorted out so that the con staff knows what to do when that policy is violated. I believe Tim Miller was the one who brought that up, though I’m not 100% sure.
Short version: Yes, what you said.
July 23, 2014 @ 8:01 pm
Laura Resnick was at home with a VERY overdue book and two suicidally reckless kittens who, for the time being, cannot be left alone for a MINUTE. (One of them dismantled an upstairs window and fell out of it–a 20 ft drop. The other tried to hang himself.)
Jim C. Hines
July 23, 2014 @ 8:03 pm
I saw your post about the one that jumped for it, but not the other. What happened?
One of my cats managed to get himself tangled up in the cord for the blinds when he was about a year old. Scared himself and me half to death.
July 23, 2014 @ 8:35 pm
Jim wrote: “I don’t know if Jim Frenkel will ever truly accept responsibility for what he’s done, or if he’ll change a pattern of harassing behavior that goes back decades. ”
Well, as the moment, “accepting responsibility” is certainly being questioned.
Amidst all the WisCon deliberations and explanations, the reason given for the “4 year” provisional ban is that Frenkel told the subcommittee (they say) that he is restricted by the terms of an NDA/severance agreement with Tor/Macmillan which prevents him from apologizing for the harassment incident for a period of 5 years from termination (i.e. 4 years from now).
Well…. in light of various discussions since then, someone on the subcommittee which made that decision this week decided it had been a mistake to take his statement at face value. She got in touch today with the legal dept at Macmillan, which responded to her query by saying: “”There is no agreement between Mr. Frenkel and Tor that would prevent him from making an apology.”
Here’s a link to the Tweet:
The opinion circulating now is that Frenkel lied to the committee in order to avoid apologizing.
In any case, whatever his motives, what he reputedly told the committee is certainly inconsistent with what Macmillan Legal has told this committee member.
July 23, 2014 @ 8:41 pm
Because these two keep getting outside (by dashing under my feet, when not flinging themselves from windows), I got ID collars for them. I found Achilles sliding down my 19 steep Victorian stairs, on his back and head first, strangling and wheezing, with his jaw being held wide open by the collar he’d apparently tried to take off before falling over backwards in a long, long plunge down the stairs.
Then Hector tried to drown himself in the toilet–while it was in use.
The kittens are much less physical work than Snap was, but quintuple the stress.
July 23, 2014 @ 11:19 pm
Yes, Frenkel is showing himself to be the classic compulsive predatory harasser. Which wouldn’t have been necessarily a horrible problem now if WisCon followed their harassment policy. Instead, they “lost” reports, sat on talking to any witnesses about the complaints and further evidence people had from the past, invited the guy to programming, then the con suite where he could welcome female authors he harassed in the past, lied about being able to ban Frenkel and one of the claimants not wanting him banned, formed an unnecessary sub-committee just for him, gave him probation with the right to appeal it, didn’t check a thing he said until there was outcry, and now have lost a whole busload of authors and their fans for future cons, plus further exposed themselves to a future lawsuit. Which is very similar to what almost happened at Readercon.
People can change, but compulsive behavior is very hard to change, especially when it involves compulsively lying, and people enabling and excusing your compulsive behavior. Frenkel is a danger to himself, a danger to female authors and vendors trying to do their jobs, and a danger to cons who allow him to roam their halls, and he’s not going to get any help for himself if the harassment policies aren’t real. Because cons ignored his behavior for twenty years, the man lost his job and cons lost attendance. If you are a big, commercial, multimedia con like San Diego ComicCon or DragonCon — which was sued — you can handle it maybe. But the non-profit, smaller lit cons are basically digging themselves into the ground.
There are a number of people in deep pain over this right now. I hope they get more support than rape threats.
July 24, 2014 @ 3:07 am
I pray for the victims and their families. It is my hope and prayer that they won’t be victims again. I also hope that somehow someday there will be a way to truly rehabilitate the individuals who have done the heinous crimes so that they won’t hurt anyone again and that the powers that be will be able to recognize those individuals who are not a threat anymore and will recognize the ones that for some reason can’t change and will not let them be able to be in a position to hurt anyone again. It is truly a sad situation. I lived down the street from a person who seemed to be “normal” but turned out to be an extreme pedophile. He was charged and had his day in court. He cried and seemed to be truly ashamed of what he had done. He spoke openly about his feelings and not being able to stop even when knowing the whole time what he was doing was wrong. He asked the court for help and leniency. He is still in prison, he has lost everything. But he does get counseling and medication. I don’t have any answers but Its my personal opinion that after sentencing, there shouldn’t be any other contact between the victim and the person who hurt them. That person should stay out of their life they had violated it enough. Thanks for listening.
Ps. On a side note… both of you Laura Resnick ( I love your books!!!! Esther Diamond totally rocks!!!) And Jim I really like your new series… Libriomancer was Awesome!!!
July 24, 2014 @ 9:29 am
Jina, glad you enjoy the books! 🙂
And RE your imprisoned former neighbor–it must have been shocking and scary to discover you lived down the street from a child molester. Scariest of all when you realize someone doing what he was doing could indeed seem like just a regular harmless neighbor on occasions when you encountered him. We think of such people as walking around with the mark of Cain emblazoned on their foreheads for everyone to see; but, of course, they tend to be very practiced at hiding their crimes and staying off the radar. It’s precisely why they can continue doing what they’re doing–they work at hiding it and at not attracting suspicion.
Debunking the Fairy Tale of WisCon, Feminism and Safe Spaces | Geek Melange
July 24, 2014 @ 4:40 pm
[…] the damage from the unclear wording was done. Further, the entire decision bafflingly seemed to put Frenkel’s possible redemption front and center, rather than the needs of the people he har… – both those who spoke up and those who have not. In the words of Natalie Luhrs (who’s […]
WisCon: The Frenkel Decision — The Radish.
July 24, 2014 @ 4:57 pm
[…] WisCon, Harassment, and Rehabilitation (added 7/24 pm) […]
July 24, 2014 @ 5:24 pm
There is a fairly simple (and better in my mind) way this could have been handled.
–At this time, Mr. Frenkel has been banned from attending WisCon or any events related to or hosted by the convention or its attendees. In line with our policy, after a period of no less than 4 years, Mr. Frenkel may apply to the con committee for a review of this decision.—
This allows for the same exact outcome, except the burden of proof is on the offender to demonstrate change, and the committee 4 years hence could allow additional conditions on any ‘parole’.
July 24, 2014 @ 5:57 pm
I have mixed feelings on whether someone can change. Juvenile yes I believe they can be helped. Some rapists if caught early also.
Someone who has been predatory for 20-30 years who has been unofficially spoken to about their behavior numerous times and hasn’t changed it I’m less sure of. Even if they do they don’t get invited back. It doesn’t make sense to me as a con should be concerned with con-goers feeling safe and respected. Your a feminist con your focus should be on the harassed not the harasser.
I’ve been talked to about my behavior and I not only stopped it in that space but in other spaces even though at the time I didn’t feel the behavior was a problem. If it was perceived to be a problem then you stop it. That’s what reasonable people do.
In a different context (nerf balls in the office) I discussed them with staff. When new employees were brought onboard we let them know how they were used and if they seemed uncomfortable when in use I talked to them privately later and sometimes we discontinued use. They were in use at several of my workplaces as a good non-verbal way to get attention/STFU or say “stop bad behavior”.
July 24, 2014 @ 10:45 pm
I saw on Twitter the other day that someone recommended this link to the WisCon people for future reference:
I found it very instructive–and in a brief, clear style that didn’t involve hours of study. One thing I’ve realized while watching the WisCon incidents unfold and unravel is that prioritizing safety-from-harassment in the handling of harassment complaints is an unusual value system, an unusual procedure, and something that most people are comfortable with (even people opposed to harassment; and certainly people who think harassment is no big deal and that there wasn’t an actual problem if Frenkel, for example, didn’t get physically violent at WisCon, etc.).
Prioritizing protection from harassment can and should still require being fair and thorough in the procedure… but it’s a different focus than what most of us are used to, comfortable with, and that most people think of right–which is focusing on how to be as fair as possible to the accused person: “Are we sure he did it? if we’re sure, how serious do we think it is? If we think it’s serious, what are our justifications for thinking of it that way? Do we think he’s remorseful? Can he convince us he won’t do it again? Does he deserve a second chance? Do his actions really merit ostracization? If so, why?” And so on.
The shift in focus described in that link instead frames handling the harassment complaint very differently: How do we manage this complaint to ensure our event/venue is safe from harassment incidents and harassers? How can we best ensure that this incident will never be repeated here?
The latter perspective is one that’s still uncommon, unfamiliar–and even uncomfortable for many people. And I think it has a lot of merit if your priority is to ensure a harassment-free venue. But that’s got to be clearly established as a priority, rather than just cited as one without the organization really thinking through what it means to PRIORITIZE it, i.e. put it FIRST before other considerations.
Tina Smith Gower
July 24, 2014 @ 11:13 pm
As a counselor (for kids, not adults) I had the opportunity to rehabilitate a number of maladaptive (?) personalities from an early age. I’d agree that with kids it’s a different story than adults (although I choose to believe it can still be done). First step is that the person who was the aggressor has to believe/accept they did something wrong.
One concern I have (from my perch far away from these incidences) is that certain personalities get very upset over any public negative reaction and it seems to become a “game” to “win” or a political battle of some kind. A lot of times people feel they’ve also been wronged or unjustly accused of something without being allowed to explain. I think for some people they just want validation that they’re not evil and that becomes so important they forget the pain they’ve caused. “My pain cancels out your pain.” I wish that some people could allow for their ego to take a break for just a moment. An apology can go a long way. An apology is not an acceptance of admitting evil, it just means change is possible. People want to know that the person’s sole purpose in life is not to be a jerk.
July 25, 2014 @ 12:26 am
I have mentioned the ADA initiative to the person on the Wiscon Frenkel committee who has been so open about talking about how they went about making such a bad call. I’m not sure she caught the name/suggestion as she was being pretty bombarded at the time.
July 25, 2014 @ 12:39 am
In some cases an apology won’t be welcome. I believe this is such a case.
As someone who has been sexually assaulted I can’t say I’d appreciate an apology as much as the person staying away from the place he assaulted me and staying away from me. It would be great if the guys changed. But I don’t have a need to see or hear from them again. Their need is not relevant to my life. I believe the harm they did me trumps their needs. No I wasn’t harmed by Frenkel.
From what I’ve read by the people who reported him to Wiscon they have expressed many things about not wanting to see/be around him (matching my feelings).
Tina Smith Gower
July 25, 2014 @ 1:10 am
I’ve been sexually assaulted too–I agree that the reactions of the people affected don’t have to follow a standard way. The con should have handled the situation differently.
I still think an aggressor admitting wrong and then continuing to show actions of change is a positive step. I don’t at all believe this warrents any forgiveness from their victims.
Tina Smith Gower
July 25, 2014 @ 1:52 am
darn it! My comment didn’t embed under the post I was replying to. That’s what I get for doing it from my phone.
July 25, 2014 @ 9:01 am
I agree except in a case where the aggressor is know to apologize and/or admit wrong yet continues with the behavior. Showing change in actions is difficult to evaluate depending on their previous actions and how long a time period we are talking about for the change. I’m a bit harsh I know but I’ve seen a few too many “I’ve reformed” turn out to continue harass/rape (been the victim of such) just have become better at hiding behavior from public that my bar is a bit high when it comes to guys over ~30.
Jim C. Hines
July 25, 2014 @ 9:07 am
It’s a common phase in the cycle of domestic violence, for example. First you get the violence, followed by the apologies and the promises to reform — the honeymoon phase — which then cycles back into the abuse.
Tina Smith Gower
July 25, 2014 @ 11:17 am
That would be a definite example of a good exception. Definitely the pattern of a person who is gaming the system. My professional experience is mostly with kids and any adult work has been through volunteer experiences. As far as I’ve noticed, adult rehabilitation is different, but not as common, the one major issue being they’re not truthful in actually feeling they did anything wrong, or “it’s not that big of deal”
It takes years (if ever in extreme cases), to prove change, which is something we would remind the students we’d work with. This is something I should have clarified in my first post.
No problem, Tasha. I don’t think you’re harsh at all. I’m extremely cautious, too. I’ve been through the full spectrum of blaming myself and finding ways that I could have prevented what happened to me, before realizing I can’t control people’s minds. So I’m much more careful about what people I interact with. I don’t want my optimism for rehabilitation of adult aggressors to come off as a vote that any aggressor should be “given slack.” Just that there is a way to go about it and I believe it can be possible.
Tina Smith Gower
July 25, 2014 @ 11:29 am
On a side note:
Jim, I’ve heard from friends who work more closely in domestic violence cases that many times the aggressor is sincere in their wish to change (in some cases, yeah, this can be a person with other psychological issues, who’s found a way to work around the system, but I believe my friends assessment that a lot of these cases are people who truly are hopping for change in that moment). Not sure if this has been your experience, or if this again is wishful thinking. I don’t have much experience at all with domestic violence except personal (with friends). I think it would be one of the many things that makes it all the more difficult to convince a victim to leave the situation.
This might be way off topic since it’s my understanding from the comments above that Frenkel has made a effort to avoid apology. I have never met the guy, so maybe I’m being too generous in assuming he can change.
Jim C. Hines
July 25, 2014 @ 11:34 am
That’s certainly possible. It’s one thing to want to change, but if you aren’t actively learning alternate coping strategies and behaviors, you’re likely to fall right back into the same old patterns.
July 25, 2014 @ 2:12 pm
I’m sure many abusers “wish” the urge to abuse would magically disappear. I know a number who didn’t “want” to do the things they did but they also had no interest in getting help (pyscho babble).
So the apology is sincere and the “wish” to change is also sincere. It’s the willingness to do the work which was lacking.
July 26, 2014 @ 3:52 am
I’ve been thinking about this situation way too much, but among all the thing racing around in my brain, I keep coming back to one. “Member Advocate” is a 12-month position, whose brief is to advocate for Wiscon members. I keep wondering if this brief is part of the reason this situation went so far off the rails, even after people started trying to clean up the issues that happened in the first 10 months after 2013’s Wiscon.
Look, in 99.99999% of harassment and safety report at cons, it’s going to be one (or more) members reporting one (or more) members. So this “Member Advocate”, given the brief she actually has, is supposed to be advocating for all members involved, both reporter(s) and reportee(s). That’s a problem. The reporters needed someone advocating for them who was not also formally required to advocate for Jim Frenkel (also a member of the con).
I think, maybe, possibly, you can make a case for a 12-month “Member Advocate” position which has some brief like, “ensures that every person who makes a report, and who wants one, gets assigned a person whose task is to advocate for them during the processes that follow a report” or “makes sure that everytime there is a safety or harassment report, every involved con member who wants one, is assigned a person whose task is to advocate for them etc.” Maybe.
But the second you have a formal position that is supposed to advocate for all members, presumably equally, you are at the top of that slippery slope where investigative committees get named for the reportee, where the comfort of a harasser is valued at least as much (more even!) as the safety of the reporter, where investigative committees think that part of their job is to be concerned with rehabilitation and redemption.
Or maybe not. But this is where my thoughts keep landing.
A brief note of thanks | The Cafe in the Woods
August 6, 2014 @ 5:46 pm