Sexism and Second Chances, by Brianna Wu
As we continue to see discussion and fallout surrounding Odyssey Con, it’s important to remember that these things don’t happen in isolation. While I wish it weren’t necessary, I’m happy to share this guest essay from software developer and Congressional candidate Brianna Wu, talking about some of the reasons we keep seeing this kind of mess with sexism and sexual harassers.
I want to tell you a heartwarming story about second chances. Last year, Google welcomed a developer named Chris onto their team. Chris is like a lot of men I know in the tech industry. He’s super geeky, white, male, just 28 — and has an incredibly irreverent sense of humor. He’s the kind of guy that would fit right in a Google — or really any other large tech corporation.
Just one catch. Chris had a bit of a misadventure as a teenager, launching a well-trafficked internet site where some pretty unsavory things happened. An encyclopedic list would take too long, but here are the highlights:
- The site was a haven for child pornography.
- A member murdered a woman violently, and posted picture of her strangled to death on the site.
- A transgender woman was outed and then bullied until she committed suicide.
- A breach of iCloud resulted in non-consensual sexual imagery of celebrity women to be spread through his site, most notably Jennifer Lawrence, who called it a “sex crime.”
- Prominent women in the game industry were relentlessly harassed through his site, resulting is several careers being destroyed — and unmeasurable personal harm.
I’m speaking, of course, of 4chan founder Chris Poole. Last year, after not being able to make money from his site, he decided to take a job with one of the most powerful corporations on earth. As I was one of the women who had been repeatedly targeted by 4chan, I was fairly incredulous, as were my fellow women colleagues.
Unsurprisingly, the white men in tech I know felt differently.
I’m not going to name names, but I had at least 10 conversations with colleagues in tech about Poole’s hiring. They felt it would be unfair to deny him a fresh start at a career. They didn’t want his past to haunt him forever. They saw 4chan as just a silly teenage hijink, something all in good fun. It’s hard to imagine, they saw parts of Chris Poole in themselves — and by giving him a second chance — they could give themselves a chance to clean up their own mistakes.
America loves second chances. But it’s hard to not notice that the main people that seem to get them are straight, white, and male.
This brings us Odyssey Con.
I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow, which has been written up here. But, long story short, the con had decided to let an extreme sexual harasser onto the programming committee. When guest of honor Monica Valentinelli was put on programming with him, she asked the con to step in. They wrote an amazingly condescending email back to her, at which point she withdrew from the con.
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.
And he’s far from alone. Or even, a particularly egregious example.
As a prominent woman in the game industry, I’m also married to four-time Hugo award winner Frank Wu — so I feel uniquely positioned between the tech industry and science fiction fandom. And while, I know it would shock some of you to think about this, the structural sexism is practically the same. Consider the following.
- Like the game industry, I am regularly asked to do programming at cons on my gender rather than my professional expertise.
- Like the game industry, I am regularly talked over by men on programming.
- Like the game industry, men generally talk to my husband and not me when we are in groups.
- Like the game industry, it’s the men in the field getting big career opportunities – and not the equally talented women.
- Like the game industry, no men I know will admit they are part of the problem.
- Like the game industry, the men in science fiction consider themselves impartial judges of structural sexism – rather than influenced by motivated reasoning.
- Like the game industry, there’s a lot of window dressing and very little examination of bias.
- Like the game industry, I regularly hear sexist, racist and transphobic jokes that make me blanch.
- Like the game industry, men that speak out about sexism are heroes — while women are put in a career box as a known feminist.
- Like the game industry, you have a hate group rooted in white supremacy — hellbent on establishing a golden age without diversity.
If the tech industry gets a D- for sexism, science fiction doesn’t deserve much better than a C-. Maybe a C+ on the good days.
This brings us to Jim Frenkel. His situation is no different than Chris Poole’s, albeit a lot less extreme. The men of Odyssey Con (and one woman is a position of power) were reluctant to exile him from fandom because if he were held to high standards, that would mean they or someone like them might be one day as well. So, he will get an ample supply of second chances, just like most white straight men in science fiction.
There are so many times in science fiction I hold my tongue because I don’t think anyone on programming would listen. Recently, I was on a panel with a rather prominent man in the game industry that made a wildly sexist remark about “banging whores.” I sat there for the panel, stewing, feeling like this inappropriate statement needed to be called out. I asked male friends about it later, who all told me to, “let it go.”
I realized it wouldn’t be worth it to fight that battle with programming, and it could burn a bridge with someone powerful in my field. Like most women, I fight these internal battles daily — and I lose a piece of my soul every time. I have to imagine Monica Valentinelli was fighting this same internal battle before withdrawing as guest of honor. Her comment about wanting to be known for her work rang so true for me. It’s the same fear all women feel when deciding to speak out, being shoved into a box that says loud feminist.
Our political system trains people to root for one side like a football team- everyone points fingers and no one feels accountability. For science fiction, there are plenty of men that vote Democrat and believe intellectually in the equality of women. They think that’s the end of the story. It is not.
You can either have a community where the Jim Frenkels are thrown out, or you can just admit all the talk about gender equality is window dressing.
Brianna Wu is a software engineer and a candidate for US congress in Massachusetts district 8. You can follow her on Twitter at @spacekatgal or on Facebook at Facebook.com/developerBriannaWu.
I Can’t Even | The Open Window
April 13, 2017 @ 4:28 pm
[…] I’m going to add this link to Brianna Wu’s guest column on Hines’ blog because it does speak to the wider systemic problem that created this […]
April 13, 2017 @ 5:25 pm
[I shouldn’t have to say this, but hateful comments from bigoted assholes will be removed. -Jim]
April 13, 2017 @ 5:25 pm
Thank you for discussing the bias in the tech industry. I’ve been asked whether I would encourage my daughter to pursue in tech. After working in that industry for almost 20 years, I can say emphatically that the answer is “no”. If it’s a fight she chooses to take on, I will support her, but I would never suggest that she step into the miasma of discrimination and denial that tech is for women.
It’s an odd dichotomy. I believe that women have to be present for the system to change. I have been present. I just can’t wish that same experience for my child. 🙁
April 13, 2017 @ 5:48 pm
Jim, can you kitten mallet the weird gamergaters? (first comment! I owe myself a twoonie)
Brianna, thank you for writing such an eloquent post. I really appreciated tying the current situation into the problems with the industry.
April 13, 2017 @ 5:56 pm
What sticks in my craw is when people who have done great harm are given a second chance without needing to demonstrate that they’ve learned anything from their mistakes. What has Chris Poole done to make restitution to those he hurt? What steps has he taken to change the toxic atmosphere he helped create? What these guys get isn’t a second chance; it’s a mulligan, a do-over. Wipe the slate clean; pretend it never happened. But for those who were harmed, there’s no such reset button available.
April 13, 2017 @ 6:01 pm
Thank you for this.
April 13, 2017 @ 6:20 pm
I believe in second chances. But here’s the catch. The second chance has to be EARNED.
In other words, they have to have done something to indicate repentance and improvement going forward.
My MLA made some sexist and GBLT-phobic remarks at one point in a prior music career. He has owned this, talked about what he has done since to learn and to embrace those communities. I have not heard of it happening since. I will happily give him a second chance.
I have not heard word one about Jim Frenkel (Or Chris Poole) having acknowledged that what they did was bad, only heard their friends talk about how wrongly they are treated, usually in a way that indicated those friends were fed a, shall we say, biased account of events. I have not heard them aim to commit restitution towards the people or communities harmed (And while the women harassed by Frenkel might never want to speak to him again even to hear an apology — as is their definite right and a sensible choice — there are ways to repent by paying forward).
Until this is demonstrated, I have no idea how they EARNED their second chance.
Or rather, I do: Their friends don’t *really* believe a second chance is even needed because they don’t believe they ever *really* did anything wrong.
April 13, 2017 @ 6:52 pm
UNICEF data shows that 29,000 children under the age of five die every day from preventable illnesses. Imagine the good that could be done if but a fraction of the time and energy you lot spend outraged at who may or may not be in attendance at whatever run-down motel conference room is holding your d-list SciFi convention was instead directed at something that actually mattered.
Jim C. Hines
April 13, 2017 @ 6:58 pm
Frank – I’m sorry, dude. I’m trying to take your trolling seriously, but you’ve got to up your game. Your whole “won’t someone think of the children” nonsense is just laughable.
April 13, 2017 @ 6:59 pm
Frank — so why have you wasted your time and energy here telling us not to waste our time and energy on other problems? That’s several minutes you could have spent trying to eradicate malaria!
Jim C. Hines
April 13, 2017 @ 7:01 pm
Marie – Every character he typed in that dumbass comment is a mosquito he could have squashed. Why does Frank want people to die of malaria???
April 13, 2017 @ 7:37 pm
Frank – I don’t think I understand your message. Is it, “you should not be attending science fiction conventions, because the energy and money you spend doing so would be better used to help children in need?” That’s a defensible argument, but I don’t think you’ve picked a venue or phrasing that’s likely to be persuasive.
Or are you trying to say, “science fiction authors and artists should attend conventions, because it’s good for their careers, and fans should attend them, to support the authors and artists they like – but nobody should care about feeling safe enough to actually enjoy the convention?”
April 13, 2017 @ 9:23 pm
Frank, over 50% of the population is women who face discrimination and/or abuse daily. These abuses often lead to death. This too is preventable. Educate yourself.
April 13, 2017 @ 10:55 pm
Will no one think of the mosquitos?
April 13, 2017 @ 11:27 pm
If I think too long about the mosquitoes, I start to itch.
Systematic oppression is quite real.
April 14, 2017 @ 1:35 am
Brianna, thank you for this post. I have enough experience in the SF world to know you’re telling it straight. Very first big convention, first panel, was talked over (and every comment I made was dumped on by one famous male writer–the same one who interrupted my one brief chance to meet and talk to my publisher and yammered on and on, using up all the time the publisher had for me. Happened a lot.
I follow quite a few women scientists and science journalists onilne–which made me realize it’s not just gamers, or SF fans….it really is systemic, infesting academia (STEM fields, humanities, arts), politics, vast ranges of “business” and not just in western culture, either. My mother was laughed at when she tried to get a summer job with the agency that then employed most Texas engineering students in summer. (She worked as an engineer during WWII.)
April 14, 2017 @ 2:55 am
Brianna, thank you for this eloquent post. As a woman who has worked as a programmer in the tech industry for 24 years, I long ago accepted the feminist title and the box that came with. It was that or go nuts.
April 14, 2017 @ 8:30 am
As a continued who’s been involved in banning people, I can tell you these decisions are not made lightly nor quickly, even when the answer seems obvious. I’ve seen cons ban people for a time period, or request proof of reformation (though I think a “doctor’s note” gets dangerously close to HIPAA violations). But let’s be honest: if someone was an asshole for decades, they’re never going to change.
My problem is that cons, worried about being sued, refuse to name names. I am beginning to think we need to publicize them. The only time we get a name is when the victim makes a public statement. (I have no issue shielding victims.)
April 14, 2017 @ 9:57 am
Lisa Hertel, there’s at least one person who is eagerly touting the idea of a public database all conventions can opt into providing information to on harassment. The legal defensibility of the database (most of the items are not likely to be chargeable offenses and it’s likely to be open to slander/libel issues if not done carefully) remains under debate.
April 14, 2017 @ 1:45 pm
A database miiiiiiiiiiight be defensible if it’s simply a record of which cons have banned which individuals: then it isn’t recording allegations about people, just the actions of public record that have been taken toward them. I’m pretty sure a database of accusations would be not only legally indefensible, but a TERRIBLE IDEA. And I say that as somebody who really wants to see harassment dealt with.
Cons can name names. They just have to do it with the right wording. This is where codes of conduct/harassment policies/etc help: you can point to those instead of civil or criminal law and say, we are responsible for enforcing these, and it is our opinion that so-and-so has violated them. Therefore, we take the following action. That is MUCH safer ground than “So-and-so assaulted someone.”
(I’ve also been part of banning someone, from an org rather than a convention. And we batted around the “proof of reformation” idea, yeah; it turns out to be a giant snake pit of potential trouble.)
April 14, 2017 @ 2:47 pm
I’ve been part of banning both indviduals and a local chapter from an organsation with a lot of voluntary workers in the UK, for bringing the organisation into disrepute (not around sexual harrassment, although there was bullying, but the principles are still relevant). Some of the individuals took the matter to court and lost. They lost in part because we had clear procedures including scaled warnings about behaviour to give people a chance to learn and they were followed to the letter. I don’t know enough about American law to know if the same would be true there. Setting up this sort of system before you have a problem is ideal, although obviously not always possible, but putting into place a new system with clear rules that you publicise is possible, although it’s hard work and needs people with the relevant expertise to put the in the time. It also needs a large majority of the organisation to buy in to what is being done, no ‘yes yes you can have a harrassment policy, just dont bother the rest of us with it’ attitudes. Even with the procedures in place it was a messy and nasty experience, with the people involved in enacting the procedure harrassed up to the level of death threats. However it was worth it in the end.
April 14, 2017 @ 4:17 pm
1) Thank you for the essay, Brianna.
2) Thank you thank you thank you, Marie, for the distinction between “second chance” and “clean slate”. It’s something I’ve been trying to put a finger on, and you nailed it. It’s also central to *any* kind of “repentance/readmission” narrative, which leads to…
3) ..I’ve watched concoms try and handle that, and yes, it’s a judgment call, and often one that puts a lot of “but they always seemed like such a nice person, surely they’ve learned” up against “Um. But how do we know they have?” It’s another place where in-group dynamics can make a hash out of the process, and needs to be watched.
4) WRT the database idea — I’ve been having this discussion elsewhere — in addition to the potential legal risks (which are not inconsiderable) there’s a matter of victim protection to think about. Because, as we’ve seen over and over again in various wings of geek/internet culture, the moment someone is accused, many people want “all the evidence” — and if it’s not provided, the evidence is presumed nonexistent/not trustworthy, and the accused is treated as “exonerated” by a large chunk of the community.
Having a public reporting system be anything like mandatory creates, I submit, an obstacle to *reporting* — since, suddenly, the stakes become much higher, the likelihood of the demand for “come forward and provide your evidence!” becomes much greater, and so on…
April 14, 2017 @ 9:01 pm
Chris Poole got a job at Google?! Seriously??? Also, he shares a name with a videographer that I like so . . .
I hope that second chances become fairer. This feels ridiculous that abusers get protected.
April 14, 2017 @ 9:28 pm
So rarely have the people who wring hands about “but what if we get suuuuued” talked to an actual lawyer with experience in defamation suits.
And they never seem to worry about getting sued by the victims of the harassment they enable.
April 15, 2017 @ 12:06 am
Actually, mythago, I know of multiple cases where the former has happened –speaking to a lawyer. And the times when (in other circumstances) I have done so, the usual advice is, unless it’s a clear-cut case (see below), try and avoid it, because it is a lot of money and hassle and risk.
And when it comes to being sued by victims, I suspect they don’t worry much about being sued by the victims because if the case for harassment is clear-cut enough that they’re worried about a suit, the issue doesn’t arise because they *do* something.
So, no, not particularly odd.
April 15, 2017 @ 3:29 pm
Frank, there are a lot of problems in the world, and every one of them needs people who are passionate about solving them to pour their energies into doing that. If children dying from preventable diseases is what ignites your passion, good for you! Get to work fixing that. For those who have other passions, good for them, too! Trust me, there’s enough work to go around.
April 15, 2017 @ 10:15 pm
@Steven Schwartz, in my own experience, “talk to a lawyer with actual knowledge” has been the exception – with “IANAL, but I looked this up on the Internet” and “well I talked to my friend Bob who does real estate law” as poor substitutes.
Because a real and thoughtful legal opinion is not simply, can we do X? or will we get sued? It’s, we want to achieve a particular result, what is the best way to do that without exposing ourselves to liability? But panic about WE MIGHT GET SUED is not those things.
And no, I don’t think it’s careful consideration of the likelihood of suit that makes them not give a wet fart about a lawsuit from a harassment victim.
Eleanor C Ray
April 16, 2017 @ 1:48 pm
I acted unilaterally as concom at a small convention when someone was sexually assaulted (cornered, touched but not raped). I kicked him out and told him he was not to come bact to the con ever again. *My own husband*, a long time confan, disagreed with me, saying that kicking him out for one year was fair, but that I shouldn’t be making decisions for future concoms! I told him I was making decisions for future victims, but he continued to think I was wrong to speak for conventions in future years.
April 16, 2017 @ 2:40 pm
Eleanor — and if future concoms agree with your husband, they can contact that guy and invite him back.
I somehow suspect they won’t.
April 16, 2017 @ 3:40 pm
Well that’s the essence of it, isn’t it? The abuser you kicked out committed a crime for which he could go to jail — sexual assault. He was lucky to only be kicked out of a convention. But the criminal is supposed to get that second chance to re-attend the convention to be fair to the violent assaulter, and cross your fingers that he doesn’t further sexually assault the other people who paid to go there. Whereas the victim of the crime and trauma of the sexual assault does not get any “fair” treatment of being able to attend a convention without further being sexually assaulted. The victim’s safety and well-being are unimportant; the reputation of the attacker is very important.
Which is why we call it rape culture. It is a society that supports fair treatment for those who commit sexual assault and no fair treatment and frequently condemnation and further harassment for the victims of sexual assault, that supports a philosophy that an attacker gets a second chance and victims have none.
Which is why Google hired Poole. He built a successful business, so they think he can do the same for them. His victims don’t matter, because “life isn’t fair.” (And because tech companies are used to having blood on their hands.) But they insist that it must be “fair” for someone who helped attack people, like Poole, or who deliberately attacked people, such as a sexual harasser. The culture supports and elevates those who attack others, while having no interest in and trying to silence the victims of the attacks. It has a vested interest in keeping that hierarchy in place.
April 16, 2017 @ 10:22 pm
I disagree that it’s just nebulous “culture”. It’s dudes who ally themselves with predators, out of fear of being judged themselves, or denial, or being wholly unwilling to identify with people who have been harassed or assaulted. It’s geeks who desperately cling to social fallacies that say exclusion is the worst human sin and it’s better to have a dangerous missing stair than to deal with the discomfort of confrontation and conflict. It’s *people* making deliberate, selfish decisions.
April 17, 2017 @ 6:12 pm
” It’s *people* making deliberate, selfish decisions.”
That’s what makes up a culture. 🙂
In all seriousness — trying to attack the problem on an individual level, as in “Hey, dude, you need to stop doing that thing!” and trying to attack the problem on a cultural level — “We all need to agree that this is not cool” go hand-in-hand.
“Because a real and thoughtful legal opinion is not simply, can we do X? or will we get sued? It’s, we want to achieve a particular result, what is the best way to do that without exposing ourselves to liability? But panic about WE MIGHT GET SUED is not those things.”
No, it isn’t. Nor is panic the right way to make a decision. I’m sorry that the people you’ve had this discussion with have panicked; the ones I have dealt with haven’t.
“And no, I don’t think it’s careful consideration of the likelihood of suit that makes them not give a wet fart about a lawsuit from a harassment victim.”
Your opinion is duly noted, and, when compared to my experience, I shall treat it as “well, a guy on the internet said this”, and leave it at that.
April 17, 2017 @ 7:43 pm
April 17, 2017 @ 8:24 pm
Maybe if men spent more time killing mosquitoes and less time being/covering up for assaulters, we could solve both problems at once!
Like Marie said, I don’t see any legal problems with a database that showed who was actually banned from what con. Those are concrete actions — not accusations — yet have no implication of law-breaking. Just say “breached CoC, was expelled/banned for a year/banned for life”. And NO mention of the victim(s), because it wasn’t their fault, and they didn’t cause problems for any innocent people.
It will slooowly build up, cons will find it less and less defensible to “hire” these people. It’s one tool out of many. And it won’t be just men; anyone who breaks CoC can go on it, like that woman in KC who’s always dropping trou on panels.
April 17, 2017 @ 10:59 pm
I don’t think a database is a good idea though it has good intent. Conventions are responsible for enforcing the safety of their convention. They have the liability to protect their guests by reasonable measures and in good faith, to post the rules of conduct clearly and thoroughly so that everyone knows what is required, and to enforce that code consistently and promptly. But the conventions aren’t responsible for monitoring and controlling harassers throughout the world or even among other conventions (there’s not that degree of coordination between them,) and they won’t be able to control how the data is used. They aren’t a law enforcement agency — it’s not like a government having a database of child sexual abuse offenders.
So it’s basically a form of doxxing, something that tends to get abused in this day and age. And with a database of people who’ve been banned, it becomes all together too easy for interested parties to find out who their victims are and harass them for putting the abusers on the list. And there’s no way to guarantee the information would just be used by convention runners if that was the plan. Basically, it goes beyond what conventions can reasonably and legally do, never mind the lawsuits, especially because many conventions are run by different groups of people and even in different locales each year. Essentially it would become all about the list and not about changing the conventions so that they are safer places — especially since new abusers show up all the time. And in the case of Odyssey, a database was not necessary — they knew Frenkel was a known abuser; they just decided it was untrue/unimportant/in the past and that they would protect him — the second chance.
What conventions have a better shot at is not trying to monitor and have responsibility for abusers outside of their conventions, which is beyond their scope, but to make the convention itself unfriendly to abusers and more friendly and supportive to those attending who become victims and the public in general. Most of the time, abusers do not want to get caught. They don’t want to deal with a staff who is on top of these sorts of issues and knows what to do. They don’t want codes of conduct well posted about the convention and enforced according to the rules. They don’t want people to feel safe to speak out to them. They don’t want swift action when they are drunk and out of control, if that’s their preferred method. Because all those things take away their sense of power, and power is why they do it in the first place. They count on friends and allies excusing away their behavior and accusations, using or making loopholes in the rules, and buying their promises that it was just a misunderstanding and they will try to do better. And the less conventions support abusers and abusive behavior, the less attractive a convention is to abusers. (And when they do know that someone is a known abuser, even if they doubt it, they don’t put those people on the concom and in charge of their guests. )
Not that long ago, women used to get publicly groped on the floor of conventions, even held down for it, and that was laughed off as part of the “fun.” That changed not because the people who did it wanted to do it less but because conventions changed the climate and cracked down on it. Women can still get publicly groped, etc. but the social permission of the abusers to do so was cut down and the consequences increased, resulting in it no longer being part of the accepted convention experience. The codes of conduct it’s been such a hassle to get conventions to enact are also part of that change, which is why so many have fought them. A convention with a decent code is less permissive. A convention that effectively enforces the code is much less permissive. A convention that is willing to throw people out for disruption — which is what abuse does cause — is less permissive and you get in general less abusive behavior. What was accepted isn’t accepted anymore and there are consequences for trying it.
The Odyssey convention only paid lip service. They were permissive and supported abuse. They ignored their legal liability, they were unprofessional and abusive to their talent. The things that they had the means to do to ensure safety, they deliberately didn’t do. They lied and ignored problems. And this is something that many conventions are still getting away with, but it’s something that will cost them a lot more now.
And if conventions change their behavior in how they run the conventions regarding abuse, it changes how people start to see that behavior in general. They become less accepting of it, less likely to do it themselves, speak out more against it, and it’s safer for them to report it. It has wider ripples that changes the culture. And the more committed people are to do this, the faster that change occurs.
April 21, 2017 @ 1:48 pm
They felt it would be unfair to deny him a fresh start at a career. They didn’t want his past to haunt him forever.
I wondered why this sounded so familiar, and then I realized. It’s pretty much exactly what the judge said about the “10 minutes of action” rapist before letting him off with a slap on the wrist — that this one little slip shouldn’t be allowed to ruin the rest of his life. Yeah, right.