Guest post: What Happened After I Reported by Elise Matthesen

Last year, I hosted a guest post from Elise Matthesen about how to report harassment at a convention. It was useful and touched on an incident she had experienced by way of example.

This is a follow up, which I think provides a representative example of why so many women who experience harassment don’t report it. This happened to Elise at the “world’s leading feminist science fiction convention.” Leading means setting an example and a standard.

Now, here’s Elise. Please, listen to her. As a community, we have to do better.

ELISE MATTHESEN:

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?”

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14 Responses

  1. Wayne Arthurson

    Thanks for this. The person mentioned was my editor so this is why I’ve been aware and following up on this. And why I’ve been trying to get crime/mystery Cons to implement harassment policies or at the very least, codes of conduct. But the response from these Cons, including two of the largest in North America, has be very disappointed. One did discuss it at their business meetings during the Con (thanks to one board member who understood what I was trying to do) but the main reaction has been, “we’ve never had any problems before so why do we need to have policies.” Or “we’re all good people, we can trust each other.” Or they just put down sci-fi and fantasy Con and say the atmosphere is different there. Someone from the board of that Con was supposed to get back to me, but I’ve heard nothing.

    Another Con pretty much set me an e-mail saying they also would look into the matter and get back to me, but I’ve heard nothing, even though I’ve sent a couple follow-up emails.

    Despite the person being my former editor, I am grateful and thank Elise for speaking up and taking the actions she took, and salute her bravery.

  2. Peggy :)

    Thanks for sharing, Mary. I really appreciate your efforts to keep your readers up to date.

    I wonder if any potential guests will refuse an offer due to this?

  3. Kier Salmon

    Blink. I would have thought the screaming and hair tearing that happened so very very publicly last year was loud enough nobody could have stayed in ignorance.
    I am horrified. And sorry that nothing appropriate has been done.

  4. Jon Marcus

    This is unfathomable. Did they truly not realize the damage they’re doing to the community, not to mention themselves? I really don’t get it.

    Maybe “they” is the problem. Each one of “they” saw this as someone else’s problem, or something too uncomfortable to engage, or…what? I’m really heaping at straws here.

  5. Sally

    Why not just go to dudebro conventions, in that case? You won’t get treated much worse, and at least they’re honest about it.

  6. Dr. Phil

    I’ve been to three WisCons — 2004-5 and 2014. I have been amazed at how well run it is. And yet… over the last year every time I hear a version of this story, it gets worse. It’s not a matter of dropping the ball, they’ve punted it into the mountains, lost it and disrespected their very membership. Over a year and it’s still going on, unresolved in any meaningful way.

    But if we don’t talk about it, if we forget, then both this time and the next time will be worse.

    Thank you both, Mary and Elise, for keeping this out in the open.

    Dr. Phil

  7. Beth

    So, I have never been to a Con of any kind, so maybe I’m just not getting it, but why is only security for the convention involved and not the police? Is groping somebody in public not illegal or something?

  8. mgwa

    As a lifelong feminist, I don’t understand how a con that calls itself feminist could allow this travesty to happen. In what universe do feminists ignore reports of sexual harassment, bury evidence, and ignore the injured parties?

  9. disperser

    I wonder if the response would have been different if it had been a regular Joe (or Larry, or Curly, or Moe) instead of an editor of a publishing house.

    That has always seemed backward to me . . . regular people get the book thrown at them, while people with influence skate (I’m speaking in general, not just cons).

    In a perfect world you would have the opposite happen, really making an example that people would take note of.

    Of course, women could take their own action . . . carry a indelible marker, and when someone behaves inappropriately, mark their face (hands, badge, etc).

    No one leaves anyone alone with anyone with a mark. Also, if the person gets two marks, they get inducted in the gelding ranks.

  10. Vicki

    Beth: There are lots of reasons why victims of rape and sexual harassment don’t always call the police; one of them is that law enforcement generally doesn’t have a great reputation for taking reports seriously or for treating the victims respectfully. (You don’t often hear of the police being called when someone’s coworker or boss gropes her at work, or demands sexual favors as a condition of employment.)

  11. AmyCat

    Beth: expanding on what Vicki says, there’s the additional issue that a harassed person at a con is quite often outside their home area. Bringing a criminal complaint is difficult enough when one’s at home. Add the logistics and expenses involved if one must travel, likely across state lines, to make court appearances (perhaps multiple times) to all the many issues that keep people from going to police in their home towns, and you begin to see why this may not be a good choice for them.

    If the harassment doesn’t rise to the legal level of “felony assault” (if even winning the case in court would only result in a misdemeanor sentence), I could see not wanting to go through all the trouble of involving the police when there are procedures for dealing with it within the convention community. There’s also the issue of wanting to restore OUR community, to root out “the evil in the fields that we know” and see the community live up to its ideals and return to being a “safe” space.

    Individual members of the fannish community may not feel they’re able to do much against the larger evils of the outside world (e.g.: “rape culture”, misogyny, various “isms” and bigotries…), but we SHOULD be able to make THIS part of our world safe.

  12. Beth

    Okay, thank you both for responding to me. Both of those make sense to me, in a certain way (make sense doesn’t mean I completely agree, but they’re certainly reasonable). I always hate to hear about the darker side of these things, although I know that its silly to think that they don’t exist when tens or even hundreds of thousands of people sometimes get together for these cons. I’m glad this woman (who I admit I’m otherwise unfamiliar with) is fighting for a real response from the community.

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