On Sexual Harassment at Conventions — Elise Matthesen speaks out

At this year’s Writing Excuses Retreat, we had several evenings where we just answered questions about how to have a career as an SF writer. One night, I said, “We should probably talk about how to handle sexual harassment at a convention.”

The room had been quiet before. It became still.

I’m fortunate, because I don’t have to deal with this at cons. I know how to shut it down, but the bigger thing that saves me is that I’m “somebody.” Sexual harassment is, as much as anything else, a display of power over someone weaker. I was VP of SFWA. I’m an award winner. I have loud friends. I am not in a position where someone could sexually harass me and get away with it.

This is not true for beginning writers.

Back in 2010, while I was still VP of SFWA, I served as a conduit for a woman who had been sexually harassed by an editor to anonymously contact his employer. She didn’t feel safe doing so directly because she was afraid it would affect her career. You see that, right? The power that concern gave the editor over her? The publisher took it very seriously, and due to that the woman felt safe in speaking to a representative directly.

Apparently, that doesn’t count as a formal complaint because it wasn’t to Human Resources or to the Legal Department. So, here we are in 2013 and Elise Matthesen was harassed by the same man at a convention. When she made a report, she was told it was the first one.

She’s written up an account of her reaction and how to go about making a formal report of sexual harassment. Read on. Please.

(Note: you’ll also find this cross-posted at the blogs of Jim Hines, Seanan McGuireBrandon Sanderson John Scalzi, and Chuck Wendig.)

ELISE MATTHESEN:

We’re geeks. We learn things and share, right? Well, this year at WisCon I learned firsthand how to report sexual harassment.  In case you ever need or want to know, here’s what I learned and how it went.

Two editors I knew were throwing a book release party on Friday night at the convention. I was there, standing around with a drink talking about Babylon 5, the work of China Mieville, and Marxist theories of labor (like you do) when an editor from a different house joined the conversation briefly and decided to do the thing that I reported. A minute or two after he left, one of the hosts came over to check on me. I was lucky: my host was alert and aware. On hearing what had happened, he gave me the name of a mandated reporter at the company the harasser was representing at the convention.

The mandated reporter was respectful and professional. Even though I knew them, reporting this stuff is scary, especially about someone who’s been with a company for a long time, so I was really glad to be listened to. Since the incident happened during Memorial Day weekend, I was told Human Resources would follow up with me on Tuesday.

There was most of a convention between then and Tuesday, and I didn’t like the thought of more of this nonsense (there’s a polite word for it!) happening, so I went and found a convention Safety staffer. He asked me right away whether I was okay and whether I wanted someone with me while we talked or would rather speak privately. A friend was nearby, a previous Guest of Honor at the convention, and I asked her to stay for the conversation. The Safety person asked whether I’d like to make a formal report.  I told him, “I’d just like to tell you what happened informally, I guess, while I figure out what I want to do.”

It may seem odd to hesitate to make a formal report to a convention when one has just called somebody’s employer and begun the process of formally reporting there, but that’s how it was. I think I was a little bit in shock. (I kept shaking my head and thinking, “Dude, seriously??”) So the Safety person closed his notebook and listened attentively. Partway through my account, I said, “Okay, open your notebook, because yeah, this should be official.” Thus began the formal report to the convention.  We listed what had happened, when and where, the names of other people who were there when it happened, and so forth. The Safety person told me he would be taking the report up to the next level, checked again to see whether I was okay, and then went.

I had been nervous about doing it, even though the Safety person and the friend sitting with us were people I have known for years. Sitting there, I tried to imagine how nervous I would have been if I were twenty-some years old and at my first convention. What if I were just starting out and had been hoping to show a manuscript to that editor?  Would I have thought this kind of behavior was business as usual? What if I were afraid that person would blacklist me if I didn’t make nice and go along with it? If I had been less experienced, less surrounded by people I could call on for strength and encouragement, would I have been able to report it at all?

Well, I actually know the answer to that one: I wouldn’t have. I know this because I did not report it when it happened to me in my twenties. I didn’t report it when it happened to me in my forties either. There are lots of reasons people might not report things, and I’m not going to tell someone they’re wrong for choosing not to report. What I intend to do by writing this is to give some kind of road map to someone who is considering reporting. We’re geeks, right? Learning something and sharing is what we do.

So I reported it to the convention. Somewhere in there they asked, “Shall we use your name?” I thought for a millisecond and said, “Oh, hell yes.”

This is an important thing. A formal report has a name attached. More about this later.

The Safety team kept checking in with me.  The coordinators of the convention were promptly involved. Someone told me that since it was the first report, the editor would not be asked to leave the convention. I was surprised it was the first report, but hey, if it was and if that’s the process, follow the process. They told me they had instructed him to keep away from me for the rest of the convention. I thanked them.

Starting on Tuesday, the HR department of his company got in touch with me. They too were respectful and took the incident very seriously.  Again I described what, where and when, and who had been present for the incident and aftermath. They asked me if I was making a formal report and wanted my name used. Again I said, “Hell, yes.”

Both HR and Legal were in touch with me over the following weeks.  HR called and emailed enough times that my husband started calling them “your good friends at HR.”  They also followed through on checking with the other people, and did so with a promptness that was good to see.

Although their behavior was professional and respectful, I was stunned when I found out that mine was the first formal report filed there as well. From various discussions in person and online, I knew for certain that I was not the only one to have reported inappropriate behavior by this person to his employer. It turned out that the previous reports had been made confidentially and not through HR and Legal. Therefore my report was the first one, because it was the first one that had ever been formally recorded.

Corporations (and conventions with formal procedures) live and die by the written word. “Records, or it didn’t happen” is how it works, at least as far as doing anything official about it. So here I was, and here we all were, with a situation where this had definitely happened before, but which we had to treat as if it were the first time — because for formal purposes, it was.

I asked whether people who had originally made confidential reports could go ahead and file formal ones now. There was a bit of confusion around an erroneous answer by someone in another department, but then the person at Legal clearly said that “the past is past” is not an accurate summation of company policy, and that she (and all the other people listed in the company’s publically-available code of conduct) would definitely accept formal reports regardless of whether the behavior took place last week or last year.

If you choose to report, I hope this writing is useful to you. If you’re new to the genre, please be assured that sexual harassment is NOT acceptable business-as-usual.  I have had numerous editors tell me that reporting harassment will NOT get you blacklisted, that they WANT the bad apples reported and dealt with, and that this is very important to them, because this kind of thing is bad for everyone and is not okay. The thing is, though, that I’m fifty-two years old, familiar with the field and the world of conventions, moderately well known to many professionals in the field, and relatively well-liked. I’ve got a lot of social credit. And yet even I was nervous and a little in shock when faced with deciding whether or not to report what happened. Even I was thinking, “Oh, God, do I have to? What if this gets really ugly?”

But every time I got that scared feeling in my guts and the sensation of having a target between my shoulder blades, I thought, “How much worse would this be if I were inexperienced, if I were new to the field, if I were a lot younger?” A thousand times worse.  So I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders and said, “Hell, yes, use my name.”  And while it’s scary to write this now, and while various people are worried that parts of the Internet may fall on my head, I’m going to share the knowledge — because I’m a geek, and that’s what we do.

So if you need to report this stuff, the following things may make it easier to do so. Not easy, because I don’t think it’s gotten anywhere near easy, but they’ll probably help.

NOTES: As soon as you can, make notes on the following:

– what happened

– when it happened and where

– who else was present (if anyone)

– any other possibly useful information

And take notes as you go through the process of reporting: write down who you talk with in the organization to which you are reporting, and when.

ALLIES:  Line up your support team. When you report an incident of sexual harassment to a convention, it is fine to take a friend with you. A friend can keep you company while you make a report to a company by phone or in email. Some allies can help by hanging out with you at convention programming or parties or events, ready to be a buffer in case of unfortunate events — or by just reminding you to eat, if you’re too stressed to remember. If you’re in shock, please try to tell your allies this, and ask for help if you can.

NAVIGATION: If there are procedures in place, what are they?  Where do you start to make a report and how? (Finding out might be a job to outsource to allies.) Some companies have current codes of conduct posted on line with contact information for people to report harassment to. Jim Hines posted a list of contacts at various companies a while ago.  Conventions should have a safety team listed in the program book.  Know the difference between formal reports and informal reports. Ask what happens next with your report, and whether there will be a formal record of it, or whether it will result in a supervisor telling the person “Don’t do that,” but  will be confidential and will not be counted formally.

REPORTING FORMALLY: This is a particularly important point. Serial harassers can get any number of little talking-to’s and still have a clear record, which means HR and Legal can’t make any disciplinary action stick when formal reports do finally get made. This is the sort of thing that can get companies really bad reputations, and the ongoing behavior hurts everybody in the field. It is particularly poisonous if the inappropriate behavior is consistently directed toward people over whom the harasser has some kind of real or perceived power:  an aspiring writer may hesitate to report an editor, for instance, due to fear of economic harm or reprisal.

STAY SAFE:  You get to choose what to do, because you’re the only one who knows your situation and what risks you will and won’t take.  If not reporting is what you need to do, that’s what you get to do, and if anybody gives you trouble about making that choice to stay safe, you can sic me on them. Me, I’ve had a bunch of conversations with my husband, and I’ve had a bunch of conversations with other people, and I hate the fact that I’m scared that there might be legal wrangling (from the person I’d name, not the convention or his employer) if I name names. But after all those conversations, I’m not going to. Instead, I’m writing the most important part, about how to report this, and make it work, which is so much bigger than one person’s distasteful experience.

During the incident, the person I reported said,  “Gosh, you’re lovely when you’re angry.”  You know what?  I’ve been getting prettier and prettier.

#

Let me add one thing to what Elise has said, and it’s what I told our students at Writing Excuses. If this happens to you, I will have your back. This will not stand.

EDITED TO ADD: On July 11, 2013 Patrick Nielsen Hayden reported on Twitter that “James Frenkel is no longer associated with Tor Books.”

pnh on frenkel

  1. My name is Sigrid Ellis. I was one of the co-hosts of the party Elise mentions. The person Elise reported for harassment is James Frenkel.

      • Ditto the thanks for outing this guy. Warm kudos to Elise for stepping up and saying, loudly, that this is unacceptable. I, like Serge above, will stand by whomever needs to report these sorts of behavior. I, too, despise bullies.

        Lou

    • Seriously? One of the oldest and most senior editors at Tor? Oh, this is rich.

      I already had a low opinion of that man based on unpleasant interactions with him at various conventions, but this …. this just takes the cake. My respect for him is now zero, and I hope that anyone who’s been harassed by him comes out. They certainly have my support.

  2. I can’t believe one would be made to feel fearful during this process, or that the process should be so unnecessarily complex. It is a sad sign that we have a long way to go to fix the problem.

  3. Can I just suggest that you fix Elise’s name, which is “Matthesen”?

    I have been involved in this story from near the beginning (of it happening to Elise). I’m so glad to see it going public.

  4. Oh, and also …

    Thanks to Elise for doing this, to you for posting it (and for having people’s back) and to Sigrid for naming names.

    I stand at the back of anyone who needs it on these issues.

  5. Whenever I hear about sexual harassment at cons it just freaks me the hell out and seriously makes me reconsider going. I mean, I’m a natural introvert so going to a con is already scary at this point at least because I basically know no one and the fact that some of these people are editors or other people with power in the community just makes it all the more scary. It’s still good that people are speaking out and reporting on these asshats.

    • One thing that is true about cons, even introverts will find good people to have wonderful conversations. Most of us are also introverts, and the only place we shine is at cons. And the few that are Social Butterflies are gentle and good about getting us wall flowers to bloom. It is very supporting.
      Very few people are creeps. But, the world isn’t perfect. What is nice is because harassment is being talked about now, the conventions are putting in procedures to deal with it. I am on a con committee and we have even posted this article to our staff list to remind people of how to do things correctly.
      So if you do get bothered by anyone, talk to the party host, talk to con security, find a con staff member. Even if we are not the person who can deal directly with the problem, we know who can, and will get you connected. Con Security and Con Staff are usually well marked with special badges and/or Ribbons. We are there to help you.
      We want all cons to be welcoming places where even the most introvert person will feel safe.

    • The bad-stuff-at-cons isn’t really worse than bad-stuff-all-over – it’s just that people are yelling this ain’t a private party no more, FIX IT. Other professional places that started off as, you know, professional places, don’t have this transition period.

      Cons that want to attract people have put harassment policies in place a la office harassement; cons that haven’t noticed that hey, people who aren’t geeky guys like cons too! may not have.

  6. Thank you Elise for this information, and for speaking out. I was harrassed at a con party by an eminent author in my early twenties, which convinced me I’d have a hard time as a writer in genre fiction. It has taken me almost fifteen years to learn otherwise. I hope others come forward and the community continues to have our backs.

  7. Mary, that talk you gave us at the Writing Excuses Retreat was not one of my favorite parts of the week. But looking back it was possibly one of the most important and – yes – reassuring. I don’t want to hear that I have to worry about sexual harassment at cons. That’s supposed to be my special fun geek-culture place. I don’t want to worry about bringing my daughter along with me as she gets older. But I also don’t want to be blindsided by it.

    You speaking up about the issue, and Brandon/Dan/Howard all supporting, gave me confidence that it’s an issue that good people take seriously. That this isn’t something that’s going to go away overnight but that there are people who have my back should something happen.

    I wish you had been recording that talk. I wish you’d do a whole Writing Excuses just on that because it’s something people need to hear.

    Thank you and all the other signal boosters for getting this out there. It means your words to us that night were real and honest and not just hot air. It still makes me sad this is a problem, but I’m glad to have good people talking about how to fix it.

  8. Thanks for boosting the signal. (Elise’s name still isn’t quite right, though! It’s Matthesen.)

  9. Mary,

    Thanks for writing this post. We’re in the thick of it, these days, and the harassers and misogynists are being spotlighted, as they should be, and the people are speaking up.

    I’m delighted to help in this process, to make these cons a place where we can attend safely, without fear, among our people.

    These are my people. Shame on them that bully.

    Lou

  10. Thank you for posting this. That point about names and formal records is particularly important, something many won’t have thought of.

  11. I’ve always admired Elise, never more than at this moment. I see the courage it took to deal with this, and for so many good reasons, especially the one where we all can say “what would I have done? Now or 20, 30 years ago?”

    Thanks to Mary and everyone who’s putting this out there. And for Elise, and foranyone, although I’m not often at conventions of late, I am there if I am needed. And I don’t need to ask Stu (Shiffman) (though I will later) to know I can say that, we too, have your back. We can be Fair Witnesses. We are friends. We stand (and sit) with you and with anyone who needs support. Conventions have been the source of great joy, laughter, conversation, friendship for so many wonderful people. I will fight however I’m needed to keep them that way..

  12. Another aspect to keep in mind about reporting harassment, as I’ve learned the hard way, is that some states have statutes of limitation on the time you have to report.

    For example, in Connecticut, if you don’t report the harassment, formally, within 90 days of it ending, then no action can be taken. As I said, I learned this the hard way when I didn’t report my own experiences with being harassed (in a work, not conference setting) for more than a year because it took me that long to get up the nerve. Then, when I did, the delay was actually used against me, rather than for me, by those in power.

  13. Thanks to Elise for having the courage to share with us how harassment should be reported. When I was in my 20s, I was sexually harassed at a conference, and I was too young and naive to know what was what, too inexperienced to realize I was not at fault, and for years I felt ashamed as well as soiled. After I wised up a bit, in my 30s, I learned how to speak up for myself, how to feel proud of who I am, and how to stand for other women when they’re in need of bolstering. I’m in my 60s now and not a part of the SF writing community, but I offer my whole-hearted support to Elise all the same. I also want to say to Mary: you did the right thing, naming names.

  14. I’m a senior HR executive in a large company. We take sexual and other harassment reports seriously for several reasons. First, there can be legal ramifications if a company ignores harassment complaints. Also if a company gets a reputation for even passively allowing harassment then prospective employees and customers may look elsewhere. Finally, harassment makes for an unpleasant work environment with adverse effects on productivity.

    Or to put it less formally, a competent HR department gives a damn about your complaints and will try to stop harassment.

  15. Wow. I’d like to say I’m surprised, but I’m anything but. Thank you for being brave and for speaking up. The more we speak up, the easier it will be for others.

  16. Without knowing WHAT Frenkel did, it really takes away from the article for me. Wouldn’t it be better to point what was wrong, so anyone else out there who might think that behavior is okay learns a lesson and sharpens up? Or is this a case of what he did most people wouldn’t find objectionable?

  17. Thank you for hosting this, Mary, and thank you to Elise for stepping up and sharing her experience.

    I think we forget how important it is to keep talking about this. Last year at WorldCon two writers in the early stages of their careers complained to me about harassment. I responded with support, but because I had neither witnessed the behavior nor knew the person in question, I did not know what to do beyond saying, “Oh my gosh, that sucks.”

    It did not even occur to me to ask if they wanted to report the incident.

    We’ve been talking about this for a long time. I’ve heard all the nightmare stories from years past, and still, in the moment where it mattered, the idea of filing a report, or of offering to support them in contacting the con staff, did not even enter my head. I feel like an idiot in retrospect.

    So thank you, Mary and Elise, for helping to ensure that next time, I will be better prepared to take action.