The sequence of events: Genevieve Valentine got harassed at Readercon and bravely came forward about it. The man who harassed her did so repeatedly despite very clear communication that his attentions were unwelcome. Genevieve did not initially name her harasser, choosing instead to address the issue with the Readercon board of directors. Apparently she had interacted with the board in 2008 after a similar incident of harassment (of someone else) by a man named Aaron Agassi, and found their response–banning Aaron for life–appropriate. In the aftermath of the 2008 event the board instituted a zero-tolerance harassment policy. Today Genevieve revealed that the board chose not to enforce their own policy, and are instead suspending the perpetrator, Rene Walling, for two years. The board has issued a statement explaining their decision. They say that Rene was found to be “sincerely regretful of his actions” and that “[i]f, as a community, we wish to educate others about harassment, we must also allow for the possibility of reform.” They also state, “[w]hen we wrote our zero-tolerance policy in 2008 (in response to a previous incident), we were operating under the assumption that violators were either intent on their specific behaviors, clueless, or both.”
In 2008, Aaron Agassi was banned from the con for life, and in 2012 Rene Walling was put on 2-year probation. Also notable, Aaron Agassi was not a well-regarded member of the community, whereas Rene Walling is a frequent blogger for Tor.com and has previously chaired a Worldcon.
I have several thoughts.
1) The establishment of a harassment policy is something to be taken seriously.
Why did the need to allow for the possibility of reform not enter the board’s minds when they were originally establishing the harassment policy? Likely because Aaron Agassi was an apparently super-creepy guy with no friends in the community, and the proximate goal of the harassment policy was to exclude him specifically. That is, to put it mildly, irresponsible. I am actually somewhat sympathetic the the board’s position that their harassment policy should allow for the possibility of reform, but the time to consider that was when they were instituting the policy in the first place. They could have written a tiered policy, with explicit levels of punishment for specific kinds of trespass, and attendees could have then decided whether the punishment schedule made them feel comfortable. But instead they instituted a zero-tolerance policy, and allowed congoers to believe they were governed by it. So let’s call this Big Mistake #1: instituting a policy that they lacked the conviction to universally enforce.
2) Retroactively changing the policy is a bigger deal than any one incident of harassment.
By retroactively changing their policy, the Readercon board becomes complicit in pattern of well-connected men getting special treatment when they harass women. It doesn’t matter if, absent of other policies, a 2-year probation seems a proportionate response. If the policy is zero tolerance, the facts of the harassment are not in dispute, and tolerance is nevertheless extended, then the harasser has gotten away with it. He was exempted from normal system of punishment. The message that this sends is that the feelings of a harasser are, or at least can be, more important than the feelings of the harassed, and that systems which claim to offer redress in the event of harassment cannot be relied upon. It takes what was an isolated event and elevates it to the level of systemic problem: harassers will get special treatment if they are somehow important and express contrition. (And, while not being at all personally familiar with Rene Walling or his motives, I would note as many others already have that false contrition is a common attribute of a serial abuser.) This will serve to make women feel more at risk, more powerless. Genevieve herself says, “the results of reporting my harassment have been more troubling, in some ways, than the harassment itself.” So, Big Mistake #2: turning an isolated problem into a systemic problem by extending special treatment to a harasser.
3) What the board should have done.
So the board found itself in the position of having a case of clear harassment, but not wanting to issue a lifetime ban to the harasser, despite a zero-tolerance policy. The right course of action would have been to avoid Big Mistake #2 by following the policy, and then, after dealing with this specific circumstance of harassment, begin a process reforming their policy. This would have meant opening up a discussion about harassment and punishment with the Readercon community. It could even have resulted in the creation of an explicit appeals procedure that Rene Walling could have, at some point in the future, availed himself of. Doing this would have been transparent, responsive to the needs of the community, and resulted in a policy that the board could thereafter enforce with conviction.
4) What the board should do now.
I’ve never been to Readercon, so other people may have a more incisive view here. But my answer is: what they should have done in the first place. With the added step of apologizing for fucking up, and promising to take their own policies so seriously in the future that no one can ever suspect they are being applied selectively depending on how much of a Big Name Fan the person in question is.