Harassment and the Back Channel

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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July 1, 2013

My cat does not respect my personal space. Do not follow her example.

My cat does not respect my personal space. Do not follow her example.

I am so very sorry that Elise Matthesen was harassed at WisCon. I don’t know Elise in person, but I have bought a number of pieces of jewelry from her and I admire her tremendously. I am grateful that she has written such a powerful piece that explains what she did to report her harasser to the appropriate authorities.  I am also grateful for the open and frank discussion that has come from her decision to go public.


I’ve also seen a handful of posts about how, at science fiction conventions, women will work together to let each other know who the serial harassers and creepers are. I find this extremely interesting because I have never been warned about anyone at any of the conventions I’ve attended.

And I wonder why this is. Does one have to achieve a certain level of importance in the community in order to be told who the creepers and serial harassers are? Does one have to be conventionally attractive?  Is there a code phrase I need to learn?

Because harassment can happen to anyone. It’s happened to me. The incident I am about to describe is the most notable, but it’s certainly not the only one.

When I was 18 years old, I went to a small film screening with a friend. It was a showing of Tetsuo, the Iron Man and a film by Joe Christ (I think it was this one–it was terrible, whatever it was). Joe Christ was there. He was sitting right next to me on the floor, in fact. And was paying a lot of attention to me and to my friend. I remember, so clearly, the way he kept getting closer and closer. By the end of the evening, he had touched me several times–my foot, my arm. It has been 20 years and I can still remember how it felt when he touched me.

And then he offered us a ride back to our dorm and, since it was past midnight and since it was a bit of a long walk and it was cold outside, we accepted. We got about halfway and he started to tell us how lonely it was being on the road. And then mentioned that he and his wife had an open marriage (he’d previously used his wife’s writing career as a way to ingratiate himself) and invited us to go back to his hotel with us. When we demurred, he then claimed he didn’t know how to get back to his hotel from campus. At this point I remember thinking, “I don’t care if you drive around Kalamazoo all night, asshole.” I did not go back to his hotel. My friend did. The next day, she checked in with me and told me that he tried to get to smoke some weed to “loosen up”. She told me that nothing happened, that she’d spent the night on the floor but I don’t know if she was telling me the truth or telling me what she thought I wanted to hear.

To this day, I feel guilty for not going with my friend back to Joe Christ’s hotel room. My friendship with this woman did not survive. Ten years after it happened, I wrote about it on my now-defunct website.  Joe Christ found the post and took the time to comment. He told me that I was lying and that I was also fat and ugly. Ten years later, it was so important for him to make sure that the 20 people who read my website knew that I was a fat and ugly liar. Put me in my place. Shut me up.

Now Joe Christ is dead. And yet: I wonder if anyone is going to come here and tell me, again, that I am a liar and that I am fat and ugly.

Because this is how it works. Harassment, much like other kinds of sexual abuse, is not about sex or whether or not someone is attractive. It is about power. It’s been 20 years and the man who harassed me is dead and I am still worried about using his name.

And as I think about the back channel and the people who are talking about how they let people know who the creeps and harassers are, the more I think that access to the back channel is a kind of privilege. It’s a privilege of knowing the right people. Which is something that comes with time, effort, and actually being successful with networking.

Not everyone is going to be able to invest that kind of time and effort–or even if they do, they may not ever become part of the group of people who knows who the harassers and creeps are.  And those people are often the most vulnerable to the creeps and harassers. They are the ones who aren’t going to be believed and who are going to be dismissed as attention seekers. Which then makes them even more vulnerable. This absolutely is not a situation where everyone truly does know who the harassers and creeps are.

I am so very tired of hearing stories about how things were back in the good old days. When convention organizers were procuring asses for Isaac Asimov to pinch and women were leaving conventions because their shapely bottoms were patted while out in public. When Randall Garrett felt that it was appropriate to greet women with “I’m Randall Garrett. Let’s fuck.” Hell, as recently as 2006, Harlan Ellison felt that grabbing Connie Willis’s breast onstage at the Hugo Awards was an okay thing to do (this goes to the video, may be upsetting to watch if you haven’t seen it before, edited to fix date per comment). But hey, why can’t we all just get along? (screencap of Google cache, comments missing) Why so negative?

I don’t care how things were in the good old days–it seems pretty clear from where I’m sitting that they were only good for a certain subset of the group. And it also seems that convention culture has been, in many ways, designed to enable this kind of bad behavior. Attempts to challenge the culture and to make it more accessible for different groups of people are almost always met with howls of outrage–be it gender neutral bathrooms, access for persons with disabilities, or the right to be present without being grabbed, groped, or creeped at.

If anyone wants to know what the “old guard” in our community thinks about making the community safe for everyone, you only need to look at the screencaps/transcriptions from the private SFWA forum at SFF.net. Warning: there’s a lot of disgusting rot in there.  And this is what we’re fighting against.

It is because that the back channel is a privilege that I believe that each and every convention (science fiction or otherwise) needs to have a clear code of conduct and a procedure to deal with harassment. And that procedure must be followed, without exception. The back channel can be useful but it is too prone to failure and the gaps are too large for it to be reliable. Cliff Pervocracy touches a bit on this in their post from last year about the missing stair, although they don’t go so far as to call it a privilege.

The other thing about using the back channel to deal with the missing stair is this: there are no consequences for serial harassers or creepers. They can keep on harassing and creeping on people not in the know, while those in the know can avoid them. So in some ways, the back channel actually enables creepers and harassers by allowing those in the know to become complacent. I’m seeing  a lot of complacency in the posts about the back channel and how it works.

We talk a lot about safety and complacency at my day job–I work in a very dangerous industry  (two chemicals we have on site: phosgene and HF) and complacency can lead to serious harm to both ourselves and our community. Not all of the safety rules I am subject to at my day job necessarily carry over into the rest of my life but one that does is the idea of watching out for other people. Which is one reason I love the Backup Ribbon Project so much: it is a visible reminder to everyone that there are people on their side, who are willing and able to assist in any way they can.

People should not be compelled to report; there are times when not-reporting is the safest thing to do and the only person who gets to make that decision is the person who has been harassed or assaulted. But for people who do report, there must be safety for them as well. The time for complacency and reliance on the back channel is past. It is time to openly commit to making our community a safe place for everyone.

Safety should not be a privilege.  It is a right.

A by-no-means-complete list of people talking about this, in no particular order except I’ve tried to put women’s voices (or voices that appear to be from women) at the top of the list:

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  1. Brie

    I don’t have much to add except to say that I’m glad to see so many people speaking out about this. I’m not a part of the SFF community, but I am a woman, so this affects us all.

  2. Jeremy

    I hate that this is becoming so much more of an open problem. Being male, it’s not something I’ve dealt with, but I’ve only been to a handful of cons in my life, so I’ve not been aware of it until the last few years. I still only go to one con, and it’s small and local and, as far as I know, doesn’t have much of a problem with it. But, again, I’m male, so I wouldn’t necessarily hear about a lot of it.

    That being said, I wonder how a lot of these guys would react to have another man leering at them or groping them or hitting on them. Because, really, would it be any different than opposite-gender creeping? Somehow, I doubt they would see it as the same thing. And they would probably lose. their. shit. In an epic way.

  3. Natalie

    @Deirdre Saoirse Moen: You are absolutely right and I’ve edited the post to show the correct date. I must have misread it when I was collecting links.

    I saw that interview last week and my head damn near exploded, which is why I didn’t include it here–it seemed like a possible distraction from my main point, so thank you for bringing it up in comments.

  4. Maria Dahvana Headley

    If it is any comfort, no one told me who the creeps were either. I didn’t come up in this genre. Now I know, but it came from experience mostly. I don’t think it’s a hidden network so much as a thing that happens in larger groups of women, info being shared. Now I’m part of a larger group, but when I started? I was the kind of clueless girl who – as was made terribly clear on leaked forums today – would have been alone and approached by a known creep, saying Hey, my name is ______, let’s fuck. To the hilarity of some and the rage of others. The mechanism of “known creeps” is at fault, not anything else. Known creeps should be known BECAUSE they are reported by people like me, who can. I’ve learned some things about front channels these days. Thanks for your post!

  5. Natalie

    @Maria Dahvana Headley: I saw just enough references in various posts to people being taken aside and told who the creepers were that I felt I needed to say something–because while it can be useful, it’s also a system without teeth in it. Hence my fondness for codes of conducts and procedures for reporting–these things help put everyone on equal footing and make behavioral expectations clear.

    That “I’m ______, let’s fuck” thing is just… I don’t even. I can’t even imagine that ever being acceptable.

    And thank you for your posts! I am a fan of lots of people speaking up about this.

  6. Cora

    The Joe Vasicek post you linked to has been taken down, too. It’s almost predictable at this point, sigh,

  7. Natalie

    @Cora: Argh! I should not have to be pre-emptively screencapping everything! I got a Google cache of it, but it’s missing the comments.

  8. Farah

    My experience has been that the “back channel” is quite new and itself a consequence of women feeling they could begin to share and that they would’t just be told it was their own fault *by other women*. But yes, we need to go front and centre.

  9. Karen Underwood

    I cannot tell you how happy I am, as an “old-school” female fan, to see younger women drawing a line in the sand on this crap. Back in my day, there weren’t as many of us, and we learned the Code pretty quickly–the stuff from SFWA is all too familiar. What you have that we didn’t is the Internet to connect you and make you understand that you are not alone. Kudos!

  10. Enna

    I completely agree with the dangers of the dangers of the back channel privilege. This is unconnected to genre, but I knew a girl who was in a sorority at some big southern university – maybe USC? Anyway, she told me a story once, more of a confession, about something that happened about ten years ago. All the sororities knew that this one fraternity put date rape drugs in their drinks. If you were in a sorority, you were warned, and if you were near a guy in that fraternity, your friends kept an eye on him, on you, and on your drink. Then a girl who wasn’t in a sorority got drugged and raped at one of this fraternity’s parties. She pressed charges, and – so typical – was blacklisted socially by the greeks at the school. They all knew she was telling the truth. They all warned each other against that exact danger. But it was still completely unacceptable to report these privileged, popular guys to the authorities. The girls who were plugged into the back channel kept each other safe(ish) without endangering the system.

    I have totally benefited from back channel warnings. I’ve been in the know and thus known to avoid danger. But I know it’s a privilege. It happens – in my case, this is exactly what happened – when one woman gets harassed, chooses not to report it (for completely valid reasons that I support), but tells her friends. The only way to end the back channel is to reduce the consequences for reporting things. Then everyone can know. Until that happens, though, of course women will warn their friends, and the newest and most isolated people will be – as always – the most vulnerable.

  11. Backup Ribbon Project

    Thanks for the mention! We certainly “grew up” in fandom under the backchannel code. And while it was useful in terms of making female fans more aware of the problem children, it was ALWAYS caveated with “Well, that’s just [FITB] for you!” This was one of the reasons we started the Backup Ribbon Project. To let fans know that there are people out there who will help you, who will not sweep it under the rug, and who are not afraid to identify themselves as such.

  12. ellid

    Just read the SFWA screencaps.

    I’ll never pick up a single goddamn thing by Susan Shwartz again.

    Good God in heaven.

  13. ConFigures

    THANK you for articulating my reaction to those “oh no worries, we ladies clue each other in about the bad boys, tee hee” replies to people talking about actual harassment they have experienced/witnessed. Very good points about privilege, complacency, and teeth. Grr. The comment-story about the frats/sororities rings very true from my college days, too.

  14. Joe Vasicek

    @Cora: I feel like a bit of an explanation is in order. I took down the post because I feared that the people orchestrating this issue would make me into a target, even though I’m just as horrified as everyone else that sexual harassment at conventions is a problem and want to see it fixed. I think the original post by Elise Matthesen was quite good, that speaking out about this issue is important, and I want to support those who are coming out about this issue and helping the rest of us to understand the extent of it, and what we can do to help fix it.

    The only thing that troubles me is the way in which Jim Frenkel was outed, because I think that it distracts from the core issue by encouraging speculation and rumor-mongering. Yes, the system is broken, but is it really such a good idea to make the court of public opinion the ultimate arbiter in these cases? How does that make the community stronger and less threatening?

    These are the concerns which I tried, albeit rather clumsily, to voice in public on the blogosphere and in private through email. Instead of answering my concerns, people turned on me and accused me of “shielding” Mr. Frenkel (I have no desire to shield this man or any other from being held to account for his behavior), “silencing” women (it’s always been my intention not to silence but to engage), and several other things that simply were not true. From this, it became clear to me that many of the people behind this discussion, if not most of them, are not willing to work patiently with people who are unfamiliar with this problem in order to heighten awareness and build an alliance to solve them, but are looking simply for vindication and revenge. When I realized that, I pulled out.

    Perhaps my blog post was a bit insensitive. Perhaps it was a bit premature. Perhaps it was unjustly influenced by fatigue over the SFWA bulletin controversy. Perhaps my views on these issues are still evolving, and I’m not quite sure what I think anymore. These are also reasons why I took my blog post down. But the main one was that I saw that this is not the sort of community where I can safely work out my thoughts in public.

    Also, to clarify: I am not a well-established author, and my comments have nothing to do with “how things were back in the good old days.” My first story sale was in 2009, and I’m mostly self-published with little or no interest in seeking a traditional publisher at this time. Personally, I’m much more interested in the future of publishing and the way the speculative fiction genre is evolving than I am in hearkening back to another time.

    I hope that posting this comment will not make me into a target. I probably agree with the people attacking me a lot more than they realize (or care to realize). But it has been made abundantly clear to me that this is not the sort of controversy that I want to get caught up in at this time, so whether or not my position continues to be misconstrued, I really have nothing further to say.

  15. Natalie Luhrs

    @Joe Vasicek: Just a couple of things. First of all, there is no group of people orchestrating this issue. None. And we’ve been talking about sexism and racism in our community for a long, long, long time. Second of all, it must be nice to disengage from a discussion when you get tired of it. Not all of us get to do that. We are tired, We are tired of being polite and explaining, quietly, over and over again how this is not okay. It is not our job to educate you. It is your job to educate yourself.

  16. Bruce Arthurs

    Thanks for writing this. I have a related post on my own blog: Reporting Convention Harassment Protects Everyone.

    The story I tell there was a case of misidentification, rather than false accusation. But because those two young women were brave enough to report it to the concom, and because the concom acted on the report immediately, that misidentification was able to be corrected within minutes and any suspicion of me removed.

    Whereas, if the story that “a guy named Bruce, from Arizona” had molested two women at a convention had been spread around “back-channels”, I might have had my name and reputation besmirched for months or even years before I became aware of the story, and there probably wouldn’t have been any way to ever completely correct that back-channel story.

    So those two women, in the end, protected ME by making an actual report. When a formal report is made, the alleged perpetrator gets a chance to defend himself. That doesn’t happen with “back-channel” word of mouth.

    (Subject for discussion: Where is the dividing line between “back-channel” and “gossip”?)

  17. Jim C. Hines

    “The only thing that troubles me is the way in which Jim Frenkel was outed, because I think that it distracts from the core issue by encouraging speculation and rumor-mongering. Yes, the system is broken, but is it really such a good idea to make the court of public opinion the ultimate arbiter in these cases? How does that make the community stronger and less threatening?”

    Joe – Frenkel has a history going back at least 11 years that I’m aware of. When the last round of complaints surfaced in 2010, I and others were careful to not publicly name the perpetrator who had been reported by multiple women for harassment. That strategy led to … well, to 2013, where we learn he simply continued to harass women.

    That’s one of the reasons people accused you of shielding this man. Because people spent years not naming him publicly, and it didn’t work. It enabled him to continue harassing women. That’s the strategy you’re promoting — the one that protected him and led to more victims.

    The ultimate arbiter? Well, his employer has to follow the law. They have to look at the facts and make a legal decision. Public opinion doesn’t decide whether or not he keeps his job, or what consequences there might be.

    But maybe this approach — unlike the one you would seem to prefer — will protect women. Who knows, maybe it will even make other harassers think twice.

  18. Vicki

    @Jeremy: When you say you “hate that this is becoming much more of an open problem,” has hearing about it more led you to think that rape and sexual harassment are becoming a larger problem? Or do you mean that you hate that people are starting to talk about it more, and you can’t believe that nobody you know would even think of doing such a thing? Do you hate that it’s now possible, when a woman says “this man harassed me,” that she will be believed, and not ostracized for daring to complain?

  19. Jessica

    @Joe Vasicek: In your lengthy comment, I see concerns expressed for exactly two people: (1) yourself (stated twice) and (2) a man who has been accused, multiple times, of sexual harassment. I’d point out that if stating an unpopular opinion on the internet terrifies you so much, imagine what it is like to be a woman at a conference who is sexually harassed by a powerful member of the community. I applaud Natalie and the others for trying to educate you, but frankly, I don’t know if it’s possible.

  20. dichroic

    Re Harlan’s claim that there was no breast grab (I was there for that one too), the word that comes to minds is “Tonypandy”.

    To the points addressed in your article, yes, anyone can be harrassed. Elise Mattheson is attractive, but she’s also 52 years old (I think she said), walks with a cane at present, and is definitely a Big Name among the sort of people likely to be at Wiscon. Yet none of those things protected her, more than her face and gender made her a target.

    And I’m glad you’re reiterated the point Elise made forcefully in her original writeup: not everyone is in a position where they CAN report, and it’s unfair to put the danger and the onus on the victim. I’ve been uncomfortable with some of the posts I’ve seen recently urging all victims of harassment to report. Do it if you can, and know that it does help – but if you feel you can’t, then don’t put yourself in more danger. There will be times in your life when you can make a difference; the onus is on you to do what you can, not more than you can.

  21. Fred Davis

    The back channels seem like a means by which women can try to protect themselves when in social situations where they can’t take more useful action – they make sense that they exist, but they are a kludge to deal with power imbalances, and in many ways, as Natalie makes crystal clear, they can in fact develop into a crutch for the community that is using them as “the back channel” (and the social systems developed to augment it) gain a preferred status where it makes it harder for people to take bolder and more effective means, in part because at some point you’re gonna have one lot of people who couldn’t use more effective means and had to rely on the backchannels dealing with people are can use more effective means, and defensiveness that that tends to produce in the people who couldn’t.

    Off topic a bit, an obvious, though probably too fanciful, suggestion is to use information from the back channels to try to develop an offensive strategy to clear the fandom out a bit – maybe have a few volunteers to be honey pots for the creepers who have serruptitious recording devices on them at major cons with backup nearby but low key and unmarked, and get the honey pot to hang near the back channels’ more notorious individuals. Need to be careful about entrapment, and you gotta pay for the recording equipment, and you would have to potentially endanger the volunteers, and then there’s the issue where I realise I’m suggesting the formation of a fandom secret police dispensing vigilante justice and I probably need to get to sleep.

  22. Natalie Luhrs

    @Fred Davis: …yeah, I’m thinking that’s not a super-great idea. The back channel is useful, but as a backup to formally defined processes and procedures and a clear code of conduct. It shouldn’t be assumed that everyone just “knows” about the serial creeper who lurks in the consuite every year.

  23. Jeremy

    @Vicki: I hate that it’s even a problem. I’m so very, very happy that more women are speaking up for themselves and not letting these raging turbo-douches get away with their bullshit. Believe me, I almost had to have bail money ready when I ran into the person who sexually assaulted a friend of mine at a con. She stopped me before I forcibly ripped his nards off. I do not handle that sort of thing well. Gay, I may be, but there are just things that you do not do. Ever.

    (And really, I’m a great big softie, for the most part. But you hurt my friends, you deal with me.)

  24. skye

    I believe you, Natalie. Denying an accuser’s sexuality is often the first line of defense. “She’s too fat/ugly/stupid/dykey…obviously she’s lying because I’d never wanna fuck HER.”

    I used to think that being sexually harassed and, at times, groped was the price of admission for being female. With the help of a strong Tribe, I got over that. Speaking out like you have helps others to do the same.


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