Just because you like someone doesn't mean they won't do bad things. It's a cliche to hear "but he's a nice guy" when someone is accused of harassment, and we tend to side with our friends. That's part of what friendship means, in practice if not in everyone's ideals. (For me, if it's a matter of whose needs to prefer, who to help first, I will tend to help my friends. But there's a difference between helping someone with the rent and driving a getaway car or faking an alibi.)
I recently got a reminder that my judgment of people isn't perfect, that I can enjoy someone's company and call them a friend, and that proves little or nothing about what they're capable of when I'm not around.
Genevieve Valentine was repeatedly harassed at Readercon
. She posted about it, and there was some discussion of ways in which the harasser's behavior was inappropriate, and why you don't get to insist on someone's attention to your apology after she has repeatedly told you to go away. The conversation in the comments was pretty good (despite one or two people effectively defending the harasser, by trying to create impossible and shifting standards of proof).
At that point, Genevieve had filed a complaint but was waiting for a decision from the Readercon committee. The harasser had not been identified. A few days later, on July 26, badgerbag
asked if someone could tell her who was being talked about. They did, and she posted the information: The harasser was René Walling.
Until this, I've thought of René as a friend. A few weeks ago, I was playing board games with him while visiting papersky
, and it's been the sort of friendship where we hug hello and goodbye, which I've been comfortable with.
The fact that I have felt safe around Rene proves nothing
, or nothing relevant. (Few harassers or sexual predators try to grope every woman they meet, after all.) Maybe he's just not attracted to me. Maybe he leaves me alone because he knows I'm partnered and therefore I look less vulnerable. The reasons don't matter, because I don't think they're likely to change: whether I want to keep spending time with Rene will be about whether I am comfortable knowing that he harassed other women, not about my own safety.
Yesterday, Readercon told Genevieve that they were suspending the harasser for two years
and would be making no announcement about this, just telling her (and presumably him) privately. Bear in mind that until now, Readercon's official policy was that anyone who harassed another con member would be suspended permanently.* After a few hours of people pointing out that they were violating their own policy, that Genevieve did not feel safe, and that they seemed to be prioritizing either the con's reputation, or Rene's, above Genevieve or any woman's safety, Readercon issued a statement
which basically said that they were going easy on Rene because he had admitted his deeds but told them he was sorry. Oh, and if they get "substantiated reports" of him harassing anyone elsewhere, they may ban him permanently.
There's a lot wrong with that, discussed in the Readercon LJ community and elsewhere.
At the moment, I'm expecting to see René next weekend (in the company of dozens of other people). I'm not at all sure how I feel about this. Yes, he's a friend and normally I would ask him what he had to say about this. But having read and thought about most of the story before I knew it was about him, I can't think of much he could say that would make a difference. He has admitted to harassing Genevieve. The Readercon committee, while asking for his side of things, didn't follow up on the other complaints about him—but they are significant, and mean that my friend, this guy I enjoy hanging out with, is a repeated sexual harasser. One instance may not imply two; two implies more.
Do I want to try looking past that, and if so, why? Do I believe that he is going to try to rehabilitate himself, and if so, would my saying something like "I think the Readercon ban should be permanent*, but I think we can still hang out together" be helpful in that? (If I conclude that his contrition is an act, and he's just going to be sneakier from now on, my decision is easy: someone who intends to keep harassing women is no friend of mine.) My social circle is large enough that I am statistically confident it includes other sexual harassers. I can only hope that the harassment is entirely in the past. If René stops, is that good enough for me to keep socializing with him? Trust, no: but I don't need trust on that level to play boardgames or proofread something for him. (There are different kinds of trust: I don't think he'd be likely to cheat at cards, but that doesn't matter if I decide I don't want to sit at the same table with him.)
* I pointed out in comments to someone that while the phrasing in the not-actually-followed Readercon policy is "zero tolerance," enforcing that wouldn't mean throwing Rene in jail, or confiscating his car or other property, or banning him from all conventions. Just Readercon.