How To Report Sexual Harassment, by Elise Matthesen

Conventions and conferences are at their best when they’re safe spaces for those who attend — but sometimes those safe spaces are violated, and in cases of sexual harassment, it’s important to know how to report the situation. Here, then, is Elise Matthesen to talk about sexual harassment at conventions — and what steps you can take to report it after its occurrence. (Note: you’ll also find this cross-posted at the blogs of Seanan McGuire, Jim Hines, John Scalzi, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Brandon Sanderson.)

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.

74 responses to “How To Report Sexual Harassment, by Elise Matthesen”

  1. Well done to Elise, for having the courage (and support) to stand up and make herself heard. I hope that with her formal reporting of this matter, the individual in question will suffer the consequences of his actions, and that justice prevails. I can only imagine how difficult it was for her to not only come forward at the event itself, but to write this account which has been shared on various blogs. Hopefully, a little of her strength will pass on to other victims of harassment, encouraging others to speak out against their antagonists.

  2. Kudos for standing up and speaking out! All too often we as women hear “Oh, c’mon, don’t be such a party pooper, boys will be boys” from both the boys’ club and other women. If we don’t take ourselves and our own feelings seriously enough to report unacceptable behavior, then it will never stop. Thank you, Sir Wendig, for sharing.

    • This is so true. If you end up being pawed at by some freak at a party you are suddenly the slut (excuse my language) for saying no and making a scene if the guy doesn’t stop. “Look at that skimpy dress, the make up, she was asking for it”. What, am I supposed to go out in some knight’s armor, so that guys leave me alone? Dress like some sort of troll.
      I like how I look, I like my body and I like wearing pretty things, but that does not mean some random dude is allowed getting touchy. No means no, regardless of what the girl wears.

      Thank you, Chuck, for being the great guy that you are. The world needs more men like you. And well done (and thanks) to Elise for standing up for herself.

  3. As I read this post, I kept wondering “What the heck did he do or say?” Sexual harassment is sexual harassment. However, conventions can be a weird cross between social activity and business. Get some drinks going and some folks might think they’re at a party. I can only assume that the harassment was severe–like a groping or some over-the-top statement. But I wonder if it was as simple as a request for a date, or (as is now considered inappropriate in business nowadays) saying “You look fantastic in that suit.” To me, the article would have more credibility if I weren’t left with wondering if the author were ultra-sensitive to innuendos, vs. having experienced something more extreme. Regardless, the author provided some good advice on how to report the infraction.

    • And this reply accomplishes… what, exactly? Other than saying Elise Matthesen, at 52 and a publishing and convention veteran, does not know her way around a con and might possibly have been mistaken in being offended by someone who knew he was offending her because he told her she was “lovely when she was angry.” Credibility applies when you’re being asked to judge the validity of a claim. You’re not being asked that, because that isn’t what this is about — it is, frankly, none of your business what actually happened or who did it or what the situation was until or unless Elise chooses to share it, and she’s not required to do that. Neither you nor me nor anyone else gets to decide that maybe she wasn’t really harassed because she chose not to prove it after the fact to the satisfaction of a random person on the internet, particularly when the reporting agents take it seriously. There is plenty of proof here, if proof is something we need to search for in an article about how to handle harassment — not acknowledging it is your choice.

        • Probably because the case is currently sub judice, having – as mentioned in the essay – been reported through proper channels.

          • I wasn’t saying she was bored and made it up. Far from it. I was merely pointing out that “there is plenty of proof here” in ‘crossedstars’ comment is inaccurate. I have no doubt that Elise has proof via witnesses. I also have no doubt that Elise was a victim of harassment, and that she did the right thing by reporting it. I also agree with most everything else said by ‘crossedstars’. But there is not plenty of proof in the post. There just isn’t.

        • Sorry, dude, but the point of this post was not to provide proof but to let recipients of sexual harassment know how to deal with it. I see your point, but seeing that you’re not part of the jury you’re just going to have to trust the OP’s statement.

          • Which I do trust, as per my reply to Sheryl Nantus. I suppose I should have been more specific about what I was responding to, but it certainly wasn’t my expectation to have proof or an attack against the validity of Elise’s experience.

      • I actually had a bet with myself while reading that this reply, the “she should tell us so she can prove she’s not oversensitive,” would be in the first 5.

        • Lol. I did too. Of course, the point of the article wasn’t ‘I was severely harassed at a con and here’s what happened.’ The point was, here is what happens when you report sexual harrasment at a con (at least THIS con) and some things to consider. But some people still want the full scoop. We’re curious creatures, of course we want to know. But that isn’t the point of her article so it isn’t even remotely needed.

          • Sure, curiosity is normal. I’m curious as to what happened, but I’m also curious as to my attractive neighbors’ sex life. And I’ll never actually do anything about my curiosity.

            I do think you’ve hit on something there, that some of those requests for more info couched in various ways to do with the blog post may really have more to do with “I want to hear the salacious scoop” than anything to do with the broader point of the post.

    • What exactly would you like to know? From Elise’s description I gathered that the whole experience was traumatic enough, and she does not need to share the gory details with us, the uninvolved public. Isn’t your question the same discussion some people are having about rape and incest? Was it, like, real rape? Or just, you know, a little rape? Sexual assault is not a contest of who’s had the most awful experience, and to me Elise was more than credible, even without the details you were perhaps craving for.

      • But those details are important, so he can decide whether or not she was making it up. Because lady brains make it so hard to tell if we’re just being oversensitive or if it was “harassment harrassment,” right?

    • I know everyone jumped down your throat after this post but it is EXACTLY what I was thinking. I know far too many women now that think being told she looks nice (by a guy) is sexism & harassment. I assume by the effort put into reporting this, that the incident was major and/or a physical one, but maybe not.
      Yeah I know it’s none of my business, but not knowing shrouds the whole message in a ‘was she just being overly sensitive?’ group.

      • Thanks for this. I think it’s unreasonable to expect readers to not wonder, and to say “it’s none of your business” is just simple thinking. We can *assume* it was something major (or she wouldn’t have reported it), but as an author she should be able to at least allude to what the incident was about without detailing and violating privacy. How about I write an article on “I was libeled, it was really, really bad, and what you can do about it if it happens to you” without providing any information? The incident itself becomes part of the story and to deny the readers this information is to deny them the truth and the ability to make decisions for themselves. If she was uncomfortable alluding to what the incident involved, perhaps she is not the best source to write the article. How can it possibly help women (or men) who have experienced the severe trauma of harassment if they can’t believe she’s in the same ballpark? Reporting these things is no small matter, and it would help them to have the courage to report if they knew she had experienced something at least as devastating.

        And, as I said before, I still appreciate her taking the time to provide information on how to report these actions.

        BTW, I’m a woman.

        • No, no it does not matter. That’s not the point. Her advice wouldn’t change depending on what had actually happened to her. Besides, if she felt like she had to make a report, no matter what the incident was, that’s her decision. It doesn’t matter if it was “really, really bad sexual harassment” or a remark that made her uncomfortable. What specifically happened to her is not important. She is not obligated to share something that made her extremely upset and offended with a bunch of strangers on the Internet. When you’re reporting sexual harassment, the process itself is the same no matter what the magnitude of the incident was. A rude comment is reported the same way a groping is reported. It doesn’t matter if she experienced the same thing as somebody else because it was serious enough to HER to the point where she wanted to report it.

          • Lala, saying it does not matter is your opinion. I was giving an honest response to my reading of the article and am not trying to force my view on others, unlike some others here. If she was only going to write a “how to report sexual harassment” she could have used bullet points.

            Now…back to writing…

    • Do you really think that she would do something that terrifying over a simple complement? That she would, in her mind, risk her career because she’s just has a stick up her ass? She’s a 52 year old woman and a convention veteran, not an insane child. If she doesn’t want to talk about it, then that’s her right. Besides, what happened isn’t important. The article isn’t supposed to be about exactly how she was harassed, it’s about how teaching people who might be less experienced with cons or worried about the repercussions that it’s okay to want to stand up for yourself, and giving them the knowledge to do it.

    • The question doesn’t warrant some of the responses, but this is the internet so you get what you get.

      That said, the specifics of what happened are not relevant to the article, or to judging the credibility of the advice given. The article is directed only toward how to go about reporting an incident. That will remain largely unchanged no matter what happens, unless you start moving into areas of criminal behavior.

      Unless you believe is author is being dishonest, I think it is clear from the details that are given that something serious took place. However, the exact nature of it, and the level of seriousness, has no bearing on the advice given in the article about reporting an incident, and as a reader you can easily determine the credibility of the advice on its own merits without knowing anything at all about what took place.

    • “What the heck did he do or say?” isn’t really any of our business, especially if the investigation is ongoing. Judging by the response of the Safety officer, who realized that it was serious enough to warrant an official report, it seemed serious enough to me. Asking for a date is pretty unprofessional, but not quite harassment — the FIRST time. If this person persisted in their inappropriate behavior after Elise made it very clear she did not appreciate it, that’s definitely harassing. For instance, I’ve had guys approach me at the bar/similar social situation. The ones who stopped their advances after learning I was in a relationship were fine. It was the “I don’t care” or the “So?” or the “Just let me buy you a few more drinks, see if you change your mind” and the “Yeah, your point? *scootches closer*” people I hated. I kind of expect people to be idiots at bars. In a professional or even semi-professional situation, though, that kind of thing is completely uncalled for.

    • 1) As other people have pointed out, it’s none of your business what, exactly, constituted the reported harassment. It is clear from the article that the experience was traumatizing, that the reporting process was onerous, and that despite the trauma and the fear of reprisal Elise thought the incident serious enough to report. That’s all you need to know.

      I’ll also say, as someone who’s been a victim of (severe, physical, long-term) sexual harassment, that the question “Yeah, but what really happened?” is really fucking rude. And victim-shamey. And reeks of “you only get to be traumatized if I say you can be traumatized.” Nobody, not even the “ultra-sensitive”, needs your permission to feel harassed.

      Which brings me to 2) Different people are traumatized by different things. You may think that someone being bothered by innuendos is “ultra-sensitive,” and that only a person who has experienced something “more extreme” has the right to be bothered or upset or feel violated. Stop that nonsense right this second.

      The only criteria for whether a person was sexually harassed is “Did I feel frightened? Did I feel intimidated? Was this behavior unwanted, did it make me feel uncomfortable?” And guess what? Words can do all of the above. If a person who is in a position of power or in a professional setting makes sexual comments, directed towards me or not, that make me feel small and isolated and disrespected, or like my personal safety and bodily autonomy are at risk, then it’s sexual harassment, period. And yes, in certain contexts, “you look fantastic in that suit” or a request for a date would qualify.

      And 3) You don’t get to decide what other people find traumatic. You don’t know their life experiences, whether they’ve been harassed or assaulted before, or whether there has been previous incidents with the harasser that have colored how the victim perceives their interactions and intentions. Just because you wouldn’t find something to be sexual harassment or to be traumatizing does not mean that no one else is allowed to, nor does it mean that a person is “over-sensitive” if they do.

    • Or you could just take her at her word when she says there was a problem. You could stop and wonder what makes you think you’re entitled to judge how “severe” the harassment was, even if you did know the details. You could consider that if multiple other women expressed fears for their safety around this guy, that maybe there was some fire under that smoke.

      But of course, you probably won’t. Because whenever a woman complains about a man, the question always somehow manages to become “what did she do wrong?”

  4. My only comment is that all the follow-up from HR and legal seems excessive to me. Did they not believe her the first time? What was all that about? Were they trying to make it such a cumbersome process that she’d say, “Y’know what, this is too much to deal with. Drop it.”? HR and Legal are there to defend and protect their own (at least in the last few companies I’ve worked at. You don’t dare go to them with a problem).

  5. HR and Legal being there to protect their own doesn’t necessarily exclude the due diligence necessary to properly follow through with harassment claims. I was witness to a harassment claim in my company, and the level of involvement of their HR/Legal team was consistent with what it sounds like Elise experienced.

  6. Your experience is unfortunate. I’m sorry this happened to you.

    That said; a few things…

    You cannot trust the HR or legal departments for this company; they are there to serve the company from a lawsuit and ultimately, you. Your harasser will get a talking to and classes and be on his merry way depending upon their policy; alternatively, be fired; it will depend on the threat that the company feels from you as to what ultimately happens to him. So, get a lawyer if you want to see this through, a lawyer, who represents you & your cause because, at this point, the only one on your side of things is YOU.

    Secondly, writing conferences are no different than sales conferences. Indeed.

    There are those in attendance with all the power and those in attendance who want or need some of that power; thus, the match and gasoline are always present and read to combust. Like sales conferences, strangers and alcohol and power make for an entertaining and subversive combination. Be aware. Truly, that is the only message that can be taken from your post. This article will not help anyone other than its own ability to start its own little incinerating fire among the genders.

    Why? Because sexual harassment is a grey area. Period. Full stop.

    What constitutes as harassment to one is a simple flirtation gone awry to another. I’m not belittling what happened to you, but I do know that the perception of this kind of behavior varies by gender and age. No offense. It’s true.

    Lastly, and most important for you…Get a lawyer. Oh, I already said that. It bears repeating.

    • “Truly, that is the only message that can be taken from your post. This article will not help anyone other than its own ability to start its own little incinerating fire among the genders.”

      So, Elise started the fire among the genders by reporting and by writing this article. Not the harasser. Wow, I wish I was as smart as you, because I thought it might have been the harassment itself that was a problem. But apparently it’s the like the inevitability of a combustion when you have a match and some gasoline. Which has magically escaped it’s container. Oh, wait.

        • You said the article will start the fire. The article about harassment and how to report harassment.

          I haven’t been reading that long, and this is the first post that I’ve followed along and commented, but I’m pretty sure that you’re doing a disservice to the other gender. Chuck and the other men who regularly comment here are not giant asshats who harass women and defend other men for harassing.

        • I think it’s kind of sad that you think an article about sexual harassment “will just divide along the gender lines.” Either you think that men aren’t capable of understanding sexual boundaries, or you think that sexual harassment is an inevitable fact of life and not worth starting an argument about.

          Either way, sad.

          • That’s all you got out of what I said in these comments? Geez…. Sexual harassment is a grey area. I don’t care what someone else posted about definitions. It will vary by the situation. It will vary by the circumstances, the witnesses, the social mores, the timing, the amount of alcohol involved, a person’s upbringing, or lack thereof, corporate policy, education, sensitivity training and did it take the first time or not or did they check the box?

            I don’t think all men are capable of knowing sexual boundaries. No, I don’t. I don’t think that excuses bad behavior either, but it exists. Every day. And some woman suffers from it or with it or because of it. Don’t lecture me about not knowing what I’m talking about. I do. I DO. Just know that I’ve seen both sides. It’s not black and white. It’s not. It rarely is.

          • I was responding to your point that an article about sexual harassment will only cause strife between the genders. That, to me, indicates that you think men and women will never be able to agree on the definition of sexual harassment. I think that attitude is not only unfair towards men, particularly the ones who have made insightful and progressive comments on this blog and others, but also defeatist. Saying that it is useless to try to educate others on sexual harassment because it will only start the gender-wars is a slap in the face to both the victims of sexual harassment – female *and* male – as well as men like Chuck, John Scalzi, and others who clearly care about furthering such education. (And I’ll also note that, even though you were certain this article would “just divide along the gender lines,” the only commenters who seem to think that the sexual harassment Elise experienced must conform to their expectations in order for her trauma to be legitimate have been women. Just saying.)

            The only “grey area” is whether or not the person on the receiving end of the harassment felt victimized. Period. Nothing – not the social mores, not the witnesses, not the corporate policy – determines whether or not it was harassment other than how the victim felt. To argue that factors other than the victim’s feelings – such as the upbringing of the harasser or whether the harasser/victim had consumed alcohol – enter into the equation *is* excusing bad behavior, whether or not you admit it.

            Unfortunately, I also know what I’m talking about. Been there, done that – get kind of pissed off when people try to pass off what happened to me as a “grey area”.

    • “Because sexual harassment is a grey area. Period. Full stop.” – Katherine Owen
      There is no grey are in what sexual harassment is. People’s ignorance of what it is doesn’t make it poorly defined; it just makes them ignorant.
      Sexual Harassment – Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment
      Sexual Assault – illegal sexual contact that usually involves force upon a person without consent or is inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent (as because of age or physical or mental incapacity) or who places the assailant (as a doctor) in a position of trust or authority.

      • “There is no grey are in what sexual harassment is. People’s ignorance of what it is doesn’t make it poorly defined; it just makes them ignorant.”


        There is a big difference between a little innocent flirtation, even when it is unwelcome, and sexual harassment. For one thing, flirtation ends when it is not reciprocated. Guys (and gals) with honest intent aren’t going to want to humiliate themselves by escalating or by continuing to pester someone who doesn’t return their interest. Grabbing, poking, slapping rears, mentioning the appearance of body parts that are deemed sexual in most cultures and so on are pretty clear lines that most people of both sexes are aware of by the time they’re out of high school.

        From what I’ve seen in my own field (academia, which now requires sexual harassment awareness courses) victims of harassment and discrimination still tend to err on the side of “being a good” sport and not making waves, especially when they feel that doing so could endanger their careers. Even knowing what I know, and being in my 40’s, I’d be terrified if I were at a conference as an unpublished but aspiring writer and an editor did something that was clearly over the line.

      • It isn’t true that there is no grey area. In fact, there is quite a bit of it. Even with statutory definitions, there is grey area in definition of terms, and when you look at the case law you’ll see that a lot of it comes down to courts trying to figure out whether given activity falls under the statutory definition (such as hostile work environment).

        The grey area is actually good, because it is victim-specific. In other words, the same action may constitute sexual harassment with one person, but not with another. It validates the victim’s own feelings, instead of having some guy with a clipboard looking at a list when something is reported and saying ‘Nope, sorry, that’s not on here.”

      • Not at all. From what I’ve read in the comments, I’m the only one giving her sound advice. Get a lawyer and telling her no one is on her side, in terms of who she has reached out to so far, is helpful. Those HR people and/or corp. lawyers calling her are doing so to ensure she isn’t going to be a problem for them. And, that’s all they care about.

        Been there. Done that. I know what it is. In my teens, in my twenties, in my thirties and in my forties. Four separate incidences. You have to weigh the costs to you (personally, financially, politically, emotionally) because there will be all of THOSE. She is brave for posting but she needs a lawyer if she’s going to pursue this and those of you standing on your high moral ground and saying “here, here” aren’t going to really help her in any way. And the lesson is “not to go to authorities and report”; the lesson is to get a lawyer and prepare yourself for the battle because there will be one.

        • I agree with you in every way about the company’s HR not being there to help! But reporting even without lawyering up DOES have one positive result — the company has a report on file and when it happens again, they have more documentation that weighs in favor of firing the guy. Reporting helps the next reporter.

    • Can you explain for me when “the amount of alcohol”, or “a person’s upbringing”, or “sensitivity training” would determine if someone had been sexually harassed or not?

      Sexual Harassment is unwanted and sexual in nature (as perceived by the victim). No amount of rhetoric will change that. Your “grey” smokescreen has been the pathetic defense of many a perpetrator.

  7. As someone with (many) decades of HR experience, I have zero trouble believing that Elise experienced the very behavior I saw so many of our staff snicker about, heard their victims complain about — and eventually used to document their terminations. What had me stunned is this line: ” 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.”

    Whenever I did training, I told every manager that they can be personally liable if they become aware of harassment — even from someone who says they want to keep it confidential. In addition, as the case with Mitsubishi showed (where the company said they never received any complaints of sexual harassment, but the courts awarded $34 million judgment against them), the company is also still liable if they *should* have been aware of a pattern of hostile work environment.

    It’s hard work to pursue an allegation, let alone a claim. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people in my office who start by saying, “I don’t want you to do anything about this, but I just thought you ought to know.” And I had to stop them and say, “I’m required by company policy, as well as by state and national law to investigate and take appropriate action.” Some went ahead to tell me what had happened. Others did not. But I can honestly say that in all the decades I was in HR, there was only one false accusation, and that very soon unraveled to reveal an attempt to cover up embezzlement with an accusation of harassment.

    Elise, you have my admiration. Even if you had to grow into it, you did stand up to the bully and show the rest of us what courage, maturity, and integrity look like. Thank you.

  8. I am a co-chair for WisCon 38. If anyone would like to comment privately to the co-chairs on this topic, you are welcome to email

    If you would like to make a formal report of a prior incident at a past WisCon, I can put you in touch with our Safety team.

    Piglet Evans,
    WisCon 38 co-chair

  9. I wish I’d had the guts to formally report the systemic harassment I endured back when I was in my twenties while working for a commercial baking company. The few times I tried, I dropped the idea when Personnel told me to lighten up because the boss in question treats all the girls the same way. I don’t know why that mattered, but it did — I felt like I was wasting everybody’s time because nothing was going to be done anyway. I just had to endure it and always be ready for his antics like sneaking up behind me to tape my arms down to my office chair.

    I wish I’d been as brave.

  10. I’m oblivious by nature when I’m harassed. Truly. It’s only after the fact, sometimes by years, that I realize, hey that wasn’t cool. I even had a stalker once. The stalker was the only incident I reported, not because he scared me. I own a gun. I just knew that there was something not right in the head with him and he needed help. I know, I’m naive. I’ve always called the spade a spade to his face at the time of the offending event.


    I was a funder for a sub-prime mortgage company, working late with only a handful of people. I needed some conditions signed off and the only one left with signing authority was a manager for a different region. So, I packed up my file with conditions and marched down to his office, which happened to be on the other end of the world from where the rest of my co-workers were working. I rapped at his open door and made my argument for the conditions. He said “What’s it worth to you?” I said, “I don’t follow.” He said, “How ’bout you shut the door and we find out how far you’re willing to go to get the conditions signed off.”


    I replied, “I know you didn’t just say that. I know this because if you had just said that, I’d rip off your pecker and shove it so far down your throat you’d shit it out the other end.”
    He laughed (uncomfortably I think) and said “I was just kidding.”
    I said, “Really? I wasn’t.”

    He signed the conditions and I never had another issue with him. Incidentally, he was fired a year later on the grounds of sexual harassment. It never occurred to me that the advances towards me was something I should report, because he never bothered me again. I wasn’t afraid to get conditions signed off either, even late at night without witnesses.

    Each harassment I endured I handled pretty much the same way, because I was naive that it was happening at all.

    Like in high school when all those prepubescent dunderheads “accidentally” bumped into me in the hallway so they could feel how real my boobs were. I didn’t realize until recently that it should have bothered me more than “really? wow. I get it. You’re stupid.” reaction that I had at the time.

    And this is just me. I realize I’m special. My mother always told me so. So I’m not suggesting to anyone that this is how anything should be handled. Sometimes though, this is why stuff doesn’t get reported. I was never scared that someone wouldn’t believe me or that someone would blacklist me for any reason. I just handled it to my own satisfaction and kept going.

  11. Good on you for reporting the harrassment when it happened and not brushing it off. I worked in an office with 8 young guys who – when I started in their department (I worked in a big insurance company) they thought hazing me was okay. But because I was a woman it wasn’t. And the boss forced them to go through a sexual harrassment course; which none of them took seriously. The only time they did was when I threatened to report them to the boss (which I did) and once I did I then threatened my boss that I would quit if the guys weren’t under better control. That happened very quickly.

    • Good for you. Because clearly the best way for people to defeat harassment is just to let it scare them into not going to conventions. While we’re at it, I guess all women should just stop going to work in case they’re harassed there, too.

      The implication “I avoid alcohol” gives that “she must have been drinking” disgusts me. Why shouldn’t she be able to enjoy herself and make professional connections at a convention without being made to feel uncomfortable and harassed — and then told she shouldn’t have gone in the first place?

      Maybe you didn’t mean this comment to sound rude or victim-blaming, but that’s how it comes across. It’s not fair to put all the pressure for stopping harassment on the victim. If you don’t risk something, you can’t gain anything worth risking. So, yeah, people might risk being harassed at conventions, but thanks to this article we know how to report it.

  12. Good that people are talking about this sort of stuff again. People seem to forget how big an issue this is if you don’t remind them at least a few times a year.

  13. Hello Chuck…

    I have little in terms to blog about this weekend and the recent abuse of women in genre bugs me so much as someone who grew up bullied and affected by it for life.( and no I do not compare my experience to that of women that I recognize is much worse) I will be blogging and linking to this and your other articles as long as that Is cool with you….
    Totally love the fact your doing this…

    Take care man

  14. I’m new to writing and going to conventions is something I’ve been looking forward to. That is until I’ve begun hearing about harassment of women at these conventions. Now, I’m not so sure I want to go. I’ve been in the business environment for a long time and that sort of behavior is not allowed so I’m actually baffled why this behavior is commonplace in the literary world.

    I’m sorry you had to go through that, for the third time no less. Good luck with the reporting, hope some sort of punishment will be meted out.

  15. “I don’t know how to describe the modern rose, when I can’t refer to her shape against her clothes…”
    Cruel – Prefab Sprout.
    OK now I feel bad about me, where next? There’s a whole hinterland not being discussed here.

  16. I will say that, at at least some companies I’ve worked for, there are fairly clear definitions of what does and doesn’t constitute harassment. Sure, there will be some gray areas (as with any rule or law … hey, I undoubtedly have left work with a pen still in my pocket) but it’s mostly pretty clear.

    For example, an HR person at one company I worked for told our group that it was considered generally *not* harassment if you asked someone out … ONCE … privately, etc. (and not bringing sex, etc. directly into it or other inappropriate behaviors. I gather, for example, “would you like to go out some evening?” would be ok). I mean, it’s possible they are interested, and how would you otherwise know? Once they say “no,” you don’t get to do it again (yes, one could argue “but it’s a year later, and we know each other a lot better” — again, probably a gray area… but on the flip side, if things are going that well and they know you are interested by your asking, they could always then ask you if they change their mind).

    Personally, I avoid making comments when I wouldn’t make an analogous comment to the other gender… I figure an occasional “you look sharp today” would be gender-inspecific, for example, and I’ve never gotten anything but a smile and a “thank you!” from it. I’ll keep you all posted if I’m ever written up for it. 🙂

  17. Elise,

    Hell yes. I only wish I would have know better when I was barely eighteen and at Otakon for the very first time. *Sigh* It didn’t even occur to me that there was anything that I could do about it at the time.

  18. A lot of people here have commented that as many women as men are doing the ‘victim-blaming’ thing. I think that’s out of fear rather than ‘letting down the sisterhood.’

    Many women, when they hear about another woman being harassed/assaulted, understandably fear the same thing happening to them. So they look for the ‘something’ that they shouldn’t do if they want to avoid that fate – “as long as I don’t drink alcohol/dress provocatively/act flirty I’ll be fine – it won’t happen to me.” And those same caveats are the ones they point to in sexual harassment cases they hear about: “well, she did that, so that’s why it happened…” These are the imagined ‘magic commandments’ that will stop such awful things ever happening to them… follow The Rules and all will be well…

    I can understand why they would want to cling to that, in the hope it will be enough to keep them safe. If I were in their shoes, I’d probably still think that way too. But when I was nineteen I followed all of those rules to the letter… and, much as I hate to burst the bubble, they didn’t save me from some of the most traumatic experiences of my life at the hands of someone who didn’t care if I was a ‘good girl’ or not – hell, even knowing I didn’t even LIKE him didn’t deter him. And it wasn’t just a one-off incident either – it went on for about six weeks, until he was jailed for driving offences for a year and I moved 300 miles away. If I say I CAN’T go into details because it left me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which took me years to recover from, perhaps that will give some indication of how serious what he did to me was.

    That was over twenty years ago now – and yet, to this day, every time I think of those events all I do is go over and over in my head what I could have done/should have done differently to *maybe* have stopped it happening. And even after twenty years, I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer – because there ISN’T one.

    Being a ‘good girl,’ playing by The Rules and trying to be invisible and uninteresting to potential predators is NOT going to keep you safe, people – that’s the cold, hard truth from someone who’s been on that front line. That’s why we HAVE to stand up to those who cross the boundaries, to keep shouting about this and not be made to feel bad about not wanting to be treated badly. I was too terrified of the man who preyed on me to speak up at the time – a man who cheerfully admitted he had done the same thing to other girls before me and “got away with it” (his words.)

    If there had been someone – ANYONE – who would have supported me if I’d reported this man – even if their only reason for doing it WAS to stop the ass being sued off them or whatever – then maybe I would have had the courage to do so. And then maybe all the other women who’ve since (undoubtedly) suffered at his hands after I finally escaped from him would have been spared. That’s something else I’ve had to live with too.

    So yeah, report it. Keep talking about it. Spread the message that this sort of stuff ISN’T just ‘harmless joshing from the lads’ and that women DON’T ‘need to chill out and stop being over-sensitive.’ Because for every one victim of sexual harassment/assault who is too afraid to speak up, there will be others who suffer as a result.

  19. […] any cons, but many, many people have written about their own experiences. Elise Matthesen wrote How to Report Sexual Harassment, about what happened to her at WisCon. It stresses the importance of making a formal report (if […]

  20. I’m a guy- Every time i go to my local Kmart store and I go into the electronics department this lady- if she is working the day I go in- always is fresh with me. Once I was with my mom and we were talking about natural cures- she made this comment- “I wish you were my doctor.” It’s the way she said it- is was creepy and weird and gross- and they way she looked at me like I was a piece of meat. It made me sick at the stomach.

    I didn’t say anything- I’m surprised my mom didn’t say something. She doesn’t always say something in a semi- weird sexual way- she just is overly friendly whenever i go into the department when she is working. Thank God she hasn’t tried to touch me or anything- I guess she is smart enough not to do anything that stupid. I just wonder if I should just ignore her or report her. I don’t want to get her fired- I have never said or done anything to her to give the impression that I am interested in her- i don’t dress in a sexual way or do or say anything that could be construed in a sexual way.

    From what she has said about herself she is a lonely middle age lady with kids who wants a man- I just wish she would flirt with someone else besides me. I don’t like it- it grosses me out. I’m not sure what to say to her or to anyone else there- Again like I said earlier I try to avoid her as much as possible- and I try not to even say or even make eye contact with her. I don’t understand the sexual harassment code- is this sexual harassment? All I know is that I don’t like the way she responds to me- I don’t flirt with women nor anyone and I most certainly don’t make gestures or inappropriate comments that might make others feel uncomfortable or threatened. What should I do about this situation? Please respond. Thanks.

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