Best-selling author Shannon Hale and other writers, troubled by how FanX organizers have reacted to allegations that a recurring guest repeatedly touched a female author without her consent, have been considering whether to appear at the convention in September. On Monday, Hale wrote to co-founder Bryan Brandenburg about her continuing doubts.
Brandenburg responded in part: “Maybe it is best that you sit this one out and then wait to hear how it went. I don’t think there is anything we can say to convince you to come and quite frankly I’m not willing to try. I know in my heart that we take this seriously and I don’t think you get it. I have four daughters and I’ve been sensitive to these issues for decades, long before it became trendy with #metoo.”
Hale took a screenshot of the reply and posted it to Twitter, where it drew dozens of furious responses — further fueling debate over the convention’s attempts to develop and promote a new anti-harassment policy while defending what Brandenburg describes as a fun environment of touch.
“John Barrowman will gladly hold your buttocks in your Photo Op. … Stephen Amell will hug you tight at his signing booth,” he assured fans on Facebook last week while sharing the new policy.
By changing the subject to touch explicitly requested by fans, Hale said, FanX organizers are blurring the conversation about consent and minimizing women’s experiences of harassment. FanX should work on building a culture that gives guests confidence that harassment is not tolerated — but it’s doing the opposite, she said.
On Monday, FanX’s official account tweeted an image of the email Hale had sent to them, including her private email address. It later deleted the post.
“When a woman talks to them privately about concerns about sexual harassment, their response is to publicly harass and doxx her,” Hale told The Salt Lake Tribune.
That shows a pattern of behavior, she said.
FanX last week released a copy of a woman’s report that she was harassed by author Richard Paul Evans at September’s convention without notifying her. Brandenburg said they did not notify her that her complaint would be distributed because they had redacted her name and other identifying information.
Brandenburg apologized on his personal Facebook page Monday night: “I made multiple mistakes in handling the report of harassment at our event. I was insensitive to people that were communicating to me about this issue. ... I wish I could take it back but I can’t. I was wrong, I made more than one mistake, and it was a very painful lesson.”
He also apologized in a thread on FanX’s Twitter account, saying: “After today’s events, I admit that I am not fully aware or educated about the importance of the #metoo movement, and this is something I am actively working to change. I need to improve on listening and making people feel validated.”
Katina Sawyer, a psychology professor at Villanova University who specializes in workplace issues, said that harassment policies should set a tone from the top that bad behaviors are not tolerated.
But they’re only as good as how well they’re enforced, and to the extent that the organization sends signals that preventing harassment is something it actually values.
“It doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of collaborative problem-solving going on here, but more like, ’ Hey, we heard this complaint, we want to minimize the damage to us,” Sawyer said.
Evans says he is “repulsed” by accusations made against him. His assistant Diane Glad also denies them, saying she is always with Evans when he is in public settings — including the 2017 FanX event — and in more than nine years has not seen him “involved in any act that warranted a complaint. Nor has a complaint ever been made, outside of this group of women at the Utah Comic Con.”
FanX has said it began investigating the complaint against Evans in October 2017, the day after receiving the woman’s written account.
She wrote that Evans “touched me several times and went so far as to kiss my cheek. I had never met him before. ... but he made me very uncomfortable and even said, ‘You’re so pretty’ after he touched me, as though he couldn’t help himself.”
After the incident, she spoke with the workers at the signing booth, who told her “he’s like that,” she wrote. Other author attendees told her they kept their distance from him for that reason, she added.
“He has a reputation and no one warned me, which is why I feel the need to speak up,” she wrote.
On Monday, Evans wrote that her complaint was not true. “This false reporting makes me sound creepy,” he said. “I told her she was pretty, kindly, as I said, ‘You’re pretty, that’s not going to hurt sales.’ I was trying to make her feel good. Again, I was congratulating her and I was in public. I have a witness to the event. I also remember her coming back with one of my books to get it autographed.”
Another Utah author told The Tribune that she had an encounter with Evans at the convention’s 2013 event that she considers harassment. It was unpleasant enough that the author, who asked not to be identified, has not returned as a speaker, though she’s been invited several times.
She and Evans were both there to sign books. Though they had just been introduced, Evans kept touching her, she said.
She moved her body away from him, she said, but ”he wouldn’t stop coming over and rubbing my arm. It made me really uncomfortable, but I was trying to do my job and not let on to the fans who were there for me that it was fazing me.”
Glad, who said she was with Evans at the 2013 event, said: ”Not only is this claim false, it is impossible. Richard always has massive lines and wouldn’t have the time or even the opportunity to ‘walk over and rub some woman’s arm, while she tried to get away.’ Richard is never alone. At the 2013 event he signed for more than an hour and had five assistants helping him with crowds.”
The allegation is “bizarre,“ Evans said. ”It sounds like collusion and the fact that you are posting unvalidated allegations by anonymous sources is highly unethical.“
The Tribune generally does not name alleged victims of sexual harassment. While the author did not report Evans to FanX, she said she did tell her husband. He told The Tribune he remembers her saying when she got home that she’d had an experience with Evans that made her feel uncomfortable, and describing that he kept touching her arm.
Author Robison Wells said she told him about the experience in February this year, before the other woman’s 2017 account had become public.
There wasn’t a clear channel for reporting the incident, the author said. The conduct didn’t warrant a call to police, she said, but was “something I would take to HR if we were in a workplace.”
That’s why having and enforcing a strong harassment policy is important, Hale said. For many authors, appearing at FanX is part of the job — a time to meet fans, sell books and promote their books to an audience of thousands. But its actions show that it’s not a safe place, she said.
Recent comments by FanX co-founder Dan Farr seem to be designed to demean the initial accuser and dismiss Evans’ 2017 interaction with her as nothing more than “good-intentioned hugging,” Hale said.
Farr previously told The Tribune that Evans “is very huggy and demonstrative,” and added that “giving that warm reception to fans is very positive.”
Evans, focusing his comments on fans, said in the future he would ask “everyone” whether they want to be hugged.
Evans said he has sometimes kissed female fans on the cheek, “a sign of friendship” habit he picked up living in Italy, but added, “I’m not going to kiss anymore. That freaks Americans out.”
To Hale, Farr’s comments sent “a signal to abusers that ‘You’ll get a pass here,’ and to victims, that if you speak up, we’re not going to take you seriously,” Hale said.
FanX said it concluded its investigation into Evans and other undisclosed guests last week, and found that while law enforcement did not need to be involved, “the behavior that we discovered warranted warnings to the accused. … Their behavior was offensive, unwelcome and unacceptable to the recipient and they needed to change it. The change was not negotiable. It was a requirement for them to participate further in our events.”
Brandenburg wrote that one guest accused of harassment “chose not to come back.” That appears to refer to Evans.
Reached via email last Friday, Evans said, “I think Bryan described the situation accurately and is proceeding correctly.”
Hale said she will not be returning to FanX, set for Sept. 6-8 at the Salt Palace Convention Center, and that she has heard from multiple other Utah authors who won’t be. Thriller writer Brendan Reichs posted on Twitter that he has withdrawn his previously announced appearance, and fantasy author Jessica Day George also said she will not be attending until FanX shows it has improved. Young-adult authors Dan Wells and Gwenda Bond have also posted that they will not be attending.
FanX’s recently updated harassment policy, Brandenburg posted on Facebook last week, “is constructed around the premise, ask first before hugging, touching and other physical behavior. Don’t make sexually suggestive remarks. Don’t hug without asking. Don’t take pictures with a Cosplayer without asking. Be a decent human being. Respect. Personal. Bubbles.”
Wells, who spearheaded an effort by his fellow Utah authors to spur FanX into upgrading its harassment policy, said he was “very frustrated” by Brandenburg’s focus on consensual fan interactions.
“The behavior that was found offensive — that, indeed, made it harassment — was that the behavior was unwelcome and unwanted,” Wells said in an email. Equating “a hug that is welcomed as a friendly photo op” with unwanted touching “is very disrespectful to the victims.”