When to speak up?

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Alessandra Kelley

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So. Here's a thing.

I attended Windycon in Chicago earlier this month.

James Frenkel was there and he said something unnerving and I can't let it pass unremarked.

James Frenkel is a book agent and editor. He has been banned for harassment from WisCon after a long history of incidents with many women at many events.

At Windycon I was on several panels, including Friday evening's "I Really Hated That Book Cover", a lighthearted look at some of the visual misfires of SF's past.

The next evening there was a panel titled "I Hated That Book Cover Even More Than the People Did Yesterday." James Frenkel was on the panel, something which didn't quite register. I attended as an interested audience member.

Panelist Rebecca Frencl introduced herself as an eighth grade teacher trying to get kids interested in books.

Ms. Frencl highly recommended the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, which are a series of fairy tale adaptations set in a dystopian SF world of cyborgs and future tech.

Unfortunately the first book, “Cinder”, has a cover of a cyborg foot in a red spike-heeled pump. It looks so “girly” that Ms. Frencl couldn't convince her eighth grade boys to give it a second glance.

She expressed her frustration with a book cover skewed so heavily towards a stereotypically female audience that it lost the interest of boys.

At that point Mr. Frenkel said the unnerving thing.

He smiled and said "Except for the wrong boys."

And I sat there, blank and shocked as the audience, some of them, laughed.

And as my stomach dropped thoughts raced through my head.

What just happened?

How would they be wrong?

Wasn't it a good thing that boys, any boys, be interested in that book?

Did that man just make a joke at the expense of eighth grade boys who would read this book?

What. The. Hell?

And then the moment passed and the panel went on and I wasn't sure if I should interrupt to object, if it would spoil the mood, if it was an irrelevance or a distraction.

I was on edge for the rest of the convention.

For most of a fortnight I've been thinking about what to do.

It has helped that over on File 770 comments this past week (on “Pixel Scroll 11/15 Scrolled Acquaintance” http://file770.com/?p=26029 ) “Rev. Bob”, an employee of Steve Jackson Games, has eloquently argued why it is important to speak up when we see abusive behavior in the SF community, that historically fandom “relies too much on 'the grapevine' and too little on reporting.”

Is what I witnessed abusive behavior?

The casual dismissal of entire categories of people in careless jokes contributes to a hurtful atmosphere, an environment that tells them they are not welcome and not important enough to respect.

In some ways it reminds me of the incident this summer when SF author Brad Torgersen tried to insult SF author John Scalzi by jokingly insinuating that he was gay. After a public uproar Torgersen apologized for the insult to Scalzi -- but not for the brutally backhanded insult to gay people, the casual assumption that they are somehow just inherently a marker for wrongness.

There are a number of important questions that urgently need discussing if we are to have any sort of careful, agreeable, professional and accepting environment for our conventions.

Many people make thoughtless remarks or cruel witticisms or little jokes. Should people be more mindful of them?

Is it right to treat a category of people as inherently funny or insulting?

How much tolerance should there be for little jokes? At what point does laughing them away become aiding and abetting the marginalization of a segment of the community?

Should a person with a known history of abusive behavior be held to a higher standard than others? What about a person in a position of authority?

Should we not speak up when we see such behavior?
 

Roxxsmom

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If I didn't feel comfortable taking that on in front of a crowded room, I might consider mentioning it to the con organizers. I grew up in an era when jokes about men's masculinity and orientation were just part of the landscape, and I know many of my generation (let alone older folks) don't think about how these things sound, even if they're not overtly hostile towards LGBTQ people. Kind of like the old insult "retard," which some people still haven't gotten the memo about.

But I would hope that in this day and age (and given the history of harassment and marginalization in the SFF community), people would be more sensitive to this. Occasional gaffes are not something I'd want to see a person banned for, or even punished necessarily , but a reminder that some members of the audience probably share the demographic he just insulted, and that all are supposed to feel welcome/respected at cons, would be in order.

And considering this guy's history, one wonders how careless the gaffe was to begin with. He might have been deliberately trying to provoke a response so he could rally the troops, so to speak. There are socially conservative people now (though how anyone with any pride can associate harassment of women with traditional family values is beyond me) who use any approach at all to calling out or correcting that kind of insensitivity (that becomes publicly known) will be met with cries of "Oh, noes, the PC SJW thought police are at it again! Can't they take a joke? They pick on white, straight males all the time. See how hostile and unwelcoming they've made cons for our kind of fans."
 
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E.F.B.

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I wasn't there and therefore obviously have no idea what kind of intonation the man used when he made this joke, and intonation can change perceived meaning, but was he actually talking about gay boys? Because my first thought when reading what you've written here was that he was making a joke about how people will say a girl shouldn't wear a certain thing (like sexy red spike-heels) because it will attract the "wrong" kind of boys. Or that the boys who would be attracted to a cover featuring a girl's leg wearing a sexy shoe might think the book is about *ahem* other things and want to read it because of that.

Even with that meaning the joke is pretty stupid and he probably shouldn't have made it at all (especially since it could be taken a different way, like it was), but I'm just throwing it out there that he might not have been talking about the cover attracting gay boys, nor implying that they are "wrong".

Still a stupid joke though.
 
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Twick

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The problem is that it's hard to prove what specifically he meant by "wrong boys". If he meant gay, it's atrocious that he's applying "wrong" to them. But as we can see, there are other possible interpretations, such as boys who mistake it for porn, etc.

Unfortunately, this is something that someone should have called him out on right then and there. What exactly did he mean by "wrong boys"? If it's done now, people will argue about it, constructing and deconstructing the statement over and over. Complaining now will likely do no good and possibly do harm the next time someone calls out something more obvious.

I'm astonished that cons are still inviting him, since that does appear to be a gesture of support. If you want to do something constructive, I suggest writing to the organizers and letting them know that not only did they invite someone with a problematic background, he continues to make offensive comments (you were offended, no matter what he meant), and you are not impressed with him or them.
 

Roxxsmom

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The problem is that it's hard to prove what specifically he meant by "wrong boys". If he meant gay, it's atrocious that he's applying "wrong" to them. But as we can see, there are other possible interpretations, such as boys who mistake it for porn, etc.

Hmm, I hadn't thought of that. My interpretation was that he was taking a stab at boys who like to cross dress, or maybe at transgender girls (who many people still insist are confused boys). My hunch is that a serial sexual harasser would be "nudge, nudge, wink, wink," about teenaged boys who read erotic books, not thinking of them as "the wrong boys," but who knows?

Unfortunately, this is something that someone should have called him out on right then and there. What exactly did he mean by "wrong boys"? If it's done now, people will argue about it, constructing and deconstructing the statement over and over. Complaining now will likely do no good and possibly do harm the next time someone calls out something more obvious.

That's the hard part. It takes a lot of guts to stand up at a con and challenge a well-known (if somewhat tarnished) figure for a crack like that, or even to "derail" the panel discussion by sweetly asking for clarification. The con organizers must like and respect this guy, right? They must think the accusations that led to his banning from WisCon to be unfounded, right? Or they wouldn't have invited him to participate as a professional guest at ChiCon. I know those are the thoughts that would be going through my mind if I was at a con and someone said something that felt like it might be prejudiced. If this dude is an editor or agent or famous writer, no aspiring author, or even simple fan, would want to end up on his bad side, right? Who knows who else he knows and might talk to about you?

I'm astonished that cons are still inviting him, since that does appear to be a gesture of support. If you want to do something constructive, I suggest writing to the organizers and letting them know that not only did they invite someone with a problematic background, he continues to make offensive comments (you were offended, no matter what he meant), and you are not impressed with him or them.

Yeah, that's my feelings about it to. A letter after the fact might be your best bet. If you noticed the comment and felt it might have been a slur, others certainly did too, in spite of the laughter of some audience members.
 
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King Neptune

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Whether he meant gay or something else isn't all that relevant, because it was not relevant to the discussion; it was a sidetrack. From your description of what came earlier, I'm not sure that the whole thing wasn't irrelevant. I would have yelled out that cover graphics aren't usually relevant to the book. The artists often know nothing of the contents, and the eighth rade teacher should have tried to impress that on the students.
 

Amadan

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Yeah, I would have taken "wrong boys" to mean "boys who are already finding high heels and a woman's leg sexy." More of a "bad boys" joke than a crack about gay boys.

Kind of a dumb comment, but the man seems to be unable to not make dumb/borderline comments.
 

Aggy B.

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Yeah, I would have taken "wrong boys" to mean "boys who are already finding high heels and a woman's leg sexy." More of a "bad boys" joke than a crack about gay boys.

Maybe, but they were talking about eighth graders. Plenty old enough to be starting to think anything is sexy.

As far as when to speak up, I would definitely contact the organizers. I did that after sitting on an uncomfortable panel last spring.

It can be difficult during an actual panel to address something like that, regardless of whether you are on the panel or in the audience. But some of that depends on the overall tone of the particular convention. Some of it depends on who is making what comment. (I had one co-panelist turn to me and say "I feel like I should take a Midol or something," in reference to being the only male among the panelists. Which annoyed me, but I sincerely doubt he meant to be offensive.)

I'm still very new in the local con scene, so I try not to make too many waves, but certain things need to be brought up - even if it's only to the convention staff.
 

Lillith1991

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Yeah, I would have taken "wrong boys" to mean "boys who are already finding high heels and a woman's leg sexy." More of a "bad boys" joke than a crack about gay boys.

Kind of a dumb comment, but the man seems to be unable to not make dumb/borderline comments.

How is that? The way I see it, there's some pretty big mental gymnastics required to reach the conclusion you have. It's considered normal for a 12 year old boy to break into his dads porn stash, and it has been for decades. Someone in 8th grade is typically 13 or 14, and that's not an age group known for their complete lack of sexual desire in the least.

Far as I can tell without further context, the man did likely mean either trans girls or effeminate gay boys who would be attracted to the cover because of the fashion association of a shapely leg in heels. That's about as far as can be from implying overly sexual straight boys are the ones he is making fun of. And considering the controversy surrounding him, that he would make fun of such boys makes not even a lick of sense.
 

Amadan

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How is that? The way I see it, there's some pretty big mental gymnastics required to reach the conclusion you have. It's considered normal for a 12 year old boy to break into his dads porn stash, and it has been for decades. Someone in 8th grade is typically 13 or 14, and that's not an age group known for their complete lack of sexual desire in the least.

No, but they tend to be shy/covert about it, certainly not likely to be willing to be seen in public with a "sexy" book. The exceptions being the ones who'd brag about it. And Frenkel's history suggests his comments are more likely to be on "risque"/yucking it up about sex side, thinking himself birds of a feather with the "bad boys." So far as I know, he's never said anything homophobic.

None of us know what he actually meant by the comment, so either interpretation (or others) may be possible, but there are no mental gymnastics required.
 

Lillith1991

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No, but they tend to be shy/covert about it, certainly not likely to be willing to be seen in public with a "sexy" book. The exceptions being the ones who'd brag about it. And Frenkel's history suggests his comments are more likely to be on "risque"/yucking it up about sex side, thinking himself birds of a feather with the "bad boys." So far as I know, he's never said anything homophobic.

None of us know what he actually meant by the comment, so either interpretation (or others) may be possible, but there are no mental gymnastics required.

Yes, yes it does. It doesn't matter whether he meant one thing or another, it doesn't change what he said. Nor does it change that if one person was uncomfortable with what he said, others were almost certainly just as uncomfortable with it and also felt unable to speak up about it. The 'good ol' boy' nudge and wink attitude is far from an admirable trait, and the man would need to hide under a rock to not feel/see that things have been seriously shifting in recent years. Shifting away from the very type of attitude he was exhibiting with that remark in fact. I doubt he doesn't know that, not with the amount of allegations about him and the fact he was banned from one con already for his good ol' boy attitude. Not in so many words of course, but people do realize the attitude is why he felt the right to harass women so openly for so long, and why he felt his actions were ok in the first place. The man would need to be obtuse to not be able to figure out this stuff.

And in order to properly theorize what this guy was likely thinking with any accuracy requires the same type of mental gymnastics, because the number of people who understand his thinking dwindles more and more every day. Even people of his own generation find his attitude gross, so this isn't just something the younger gen wants to change.
 
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Fruitbat

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I'm not sure it's even necessary to do anything about it. Things have changed enough that clods like him are in the minority, imo, and he probably just made a giant ass out of himself. Again. However, if you want to shoot an email to the organizer or whoever, why not. I wouldn't bother addressing him directly. He's shown he's either too obtuse to get it or he doesn't care, or both.
 
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davidjgalloway

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Agree with Fruitbat that the speaker himself is unlikely to change--but that's never really the goal. So I wouldn't do nothing, as that perpetuates a culture of sighing but not acting when people do this sort of thing. What should be made clear, ideally by the organizers, is that such comments are out of place, and if he wants to ever come back, he can't do that sort of thing. The organizers should also have frank discussions about how to actually protest such things when they occur. Usually, it's that nobody knows what to do--not that they don't realize it's wrong or offensive. If the con develops a protocol for offensive speech, moderators will be ready to leap in when something occurs. That won't correct the speakers, especially if they are set in their ways, but it will show the audience that the con and the groups it incorporates have a zero-tolerance for such speech.

This is not related to a con, but a case that was a flashpoint in my neck of the woods involved two speakers who used language variously described as "racially insensitive" through "racist" at an alumni event (link below). There were lots of people in the audience (including those with explicit power roles in the college) who could have objected, but no one did, and a specific item that has been discussed in the aftermath is what is required to intervene at moments like that, which speaks back to the OP's question.

(http://theithacan.org/news/blue-sky-kick-off-marred-by-racially-insensitive-comments/)
 

Amadan

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Yes, yes it does.

Uh, no it doesn't, because I'm able to arrive there without any. I think your reading is a stretch. Clearly we disagree. Shrug.

The 'good ol' boy' nudge and wink attitude is far from an admirable trait,

I didn't say it was admirable. I think he's kind of creepy, whichever way he intended it.
 

Polenth

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The small jokes and similar comments are a daily thing. I personally don't tell people every time they make one or report it. Not because it's not hurtful, but because it's not really possible or productive to do that every time it happens. For a start, I'd end up doing nothing else in the day. It can be very hard to explain why a small comment hurts so much. Anyone who isn't in a target group doesn't get to see how often it happens, and how much the hurt builds up. Plus when I have tried, it's not taken seriously. Privately it will be dismissed. Publically it will lead to death threats and the like. Unless it's a person who has already shown an interest in wanting to change their language so they don't hurt people, nothing good will happen.

In this case, I think a letter would be ignored. They know he's been harassing women for a long time, and invited him on the panel anyway. They're not going to care about a gay joke. It doesn't hurt to let other fans know to be careful, as you've done here. It might not occur to people that he's still getting panel slots, and they may want to check and avoid any panels he's on. But the con staff have already shown they don't care.
 

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Should we not speak up when we see such behavior?

Probably. I'm not sure I could have. But if he wasn't asked to clarify what he meant by "wrong boys" right on the spot, then I'm not sure it helps to bring it to anyone's attention. As you've described it, reasonable people could disagree as to his intent.

Roxxsmom said:
And considering this guy's history, one wonders how careless the gaffe was to begin with. He might have been deliberately trying to provoke a response so he could rally the troops, so to speak.

That's my suspicion as well.
 

zanzjan

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It doesn't matter whether he meant one thing or another, it doesn't change what he said. Nor does it change that if one person was uncomfortable with what he said, others were almost certainly just as uncomfortable with it and also felt unable to speak up about it. The 'good ol' boy' nudge and wink attitude is far from an admirable trait, and the man would need to hide under a rock to not feel/see that things have been seriously shifting in recent years. Shifting away from the very type of attitude he was exhibiting with that remark in fact. I doubt he doesn't know that, not with the amount of allegations about him and the fact he was banned from one con already for his good ol' boy attitude. Not in so many words of course, but people do realize the attitude is why he felt the right to harass women so openly for so long, and why he felt his actions were ok in the first place. The man would need to be obtuse to not be able to figure out this stuff.

I don't think anyone has said anything that disagrees with that?

And in order to properly theorize what this guy was likely thinking with any accuracy requires the same type of mental gymnastics, because the number of people who understand his thinking dwindles more and more every day. Even people of his own generation find his attitude gross, so this isn't just something the younger gen wants to change.

Well, but doesn't that apply to any interpretation? Including the one that the comment was aimed at LGBTQ?

Personally, I find Amadan's suggestion of a possible interpretation plausible. I don't find nearly it *as* plausible as Alessandra's take on it, but neither do I need to do backflips to see it. I think, regardless of how one weights possible interpretations -- all admittedly conjecture -- we can at least agree that there doesn't seem to be any obvious or likely acceptable meaning to the comment? And thus, that the issue at hand is how best to both report such a comment?
 
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Lillith1991

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I don't think anyone has said anything that disagrees with that?

You're right.

Well, but doesn't that apply to any interpretation? Including the one that the comment was aimed at LGBTQ?

Personally, I find Amadan's suggestion of a possible interpretation plausible. I don't find nearly it *as* plausible as Alessandra's take on it, but neither do I need to do backflips to see it. I think, regardless of how one weights possible interpretations -- all admittedly conjecture -- we can at least agree that there doesn't seem to be any obvious or likely acceptable meaning to the comment? And thus, that the issue at hand is how best to both report such a comment?

Not really. I'll use the 50 year phenomena of the Kirk/Spock fandom within Star Trek as an example.

There are things that point towards passionate friendship instead of romantic love and things which point towards romantic feeling, but there's also grey areas like Spock's warm, decent feelings for Kirk. Despite this, Star Trek fans both for and against the pairing instead argue most over things which aren't open to interpretation, leading to some pretty wild leaps in logic.

Interpretation isn't always subjective is what I'm trying to say. Amadan's answer to what the man meant is one of two or three logical conclusions, but it doesn't pan out with further information on the man unless he was deliberately trying to stir stuff up. That's where I'm seeing leaps in logic, in twisting the facts of who the man is, the fandom enviorment he spent quite a long time in, and when the man grew up. He also said what he said right after a female teacher lamented how hard it was to get the majority of the boys she teaches to read books with very much female marketed covers like Cinder, something he likely wouldn't have said if the cover of the novel in question wasn't what it is.
 
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jjdebenedictis

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My first impression of his comment was that this was a dig at gay/trans boys. It didn't even cross my mind that he might be implying straight boys would mistake this book for something titillating to the male gaze.

Regardless, it was a micro-aggression of some stripe, made by a guy who has been shown to be a pretty gross human being. All I'd suggest doing is writing to the organizers of the conference and letting them know you didn't appreciate them giving a platform to someone who was fired for sexually harassing women at cons over a period of years, especially in light of the comments of dubious taste he made on that panel.
 

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Like many others have said, it comes down entirely to his intentions. His joke is most concerning if it was aimed at homosexuals, but relatively harmless if he was talking about bad boys. The use of the word 'wrong' makes me think it's the former considering how common the term bad boy/s is—makes no sense he'd call them something else.

I also think it's nearly impossible to speak up on the spot, especially when you can't be certain of what a person means. Best to bring it up after the fact.
 
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Pretty clear to me it was inappropriate. My initial reaction would be to simply ask, "What do you mean?" Of course, it is a bit of L'esprit de l'escalier. Too late, now.

I believe in instincts. If it made you feel that way then you are probably right.

Writing a letter can't hurt.

The speaker and the comment are both on the wrong side of history.

(BTW, I'm new to the site. Interesting thread to start with)
 

Roxxsmom

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I didn't say it was admirable. I think he's kind of creepy, whichever way he intended it.

And no matter how he intended it, it was clearly a bad joke since people can't even agree on what the punchline was. Some people in the audience laughed, though, so they at least thought they got it and thought their own interpretations was funny.

Though sometimes laughter can be simply the polite covering up of befuddlement or discomfort.
 
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Weirdmage

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I must say that I immediately saw what was said as a stab against gay/trans boys/men. In the context of it being said by someone who is known for a long history of harassing women, I find it very hard to credit any other interpretation. -He's clearly in the "old boy's club", and I don't see how he would think it "wrong" for boys to take an interest in women, quite the contrary.

Having said that, I think it's very minor problem compared to Frenkel actually being on a panel at a SFF convention in the first place.
Compared to someone who is "only" an attendee a panelist is in a place of power. Personally I wouldn't go near a convention where a serial harasser is placed in a position of power.
It seems to be quite common though for SFF convention organisers to take more account into who have been on the convention circuit for years than how their behaviour makes other attendees feel.
 

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One comment on the con organisers. I know nothing about the particular people who organised the con so this is a general remark.
Many cons have a different committee each year. If you haven't been to cons where a particular something went wrong you may not have heard about it. The invitation could have been entirely innocent of knowledge of this guy having made -ist remarks in the past. No-one can know everything. It is possible the committee asked around for someone who was effective on a panel for a particular subject and the guy was recommended.
My take is - let the committee know, politely, that you weren't happy with the remark.
Above that - if anyone has problems with a particular person for this kind of reason - why not write to whichever con it is committee well in advance of the con (when guests are announced) to say - this guy has in the past done xxxx and so on.

It is hard work finding effective panelists - not only knowledgeable but able to talk well and interact well with others. So - committee folks do tend to ask around, and also invite people they've seen to be effective previously. (Also possible he'd been seen behaving nicely on a previous con panel, hence invite.)
 
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Amadan

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Interpretation isn't always subjective is what I'm trying to say. Amadan's answer to what the man meant is one of two or three logical conclusions, but it doesn't pan out with further information on the man unless he was deliberately trying to stir stuff up.

I think it's entirely possible he was deliberately trying to stir stuff up. I also think it's entirely possible he's just naturally a creep with no filters or sense of boundaries. You have no basis for simply declaring that one can know what he actually meant and intended unless you have further information, or can read his mind. I'm also not claiming I know my interpretation is the correct one, but since you made a crack about how things were back in my day when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I'll point out that while James Frenkel is actually (cough) significantly older than me, I am closer to his generation (and gender) than you are, and it is perhaps possible that this actually gives me more insight into what a dude like that might have been thinking.

Again, that doesn't mean my first intuition about what he meant is right. It does mean it's not some illogical leap, like pairing Scotty and Worf. :p
 

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