This is a guest post by Sean Gillespie. He is a student at Wichita State University in Kansas and a member of Air Capital Skeptics (SkeptICT).
***Update***: A few updates have been made to this post since it originally went up in order to clarify some confusing parts.
The issue of how people should behave regarding sex and conferences has been a hot topic lately. Instead of dredging up old arguments on proper behavior I want to talk about some things that we can be doing to actually solve the real problems that arise at conferences. Being offended by someone and feeling threatened by them are two completely different issues. It is time we stop pointing fingers and shouting absurdities and actually start taking steps towards putting an end to the threatening situations. Event organizers and attendees both have actions that they can take to substantially reduce these kinds of problems.
First, I would like to see conference organizers develop specific plans for dealing with individuals harassing others and helping those who are being harassed. The people organizing the conference are in charge and have a certain level of responsibility for providing a safe environment for everyone. I recently spoke with a woman who attempted to report problems with an individual at a conference and was met with what she felt was a dismissive and insulting response from the organizers. I think this is completely unacceptable and organizers should be capable of dealing with complaints of inappropriate behavior in an efficient and professional manner.
Building a good response plan is going to take time and require some trial and error to determine what works well. I know organizing a conference can be a nightmare, but I think this is something we really need to focus on as we go forward. These plans should be clearly laid out at the beginning. They don’t need to be a strict set of rules, but should at least include some basic guidelines. Emergency contact information for organizers should also be provided to every attendee. The backs of name tags or simple business cards would work great. A response plan is no good if no one is aware of it.
Conference organizers should be prepared to:
- Keep an eye on reported problems.
- Speak with an individual who have had complaints against them.
- Eject problem individuals if necessary.
- Assign a volunteer to stay near the person being harassed.
Relating to the last point, it is not the organizers’ sole responsibility to take care of people. We could be doing a much better job of taking care of each other. We all need to be maintaining some situational awareness of what is happening around us. We cannot continue to fall into the trap of thinking “not my problem” or “they will take care of themselves”. If our goal is to make society as a whole better, then we need to be doing things to reflect that in all arenas.
When I was in the military, we were constantly taught to have a wingman and a plan when we were doing something. It was our responsibility to keep our wingman safe. This was concept was reinforced in almost every aspect of military life and even appears in pop culture. “That was some of the best flying I’ve seen to date – right up to the part where you got killed. You never, never leave your wingman.” — Jester (To Maverick). It was also core component of sexual harassment and assault prevention training. This is something we need to be doing for each other.
Conference attendees need to be prepared to:
- Ask someone discreetly if there is a problem.
- Give an individual a way to break away from someone that might be causing them problems.
- Position themselves in ways that makes it difficult for a harasser to gain access to their target such as taking the seats around them.
- Don’t allow an individual to become cornered or isolated with a harasser.
I bring these things up because of events that I observed at the 2011 SSA conference. Regarding the first suggestion, I was told that the SSA folks did have some kind of plan in place to deal with problems. Unfortunately it was never clearly announced, rendering it somewhat ineffective.
As far as the second suggestion goes, it was only slightly more effective. While at the conference I observed an individual pressuring a woman to join him for sex. I had gently intervened twice throughout the day when he was not respecting the woman telling him that she was not interested. After the second incident I thought it was a settled issue and my wife and I left the bar. Unfortunately this was not the case. It is not my place to get into details, but this individual behaved in an extremely inappropriate and threatening way towards this woman later in the night when no one was around. I had even considered going back to the bar to check on things after taking my wife back to our room. I deeply regret not having done that now. Thankfully, in the end, it was resolved without major issue.
We need to be doing a much better job of actually taking care of each other at these events. All of the fighting over these issues is completely meaningless if the only action taken is finger wagging and telling other people how they should behave. There are things we can be doing to protect each other from harm and we are not doing a very good job following through if these issues continue to be a problem.
Update: There has been some confusion regarding the events described here that I want to clear up. The incident involving the woman who had problems reporting harassment was *NOT* at the SSA conference. That was a separate issue that she is currently working to resolve herself. The incident that I witnessed was thought to have been resolved early on, but then later quickly escalated and I did not learn of the full extent until after the SSA conference was over. The SSA was unaware that this happened. I left the details intentionally vague in an attempt to respect the privacy of the individuals involved in each of these incidents. I think the SSA has taken an important step forward by having policy on hand, but I believe we need to be doing more. I hope this clears up any misconceptions.