Sex and Secular Conferences

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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • JamesB

    This is the first sensible post I’ve read on this whole sorry mess. Practical and pragmatic. One other thing that should be added to the list is keeping a record of incidence reports so that we can build a statistical picture of what is happening rather than anecdotal evidence.

  • Kelly B

    I have never been to a secular conference, but I have read some of the issues that seem to come up about this issue.
    I am a women, and I feel that what Sean says is very valid. That said, I also feel that women (and men) should be aware of these sorts of things all the time, in all situations.
     If I was to go to a conference, be hanging out at the hotel bar afterwards speaking with a guy, I would know my limits and what I felt safe with, just as I would were I going for a drink in my neighborhood. If everyone else was leaving and I felt I did not want to be alone with the person I was speaking with, I would go to bed. If  I felt worried the person was going to follow me,  I would ask the bartender to keep an eye on me, or to find someone to escort me to the elevator, hallway, taxi, or my room.
    I also feel that I would expect organizers and volunteers at a conference to be responsive if I reported someone acting inappropriately.
    I also wish that the men at these conference to act like evolved individuals and respect the women they meet, but I know I cannot always expect this from people of either gender.
    Lets all be responsible and respectful. As Sean said, “If our goal is to make society as a whole better, then we need to be doing things to reflect that in all arenas.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/d3st88 Morva Ádám

    “threatening situations”
    Really?
    This is really happening at atheist conferences?
    Can’t we just fucking close the Rebecca W. drama forever and pretend she does not exist? Quite frankly I’m sick of this and I find it hard to believe that mature women are incapable of telling degenerates to fuck off or ask for organizer/security/bystander intervention when things get ugly.

    • Kay Abshire

      Yes, it does happen. Nowhere in this post was RW mentioned, so I’m not sure why you brought her up? And it isn’t that women are incapable of telling jerks to bugger off, but rather, when the jerks refuse to take “no” for an answer. And unfortunately, others aren’t always around to intervene when things do turn ugly.

      • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

        ” The issue of how people should behave regarding sex and conferences has been a hot topic lately.”

        That’s the first line of the post. It’s a reference to ‘Elevatorgate’. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the post or Morva Ádám’s response, it’s utterly disingenuous to act like it hadn’t already been brought up.

    • http://twitter.com/kariedgerton Kari Edgerton

      I find it hard to believe that mature PEOPLE (not just men or just women) have a hard time respecting peoples boundaries and not creating threatening situations.

      • CatBallou

        “Mature” being the point. Yet many people obviously have such trouble, so a response is called for.

    • lee

      This comment is STEEPED in male privilege. Women who get harassed are often shaken enough to tell some (possibly violent) person to fuck off. And women are culturally conditioned to be polite and accommodating, which can make facing harassment even harder. 

      Furthermore, why should it be up to the VICTIM to be the responsible one? How about we teach boundaries and limits to harassers instead? 

      • Rberta

        Exactly. I hate this idea that makes it sound like women need babysitters and bodyguards to protect them when really, you should watch your friend’s behavior that they’re not acting out of line when interested in someone. There you go.

        And keep in mind that harassment doesn’t always mean threats or violence. I’ve been to a conference on another subject, and as one of the few single and younger women, was blatantly hit on by guys the entire time. Guys who assumed it couldn’t hurt to ask. The last two days I stopped socializing with anyone I didn’t know before getting there, since it was so frustrating and annoying to be told how flattered I must be. Sometimes men need to consider theur cumulative effect and not just take the chance because no harm, no foul. Pay attention to reality instead of self-serving cliche and opportunity.

      • http://www.facebook.com/d3st88 Morva Ádám

        You’ve gotta be kidding me. You talk about male privilege then for the defense of womanity you bring up how they’ve been culturally conditioned to be accommodating. 

        You realize that defense makes no sense at all? Perhaps males have been culturally conditioned the other way, so it’s okay if they hit on women at conventions, subways, elevators, funerals.

        I very strongly doubt that people who harass other people are unaware of the boundaries of harassment.

        • Dubliner

          Woman need to get over their fear of embarrassment and get loud. I’m 5’2″ and I never had any problem seeing off any jerk who harassed me. If  one polite request to back off and leave me be failed I’d immediately get very loud and aggressive with something like: “Get the fvck out of my face and take your hard on with you” at the top of my voice. All those heads swiveling to stare at the, by now, red faced buffoon always resulted in him slinking away with his tail between his legs.

    • James Emery

      SHIIIIITSTOOOOOOOOORM!!!

    • http://www.spellwight.com spellwight

      Fuck off didn’t work at TAM8 when Creepy Guy systematically made the rounds. First he’d interrupt a group to hit on a woman until the people around her would run him off, but not before he handed her his business card with his room number already written on the back. Then he moved on to the next table to hit on another girl.

      Yes, most women are conditioned to be polite. Not me, I told him to his face he was being the creepy guy and he just stared at me for 5 seconds and went right back to making every woman in the bar uncomfortable. It happens all the time.

      • http://www.facebook.com/d3st88 Morva Ádám

        I don’t understand why people like him get kicked out. If he poisons the atmosphere of the meeting, surely, he deserves a boot up his ass. I didn’t think there really are people like him at conventions.

    • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.friel Aaron Friel

      Please maintain a tone of civility in the comments. I’m not objecting to discussion of controversial topics, but I think Stef would agree with me that we don’t want this to become a post-elevatorgate blog comment cesspool. This applies to the original poster and anyone that might reply. If a flamewar erupts, we’ll nuke the thread from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593675787 Glenn Davey

      Don’t feed the troll. PLEASE.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593675787 Glenn Davey

      He’s a young male from Hungary. He has no bearing on this issue. Please don’t waste your precious typing finger on this person.

      • http://www.facebook.com/d3st88 Morva Ádám

        My age, my sex, my location plays into this how exactly, my love?
        I’ve been to quite a lot of public group events and this never occurred.
        I find it hard to believe that this is a real issue and until people will give talks and lectures on meetings about how raping women is bad and asking them out in an elevator is bad this crap will annoy the community for a very long time.

      • http://www.facebook.com/d3st88 Morva Ádám

        My age, my sex, my location plays into this how exactly, my love?
        I’ve been to quite a lot of public group events and this never occurred.
        I find it hard to believe that this is a real issue and until people will give talks and lectures on meetings about how raping women is bad and asking them out in an elevator is bad this crap will annoy the community for a very long time.

  • Adam Brown

    The person referred to hear is someone I know very well. She handled herself ok and nothing bad happened. She is polyamorous and when this guy heard it, he thought that was an open invitation for sex. Didn’t matter whether he was an atheist or not… just a horny college guy that didn’t recognize boundaries or take hints very well. It’s all good now.

  • Alice D

    Harassment can be an issue, and certainly it is something to be aware of and prepared for, but I would caution people against perpetuating an atmosphere of paranoia, since I think this might allow for more sexual segregation as women may be protected from nonexistent attackers. There is a difference between being mildly annoying due to social awkwardness and being a hostile force. Indeed, it does make one uncomfortable when another person comes on too strong to an individual who is uninterested in sexual activity, however, is not some level of discomfort to be expected when dealing with rejection and desperation for sexual contact in social settings? When is it too much?

    I like Adam Brown’s post- I suspect thats exactly the sort of thing that happened here- kind of annoying but nothing to start a ruckus over.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

      Maybe I am paranoid, but I’d rather be paranoid and safe than, you know, polite and accommodating and DEAD.

    • Adam Brown

      Yes, the SSA plans great events and they did have a plan in place. This guy did grab her breasts and she pushed him away right as a group of SSA attendees were walking up. This scared the guy enough to back off and she got away. When another girl complained to her later that this guy had been equally aggressive with others, it was reported to an SSA Leader and the gentleman was spoken to. I don’t know if they kicked him out or not, but it did stop the behavior. Again… probably just a horny single college guy away from campus thinking he’d “get some” while in Ohio. All is good.

  • http://twitter.com/JoeCascio Joe Cascio

    Excuse my cluelessness, but what conference is referred to in the original post? And what exactly is a “secular conference”? Any conference that excludes religion as a topic?

    Signed,
    Confused…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593675787 Glenn Davey

      No. But where Secular issues are at the fore-front, such as separation of church and state, skepticality, science, religion, etc etc.

      Hope this helps!

  • http://twitter.com/everydayatheist Everyday Atheist

    I’m very happy to see an expression of the “we’re all in this together” mindset.  The people being harrassed at these events are our friends, colleagues and fellow travelers.  It’s not right to put all the onus on individuals to fend off creeps on their own.  We have a responsibililty to look out for one another. 

    As for event organizers, I’d keep the banhammer handy.  While kicking out unruly individuals might create a ruckus at first, the message will pretty quickly get around that sexual harrassment won’t be tolerated in our community.

  • BonnieBeth

    Yes, there are “threatening situations” happening at conferences. Even ones outside of our community… and that’s the thing, this happens everywhere.

    I would like to leave this here for all to peruse:
    The Open Source Women Back Each Other Up and Gentlemen’s Auxiliary

  • lee

    I’m sorry, am I missing something? The headline is about sex, but the article is about sexual harrassment. They are VERY different things, no? 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593675787 Glenn Davey

      “Sex” is a big enough topic to be the right word to use.

      It’s not just about harassment.

      It’s about SEX and everything that comes with that in human beings, and how to manage it when large groups of primates are under the one roof.

  • http://twitter.com/RobinMarie1789 Robin Marie

    I just want to second the person who noted the misleading title. Sex is quite a different thing than sexism or sexual harassment; or, if you meant the sexes of male & female, “gender” is probably more appropriate to the issues discussed here.

    I note this only because the title as is plays into the hands of men (and some women) who like to chalk up the current discussions about sexism as nothing more than sex-phobia or frigidity on the part of women, and also because actually a lot of people do have sex at such conferences and have a great time doing so. So it is best to be clear that when we talk about sexism, we are not being sex negative nor judgmental of anyone’s consensual behavior.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593675787 Glenn Davey

      It’s about managing the urges of hundreds or thousands of primates in the one building.

      They don’t have this problem in sheep paddocks.

      But humans have complex brains and desires.

      Sex is the issue here, and how some people WANT it when other people DON’T, and how to manage that. The Secular Conference is just the current setting.Someone also had a problem with what exactly a “Secular Conference” is.I think when anyone but Hemant posts all of a sudden everyone becomes pedantic nit-pickers.It’s quite obvious what Sean Gillespie was saying and needlessly breaking posts down phrase-by-phrase is counter-productive!

      • lee

        It’s actually not clear at all what Sean meant by the title. Not being aware of the issue, it took me until paragraph seven before I fully realized that he didn’t mean consensual sex or gender identity. This idea of placing everything under the “sex” umbrella is really problematic, because it lumps things like harassment and rape with consent and enthusiasm. They are not the same at all- I’ve been raped, I didn’t consent to sex. Big difference, and it IS productive to point out things like this, because language matters. I don’t think at all that Sean had any ill will or malicious intent in his phrasing, but I do think that it’s an issue worth noting. 

      • http://twitter.com/RobinMarie1789 Robin Marie

        “Sex is the issue here, and how some people WANT it when other people DON’T, and how to manage that.”

        No, that isn’t the issue. But that is what people who do not understand what sexism is prefer to claim the issue is — that all we are talking about is biology, about man’s universal and apparently omnipresent desire to get laid.

        Now usually where this ends up going — and here I am not saying this is what *you* were saying, so I’m not attaching this opinion to your post in particular — is that it is claimed, therefore, that women are the ones who need to adjust to this Universal Reality, that since we are all just horny primates, that complaining about horny primates doing their horny primate thing is a little ridiculous. Or in other words, “Men want to get laid, DEAL WITH IT.”

        But sexism is actually not about procuring sex. Sure, a ton of sexism revolves around the sexual objectification of women — but sex per se is not the motivation behind that objectification. Sexism is about power and hierarchy — how we view women (and men, for that matter) on the basis of their gender and treat them in certain ways because our culture has trained us to split people into categories of “male” and “female” rather than just “human being.”

        It’s not about sex. It is about the legacy of patriarchy.

    • Jeanette

      Yes! Totally agree about the misleading title. As I read through the piece my main reaction was “aww, where’s the sex??”. Both points you bring up are extremely valid.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593675787 Glenn Davey

    No it’s about sex, and how some people WANT it when other people DON’T, and how to manage that. It’s about managing the urges of hundreds or thousands of primates in the one building.

    They don’t have this problem in sheep paddocks.

    But humans have complex brains. 

    Sex is the issue here. And the Secular Conference is the setting.

    Someone also had a problem with what exactly a “Secular Conference”  is.

    I think when Hemant doesn’t post, all of a sudden everyone becomes pedantic nit-pickers.

  • thegoodatheist

    I avoid Conferences now because of this annoying shit. You’d think the spaces were filled with a bunch of drunk, horny ex-convicts or something.  


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