There seems to be something that everyone is talking about, but no one is actually saying it out loud. It seems that are a number of “male speakers behaving badly towards women at conferences” and yet they keep getting invited back because they’re big names and conference organizers can’t afford not to invite them. But it’s the other way around, they have to opt out of inviting them because these speakers are doing real harm to our movement.
Anyone who is making members of our community feel unwelcome at conferences must not be invited to our conferences. One of our core missions is to make our community a welcoming place, a place of landing for non-theists. If we’re catering to speakers who are working against that goal, we are failing. These are not the stories that should be floating through the hallways of our events:
Both female friends and strangers confided in me, telling me stories of speakers that talked only to their chest, groped them against their wishes, followed them to their hotel room, or had goals to bag a young hottie at every speaking gig they did. Once after I had publicly criticized someone on my blog, people made sure to warn me that this person had a skeevy record. I had to request friends attending the con to be extra diligent about making sure I wasn’t alone.
I understand why conference organizers keep inviting these guys. I’ve organized big events before and I know how important a big name is for an event. But that’s a cop out excuse and we can do better than that. As our community has grown, more and more extraordinary voices are popping up everywhere.
I also understand why people who’ve been told about The List aren’t sharing it. Jen summed it up perfectly:
Look at what happened to Rebecca Watson when she simply said “guys, don’t do that” about an anonymous conference attendee. Imagine the shitstorm if there were public accusations of sexual misconduct of some very famous speakers. I’m not ready for the flood of rape and death threats. I’m not ready to be blacklisted and have my atheist “career” ruined by people more powerful and influential than me. I’m not ready to be sued for libel or slander. I’m not ready for the SSA or other organizations I’m affiliated with to also be harmed by association.
So what do we do to fix this? Many great ideas have already been suggested including conferences adopting prominent anti-harassment policies, creating a list of speakers who will not attend events unless there’s a strict anti-harassment policy with them, and committing as individuals to making our spaces safer and welcoming. Those are all important steps. But we also have to confront these men.
We were outraged when the Catholic Church kept predator clergy in the priesthood. We are hypocrites if we continue to invite speakers who go beyond the pale of acceptable behavior and don’t take no for an answer. If what Jen listed is true, we have predators in our midst. Of course, we have to be skeptical of extraordinary claims like these, but because of their severity, we can’t let these accusations go ignored.
Naming and shaming should certainly not be the first step. Private conversations with these people have to come first. There will be resistance because it’s not easy being called out on doing something wrong. But these are our allies and we have to give them a chance to make amends.
But if none of those efforts work, then we have to start naming names. Not to shame them but to protect women in our community. I’m now in a place where I can help decide which speakers are invited to big events in my area and I don’t want to accidentally invite anyone who will make my community members feel unsafe.