On Harassment and Policies: An Open Letter to Skeptic and Freethought Leaders

This is a guest post by Todd Stiefel. He is the President and founder of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.

I write today regarding an important and timely topic. I have read an enormous volume of dialogue online about how to make skeptic/freethought conferences safer and more welcoming, especially for women. There is a call for all conferences to have anti-harassment policies in place, mostly to address sexual harassment. I agree and feel we need policies to discourage such behavior and provide a safety net for when the behaviors do happen.

I have heard of many instances of extremely rude, inappropriate, aggressive and threatening sexual behavior within our movement. There are stories of people being relentlessly propositioned, groped under tables, threatened with rape, stealthily photographed for voyeuristic pornography, and many other transgressions. Even if any of the specific cases were unintentional, misconstrued, or dubious, the fact that so many of them are coming to light should concern all of us. It is unclear if all of this harassment is even coming from other skeptics and freethinkers, or if some of it is just being directed at us. Regardless, in no uncertain terms, I condemn these horrific behaviors. I doubt these activities are more common in our movement than elsewhere. I hypothesize that we are hearing so much about these issues in our movement because our victims, as skeptical people, are more skilled than the average person at directly challenging difficult problems.

Most of the issues I have heard of involve men harassing women. I want my readers to understand that I can empathize with these victims, as men can be victims as well. Policies need to protect both men and women. As a monogamous, straight, married male, I have been very inappropriately propositioned for sadomasochistic sex by an important female customer at a business convention. I have also personally had my genitals groped against my wishes by a woman at a freethought event. I bring these stories up as a preemptive defense against the critiques that I know will come from those who will attack me for some points I am about to make. I am sure someone will attempt to diminish the value of my opinion because I am a man and cannot possibly understand what women go through when they are harassed. I believe harassment is harder on women, but I still understand better than some may think.

Having reviewed several actual and proposed anti-harassment policies for skeptic/freethought conferences, I have three primary concerns that I believe need to be addressed for I fear the pendulum is swinging to the point of overly restrictive policies for behaviors among peers. Other than these concerns, I think the proposed policies look excellent in general and would be wonderful additions to the movement. For your interest, here is a list of several policies in effect or being considered.

Let me be clear, my concern is not with sample policies, but with actual policies that have been adopted or have been posted for comment. So as to not throw any organization under the bus at this early stage, I am going to avoid criticizing specific policies and instead hit on the language from some of the sample policies that has been adopted or modified by skeptic and freethought organizations in their official policies. I strongly advise policy revision to those organizations that have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, some of the provisions I am concerned with.

First, some policies turn offensive words into harassment. Yes, words can amount to harassment, but we need to be careful here because “offensive” is often used as a weapon to silence dissent. There is an example anti-harassment policy on Geek Feminism Wiki that has been used as a template for several of our conferences. This includes the phrase, “Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion.” This line begs the question, what constitutes offensive?

Nearly everything atheists say about religion is offensive to somebody. Are we harassing every time we criticize dogma? I know countless people who tell self-deprecating, off-color jokes about their identity as Jewish, or black, or gay. These jokes are not offensive to their friends, but I am certain someone could be offended. Is this harassment? I don’t think so. Heck, on the threads about anti-discrimination, I have even seen women joking about using their “boobies” to bring attention to their issues. These comments are likely offensive to some, but are not harassment.

My point is that “offensive” is not equivalent to harassment and should be avoided in our policies. I much prefer the way CFI’s draft policy (PDF) addresses this point. It says, “Prohibited conduct includes, but is not limited to, harassment based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other protected group status, as provided by local, state, or federal law. By way of example, abusive conduct directed at someone because of their race is prohibited,” and “Critical examination of beliefs does not, by itself, constitute harassment.”

The second concern I have revolves around equating sexual harassment with unwanted sexual attention. If we want to use the phrase “unwanted sexual attention,” I think it is very important to define it because it means different things to different people. Groping is a type of unwanted sexual attention that is clearly harassment. Asking a peer for a date is (usually) not harassment, even if it turns out to be unwanted sexual attention. In human courting, there is a period of uncertainty where we try to figure out if sexual attention is wanted or unwanted. We should not create policies where an innocent courtship inquiry is considered cute if turns out to be wanted, but is considered harassment if it turns out not to be wanted. Putting up such deterrents to reasonable courtship would be unfair to those who would consider themselves lucky to find love with someone of a like-mind at a skeptic or freethought convention.

The question is what is innocent unwanted sexual attention and what is harassing unwanted sexual attention. I am not a lawyer, but I would suggest organizations consider language like this to end ambiguity, “Unwanted sexual attention will be considered harassment when: a) it continues after being rejected; or, b) it includes threats, coercion or deliberate intimidation; or, c) it is directed towards a subordinate in a hierarchical organization (such as a manager towards an employee below them in an organization.); or, d) it is done by someone who knows or should reasonably know that the attention will be unwelcome.”

Finally, I have a concern with this phrase being worked into policies without clarifying language: “No touching other people without asking.” This line comes from the OpenSF conference as reported here. In the OpenSF policy, they go on to make some important clarifications, such as “please do that awkward ‘wanna hug?’ gesture before actually hugging.” This refining language is critical; yet, elucidating phrases like this from the OpenSF policy are being left out of our policies.

In another adopted policy, any touching without explicit permission is banned. In effect, shaking hands without asking first becomes harassment. Who asks, “may I shake your hand?” of peers and friends? As for hugging and hand shakes, I think it is important for policies to allow non-verbal, body language assent to count as freeing someone of guilt as a sexual harasser. The original OpenSF policy includes this provision after requiring no touching without permission: “unless you already have that sort of relationship with them.” Again, this is a critical addition to provide leeway between friends; it should not be left out of our policies. Many friends pat each other on the back as a greeting or as congratulations. This kindly gesture should be allowed among people who have that type of relationship. People should not have to be paranoid that friendly gestures equal harassment. Of course, there is a big difference between a pat on the back and a pat on the butt. There is also a big difference from a hug among friends and a pervert using hugs to create sexualized physical contact. We need to protect people from the latter while allowing people with prior relationships to act in accordance with the boundaries of their friendships, which may include an assumption that hugging is OK.

In general, I think our policies should reflect an assumption that most physical contact and verbal comments are innocent, welcome and friendly. Our policies should not assume guilt and malicious intent. Most people crossing the line are likely those making an innocent mistake that can be corrected without escalation to conference organizers by using a simple, “please do not do that.” Our policies need to protect people in unambiguous harassment situations, like groping. Our policies also need to protect people when an ambiguous situation, such as a hug, becomes unambiguous the moment “stop it” does not work.

As a movement, I am confident we can create excellent policies to address our issues. I give my appreciation to those who have been moving the ball forward in addressing harassment. I hope that my input helps the process along and can be improved by other people. I look forward to the policies being implemented and the benefits that will come from allowing fun, humor, and courtship while fighting hate, prejudice, and harassment.

As skeptics, we are relatively talented at asking tough questions and changing positions quickly based on new evidence. As freethinkers, we reject misogynistic dogma and patriarchal hierarchies. We will not remain quiet for the sake of conformity to tradition or authority. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to leverage these strengths to change more quickly than other communities have.

Sincerely,
Todd Stiefel

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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=740856118 facebook-740856118

    One of the best posts on the subject.  Thanks.

  • Tim

    Makes a lot of sense to me.  Saddened it is needed, but it seems that there is reasonable evidence that it is.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    It would be  useful to know whether or not Todd is planning to take part in this comments thread; while these discussions are always super fun for everyone, there’s relatively little point in anyone even trying to offer anything constructive if he’s not here to listen.

    • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

      This is probably the wisest I’ve seen in all of these discussions online. If Todd’s wise, he’ll abstain from trying to participate, for what he says will be immediately ignored, interpreted to mean the obverse of his point and things of that ilk.

    • SarahM

      The majority of these comments are NOT constructive.  

      • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

        No, but then Todd doesn’t seem to be here, so there’s no opportunity for any constructive conversation, so what would be the point?

        The pointless slanging match below is what’s left in the absence of that conversation, and it’s such a wasted opportunity, and completely predictable.

  • http://twitter.com/Outcast_Kyle Edgar

    Let’s do this in a easier way. Men and women are going to be completely separated in a way that they can’t neither hear or see people from another gender in any way. BAM! Problem solved. Really. If someone harasses you better defend yourself and stop whinning. If it happened to me I would be very happy of giving to that person a nice healthy dose of ass kicking.

    • http://neamhspleachas.com Molly Rene

      Obviously, the best way to handle harassment is to put the onus on the victim to protect themselves. 

    • Isilzha

       It easy to see how many men here are REALLY missing the point.  It’s also funny at how upset they all seem to be getting over the fact that women don’t find being sexually harassed by them as “cute” and “endearing” and “boys will be boys”.

      • SarahM

        I haven’t seen posts like that here.

  • https://profiles.google.com/dmfarley dmf

    Um. Sexual harassment is sort of DEFINED as “unwanted sexual attention”, you doorknob.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Irvine/506893850 Andrew Irvine

      “Hello, would you mind if I gave you some sexual attention?”
      “No at all, here is a map of which parts you are allowed to touch and/or ogle.”
      “Thank you, please sign here.”

      Super sexy.

      • http://neamhspleachas.com Molly Rene

        Because clearly we should ALLL be more worried about life imitating porn then, ya know, consent.

      • https://profiles.google.com/dmfarley dmf

        I see. So I guess you also have a problem with “unwanted sexual intercourse” being called “rape” too? Or you wanna throw out a “sign here before we screw” joke…? Because I’m sure, as a “skeptic” you know the world is binary and simplistic, like you’re trying to portray.

        Maybe split some hairs, toss in how oppressed you are?

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Irvine/506893850 Andrew Irvine

          No, the problem is no knowing the difference between explicit permissions and implied situational allowances. My point was that it isn’t binary and simplistic and that defining sexual harassment in such a vague way doesn’t allow for the grey areas.  

          An example, Person A wants to touch Person B’s bum, . Should Person A:1) Approach Person B, introduce themselves, have a conversation with them, flirt a bit and acknowledge whether or not the other person is reacting positively. If they aren’t, forget it. If they are, pursue the relationship and see what happens.2) Grab Person B’s bum.3) Not bother, because paying attention to someone because you are sexually attracted to them (ignoring the idea that you already know you will probably have something in common intellectually too), is considered the same as rape.Attention is not physical action. It is too vague and open to misuse. The problem is not that “women will just shout rape because a guy is talking to them”, it is that anyone can make accusations of wrongdoing in normal circumstances because they hold a grudge. It does happen. If you do something that your boss doesn’t like, but he can’t fire you for it, he could have you fired for a very minor mistake. Vague rules make this easier.

          Even if nothing bad comes of vague rules, discussing the particulars and coming to a rational set of rules is still a good thing for sceptics to do.

          Bad things have happened at sceptical gatherings, I believe we need more than just rules, we need to educate those who think groping and pestering are ok. But I don’t want to be in a situation where girls are too afraid of rules to talk to me, I’d rather they just kept the unwanted bum pinching away in a more rational way.

          • timidatheist


            3) Not bother, because paying attention to someone because you are sexually attracted to them (ignoring the idea that you already know you will probably have something in common intellectually too), is considered the same as rape.”

            Where the hell has anyone ever said this?  Let’s not start from the assumption that talking or flirting with someone (flirting means they’re flirting back) is the same as rape, you know sexual assault. Because it’s not. And no one has said that. And if they did, they’re idiots. And for you to use this strawman as your argument is absolutely dishonest.

            • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Irvine/506893850 Andrew Irvine

              Nobody said it. Nobody actually wants it. But that doesn’t change the fact that vague legal language can allow it. Rules need to be clear and concise, you can’t assume that everyone is smart enough to understand them or good enough to not misuse them.

              • Onamission5

                Thus, Todd’s suggestion:

                “Unwanted sexual attention will be considered harassment when: a) it continues after being rejected; or, b) it includes threats, coercion or deliberate intimidation; or, c) it is directed towards a subordinate in a hierarchical organization (such as a manager towards an employee below them in an organization.); or, d) it is done by someone who knows or should reasonably know that the attention will be unwelcome.”

                I think that pretty much removes all ambiguity and places responsibility where it belongs, yes?

                • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Irvine/506893850 Andrew Irvine

                  It does, that’s exactly how it should be done. But the comment I was replying to was arguing against that point.

      • Isilzha

         See, gals…were just ruining this man’s sexual enjoyment by placing irrational restrictions on him.

        How DARE we want body autonomy!  Our bodies are designed and meant only for the pleasure of and consumption by the menfolk!

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Irvine/506893850 Andrew Irvine

          I know that’s what it sounded like, it wasn’t meant like that.

          The real point was that while sexual harassment is unwanted sexual attention, unwanted sexual attention isn’t always sexual harassment. Women aren’t delicate flowers who need 100% protection from scary men. What need to happen is men need to learn how to communicate with women properly. If I find a girl attractive, she should have the chance to turn me down herself, but that is beside the point, I’m not suggesting that anyone actually wants to stop me talking to women.

          Ok, so that still sounds like a typical MRA argument. I think? What I’m trying to say is about the semantics of words in a legal document, not commenting on the reality of what will actually happen. It’s a ‘reductio ad absurdum’ based on the legal language being used to point out the flaws of vague legal language.

          I don’t want the rules to allow anything bad to happen, I want rules to allow anyone, male or female, to be punished for any kind of sexual harassment. What I don’t want it vague language that can be mis-used.

          • Kodie

            It strikes me the rules are idiotic, but maybe for different reasons. Where do grown-ups come from with no idea how to conduct adult consensual transactions in the first place? Why is there harassment? Not “what should be or shouldn’t be considered harassment,” but why are so many adults clueless and unable to sort these things out amongst themselves without being told specifically what is allowed or not allowed? Why are grown adults so unaware of how to respect one another and still meet people who want the same things they want?

            People play head games, have malformed ideas of what makes it “romantic” or “playful,” have selfish needs, judge people on their mere presence as being available, and decide that clear communication is unsexy. What are you supposed to do if you can’t be direct, how are you supposed to know who is available for conversation only, and who might also find you attractive sexually? What a moronic set-up! Even the phrase “mixed signals” is rotten. Signals can be obscure, coded, interpreted a variety of ways. Is a short skirt or a bright smile a “signal” inviting sexual attention? Is groping someone an attitude of relaying the signal you thought you got, or just a signal that you don’t care what her signals are? Or that men don’t have any idea what signals mean what, or women who borrow from the same set of signals to mean more than one thing.

            But talking clearly and directly, that’s what’s forbidden! Groping, that’s just fishing, and you may get a fish or you may get a boot and you move on after making someone uncomfortable. Does it make the man just as uncomfortable to over-step a situation and make someone uncomfortable? Embarrass him that he read the “signal” wrong? I think everyone should be embarrassed that there would even have to be rules and that you can’t handle it yourselves, like grown-ups, but apparently the rules are to protect the women from the men, who want what they want but apparently can’t handle any of this like adults. Being an adult takes away all the MAGIC of trying to interpret signals. What is wrong with clarity? What?

        • Alconnolly

          You poor girl. It is important to fight the complete removal of your body autonomy that inevitably results from clearly defining sexual harassment as continuing advances after rejection. Obviously autonomy should be defined as the right never to be give a choice to say yes because you are asked a question, rather than the right to say yes or no, and not continue to be pestered if you say no. It is fantastic to see such a logical person on the boards.

        • SarahM

          You seem to be reading a lot into what other people write.

          • Isilzha

            It’s a common argument from men when addressing this type of issue, that if they can’t “flirt” with women then somehow we’re taking away their right to get laid.  That also subtly implies that women have no real sexual urges of her own, that she is suppose to always remain passive until activated by male desire.

            Andrew says that’s not what he meant.  However, just based on his comment without any further context, it’s really hard to read it any other way.

            • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Irvine/506893850 Andrew Irvine

              Really? I don’t see where I made any statement about who in that conversation, if anyone, was female.

      • http://twitter.com/johnradke John Radke

        What the fuck part of the policy indicates to you that this is anything like what it will be like? Bullshit whining.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Irvine/506893850 Andrew Irvine

          Misuse of vague legal language. It also works the other way, vague language can allow harassment to go unpunished, but people take more notice when you take the side of idiots.

          • MichaelD

            Vague language can also allow a more nuanced situation to be accounted for by the policy.

            • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Irvine/506893850 Andrew Irvine

              Right, so there is too vague and too specific. Todd is trying to be more specific without being too precise. He also isn’t making solid suggestions, he’s saying ‘let’s not be too vague’. The comment I was replying to was wanting an incredibly vague definition, one which is harmful partially because it allows the completely stupid situation I described to be mentioned.

              Something that religious and conservatives types do all the time is to react to ‘reductio ad absurdum’ analogies as if they were serious suggestions and then use the idea that the exact opposite situation is also absurd as some kind of defence.

              Simply saying “Vague rules allow for stupid situations” is not a cry for no rules. It’s a call for better rules.

      • Tracy

        At a skeptic conference, someone handed me a card of a naked woman (a prostitute advert he’d picked up somewhere) which he’d helpfully labelled with the biological names for all the parts. He said he thought it might be useful. For what, I didn’t bother to ask. Your map joke reminded me of it.

    • Michael

      As pointed out, however, if you use that definition then all sexual attention is forbidden. You cannot find out whether someone would like your sexual attention without one of you paying sexual attention to the other.

      Which I’m fine with, I would have no problem with all conventions being flirtation-free zones. I’m glad you’re so close to your friends but would rather not have to watch in a public place.

    • Bob Becker

      One of the things I like about the main entry above is that it does NOT define any and all unwanted sexual attention as “sexual harassment.”  Here’s how he defines it, and I like his definition, which seems to me far more practical and working a standard:  
      The question is what is innocent unwanted sexual attention and what is harassing unwanted sexual attention. I am not a lawyer, but I would suggest organizations consider language like this to end ambiguity, “Unwanted sexual attention will be considered harassment when: a) it continues after being rejected; or, b) it includes threats, coercion or deliberate intimidation; or, c) it is directed towards a subordinate in a hierarchical organization (such as a manager towards an employee below them in an organization.); or, d) it is done by someone who knows or should reasonably know that the attention will be unwelcome.”

    • SarahM

      What about this post made you feel fine with calling the author “doorknob”?

      • https://profiles.google.com/dmfarley dmf

        Everything that came before that part?

      • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

        The person lobbing the insult didn’t agree. Therefore, Todd is a doorknob. See how that works? Anyone can play at that game.

  • http://neamhspleachas.com Molly Rene

    I have three major problems with this post. 

    1) To act like he, as a self-described “monogamous, straight, married man” (I’m presuming cis-gendered, his experiences in being harassed, while terrible, are not equatable to when someone from a privileged background is harassing someone from a non-privileged background. He’s missing out on the whole host of societal and cultural problems that come with that sort of harassment. 

    2)  “We should not create policies where an innocent courtship inquiry is considered cute if turns out to be wanted, but is considered harassment if it turns out not to be wanted.” This argument verges into MRA territory. It’s implying that the women are just so emotional and irrational that they are going to go claiming sexual harassment any time a guy who they aren’t attracted to hits on them. This only happens in MRA-fantasy land. 

    3) Handshakes aren’t “touching without explicit permission” because you offer your hand to someone and then they can decline it. Unless your version of a handshake is to sneak up behind someone and grab their hand. Here we go with the MRA-logical again.

    • http://twitter.com/FelyxLeiter Felyx Leiter

      ” ‘We should not create policies where an innocent courtship inquiry is considered cute if turns out to be wanted, but is considered harassment if it turns out not to be wanted.’ This argument verges into MRA territory. It’s implying that the women are just so emotional and irrational that they are going to go claiming sexual harassment any time a guy who they aren’t attracted to hits on them. This only happens in MRA-fantasy land.”

      QFT.

    • Karlvonmox

      Yeah. So we’re supposed to know if a sexual proposition will be accepted before its made. With Betazoid mind reading powers, or something.

      • http://neamhspleachas.com Molly Rene

        No one said that. Reading comprehension, you should try it some time. 

        • Denis Robert

           Considering that you built a giant strawman out of the OP yourself, maybe you should look into taking that reading comprehension course yourself, Molly.

      • http://twitter.com/FelyxLeiter Felyx Leiter

        Where are you pulling that from, Karlvonmox?!  Really, no one’s said anything like that.

        • KarlVonMox

          I am merely pointing out the problem with the wording of the new AA policy, which Todd points out yet Molly seems to dismiss out of hand, that the language of the new policy can be interpreted that ANY unwanted sexual advance is harassment, which includes things like asking out on a date. PERSISTENT unwanted sexual attention would be better wording.

          • http://twitter.com/FelyxLeiter Felyx Leiter

            Molly was taking issue with Todd’s insinuation that most women will cry “harrassment!” when asked out by someone they don’t find attractive, but will brush it off or accept if the man is good-looking.  It insinuates that women are so shallow they will not only turn down your offer, but turn you in for harrassing them.  That’s fine if Todd wants to take issue with the specificity of the wording, but to insinuate that, more often than not, women will act that way is really insulting, and, as Molly pointed out, common in MRA circles where women are constantly accused of being superficial if they turn a man down for any reason.  If Todd thinks the policy should be clearer, he ought to express this without throwing women under the bus as overreactive fools.

      • Jonathan Ray

         Of all the things wrong with Molly Rene’s post, you couldn’t find one, and had to imagine one?  WTF

    • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

      Molly Rene, it’s sometimes useful to read every word that’s been written before forming an opinion (or just dragging along an opinion already held and shoehorning what’s been written to fit one’s prejudices).  For instance, you either have missed this part I’ll quote in a moment, or have decided that it’s entirely fair to reject it as unimportant (thus completing the prediction): “[Todd is] sure someone will attempt to diminish the value of [Todd's] opinion because [Todd is] a man and cannot possibly understand what women go through when they are harassed. [Todd] believe[s] harassment is harder on women, but [Todd] still understand[s] better than some may think.”

      So, one of your problems with what Todd says was addressed by Todd where he unambiguously concedes that what he experienced is not as severe as what a non-white, non-male would. Moreover, your presumption that he’s not transsexual is based entirely on how he looks, acts and sounds. Perhaps he is as transsexual as the day is long but he ‘passes’ whereas others may not, and instead of just not using a presumption to further diminish his point, you choose to speculate about matters that are frankly not your concern. Nor are they within your ability to know unless and until Todd specifically announces it. 

      Someone who is of the mindset that his subjection to sexual assault is of inferior moment to other people’s sexual assaults because he’s straight, white and married should provide you some counsel that he is not missing out on what you say he seems to be missing out on.

      But that’s the problem with ideologues – why bother dealing with particular people who make discrete points when one has a bias to wield?

      • http://neamhspleachas.com Molly Rene

        If by having a bias to wield, you mean I have a bias against moronic arguments, then yes, you caught me.

        • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

          If by ‘moronic arguments’, you mean ‘words that he wrote that I can’t be bothered to credit because I just know he’s full of shit’, then I agree with you.

      • foobar

        Molly Rene’s entire response was ad hominem, guilt by alleged association, and conflating poorly-worded policy with poorly-applied policy or overreporting — precisely validating todd’s fear that his post would be dismissed by trolls like Molly for reasons other than its actual substance.

    • Alconnolly

      Your points are all significantly flawed.
      1. He “acted like” his experiences were equatable to (other) worse experiences. Completely false accusation that comes across as you having a chip on your shoulder to begin with. He never acted like that. He specifically took the trouble to acknowledge worse things occur to others.
      2. He referred to policies that carried an implication that is questionable, not people misusing the policies. Do you recommend creating vague badly written policies that with questionable implications because people can just apply them with common sense? Sounds kind of silly.
      3. It is probable based on the examples he showed from some policies that the explicit permission term was defined elsewhere in the policy as verbal.

    • AJH

      I have three major problems with this response:

      1) The issue here isn’t “priviledge.” The issue is harrassment. You are using the term privilege to undercut the substance of what he has said, without even responding to it. His points are either valid or not, independent of his race/gender/orientation/religion. Even if I buy your assertion that harrassment of the “non-priviledged” really is subjectively worse for the individual experiencing it than for the priviledged, surely the answer is to end harrassment.

      2) Just labeling an argument as “MRA territory” isn’t a real response. Nobody is claiming that all women are emotional and irrational wrecks, but it is not an unreasonable claim to assert that an overly restrictive policy holds the potential to punish “innocent” people, just as an under-restrictive policy leaves the door open for real harm. Maybe it is the case with sexual harrassment, that the effects are so terrible that it is worthwhile to have a policy which is weighted very heavily in favor of restriction, but that does not give you liscence to dismiss his concerns out of hand simply because they appear to support some preference for the other side.

      3) This entire issue seems to boil down to a question of how we adjudicate the questionable cases for what is or is not considered appropriate conduct at a conference. Clearly rape=no, sitting across the room not looking at anyone=ok. Groping someone=no, sitting next to someone at a lecture=ok. These are the extreme cases. But as we move into fuzzier areas, people seem to disagree A LOT about what is/isn’t ok. Some people would prefer not to be flirted with, while some find it ok. Some people are ok being flirted with, but not in confinded spaces like an elevator. The list of potential variations really is infinite, hence the trouble creating a policy which is workable for the majority of people. The people who need to be considered in the policy are all conference attenders, not just the “non-privelged.” 

      There is an issue here of differing viewpoints, exemplified completely by the reaction to the elevatorgate scenario. Upon initial inspection, I honestly could not fathom what the big deal was. It had never occured to me to flirt alone in an elevator before, but it had also never occured to me that this particular setting was inappropriate in any way. Its just not an issue that processed in my mind as something to even consider as a potential problem. After reading the subsequent explanations from many people in the community, I get it now. Thank you all for bringing my attention to this issue. It seems however, that there is an entire landscape of potential landmines similar to that one, which just are not apparent without being told, and which differ from person to person. There are certain cultural norms which dicatate what is/isn’t appropriate behavior. We can reasonably expect people to know and abide by these rules without needing to be told. It is unreasonable, however to expect people to see the world completly from your viewpoint right off the bat. If you are not interested in chatting with someone in a bar, you have every right not to, and every right to tell them to stop, and every right to expect that if they do not, something will be done. You do not have the right to expect that they know not to approach you at all.

  • MW

    You don’t ask “may I shake your hand” because that’s implied in the action of a handshake. You stick your hand out and the other person has the option to take it or not. It’s the same as the “can I have a hug” gesture…

    I don’t think you can shake someone’s hand without their consent… If you do, you’re just grabbing their hand.

    • Isilzha

      I thought the shaking hands example was kind of…shaky.  Shaking hands is a mutual action.  It requires the participation of 2 people to be a handshake.  Otherwise, just as you say, you’re just grabbing at someone else.

      • Kaoru Negisa

        I agree. I was a little iffy on that example since there’s a built in mechanism for requesting permission. Pretty much, the act of sticking out your hand is a request to shake the other person’s hand.

        • Dan

          His point was that some conferences were adopting language that specifically said verbal consent was necessary before any physical contact. That would define almost every handshake as harrassment, so obviously the language needs to be changed.

    • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

      However, the social implications, at least in American culture, to refusing a handshake are not small, and the consequences ALL fall on the person doing the refusing. Unless it’s a bob dole situation, “just leaving someone hanging” is considered at best, rude, and at worst, deliberately offensive. It’s not quite spitting in their face, but close.

      Once that hand is out there, refusing to shake without some real, physical reason is not minor.

      and again, if it’s a policy that requires *asking*, then sticking your hand out doesn’t count. That was Todd’s point. When you start getting too specific about things, then you start having these kinds of issues to think about. 

  • http://twitter.com/johnradke John Radke

    How about we don’t assume that women are oversensitive little flowers

    • Isilzha

      Wow…that didn’t take long.  You’re a good example at why so many women get frustrated when trying to address this type of issue.  Men come along and tell us that we’re misunderstanding the situation or we’re just oversensitive.  John, that is just NOT helpful and we generally lose respect for the men who do that.

      • http://neamhspleachas.com Molly Rene

        I interpreted his response as telling Todd not to assume women were oversensitive little flowers, which I also think Todd is doing. 

        • Isilzha

           He’s also changed his comment.  When I replied to it he just had one line about women being oversensitive.

          • http://neamhspleachas.com Molly Rene

            I understand the confusion. 

          • John Radke

            Ah, sorry. Hit “reply” long before I meant to.

    • Pascale Laviolette

      Exactly – they are a safety net.   I know for a fact that even if I received “unwanted sexual attention” — I am more than reasonable enough to decide whether I actually felt unsafe and needed to report someone’s actions.  Everyone seems waaaaaay too worried that we’re going to vilify every man who attends – not true!  We need these safeguards in case something serious does happen.

    • Jonathan Ray

      “who then have a nice, clear document defining what is and is not harassment and what steps they should take to handle it.”

      No they don’t.  The whole point of the OP was that some of these documents are poorly worded and he provided ample proof of that and how to fix them.   You entirely imagined any connotation that people were over-reporting.

      There is no benefit to not fixing the poor wording, no matter how hopeful you are that people will always apply the poor wording fairly.

    • http://polyskeptic.com/ Ginny

      I disagree that the only reason for policies is as a safety net. Another reason is, or should be, to guide people as to appropriate and inappropriate behavior. The point has been made, in some of these conversations about harassment, that some people have trouble reading social cues or understanding unspoken social rules. Having a policy that accurately reflects the expected boundaries of behavior will help people who sincerely have difficulty grasping social rules that aren’t explicit — and will take away the excuse from those who falsely claim to have such difficulty.

    • eccles11

      This would be a totally reasonable request by you, had the last several months of Freethought Blogs comments not exist. Especially ones equating “unwanted sexual attention” to sexual harassment. (which as the OP states, would include all interactions that end in a rejection == sexual harassment). 

      We are not assuming all women are oversensitive flowers, just as we don’t assume all men are out to rape/grope/harass. But having a clear policy protects us from both sides. 

      If someone decided to be conniving, and goes to security and says “he/she touched my shoulder, and it was not consensual” Under the ambiguous policy THAT WOULD QUALIFY. So what are the staff supposed to do?

      That doesn’t even take someone being irrational, that can take someone being calculated. 

      And it probably won’t happen, but even the risk has chilling effects, if every interaction like that COULD end up with you being thrown out for what in normal life away from the fanatics would be considered a normal human interaction, then people are going to be weary, and perhaps a bit more closed and distant from those they meet. 

      I don’t understand why a clarification of what is and what is not acceptable is bad, it will help mitigate any fears of false or ambiguous reports, and will make it much clearer for those acts that you can and SHOULD report.

    • piñardilla

       I can’t agree.  Isn’t the point of a harassment policy that you *can’t* assume people are reasonable?  I don’t assume that women are “oversensitive little flowers,” and I don’t think Todd does either, but they are no less human than men.  There is no reason to ever deliberately not include language in a harassment policy that addresses a foreseeable human failing, insofar as it doesn’t weaken its more important provisions.

  • RG

    Thank you Todd, well written post.

  • http://notungblog.wordpress.com/ Notung

    Great article.

    I particularly like the paragraph starting with:  
    “In general, I think our policies should reflect an assumption that most physical contact and verbal comments are innocent, welcome and friendly.”

    Indeed – I sometimes feel that the opposite assumption is pervasive on certain blog networks.

    • Kaoru Negisa

      Let’s change that quote a little and see if it stands up to the alteration.

      “In general, I think our [laws] should reflect an assumption that most [drivers] are innocent, [safe, and attentive].”The biggest problem with this is that laws are not made to even address innocent, safe, and attentive drivers. They address people who are unsafe and inattentive that put the safe, attentive drivers at risk. The issue here is that there appears to be this assumption that a sexual harassment policy will clamp down on innocent fun or insert a third party into interactions between consenting adults. It won’t. It only provides a framework for what to do when unwelcome and abusive behavior is present. If the behavior is welcome and not abusive, then you can expect to never run afoul of any proposed policy. And if you do, almost every policy I’ve seen so far stipulates that you’ll simply be told by a member of the event staff that something you did (they’ll be specific) made somebody else uncomfortable, please don’t do that.In other words, the policy already does reflect that most physical contact and verbal comments are innocent, welcome and friendly. It does so by not addressing those at all and being concerned only with physical contact that is coercive, unwelcome, and decidedly unfriendly.

      • http://notungblog.wordpress.com/ Notung

        That will depend on what your idea of a policy entails. In my view, while laws deal in prohibitions and punishment, I feel that policies can reflect a more optimistic outlook of an organisation.

        That isn’t to deny that the reason they are there is to prevent unwelcome behaviour, but rather to say that they can be presented in very different ways, depending on how the organisation sees its clients.

        • Kaoru Negisa

          Of course they can, and that’s why we should be having discussions like this, which deal with how we approach these policies and what is necessary to make a policy that reflects the organization’s values. However, to some extent a policy like this must discuss prohibitions and punishments since it’s designed to prohibit and punish transgressors.

          I’m curious what you mean by “more optimistic” in this case. Can you give some examples of something that would be more in line with what you would consider a law and how it would be turned to be more optimistic so I can better understand what you’re saying?

          • http://notungblog.wordpress.com/ Notung

            I’m not saying laws should be more optimistic – only policies. For instance – “ask permission before hugging” could read “if someone appears uncomfortable, then ask their permission before hugging, and take no for an answer”. This allows for instances where hugging is obviously ok – saving for the need to ask permission. The over-formalisation of ordinary interactions like this strikes me as pessimistic.

            • Kaoru Negisa

              Ok, I think I see where you’re coming from. The problem that I see with that change is that a person may be entirely comfortable until you hug them. I get the concern about formalizing ordinary interactions, but it’s really not that difficult to do. I recently used the “wanna hug” thing and it worked really well, to the point that the person I did it to actually thanked me the next day for not presuming things. It wasn’t a huge inconvenience and somebody felt much more comfortable as a result. It seems like it was worthwhile to make the effort.

              I’m sorry if the anecdote was off topic from the tone of the policy, but I’m trying to show an example of how in practice it’s not that much of a stumbling block and it’s lack of optimism didn’t in that case at least lower the positive nature of the interaction. It may create problems that we’re not aware of, but I think it’s worth at least trying and altering as we need to.

  • JoeBuddha

    Why are there so many “free thinkers” who turn into mindless sheep when it comes to someone attacking their privilege? What’s so difficult about treating your fellow beings with respect? Honestly, some of these folx are no better than creationist fanatics.

    • Andrew Tripp

      Word. I don’t understand why consent is such a radical concept.

    • eccles11

      If you think the ones “fightin’ privilege” have some monopoly on rationality you are severely mistaken. Ctrl+f Elyse Anders for exhibit A.

  • Bob Becker

    Like it.   

    And, at the risk of drawing down yet another storm of criticism, I’d like to note that by the definition of sexual harassment he suggests….  “Unwanted sexual attention will be considered harassment when: a) it continues after being rejected; or, b) it includes threats, coercion or deliberate intimidation; or, c) it is directed towards a subordinate in a hierarchical organization (such as a manager towards an employee below them in an organization.); or, d) it is done by someone who knows or should reasonably know that the attention will be unwelcome.”…  the now infamous “Elevator Guy” was not committing sexual harassment. He made his invitation, it was declined, he accepted that  No means No, and went on his way.  

    • Blitzgal

      In her original video response to this issue, she did not say it was sexual harassment.  She said it made her uncomfortable, and that this discomfort is something that guys who want sexytimes might want to be aware of if they’d prefer to not be rejected in the future.

      The shitstorm that followed her video is what went into harassment territory.

      • Onamission5

        ^^ So many times THIS.

      • Karlvonmox

         Thereby giving the impression that her perspective applies to all women, and solidifying her as merely an attention-seeker. Sorry, this doesnt fly. If what EG did isn’t sexual harassment I have no idea what all the hysteria was about on her end.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

          The elevator guy incident may not have technically been sexual harassment and I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way at all. The main point is that it was a situation which made her uncomfortable and if he had thought about it for a moment, he might have realized that. It makes most women uncomfortable if they are alone at night in a small space with a man they don’t know, and that discomfort elevates exponentially when this guy indicates that he has interest in her.Her point in bringing attention to this is to let guys know that this is makes women uncomfortable. What’s wrong with that? Maybe a lot of guys had never really thought about it that way, so for future reference they know to approach women in more visible, safe areas. They will benefit from that. If a guy like EG approached me like that, he would get an automatic rejection. If he approached in a more appropriate way, he might have a chance.

      • Bob Becker

        OK, fair enough, though as I recall from the long long threads that followed Ms. Watson’s statement on Pharyangula and here, Elevator Guy was bashed pretty frequently as a harasser.  Merely wanted to note that the incident that first triggered this whole discussion did not I think by  reasonable definition offered above constitute sexual harassment.    

    • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

      But you forget the ever ‘reasonable’ counter to that:  behold, Schroedinger’s rapist. Therefore, Watson was actually aggrieved because it’s possible he could have not taken no as an answer . . . assuming ‘he’ was a ‘he’, or that ‘he’ even existed.

    • Parse

      I’d think Elevator Guy would fall under ‘D’ for one really strong reason: Propositioning a stranger for sex, at 3 or 4 in the morning, in a confined space with no exits, is something that people should reasonably know is unwelcome attention.

      • Onamission5

        To add on your comment (and not to rehash EG yet again but for clarification), to my understanding, also because he’d just been a participant and/or witness to a long conversation in which  the woman he eventually propositioned had said in no uncertain terms how much she hates getting hit on at conventions. So, yeah. It’s simple stuff that should have been pretty clear, thus the “dont do that.”

        • Parse

          Yeah, I thought I remembered that, and I was going to also add that, but I wasn’t 100% certain and I didn’t want some ‘technically-correct-is-the-best-kind-of-correct’ person jumping on that to discard my entire argument.

          • Onamission5

            If only everyone was so concerned with accuracy in their public statements regarding others!  (I totally include myself, I have also jumped to conclusions or made third hand summaries with less than stellar results) Think of all the misunderstandings and misrepresentations that could be avoided entirely.

      • Bob Becker

        Had he said “Hey, Babe, wanna screw?” I’d agree with you. But from Ms. Watson’s account, he did not.  He issued an invitation to accompany him to his room.  She said no. He accepted that and departed.   Long long campaigns, mostly  but not exclusively on campuses, to convince men that “No” means “No, period”  not “maybe if you try harder.”   Seems to have worked in this instance, exactly as I thought many of us hope and want it to work. No means no.  Done and done. And according to Ms. Watson, that’s how it went down.  A good thing, I’d have thought.   

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

          Yes, it’s a good thing that he took no for an answer.
          The problem was that he put her in a frightening position. If he didn’t want to accept her “no,” he wouldn’t have to because she was in a small space with no one around. 
          I wouldn’t consider it harassment and I wouldn’t report him for that, but it’s a good thing that she brought it up because now men can know that women don’t appreciate it.
          Also, as Onamission said, she had already just talked about how much she hated being flirted with at conventions. He probably should have taken that for a “no.” 

        • Kodie

           “A good thing” he agreed, but what kind of man does this in the first place? It might even work for him some small percentage of the time that this is his favorite strategy! It’s really hard to think of any man just giving this a shot just in case, or pretending not to know it might make someone uncomfortable. “Hey, I didn’t force her to have sex with me, so it’s ok.” Bullshit. I guess in the “real world,” the notion is to ask (anyone, any request) and the worst that can happen is they could say no. Then you don’t get what you want, but you don’t have a consideration for their comfort. Maybe she would say yes! That’s why you have to take a chance and ask…. I just don’t get why men assume all the leeway up to but not over the limits of the law is ok. What about manners, you goons? Have you got any?

        • Parse

          Do you honestly think that what he said was something, anything besides a more socially acceptable form of “Hey, Babe, wanna screw?”
          Besides, the problem with the whole EG scenario is, like Julie and Kodie said, the fact that he put her in that position to begin with.  

  • brian zeiler

    There’s been way too much talk about this in regard to atheist conferences.  I think this is because atheist conferences tend to attract radical feminists who would consider, as Todd put it, a standard courtship gesture to be “harassment”.  I also think these radical feminists probably don’t have jobs that require them to go to industry conferences where such behavior, though loathsome, is not uncommon. 

    Any conference where alcohol is served will have some drunk guys hitting on women.  Most men regard this behavior with disdain and will defend women if they see this happening inappropriately beyond the degree of a normal courtship attempt.  I highly doubt the atheist conferences have a disproportionate level of this behavior as compared with any industry trade show.  Any conference with alcohol will feature such behavior.  I think we, as an atheist community, are giving too much of an audience to radical feminists who like to complain about men.

    • Sunda

       I see.  Because the behavior is the cultural norm it is reasonable and acceptable.  Therefore, raising objections is a silly waste of time.

      So noted.

      Time to pack it in, folks.  As theism is the prevailing cultural norm, speaking out against it or otherwise collaborating in a safe where an alternate stance is acceptable is a silly waste of time.  By definition, the cultural norm is reasonable and acceptable.  It was fun while it lasted!

    • Kaoru Negisa

      So, your argument is that harassment is mostly a myth and because trade shows are probably worse (you think), that means we don’t need policies? Also, some paranoid delusion about “radical feminists”?

      Is it going to be a waste of my time to point out everything wrong with this?

    • Parse

      Brian, I don’t know about you, but I want to hold the communities that I’m in to a higher standard than the general baseline.  Simply because such behavior isn’t uncommon at industry conferences, doesn’t mean we need to tolerate the same at atheist conferences.

      Also, a point of clarification, please: Is the ‘such behavior’ you mention, ‘a standard courtship gesture,’ loathsome (as you describe it is during industry conferences)?  If so, does complaining about loathsome behavior make you a ‘radical feminist’?

      So long as there are people like you, who see harassment as an inevitable, expected part of conferences, there’s a need for more talk about this ‘radical feminism’.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

      Absolutely. Not enjoying sexual harassment makes me a radical feminist.
      All these women who complain about harassment just like to complain about men. In fact, we all hate men. We’re terrified every time we’re asked out on a date. All these complaints are the result of women being overemotional and irrational. I mean, it’s not like we’re as smart as normal people!
      You’re so completely right. I wish my brain was as logical as yours, but alas, I have a uterus.

  • Onamission5

    I really like your clarifications, Todd.  As always, making things as clear as possible only serves to help, not to hinder, and to raise up, not to squash. Thanks for taking harassment policies seriously and for writing this, and thanks Hemant for posting it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Irvine/506893850 Andrew Irvine

      Also, ambiguity in rules is allowing the MRA idiots to make their absurd claims. Hence my ‘playing devils advocate’ (it’s not trolling if I’m making a serious point, yes?) and showing how vague rules can be misused.

      I see this as similar to the free-speech arguments. You can’t just allow free speech for everyone, about everything and at all times. Restricting people’s free speech by not allowing them to incite violence is a necessary condition to create maximum protection. But we also need to have the right to ‘offend’ religions when we say they are myths.

      • Onamission5

        Honestly, the unpersuadable, hardcore MRA types are going to make absurd claims no matter what amount of clarification is made to policies, just like birthers, racists and creationists will explain away (or mock) any amount of evidence presented which is contrary to their bias. It’s not them I am worried about winning over to the side of reason, it’s those who might be swayed by their absurd arguments in the name of fairness because of the vagueness of policy. Those are the people for whom clarification is most helpful, not the ones whose minds are already made up. Those are the people who need to be convinced that harrassment policies are a positive thing, in order to relegate the MRA attitude to sideshow status rather than mainstream.  

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Irvine/506893850 Andrew Irvine

          Agreed, I made the MRA point because it seem to be a popular point of contention and thought that explaining from that perspective might make those concerned with MRA listen.

          It’s a shame that a group that is supposed to promote rational thought in others fails at it when we try to self reflect.

        • eccles11

          Are there any actual MRA ‘people’ in this movement, or is it a convenient poison-the-well label to place on people who aren’t big into the new wave feminism?

          That was a serious question btw.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Irvine/506893850 Andrew Irvine

            Yes, there are. I was surprised how many.

          • Onamission5

            There’s a difference in my mind between people who can’t handle any discussion about feminism whatsoever without launching into full blown troll mode, and people who may disagree with or misunderstand certain points regarding feminist theory. It’s not mere disagreement that is the problem when it comes to MRAs. It’s the attempts at shutting down conversation altogether through trolling, threats, mocking, baiting, etc. There’s a huge difference between people who want to have a conversation so they can teach or learn, and people who want to shut conversations down. 

            This current comment thread is actually fairly mellow in that regard compared to former CT’s. What I am seeing here, with a couple exceptions, is a relatively healthy conversation between people who don’t all share the exact same opinions and are arguing their points, not a knock-down, drag-out, slam-fest.

            Caveat: I have not myself been to any conferences, because my resources are too limited, so I cannot speak as to the presence of openly hostile people at atheist events. My observations are based solely upon participation in and witness of CT’s on the internet for the past year or so.

  • Marc J

    I find it interesting that none of the critiques so far have addressed Stiefel’s premise that many of the sexual harassment policies suggestions put forth have been onerous and one very similar to that of CFI is preferable.  Instead, it seems like people are more interested in starting ‘us vs them’ fights by nitpicking analogies and bringing men’s rights advocacy into the conversation.  

    It has to be noted again that Stiefel supports a sexual harassment policy and simply has issues with one where the language is vague.  I think the reason people haven’t addressed that idea is because they want a a total war ideological battle that can be won or lost rather than resolving this specific issue.

    • Kaoru Negisa

      There are a number of critiques that addressed Stiefel’s premise, including mine. Refresh your browser, you’re missing a few.

      • Marc J

        I wrote this before you posted yours and the others that were objective.  I appreciated what you wrote.

        • Kaoru Negisa

          I figured as much. %) Thank you, and thank you for your response.

  • http://twitter.com/dELYSEious Elyse Anders

    “As a billionaire dude, I totally understand what the average woman experiences in public. Because of that understanding, I can say that we can’t give them all this power to be irrational and hysterical like they tend to be. My good friend Marty Klein wrote an EXCELLENT piece on why women are being so silly and destroying organizations, I agree with that. Have a policy in place, but not one that is going to make men take more responsibility for how they treat women. Maybe it’s time women take more responsibility for just accepting that men can’t understand how to behave around them.”

    • SarahM

      Your sarcasm adds nothing.

      • http://notungblog.wordpress.com/ Notung

        Indeed. I’m getting tired of people not taking issues like harassment seriously.

      • http://twitter.com/dELYSEious Elyse Anders

        This post adds nothing.

        • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

          Double on you plus no take-backs. 

    • Dan

      I’m afraid that is an irrational strawman Elyse. Maybe you should read Todd’s post again, you obviously didn’t understand it. He specifically said his harrassment wasn’t as bad as many women face. I’m sorry to see that you will just belittle men who are harassed and try to imply that they are sexist for trying to make a difference on this issue. (And before you call me sexist for labeling your post irrational, I did it because your sarcastic post really is irrational, not because of your gender).

      • http://twitter.com/dELYSEious Elyse Anders

        His fear is that people need to have every nuance of interaction laid out because HANDSHAKES will be “harassment”. 

        That’s pretty much painting women as irrational. 

        With the unwanted attention/sexual harassment comment he alludes to a strawman article written my Marty Klein that was inaccurate and written in an unbelievably unethical way, painting women who attend conferences as whiny and irrational and not grown up enough to handle being in public… and Steifel himself promoted that post as “great”. 

        And Steifel claims that he UNDERSTANDS… which he clearly does not.

        • Jonathan Ray

          You’re still conflating claims about vague wording with claims about spurious reporting.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1078695333 David Kopp

          Why women, though? Couldn’t ANYONE use that same policy and claim harassment? What I’m reading is that he wants to leave some room for sanity in the policies. If you have a “zero tolerance” policy, don’t be surprised when your kids aren’t allowed to go outside for lunch because they might get stung by a bee. Same thing here. There needs to be some wiggle room in the policies for reality.

        • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

          Actually, I find that women are far more rational about such things. It’s men trying to be “more feminist than thou” who seem to go off the deep end into WTF?-land far more often. 

          But, here’s the thing – a written policy has to enforce what it says. If you say “no physical contact without explicit verbal consent” then like it or not, to be in compliance with said policy, you *have* to ask before shaking hands, or tapping someone on the shoulder to get their attention, etc. Words may not have magical powers, but they do have *meaning* and if you aren’t careful how you use them, *especially* in legal or quasi-legal situations, you end up causing a bunch of problems for yourself. 

          For example, a couple of years ago, guy in FL gets arrested for having sex with a cow. There are witnesses. Guy even admits that yes, he was having sex with a cow. Open and shut case of beastiality right? 

          Well, one minor problem: it wasn’t actually against the law. There were no laws in the state at the time that banned human/animal sex. The judge was pretty clear: “You can’t convict someone of breaking a law unless that law *actually exists*.” Ironically, a state rep had been trying for YEARS to get such a law passed. She’d been unsuccessful because “we don’t need such a law”. Oops.

          If you are going to codify a policy and state transgressions of such policies will be enforced, then you have to, *have to* spend quality time thinking about edge cases, and unintended consequences. 

          It’s why this bit make sense:

           The question is what is innocent unwanted sexual attention and what is harassing unwanted sexual attention. I am not a lawyer, but I would suggest organizations consider language like this to end ambiguity, “Unwanted sexual attention will be considered harassment when: a) it continues after being rejected; or, b) it includes threats, coercion or deliberate intimidation; or, c) it is directed towards a subordinate in a hierarchical organization (such as a manager towards an employee below them in an organization.); or, d) it is done by someone who knows or should reasonably know that the attention will be unwelcome.”

           

          It gives both sides the proper attention. Asking someone to get lunch or coffee *once* is not harrassment, as long as the person asking backs the hell off when told “no” for whatever value of “no” is used. If they continue whining, wheedling, okay, line crossed, and time to have a nice chat with the conference organizers/HR. It handles things like dating within a department well, and also handles someone asking a married person out for something that would reasonably be considered inappropriate for that circumstance.

          Pointing out “hey, did you think of this possible consequence” is not the same as saying “Women are just hysterical nincompoops who can’t be trusted with complex situations”. Really.

        • http://www.facebook.com/todd.stiefel Todd Stiefel

          Elyse, I would like to challenge you to show where I promoted Marty Klein’s post as “great”.  Where did I use that word?  I reviewed the only post I made on the subject and I intentionally remained pretty neutral, so I would appreciate you either demonstrating where I used that word or retracting your comment.

          Additionally, please stop putting offensive words in my mouth. Intentionally twisting someone’s words to paint them as a sexist is a different type of harassment.  I did not say anything remotely close to saying women are irrational. I was crystal clear that harassment happens to men and women and that the policies need to protect men and women.  My post was gender neutral. If my post implies that irrational behavior could expose a flaw in a policy, then it implies that such irrationality could come from men or women.

          As to the handshakes, it was supposed to be a silly example.  The problem with some of these policies is that even a silly example exposes a flaw in the language of the policies.  I am not afraid handshakes will be considered harassment, I am pointing out that the wording of some policies are so poor that a handshake could be considered harassment.  When the wording of a policy can cause it to fail that easily, the wording needs to be changed.  The point is not that men and women are irrational, but that the policy wording is irrational.  Why would we not want to fix such obvious flaws in such important documents?

          As for your blatant ad hominem attacks on me, I forgive you.  You are clearly very passionate on this subject and I thank you for that.  I can see you have been hurt by the ridiculously inappropriate behavior directed at you.  I am sorry that happened to you.  

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

      I really don’t think that’s what he’s saying at all. 
      I get very annoyed with all the men that act like women are just being irrational when we complain about sexual harassment. But that’s not what Stiefel is saying. He’s just trying to make sure that the language is specific enough so that things will be less ambiguous. It’s not because he thinks women will complain about every instance, it’s because there inevitably will be awkward, ambiguous moments where it is difficult to tell the motives of the other person.
      Also, having specific guidelines is mainly helpful for the people in charge of enforcing all of this. There are varying degrees of harassment and it is good to know how to deal with each situation appropriately. If it’s just a misunderstanding, they can talk to the person and explain why their behavior was inappropriate. It could have been an honest mistake. If the person was pursuing a relationship after they were told to stop, they can be given an official warning to stop their behavior. If they were groping or threatening, they can be kicked out.
      It’s very useful in that it protects the victims, while still leaving room for normal human interactions and realizing that there will be misunderstandings.

      • Schade N. Freud

        THIS IS TOO PERFECT!

        Stiefel spends a boatload of his fortune trying to build a movement out of a bunch of professional trolls, whiners and malcontents and then they all turn around and stab him in the back!

        Hey losers- and you are all LOSERS- there IS NO MOVEMENT without STIEFEL’S MONEY. There’s just you, at home, arguing on the Internet. Who do you think is PAYING for all of these conferences and marches? Who do you paid for the Reason Rally or for Rock Beyond Belief?

        You trolls insult and offend and harass people all day and night- it’s what your movement is based around. Pretty soon NORMAL people will get tired of the mosquitos and start swatting. And without guys like Stiefel- all those white, privileged, cisgendered, ugh, MEN (ack)- who’s going to pay for your legal defense funds?

        Keep up with the circular firing squads, all you Skeptics and Atheists- I’ve never laughed so hard in my life reading through your “love me Daddy/I hate you, Daddy” tantrums!

        • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

          I was amused. 

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

          1) Talking to atheist trolls on the internet does not mean all atheists troll.
          2) What the hell did that have to do with my comment? I’m defending Stiefel…

    • Jonathan Ray

      [sarcasm] Because a policy defining less broadly which “offensive statements” constitute harassment is totally going to let Todd get away with abusing people at conferences.[/sarcasm]

      Elyse’s entire reply is nothing but ad hominem, guilt by alleged
      association, willful ignorance of the actual content of the post, and wild
      fabrication of bullshit to confirm your hatred of the speaker (e.g. conflating poorly-worded policy with poorly-applied policy or overreporting).   If posts of this ilk came from anyone less
      established in the skeptic community and on the other side of the issue, they would be rightfully considered a sexist troll and
      banned.

      This perfectly validated todd’s fear that his post would be dismissed by
      trolls like Elyse for reasons other than its actual substance.

      • http://twitter.com/dELYSEious Elyse Anders

        Or maybe I understand that he thinks he’s doing good, put doing more harm by commenting about something that he doesn’t really understand and that his “compromise” is patronizing and insulting… or I’m just a troll who doesn’t care deeply enough about this to actually blog about it or spend hours of my life consulting with several prominent atheist and skeptical organizations on their policies.

        • Jonathan Ray

           Everybody makes mistakes, even Dawkins.   You had a “dear muslima” moment.  The things he’s concerned about are zero bad, and we need to hurry up and solve this bigger problem by getting a policy, any policy, enacted at every conference.  So let’s just shut up about vague wording and hope that nobody ever misunderstands or mis-applies terms as vague as “Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual
          orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race,
          religion.”
          [/sarcasm]

        • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

          The fact you care deeply about this issue and work hard to make it better does not grant you the power of never being wrong when you speak about it.

  • MichaelD

    I’m sorry I hate this type of argument . Its the flip side of the we are all adults we don’t need a policy. It starts to get into we are all children who are overly litigious and can’t use the policy in good faith.

    On the subject of offense and religion in particular if we treat religions like politics I have no problem with this line. If you go around say harassing a secular Jew or a catholic because of their religious background at the event you’re damn right I think some action should be taken. But I think someones religious views should be on the same ground as someones political views. If a someone disagrees with free market economics or transubstantiation you don’t really get to claim offense.

    People have already pointed out whats silly with the shake a hand thing. Tell you what I run up behind you grab your hand while you’re not looking from behind and start shaking it. Yeah that can be kind of creepy. How about we accept that people are adults and aren’t going to interpret this wildly.

     “Prohibited conduct includes, but is not limited to, harassment based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other protected group status, as provided by local, state, or federal law. 

    This is also kind of insufficient as say peoples gender identity aka trans nature is often inadequately protected under state or federal law but they deserve not to be harassed over it too.

    When it comes to unwanted attention I again have no real problem with that. We’re adults we don’t necessarily have to call in organizers or some guy walked over asked you out you said no and he walked away amicably. If he’s cornering you and not taking no for an answer yeah this is now a problem.

    • MichaelD

      Also you know state and federal level probably includes religion as grounds you can’t discriminate on. I don’t think this has made things better I think it has made things muddier and let some people fall through the cracks.

  • Tim

    It seems to me that alot of the backlash from other men here is that whilst they agree that harrassemnt is wrong they think that “feminists” are making a load of fuss out of all proportion to the extent and seriousness of the problem.  Plenty of men think that it is question of policially motivated feminsts getting angry about no more than an occassional socially ackward attempts to make a pass at a member of the oppositve sex and plenty of women seem to think that this is a fundamental issue and that a failure to address it is somehow equivalent to condoning rape. 

    I myself admit that I am only three-quarters-convinced that this is an issue that requires action. 

    What would convince me is some kind of evidence as to how widespread unacceptable harrassment is.  How mush hassement is there and what sort of things is it?  I suspect that some men tend to think that this is a very minor issue and some feminists have convinced themselves that it is a hugely important issue.   Each side can continue to throw abuse at eacch other or we both sides can look at the evidence.

    For any policy to work it needs to have support of the whole community, men and women.  To get at some kind of consensus both sudes need to get to grips with some evidence of what actually does and does not happen at these conventions rather than what they imagine or assume happens.

    • Marc J

      That is an interesting idea.  For a community that is made up of so many scientists, social scientists, and generally people that know how to do research I am surprised that no one has attempted to approach any of this with a little more rigor.  It’s no surprise that a community made of of skeptics are going to disagree on a lot of things but evidence should be enough establish a baseline on which to move forward.

      • Kaoru Negisa

        Part of the problem is that without established sexual harassment policies, there often isn’t a paper trail. I hate to bring this up, but look at what happened when DJ Grothe said there were no reported incidents of sexual harassment at TAM and then people came forward and said that no, they had been harassed and yes, they had reported it. Clear reporting procedures make data gathering a lot easier.

        That being said, there is at least some data on this topic done by the American Secular Census. http://www.secularcensus.us/analysis/2012-05-31

        • Onamission5

          Agreed. Which is why the establishment of harassment policies is so important, and also important is that those policies be living documents, so they can be changed if needed with new data. One cannot document and study that which is undocumented!  It is with the establishment of clear policies that data will be collected, it is with the examination of said data that effectiveness can be analyzed, and modifications made if necessary. With no policy and little data, we get this back-and-forth that inflames ire and often causes confusion between people who may otherwise agree with each other. Maybe good for discussion, maybe not so good for collecting hard data.

          I am pro-policy, obviously. With one in place, you can find out what works and what doesn’t, otherwise, for some people, it’s just a what-if discussion about speculation. I don’t mind discussion about speculation myself but to move forward in a positive manner as a group, we’re going to need verifiable facts. Having resources to report and document cases of harrassment provides those facts. (starting to repeat myself. i’ll shaddup now.)

        • http://www.facebook.com/anthonyjwmoss Tony Moss

          In this case then what is needed is not a comprehensive detailed policy but better internal procedures to ensure that complaints are documented.  In other words the public policy proposed by American Atheists for example does not in fact address the issue of insufficient documentation.  If note keeping about incidents is just as sloppy with AA then we’re in the same situation.

  • Kaoru Negisa

    I will give Mr. Stiefel credit here for being one of the first posts I’ve seen thus far that wasn’t 100% pro-policy but also provided alternatives when he made objections. In many ways, this is the article we should have been seeing this whole time: one debating the details of what a sexual harassment policy should have in it, not whether there should be one at all. The latter should have been a given.

    I think most of his proposed alternatives are reasonable, and I’ll say why, but I would like it if somebody could point out where I’m missing something if you feel that they aren’t, please.

    1. His first point, that the term “offensive” is a little vague, seems useful to consider. My initial reaction was to simply say that “offensive” was what the victim felt was offensive, but then he had to go and point out that vocal skeptics “offend” religious people all the time by simply criticizing their faith, and that’s a valid point. Yes, they’re offended for no good reason and harassment is a very good reason to be offended, but my original thought doesn’t really provide for that. Stiefel’s alternative, on the other hand, seems to address that issue,  “Prohibited conduct includes, but is not limited to, harassment based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other protected group status, as provided by local, state, or federal law. By way of example, abusive conduct directed at someone because of their race is prohibited,” and “Critical examination of beliefs does not, by itself, constitute harassment.”

    Is there something missing from that that I’m not seeing?

    2. I feel really uncomfortable with his second point, and I think it’s because of his framing, as if it’s reasonably likely that somebody will take innocent flirting as sexual harassment. I think I understand that he’s trying to address a point that has been repeatedly raised, often in a worse way by less erudite people, but it’s ludicrously unlikely to happen. That being said, his proposed alternative also sounds pretty good. “Unwanted sexual attention will be considered harassment when: a) it continues after being rejected; or, b) it includes threats, coercion or deliberate intimidation; or, c) it is directed towards a subordinate in a hierarchical organization (such as a manager towards an employee below them in an organization.); or, d) it is done by someone who knows or should reasonably know that the attention will be unwelcome.”

    3. His point about the “no touching” rule is another I was having trouble with as a point of being raised, especially since that spectacular failure of an example in hand shaking, which I think makes it even more evident how ridiculous the fear is. Let’s be frank for a moment: if my friends and I already have an established relationship that includes touching, then there is no reason to suspect that they’ll accuse me of sexual harassment for touching them whether it’s pointed out in the policy or not. I don’t think my friends need to be told that if we’ve established that hugging is our form of greeting that they shouldn’t go to con organizers if I hug them. However, the addition of the “awkward ‘wanna hug?’ gesture” clause seems reasonable enough.

    Again, there are parts of this that make me uncomfortable or that I disagree with, but I want to give Todd credit for proposing solutions and presumably being willing to listen to people (hence the guest posting on a popular blog with comments). Through discussions like this, we can refine our policies to best serve the skeptic community. That being said, am I missing anything? I’m not perfect, I’m privileged in a number of ways, and I may just be blind to potential issues with these proposals.

    • Marc J

      I think it’s always easy to tell when someone is interested in addressing and solving a problem and when someone isn’t.

      • Kaoru Negisa

        I think that’s generally the case. Sometimes its hard to tell, but often the people who don’t want to solve a problem are the ones making the “why are we even talking about this?” argument. Steifel is pointing out problems and proposing solutions to those in order to make for a better policy. I think that’s admirable.

    • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar


      I think I understand that he’s trying to address a point that has been repeatedly raised, often in a worse way by less erudite people, but it’s ludicrously unlikely to happen”
      So is being raped at a convention, but that doesn’t stop its being bandied about. So, to the extent you feel uncomfortable about including it since on your own understanding it’s unlikely to ever arise (and is thus moot), what’s the source of the discomfort?

      With respect to the caricature by commenters with respect to his handshaking example, not all handshakes go like this: two people approach each other from opposite vectors, stop, whereupon one extends his hand and thereby awaits the reciprocal action by the opposing party. Lots of handshakes happen from oblique angles, especially by people who are quite excited to see someone they know (or know of) and are overjoyed to see them. Sure, it starts off by just one person grabbing another’s hand. As much as I dislike being touched by people, it would be absolutely silly for that to ever be taken as harassing behavior. Now, the calculus changes if I tell someone not to touch me and then they grab my hand, but that wasn’t operative (and I only include its mention to stave off the inevitable misconstrual that is wont to happen by people from certain quarters).

      With respect to “one debating the details of what a sexual harassment policy should have in it, not whether there should be one at all. The latter should have been a given.” I must say that’s an odd statement for a supposed skeptic. Nothing is sacred, not even the issues you care about. Everything is open to rational discussion, even if you insist it’s a given. For things that are just taken as givens, please visit your local religious institution. 

      • Kaoru Negisa


        Everything is open to rational discussion, even if you insist it’s a given.”

        So we should be skeptics in the same way that Birthers and climate change deniers are “skeptics”?

        We have enough data about human interactions in order to work from the reasonable premise that having a policy in place in order to deal with sexual harassment, should it happen, is a positive step. If we have to re-establish such things as “it’s a bad idea to harass people” and “it’s a good idea for conferences to know how to deal with that” at every turn, we’ll spend all of our time just demonstrating the obvious over and over again. Unless you’re suggesting that it isn’t obvious that harassment is a bad thing and conference organizers having plans to deal with it just in case is a good thing.

        I don’t wonder every morning if the sun will come up. That doesn’t make me a bad skeptic, it makes me capable of learning.

        • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

          We should be skeptics to the extent, as I said explicitly, that there aren’t ‘givens’. Received opinion doesn’t a given establish. There is nothing, as  I said, that is sacred, even if one really, really, really cares about the issue. To say that it should be taken as a given that a policy should exist is the same to my lights as it’s a given that God exists; we only need to haggle over the details of what he’s like. 

          I don’t wonder if the sun will come up either (for I know the answer to that question and can demonstrate it if necessary). There was a time when people did work under the delusion that the sun comes up; then through careful analysis, mathematics and the ever advancing horizon of not taking things as givens (i.e., dispassionate scrutiny of claims), we figured out that the sun doesn’t in fact come up. Rather, it’s merely an illusion, and a fitting one for you to press into service of a rejoinder to my proposition that there aren’t givens. Givens lead to reliably wrong conclusions.

          It’s why we require science to augment our reasonings about the world; merely because something looks like it’s a certain way is no argument that it is a certain way. Thank you for providing an example for my argument; I appreciate it.

          • Kaoru Negisa

            I think I’ve figured out the problem: you’re pedantic.
            Human beings who interact with other human beings for any reasonable amount of time know that the phrase “the sun comes up” means. You know what it means as well as I do. We can generally run under the assumption that the person we’re speaking to also understands what that phrase means when we use it. In fact, we take as a given that our accepted forms of communication are shared generally by most of the people we are likely to interact with and have correction mechanisms for when this isn’t the case.

            It doesn’t make somebody not skeptical because they don’t take the time to determine whether a smile means the same thing to the person they’re about to speak with. Or whether they consider a nod to mean “yes” and a shake of the head to mean “no” and not the other way around. Being a skeptic doesn’t mean that you treat every interaction as if you’ve never spoken to another person before and are unsure if they are aware of the same social conventions as you are. You take certain conventions as a given.

            That being said, if evidence presents itself that our assumptions are incorrect, then we can re-evaluate our behavior. However, the scholarship on sexual harassment policies and their effectiveness in preventing sexual harassment is decades long and vast. Feel free to read some of it (http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=efficacy+of+sexual+harassment+policies&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart&sa=X&ei=4XDsT8iOOIns8wTRnNzFBQ&ved=0CEkQgQMwAA) I highly recommend the Bell and the Gruber papers, they’re fascinating.

            So, considering the overwhelming amount of data that sexual harassment policies reduce sexual harassment, can we now accept that this would be a good thing? Or do we need to establish that sexual harassment exists and it’s a bad thing first?

            Also, next time, actually look for data  first. I’m not going to keep doing your homework for you.

            • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

              You
              do realize that I’m a mathematician and logician, right? Not a statement I make
              to attribute weight to anything I say; rather, it’s to point out that when
              someone says something to me, there are multiple levels on which I evaluate it.
              And no matter how metaphorically one might want what they say to be read, that
              is not capable of altering the logical necessities of what has been said.

              I
              know perfectly well what people mean to say by ‘the sun comes up’ (that is, it’s
              a circadian even ). I know just as equally well that this is a representation
              of their failure to reason properly. I don’t excuse the religious from the
              gravity of what they say because they prefer I take as metaphor what is
              logically absurd. I see no reason to extend to so-called skeptics greater
              leeway. It would be inconsistent on my part to do so; it must be admitted that
              I am not always perfectly consistent, of course, but pointing out that I fail
              to be entirely consistent only serves to point out that my actions do not
              always comport with what a logic would require. In other words, I’m not
              perfect.

              “It doesn’t make somebody not skeptical because they don’t
              take the time to determine whether a smile means the same thing to the person
              they’re about to speak with. Or whether they consider a nod to mean
              “yes” and a shake of the head to mean “no” and not the
              other way around. Being a skeptic doesn’t mean that you treat every interaction
              as if you’ve never spoken to another person before and are unsure if they are
              aware of the same social conventions as you are.”

              Nor have I ever argued otherwise. I took issue with your complaint that others
              dare to ask the question if X is necessary rather than to just stipulate that
              it’s a given it is necessary and proceed on that basis to only discussing what
              the properties X are or should be. It is, as I analogized it, no different than
              the religious arguing that the question isn’t if god exists; the task before us
              is only to determine his mind. It’s just a given that  god exists so much
              so that it’s improper to question that given. 

              Givens that are defended as being in some sense not available
              to question are dogmas. Dogmas, whatever else they entail, are incompatible
              with skepticism.

              I have no objection to taking as granted that policies are
              useful and often necessary to effectuate some ends. I take tremendous exception
              to your complaint that others are improper for questioning whether a general
              tool is necessary in a particular arena. The examination of that question is
              perfectly reasonable, and it must be so in order to give weight to your saying,
              “That being said, if evidence presents itself that our assumptions are
              incorrect, then we can re-evaluate our behavior.”  There is no sense
              that can be made of that latter claim unless one grants that examination of the
              structure for evidence is reasonable in the first place. Otherwise, to get the
              evidence that you grant could change your mind is to invite people to engage in
              irrational behavior to find the thing you’re requiring in order to change your
              mind.

              Pointing
              out your failures of reasoning and dogmas isn’t pedantry.

              Moreover,
              it’s a bit of a intellectual legerdemain to say that sexual harassment policies
              restrain sexual harassment when there’s still a question about the extent to
              which sexual harassment is even operative in these environs.. Are we talking about
              hundreds of unreported cases? 6? If it’s the former, then there’s a problem of
              import. If it’s 6 cases over the last however many years TAM has been going on,
              then not really. It seems to have gotten along perfectly fine for years without
              one if it’s the 6 and not the hundreds.

              Now,
              of course, this a crude reduction on my part; the number of important is the
              proportion to the population in attendance, but I’ll point out that I’m aware
              of this but intentionally chose to construct a simple model.

               

              I
              have never before now required someone of your reasoning skills to do either my
              thinking or my homework for me. Today has not ushered in some change on that
              front.

              • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

                No idea what’s up with the formatting on that one. 

                • Rowanhawthorn

                  Data specific to the skeptical community will be recorded once harassment policies are in place. It does sound like people TRIED to report incidents at TAM last year. Unfortunately, the lack of documentation contributed to a mess, filled with denials and the spread of misinformation. Having a policy will help w/ prevention, protection, and data collection. These policies are supposed to be living documents that can be altered to suit the communities’ needs. It’s good to be skeptical about scope and pervasiveness. Even so, I can’t relate to thinking a policy is superfluous.

                • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

                  So, the policy implementation will be the experiments?  I have heard a bit about someone named Ashley Miller, who in fact did not report anything to JREF staff. Indeed, from her own hand:  ”
                  I had been told it was already reported, because it was reported and dealt with by DJ, I didn’t know a second report was necessary.”

                  That doesn’t seem to be a problem with the staff; that’s an error in taking someone else’s say-so as concluding a matter. Very elegant display of poor reasoning by a skeptic at a skeptic convention. So and so told me x and I took their word for it and it turned out to be *gasp* incorrect. What she thought someone else reported to DJ Grothe is not in accord with what DJ Grothe thinks he was told by that someone else.

                  She adds: “Because the issue was very much worth reporting to the JREF staff — which is why it was, it just turned out that the report was incomplete.”

                  So, what policy under consideration would address this? “PS, it should be noted that your failure to personally report what happened to you is your own fault, and if you’re insufficiently interested in the issue to take the effort to report it yourself, well, don’t go blaming us for your bad decisions.”?

                  She reflects on the horribleness of the issue: “Should women report it?  Absolutely, but it’s really difficult to do so because it is painful and when people act the way DJ is acting right now, it makes it even harder.”

                  Yes, it’s extremely important for women to report it, which is why when all that stood between me and my reporting were air and opportunity, I elected not to. 

                  Other people join in: see, we need a policy. If only we had had the right policy, then she would have reported it instead of taking that guy’s word for it that he did report it as harassment like she would have done (maybe; we’ll never know since she in fact decided against reporting it)!

                  Or upskirt guy that turned out to have not been a real thing at all. What policy would have curtailed that? Of course, my guess is that any policy that would have turned up the correct conclusion to the investigation:  he’s a bad, bad man who really did do something wrong. Nothing less, it seems to me, will be acceptable to a certain bunch of people.

                  I’m unfamiliar with any case that’s been actually reported as harassment that hasn’t been properly handled:  upskirt guy – not actually harassment, or actually anything but a dude with a camera on a tripod doodad; Ashley’s bit (not reported by her as harassment) reported as an uninvited attendee? (not harassment); the other incident involving the tripod guy should be ignored entirely because it’s gossip. The person who was doing the reporting was doing the reporting of an incident someone else told them about.

                  I’m hard-pressed to see what policy would remedy this. Again, that’s why I want to data to shore up the claim that there’s a really for reals problem that requires a policy.

                  As I’ve said repeatedly:  if conference people want to enact a policy to have a policy enacted so they can say they have a policy, fine. Have at it. To say that one is necessary to address an actual issue requires some demonstration there’s an actual issue thus necessitating the proposed solution.

              • Kaoru Negisa

                The number of incidences are absolutely irrelevant, however the American Secular Census provides us with enough data that further investigation is at least warranted (
                http://www.secularcensus.us/analysis/2012-05-31). A well crafted sexual harassment policy not only reduces sexual harassment (see above papers for evidence of this), but it also provides a system by which we can gather further data on this subject.

                Regardless, if it’s a single instance over the course of as long as TAM has been going on, just to use an example, there is absolutely no harm in having an outlined policy for how that incident is handled. If it’s hundreds of cases or 6 cases, those cases should be handled in a professional manner that stresses accountability and can be later independently verified for compliance. By stating that 6 cases would not be an issue, you’re saying that those 6 individual human beings and their experience is irrelevant, and that seems enormously callous, not skeptical. Considering the investment in a sexual harassment policy is little more than a few hours crafting one and some extra ink in printing convention materials, it seems pretty ridiculous to oppose such a policy, as much so as it would be to oppose a policy to prevent hotel vandalism.

                • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

                  You said it all right there. The number of incidences is important. Of course the raw number isn’t; the proportion is (as I noted).

                  But I’m afraid the rate of occurrence is important. It always sucks to be on the shitty end of statistics, but an extremely low chance of being the rare person afflicted by the freak happenstance doesn’t a problem for the world create. Not even a little bit. There will always be some ill that befalls some poor sap out there; could be me, could you be you. When it starts becoming likely that something will happen, and to more than a negligible group of some few people, then it’s a problem.

                  Again, you can cite to irrelevant studies all you’d like; these do not bear on the point I’m making in the slightest. 

                  Look at the survey returns from TAM (the event that’s under consideration in the latest manufactured drama) from people who attended it. I’m not aware that some trend is arising there. Hell, I’m aware of something like upwards of 3 incidences – one them fully discounted for total lack of evidence, and an admission by the complainant that the camera story was being misrepresented; and that the other story was second-hand reporting. So, that leaves nothing much really on the table.

                  If this is happening so much, why isn’t it being reported in anyway that isn’t just gossip, rumor and implication? Why aren’t people naming names? Why is it that TAM was a ‘safe space’ before the policy went into effect, but now it’s like a dangerous place? Was there some rapey rape action that’s being kept completely secret from me? Is there a rash of sexual harassment that’s happening that everyone but me knows about?
                  Where’s the data? Where are the reports? Where are the victims left in the wake of this tragic state of affairs?

                  Again, I can be convinced of almost anything; all that’s required is a little bit of evidence.

                  There’s no harm in having a policy is a different statement entirely than there needs to be one. There’s no harm in my hiring security guards for my house; there’s also no need for it. If people just want a policy to have a policy for the sake of having a policy, fine. Have at it. But to say that it’s necessary because of activity demands a showing of the specific activity.

                • Kaoru Negisa

                  “When it starts becoming likely that something will happen, and to more than a negligible group of some few people, then it’s a problem.”

                  What would be an appropriate proportion to you? You’re making this seem like it’s a huge deal in order to implement a policy. It’s not. It’s a negligible amount of effort. Moreover, your callous lack of concern for real human beings is pretty appalling.

                  “Again, you can cite to irrelevant studies all you’d like; these do not bear on the point I’m making in the slightest. ”

                  What makes these studies irrelevant? Sexual harassment policies lower sexual harassment. Victims of sexual harassment are unlikely to report with no policy in place. These are only irrelevant if you don’t care about lowering sexual harassment (because it seems you’re arguing that there’s a perfectly acceptable level of sexual harassment) or whether people are going to report it for fear of having to deal with people who will tell them they don’t match that person’s standard of evidence so they’re probably lying.

                  “If this is happening so much, why isn’t it being reported in anyway that isn’t just gossip, rumor and implication?”

                  Because there aren’t a lot of well-published policies that outline how somebody actual reports these incidents and apparently no system for creating a paper trail in a lot of places, including TAM it seems.

                  “Why aren’t people naming names?”

                  This has been answered time and time again. Sexual harassment generally happens in ways and places that make evidence difficult to obtain and people like yourself continue to move the goal posts on what qualifies as legitimate evidence, so naming names does nothing but satisfy a sense of schadenfreude. If somebody gropes you against your will, what proof do you have that this happened?

                  “Is there a rash of sexual harassment that’s happening that everyone but me knows about?”

                  Yes. Whenever they’re mentioned you show up and say that it doesn’t meet your standard of rigor, so they don’t matter. I don’t know how you could miss them considering how often you’re in comment threads denying them, but somehow you continue to miss this happening.

                  “Where’s the data? Where are the reports? Where are the victims left in the wake of this tragic state of affairs?”

                  You continue to ignore them whenever these are presented to you.

                  “Again, I can be convinced of almost anything; all that’s required is a little bit of evidence.”

                  What is required to convince you of anything appears to be a ludicrous amount of evidence and since you continue to move the goal posts, we have yet to discover what that amount actually is.

                  “There’s no harm in my hiring security guards for my house; there’s also no need for it.”

                  Hiring security guards is a difficult proposition requiring significant output of money, research, and life rearrangement. Creating a sexual harassment policy is very easy and requires almost no investment. This is not a valid analogy.

                  “If people just want a policy to have a policy for the sake of having a policy, fine. Have at it. But to say that it’s necessary because of activity demands a showing of the specific activity.”

                  And that’s been shown. Several times. That you don’t think a minor outlay of effort to prevent sexual harassment isn’t worth the time does not mean it isn’t necessary. It just means that you don’t care about people until they reach an arbitrary critical mass.

                • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

                  It’s so difficult talking to people like you. You write distort things by writing, for instance, “You’re making this seem like it’s a huge deal in order to implement a policy.” in response to my comment where I wrote, “If people just want a policy to have a policy for the sake of having a policy, fine. Have at it. But to say that it’s necessary because of activity demands a showing of the specific activity.”

                  It’s those special reading glasses you and other religious-like people have methinks. In any event, I don’t know the proportion is required to convince me that it’s necessary to have one here. But it’s a stupid question to ask. I’m unconvinced for the lack of *any* data beyond rumor, gossip and just so recitations of platitudes. It’s like a Christian asking me what data would be sufficient to make me a Christian. It’s an improper assignment of burden. Before you get to ask me how much data are necessary, you first need to have some data in hand.

                  Nor will be I lectured by someone using a computer who writes ”
                  Moreover, your callous lack of concern for real human beings is pretty appalling. ” The working conditions imposed on people, some of whom fling themselves headlong from their sweatshops to escape their lives, to make the computer you’re using to lecture me about my concern for others is horrible. And yet both you and I equally are okay enough with to continue buying computers and using the internet, which you then use to gripe about a problem that may not really even be operative but for statistical anomalies. And I note that at each attempt I’ve asked you for data on actual sexual harassment in this actual community at these actual events, you’ve insulted me and directed me to studies that make no pretense whatever at addressing the particulars about which I’ve asked. You presume that anyone who fails to buy what you’re selling does so because of ignorance.  I am not opposed in the slightest to being insulted, but it doesn’t actually substitute for making a point, or presenting data.

                  The requests that are made to people like you go without a presentation of relevant data in response. You did attempt to present some data that might be relevant (at least by your assertion, but given your inability to link to a single scholarly article that is relevant, I’m dubious), but the link to the putative data is dead. So, yeah.

                  “What makes these studies irrelevant? Sexual harassment policies lower sexual harassment. ”

                  Your reading skills are deficient. You ask me that when I’ve already addressed this point in explicit terms; to wit, “Moreover,
                  it’s a bit of a intellectual legerdemain to say that sexual harassment policies restrain sexual harassment when there’s still a question about the extent to which sexual harassment is even operative in these environs . . .” I am not ordinarily abstruse in my writing. Sexual harassment policies respond to incidents, and put people on notice that certain activities are prohibited.  This might well have some effect on reducing sexual harassment, but that says nothing whatever by way of response to my questioning if it’s necessary here because I’m ‘skeptical’ that harassment is really an issue in the specified environments.
                  Do some incidents of harassment occur within the community? I don’t see how one could think they do not. Are they of sufficient frequency to necessitate the nontroversy of late? I see no evidence the problem is anything other than the very, very, extremely very occasional kind. And even of the ones of which I’m aware, if true, they’re incredibly nothingburgers. “HALP! Schroedinger’s rapist was on an elevator with me and invited me to coffee!” to dramatize a non-issue.

                  “These are only irrelevant if you don’t care about lowering sexual harassment”

                  They are only relevant if where they’re being implemented has a really for reals issue.

                  “because it seems you’re arguing that there’s a perfectly acceptable level of sexual harassment”

                  And it seems that your using a computer is arguing that there’s a perfectly acceptable level of horrific work conditions so long as you benefit from it. Indeed, that you use a computer and are aware of the working conditions of those who make your computers (and how could you not be given your imagined proclivity for doing the world’s idiots’ like those pesky math phds and logicians homework for them?) requires that this is acceptable to you. Otherwise, you’d be a hypocrite to use one, right? What distinguishes us is that I recognize this as a fact while you bitch about the unacceptable nature that perhaps a dozen people in the course of a decade will be ‘harassed’ in some minor form at an atheist shindig (which will itself use that time to say lots of mean shit about the religious, who may not be permitted to take being called all sorts of retards and idiots as harassment).

                  Is this acceptable to me? Yes, it is. That some very few people will get the shit of the stick by being a statistic of ill-repute doesn’t imply there’s a problem that demands this response. Indeed, it’s particularly stupid of you to say that implementing a policy takes no effort. I’d imagine that thousands of man-hours have been spent on just discussing this issue in just this community in just the last month or two. Seems like some non-trivial effort there to me.

                  Look, it’s really this simple: you are okay with people dying to get power lines to your house. You are okay with cities shutting down roadways to do maintenance even though this from time to time gets people killed by increasing response time of emergency medical people and law enforcement. You are, right? I don’t see you campaigning against those, so they’re clearly less important than this issue is.  We all take certain unfortunate realities as the price of doing business to get the job of leading our lives done. 

                  Some of us just don’t pretend that we act and think otherwise. Few people are comfortable saying it aloud, but clearly we’re collectively and individually quite okay with these small parades of horribles. Otherwise, there’d be some real outrage about the men, women and kids who die in circumstances which, but for the blockage of roadways for maintenance, could have been saved. I am one of them. I have to be. We all lead our lives as though those events aren’t important.

                  So no, you won’t be lecturing me on callousness.

                  “for fear of having to deal with people who will tell them they don’t match that person’s standard of evidence so they’re probably lying.”

                  Well, that’s a great response to someone’s argument. Not to mine. Saying ‘there’s not enough evidence here for me to accept that this in fact happened’ is not the same as ‘you’re lying’ is not the same as ‘it didn’t happen’. It’s the recognition that accepting as true a claim of any moment without sufficient evidence to warrant assent to the proposition is irrational. I try not to be irrational. It’d be nice if more of you pretend-skeptics started giving that a fucking whirl for a change.

                  “Because there aren’t a lot of well-published policies that outline how somebody actual reports these incidents and apparently no system for creating a paper trail in a lot of places, including TAM it seems.”

                  So, until a policy is published by the convention people, you’re telling me that it’s not possible to file a written complaint with the convention center hosting the convention? Like at TAM? In the big fucking hotel? With security guards who are paid to take copious notes when receiving a report of some ill? Wait, are you saying that some people are too stupid to know how to walk up to a security guard in a hotel and say ‘that man over there just grabbed my tits’? Or ‘that dude has followed me to room, the mess hall, and all around the convention center for like two days now’? Or something?

                  If this is the case, then it’s not a policy we need to implement: it’s a goddamned ‘how not to suck at leaving your house’ manual, to include such unknown secrets as ‘not dying of suffocation by continuing to breathe – first in and then out’.  Maybe I’m a little off the mark here, but are people really inadequately bright to know how to file a complaint with people everyone recognizes as having the job of responding to complaints of misdeeds?

                  “This has been answered time and time again. Sexual harassment generally happens in ways and places that make evidence difficult to obtain and people like yourself continue to move the goal posts on what qualifies as legitimate evidence,”

                  I have moved no goalpost. I have not said: give me x and I’ll think y. And then I was presented with x and failed to think y. I have said do you have any x? And you people always respond with how about some of this here not x. It’s not even a ‘how about’ as that might admit of being a question; it’s more like: here’s some not x, now if you don’t agree with me you hate women, or enable rape, or don’t want to stop people being harassed or whatever. So, again, have you got any x? Not do you have any excuses why you don’t have x: just do you have x? No? I didn’t think so – otherwise you’d be parading this shit around like you just won the lottery.

                  “If somebody gropes you against your will, what proof do you have that this happened?” 

                  Well, I don’t about the evidence I’ll have about the groping, but I know there will be evidence that I just put someone’s ass on the ground. Indeed, it’s how word got around in the local gay bars not to grab my ass; I don’t react politely to it. So, there will at least not be any doubt that *something* happened. Either I’m a crazy fucker going around randomly putting people in wristlocks and holding them down to pretend to teach them that my ass is for rent not for free samples, or someone might have grabbed my ass. Whether anyone believes one version over the other, I don’t care; I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. 
                  “Whenever they’re mentioned you show up and say that it doesn’t meet your standard of rigor, so they don’t matter.”Well, evidence is a real bitch sometimes. I fully grant this. But that’s the problem of the one making a claim, not the one who’s unpersuaded. *Every* incident I’ve been told about is trivially frivolous: elevatorguy? She can’t identify the guy out of a lineup, but supposedly could identify him in the elevator as someone she saw in the bar? While having an extremely rare brain defect that prevents facial recognition (or at least impairs it)? So, she can identify him on, say, Friday, but can’t on Saturday when asked to? How’s this work? Why should anyone believe it? There’s a picture of the bar; the guy has to be in it. Which one is he? Don’t know? Why not? Can’t identify faces? How do you know it was him in the elevator then? Oh, you saw him earlier? How’d you ID him? Clothes? Smell? Sound? Magic? Something’s not quite right in her story, but the Watsonistas abdicate their critical faculties. She said it. It must have happened.Camera guy? Turns out that story was hyperinflated (by reGreta!). The person who originally mentioned it had to spend like a day of her (yeah, fuck ‘their’) life correcting the outright false statements, which then of course changed nothing in reGreta’s eyes.So yes, I’m unimpressed by these stories. Have one that’s not tainted? I doubt it. But I’ll concede error if it’s otherwise.”You continue to ignore them whenever these are presented to you.”You haven’t presented *any* data that is relevant. What happens at corporate office 5 says *nothing* about what has happened at any atheist convention like TAM. Again, what data do you have on these? Not on things that are conspicuously NOT these?”What is required to convince you of anything appears to be a ludicrous amount of evidence and since you continue to move the goal posts”Yes, it’s a ludicrously high amount, which of course is why all that you’ve presented (so far none) has been insufficient.”Hiring security guards is a difficult proposition requiring significant output of money, research, and life rearrangement. “I require no research to on a lark hire security guards. It’s really a trivial matter for me to do it. I pick up the phone and say I want x, and then they show up. I pay them. I don’t see how my life would change at all to have some dudes sitting outside my house derping around.”And that’s been shown. Several times. That you don’t think a minor outlay of effort to prevent sexual harassment isn’t worth the time does not mean it isn’t necessary.”No, I’ve not been. Again, your inability to recognize that unrelated studies don’t prove your unrelated point doesn’t, alas, count as evidence. Or the showing of fuck all about anything I’ve asked after.  I’ve never said such a thing, despite your deceit. And no, my opinion doesn’t resolve the issue; the data would. And I thus return to asking for some.

                • Kaoru Negisa

                  Strawman, Appeal to Worse Situations, Perfectionist, False Dilemma, Suppressed Evidence, Circumstance Ad Hominem, and Ignoring a Common Cause.

                  That is a list of every logical fallacy you just made.

                  As always, it has been an utter waste of time talking to you. See you the next time you attempt to derail a conversation.

                • http://www.integralmath.blogspot.com/ The Justicar

                  Convenient sidestep of having to ever address anything you’re told. And I won’t be lectured on logic by the likes of you; you’re ill-qualified to even make that pretense. 

                  Have a great day, cupcake.  You can keep the porcupine. 

    • MV

       No, I don’t give him credit.  And yes, I think you are missing something.  That doesn’t mean I think he is intentionally missing the point but as they say, intent is not magic.

      He seems to be awfully concerned by the policies of some unnamed organizations.  So, instead of contacting those organizations to understand why they implemented those policies and perhaps get them to clarify or change those policies, millionaire atheist philanthropist Todd Stiefel writes an open letter of concern to the community.  If your goal is to be constructive and actually get things done, exactly which path do you think would have the greatest chance of success in his case?

      • Kaoru Negisa

        That’s a reasonable point, but I also think that Greta Christina was right in saying that we should be debating the particulars in public, as a community, and both she and PZ Myers were happy to have been consulted by AA as prominent members of the atheist community in regards their policy.

        So, ok, Steifel has missed the point a number of times. What do you think is wrong with his suggestions and how do you think they can be improved upon? They seemed pretty reasonable, for the most part, but I’m clearly not seeing what you’re seeing and would appreciate it if you could point out what I’m missing.

    • SphericalBunny

      On point 2, he forgot to include direct and/or overt propositions on initial contact, i.e. ‘Hi I’ve just met you, but I really want to fuck you/you look like you’d be great in bed.’ Some people won’t take it badly, but there’s no good reason not to try a conversation first. Also, some people have been hiding behind the ‘didn’t reasonably know that the attention will be unwelcome’ clause by claiming either social ineptness or ‘but person X likes it, why wouldn’t they?’ If the person you’re interacting with is a stranger, the message should be to be more aware of their possible boundaries than your own desires. Excessive leering should probably be included, since it often happens from a distance incompatible with vocal rejection but can cause massive discomfort.

      I’ve got no problem with further clarification, but I had 2 overall problems with this and the responses, 1 is that there is a vague assumption that people (women in particular) will have an immense overreaction to any form of social  interaction – it’s ok, most of us manage not to be hysterical idiots on a daily basis – and 2 that the conference organisers will be hiring complete nutters who will be clueless on judging the correct response to a situation – ‘That woman just grabbed your crotch even though she’s a stranger? We will be asking her to leave.’  ‘That man is wearing a tie that clashes with his jacket? That is not what we are here for.’

  • Mike

    Two thoughts. 1) The proposed  rules seem to be pretty clear in setting up some basic guidelines and then making being asked to stop they way you know you should stop. Additionally this is all language taken from other conferences so are any of the issues that you’re taking with it actually seen anywhere? The hand wringing seems excessive. 2)Is this actually the first time this blog has addressed the issue? How weak.

  • Pam Ellis

    When I first read this, it had 2 comments, both positive.  I knew that wouldn’t last. 

  • Denis Robert

    Why is it that anyone who makes even the most careful, balanced examination of the subject are automatically bashed and essentially told that, because they don’t agree 100% with the most extreme position of some, they are automatically on the other extreme? Yes, Elyse Anders, I’m looking at you as I’m writing this: Black and White is the kind of thinking we should, as skeptics, working against, not gleefully (and dishonestly) championing.

    • Mike

      Why not address the objections people actually have rather than objecting to them objecting? We should, as skeptics, be very wary of people who object to the idea of objections rather than the content.

  • RebeccaSparks

    I support this inclusion in the “If it makes you feel better” kind of way.  I don’t think anyone is policing hugs between friends or freaking out over polite hook ups, but I don’t think your verbiage, with one exception, does any harm.  If it makes it easier for men to accept anti-harassment policies by pointing out obvious exclusions that doesn’t weaken other policies, than that’s ok.
    The one exception I worry about is the “offensive verbal comments”.  The point of the article was not so much offensive, but that harassment can be verbal-something that  is missing in your next quoted definition of harassment.  If you can find another word to describe what type of comments are considered verbal harassment without using the word offensive, go right ahead.

  • Sunda

    1.)  I do not believe your opinion should be discounted on account of your gender.  Ideally, we are all interested in one anothers’ safety and basic dignity, and participate in the conversation on equal footing with a mutual interest.  I am curious to know why YOU think your gender should discount your opinion.

    2.)  You undermine yourself.  By your own proposed guidelines, the very examples you offer up of when you were yourself harassed would not qualify as harassment.  You had not previously rejected the BDSM proposition, and therefore, weren’t being harassed.  Your status as straight monogamous married person may be obvious and relevant to you, but how would an interested party know that without query? In effect, all she did was feel out the courtship territory a little and see if a little more might be welcome.  Clearly it was not, and you felt harassed.  Why?  I’m not saying that you were at all wrong to feel harassed; I’m actually encouraging critical thought about what it was that made you feel that way.  My point is that I believe the harassment likely lay in the subtle ways in which her approach reflected the fact that she had objectified you a priori, not in the facts of the approach itself.  This very thing is what makes this so difficult to deal with explicitly.  But it DOES need to be dealt with.  As you point out, it feels icky and dehumanizing to realize that you have been objectified and that someone expected you to participate in your own objectification.  (This is where your gender argument comes in — women are more accustomed to being treated this way than men, and expected to deal with it differently.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be vested in a solution.)

    3.)  Touching can be complicated territory.  However, we do have social rituals and expectations about this, e.g., handshakes are inherently mutual as has been pointed out.  Touching a strange woman briefly on her shoulder to get her attention is a very different act than touching her briefly on her lower back as she moves through a door.  Neither is inherently sexual; one is generally OK, one is creepy and possessive.  This is where legal language invokes the “reasonable person” standard, which I think can be very useful.  Reasonable people don’t grab strangers’ genitals without a very explicit invitation.  Who is the final arbiter of what “reasonable people” would tolerate?  Perhaps conference organizers just reserve the right to make that judgement call, and a culture of not tolerating creepy harassing behaviors is established.

    4.)  I agree that, under a reasonable person standard, adults should be able to engage in normal courtship behaviors and consensual sexual encounters at times and places of their own choosing.  Gatherings of like-minded individuals are places where the odds of this may be better than average, and that’s a good thing.

    5.)  The naked pictures problem seems to be in need of inclusion in these policies.  I have no idea why people think it’s OK to hand pictures of naked people (themselves or others) to strangers at a conference, but it’s not.  It’s utterly out of bounds.  It is, in effect, flashing them and not really any different than walking up and sweeping your trench coat aside.  I’ve seen more than one complaint of this behavior, and perhaps policies should include an explicit note (although social norms SHOULD be enough) that handing strangers pornographic images is verboten.  It should be be considered an act of prima facie harassment.

    6.)  Thank you for your thoughtful contribution to the discussion!

  • dearestlouise

    I think for the time being I’m going to continue to opt-out of  conferences. 

    As for the post, I really take issue with the implication that women cannot discern between normal social courtship behaviors and sexual harassment. 

    • Sunda

       Hmmmm…. I read it to mean that it was the harassers who couldn’t discern between normal courtship behaviors and those that are out of bounds, and therefore, the would-be harassers for whom such policies are necessary.

      Your interpretation certainly would put a different spin on things. 

      • dearestlouise

        If that’s what he intended then that sounds reasonable to me; however it was this sentence that gave me pause: “We should not create policies where an innocent courtship inquiry is considered cute if turns out to be wanted, but is considered harassment if it turns out not to be wanted”. 
        My point is those pushing for harassment policies are not advocating for policies like described here and I don’t think they or other women would consider a courtship inquiry harassment and run off to report it. 

        • Sunda

           I agree, both that that particular sentence is somewhat problematic, and that the goal should be to provide a clear mechanism for communicating expectations to those who would make problems and for enforcing reasonable social standards.

          I also agree that *most* women won’t consider reasonable and considerate approaches as harassing, though there are those individuals who may perceive ANY suggestion of  courtship harassing.  They do not constitute the “reasonable person” any more than those who think groping at genitals is “reasonable,” and policies shouldn’t be geared toward either extreme position.  (I think we pretty much agree — I just think it’s important to be careful about phrases like “women would consider….”)

  • anon101

    1)    Either everybody knows already what inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment is then you don’t need to specify it in an anti-harassment policy or you have to educate people. But the way it is specified in anti-harassment policies is so vague, ambiguous,  obtuse and general that it essentially says that any behavior could be considered harassment which is not helpful and we knew that already.
    2)    It does not matter what the anti-harassment policies says what sexual harassment is. What actually matters is what the organizers deem to be inappropriate behavior and sanction accordingly.
    3)    It is just hilarious that an atheist event would define “offensive verbal comments related to religion” as harassment thus making the whole convention one big harassment case. It would be even funnier if theists started trolling these events and would try to get the speakers banned on charge of being offending.
    In conclusion: This is just another example why feminism and skepticism or rationality for that matter are incompatible.

  • CelticWhisper

    “In human courting, there is a period of uncertainty where we try to figure out if sexual attention is wanted or unwanted.”

    This, to me, is the single most important line in the entire thing.  This is what effectively lays to rest all the should-you-shouldn’t-you of convention conduct, because it provides a framework for evenly distributing responsibility.

    -Person A is responsible for initiating contact in a peaceful, pleasant, non-aggressive manner.
    -Person B is responsible for making clear to Person A whether or not they are interested in further discussion, contact, or other interaction of a sexual nature.  Person B is responsible for their own honesty on this matter.
    -Person A is now responsible for respecting the wishes of Person B.

    Person B has no reason to believe that Person A will not respect their wishes once those wishes are clearly and honestly stated, and Person A has no reason to believe they will be unfairly singled out for asking, in (pardon the f-word) good faith, “are you interested in dinner/coffee/sex/what-have-you” and listening to the answer.

    Failure of Person A to respect Person B’s wishes can then be considered harrassment and the appropriate prescribed actions can be taken.  If it can be proven that Person B was dishonest about their wishes (I understand that this can be difficult to prove), then Person A is absolved of responsibility for the related incident and the two should go their separate ways, limiting contact to a professional basis only.

    The more of these articles I read, the more it seems to me that the problem is a communication breakdown between all involved parties.  That people don’t just ask and tell each other what their interests are.  Instead we assume that “You’re a man, you have no idea what it’s like to (X)” or that “You’re a woman, you’re just (taking advantage of the atheist movement; being irrational; likening everything to rape).”  Or we assume that others are assuming it, and before long we’re lost in a maze of inferred intent that may or may not even exist but instead of being good skeptics and looking for evidence that such intent exists, we cling to the idea of rectitude and clutch our assumptions closer.

    And the more of these uncivil, vitriol-laced comment threads I read with people slinging accusations, using unfalsifiable words like “privilege” that have no place on a skepticism website, complaining about “feminist agendas” and otherwise conducting themselves like irrational children, like the religious zealots we all decry as insufficiently discerning about the world around them, the more convinced I am that I’m right – that people are too quick to assume explanations and jump to conclusions about the intentions and positions of other people instead of JUST FUCKING ASKING AND GIVING AN HONEST ANSWER.

    Misogyny exists, misandry exists, rape happens, rapists and rape victims exist, harrassment exists, misunderstandings exist, and none of this – not one whit – is clearly divided along any gender line.  Todd seems to recognize this to at least some extent and his proposal, at least at a first reading, addresses it better than most.

    Hemant, if you’re reading this, THIS is why I and so many others have a problem with the recent gender-relations non-atheism articles.  Not because we (at least I) don’t agree with what’s being said in the article, but because the comments invariably devolve into gender-wars bullshit when humans as a species, and certainly skeptics as a community, should be past that by now.

    We’re skeptics.  Can we please fucking act like it?

    (And yes, I realize I effectively just chewed out most or all of the FA readership with this at the same time as I decried the prevalence of recriminations here.  If that makes me a hypocrite, you have my regrets and I take responsibility for that.  I don’t like doing it and I don’t have any illusions that anyone is obligated to heed my words, but speaking as an idealistic gender-egalitarian individualist who’s tired of chromosomal sets having to have rights movements and -isms associated with them…I think we can be better than this.)

  • AnnePG

    I applaud Mr. Stiefel. His statements are very nuanced. It is just as wrong for us to throw out his comments because he is a “rich white dude” as it is to disqualify me because I am a woman.

    These policies need to be in place, and I’m glad they are starting to be installed. We need to take a step back and deal with the issues. Behind the scenes, many have turned this into a witch hunt. Let’s be sure we go after the bad guys (or girls), and not drag innocent people to the stake because we see them flirting or having a drink with someone.  This is happening a lot already.

    • MV

       I’m sorry, who are these innocent people who have been killed for flirting or having a drink?  And please explain how this would be sanctioned under the policies currently in place or being put in place.  It should be easy because as you said “This is happening a lot already.”

      Otherwise, stop harming the straw and poisoning the well.

      • AnnePG

        Maybe I wasn’t clear. I said these policies need to be in place. In private chat-rooms and forums gossip and rumors are turning into witch hunts. I was simply saying we should focus on the facts and the bad apples.

  • http://myxozoan.wordpress.com/ Myxozoan

    Apologies in advance–I did not read the whole thread, so I’m sure someone else has already said this better than me. 

    Hemant, you seem like you may be genuinely interested in getting it, so: there are two reasons I would want a policy that specifies “unwanted sexual attention” and “touching other people without asking” as harassment.  First, it signals to people at the convention that these are behaviors that may upset other people, and that the convention does not expect the recipients of unwanted sexual attention or touching to “suck it up” or “stop being oversensitive”.  Hopefully, this will remind any well-meaning but socially-unskilled convention-goers to consider the feelings of others around sexualization and touching by strangers.  This is important to me as a sexual assault survivor, because I am extremely uncomfortable being touched or sexualized by people I don’t know well, and I would be much more likely to attend a convention where people were aware of these sorts of issues.

    Second, and more importantly, I’d like these rules in place in case someone does make unwanted sexual comments toward me or touch me without permission.  If someone were making me uncomfortable and I reported it, I would want the conversation to go like this:

    Myxozoan:  Hey, so it’s not a huge deal, but that guy in the red shirt is going around asking all the women if they will give him a blowjob.

    OfficialPerson:  Okay, we will have a chat with him and keep an eye on him from now on.  Thanks for letting us know.

    And I wouldn’t want the conversation to go like this:

    Myxozoan:  Hey, so it’s not a huge deal, but that guy in the red shirt is going
    around asking all the women if they will give him a blowjob.

    OfficialPerson:  Well, did you tell him to stop?

    Myxozoan:  …I said “excuse me?”  And then I walked away.

    OfficialPerson:  Well, unless you told him “no” more than once, it doesn’t count as harassment.

    In either case, all that will happen to RedShirtGuy is that OfficialPerson will say “We heard you were asking strangers for sex, and it’s bothering people.  Please stop.”  If he didn’t do it, or if he didn’t mean to offend anyone, nothing bad will happen.  I shouldn’t have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that RedShirtGuy was harassing me in order to get someone to tell him to cut it out.

  • Alex

    Okay, I’m kind of an outsider and will probably catch some flak for this (and other reasons), but reading some comments here made me go, OMFG. First of all, a policy is a set of rules designed to explain to people exactly where an organization stands. It’s not there to insult anyone’s intelligence. If common sense was enough to govern a meeting, there would never be a need for such policies in the first place.

    Nobody is trying to color all men as sex-crazed perverts waiting to grab somebody’s ass and take sneak pictures in a women’s restroom. Nobody is insinuating that all women are an irrational and insecure bunch of man-haters and scream “rape” every time a guy asks if they are single. I mean, we are supposed to be rational. If you think something’s implicit, then maybe it wasn’t written for you. You’re smart enough to figure out how to act in society? Great for you, but I assure you, there are plenty of folks that don’t have that kind of understanding. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience of having been a rather socially awkward college freshman :)

    While I can understand the concern for an overly bureaucratic society and trying to herd freedom-loving cats, I tend to side with Todd. Having a vague policy that can be interpreted in whatever way one wants is not much better than having no policy at all. So, let’s not lose our heads over something designed to protect them.

  • piñardilla

    I propose a thought experiment: Imagine a thread popped up on r/atheism discussing atheism conferences that were updating their harassment policies.  This thread then catches the attention of the entire atheist blogospherotimecube when a bunch of MRAs announce a plot to seek out female attendees at these conferences, and engage them in conversation to try to elicit a technical violation of the letter of the policy and file as many harassment complaints against women as possible.

    Now re-read Todd’s letter, and see if you find his suggestions more agreeable under such circumstances.

    Of course, this is an extreme example, and isn’t meant to imply that anyone on either side is likely to carry out such a plan, either as a conspiracy or just a lone individual, or that these policies pose a significant threat to male attendees.  But a harassment policy should try to anticipate any foreseeable way in which someone might harass someone else at a conference.  Anything that *could* happen should be prepared for, all gender politics aside.

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

    And the MRA trolls come swarming… yay.

  • Jasonlee

    Lets see if I got this right.

    1)  Todd sees potential for abuse in the current set of policies.

    2)  He provides a suggestions to fix these potential loopholes so that the abuse cannot occur.

    3)  People like Elyse Anders show up and get upset at the mere implication that any woman would ever abuse these policies because somehow the fact that 1 person could is the same as claiming most, all, or a large number of women would.

    No where did Todd say that this policy would result in errors very often.  He did not claim that there would be a large number of women abusing it.  Shoring up loopholes in rules for the sake of clarity and consistency isn’t assuming the worst about an entire class of people (certainly not women), it’s guarding against the errant 5% (pulled out of no where) of the population (male and female evenly distributed) that consists entirely of crazy people.

    Yes, if you squint real hard you can make out what he said into an MRA “women lie and are unfair” argument, but you don’t have to squint.  Sometimes *gasp* it’s okay to give people the benefit of the doubt.  Sometimes you don’t have to assume the worst of your fellow people.

    And if you’re concerned that they’re expressing a sexist viewpoint, try asking.  You could simply say, “Hey Todd, are you trying to shore up loopholes because you believe a lot of women will exploit them?”  And if he says yes, then we can get the pitchforks.

    Jumping to sexist conclusions when they’re never written anywhere in the text is NOT skeptical.  If we can’t even have a fair debate about Todd’s post, then we may as well give up on bridging the divide at all.

    For the record, in my view:  the skeptical community does have a sexism problem, we do need harassment policies to fix it, and people like Elyse have done us all a service by bringing this issue to the fore.  I just think they’re going a bit too far with it and they’re not particularly reasonable in their discussions of it.

    They should hand the issue off to people who are better equipped to discuss it and remain fair without resorting to insulting sarcasm, like Greta Christina.

    • Villa

      >> 1)  Todd sees potential for abuse in the current set of policies.
      I generally agree with your post and think you might be able to put this more strongly.   Many organizations post  “sexual harassment policies” that are not actually policies.
      Take the ‘no touching without permission’ thing.  No one intends to enforce the text that is written.  So:
      1.  There’s not really a potential for abuse
      2.  The organization hasn’t told us what standards they *are* going to follow.

  • Lizzy

    Wow I’m surprised to read this. Here in Springfield MO, (yes, the buckle of the Bible Belt!) Skepticon, one of the largest freethought gatherings in the country, is extremely open and accepting of all attendees, and very much focused on women’s issues as well as freethought issues. It’s a terrific event!

  • http://twitter.com/AGoldenGrove ChrisC

    I’m a little more concerned with the unspoken assumption in these conversations about sexual advances at public events, that said advances are normative rather than rare. We are operating on a flotilla of social conditioning, among them that males are sexual aggressors and females are supposed to defend against said aggression. Why in the hell can’t we simply talk to each other as the acquaintances that we are without having this perpetual warfare of sexual aggression/defense running in the background? Because our social conditioning tells us that at public events, males are supposed to be working as hard as possible to “get laid” (since we are no longer simply on the hunt for true pair bonds in “modern society”), and females have to be constantly on guard against this implicit aggression.

    It’s the 3 Stooges move–hand up, flat along the nose ridge, in preparation for the eye poke.

    And it this–right there–that makes women feel like any sexual attention is aggression. Because it is, and not because it is aggression, but because males are posturing as aggressors.

    Why aren’t we instead focusing on what these policies allow us to do, instead of all this male whining about how these policies will hinder their “game”? A safe environment for women means that they will be more willing to engage in real, meaningful interaction with males instead of clustering with other females in a huddle, looking over their shoulder and the shoulders of their fem comrades to ensure there’s no sexually aggressive guy standing in idle mode behind either of them. Do any of you guys understand how completely exhausting it is to operate in the high-stress mode necessary to be on constant look-out for the next guy who might try to touch you, or film you without your permission, or try to do that hug thing with their arms positioned just in the way that lets them feel up the side of your breasts. 

    It’s not the strangers that do this sort of thing. It’s the guy who you’ve had one or two brief interactions with who then decides that your 5 seconds of eye contact and one complete sentence in response to him is a “signal” of your willingness for him to escalate his interest into groping. As we know, the overwhelming majority of rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows or is acquainted with already. 

    This is not about “poor social skills”. This is about a social conditioning that teaches males that females are there for their sexual urges, and that those urges are so powerful they can’t be controlled by their frontal lobes, making the self-control of executive function a myth for polite society, a society which is abdicated by a woman if she makes eye contact with a man in a public space and sans a male partner.

    Or, if you prefer…if this was just about poor social skills, then the males would not be able to interact with other non-female humans in a socially acceptable way. “Social skills” is a cop-out answer, an over-gloss that panders to and infantilizes males, obviating them from responsibility for their actions. Which is of course why we need rules and regulations, since males are taught (by media, peers, society, other negative/positive reinforcement structures) that they can just barely control their penises.

    We could end all of this bloody mess simply by engendering healthy, functional interaction between humans who happen to be female and humans who happen to be male. And if you’re not sure whether or not your advances might be perceived as sexually intimidating, ask yourself if you would do the exact same thing–unmodified, including micro-movements and voice tone– with another male. 

    Women are not a goal. Women are not an objective. Women do not have vastly different sex drives from males. Males do not require sex every time they make an effort to socialize. Females are not looking for sexual partners every time they leave their homes. These are the assumptions that this entire debate is predicated upon. And we cannot have a good resolution on an issue so long as we maintain this sexist dogma and genderification of human beings. It will never work to better the culture, only to bog us all down with more regulation until the water is too muddy to drink. 

    • Jonathan Ray

       Let’s not go off the deep end with amateur sociological theorizing with no citations or evidence to back it up.  Fucking english departments are full of these dunning-kreuger effect pretend-sociologists.

  • http://twitter.com/AGoldenGrove ChrisC

    To modify some of my comment….I am not speaking of the writer of the original post as part of the “male whining”, but rather the hundreds of actual whines that I have read on numerous blogs because of anti-harassment policies being called for by women, and otherwise enacted by some groups. Obviously I am of sufficient cognitive ability to read text as written and interpret it, but should it not be obvious, this caveat is submitted.

  • VEA

    How about no means no and if it’s against the law- it’s against the law and call the police if someone is groped or threatened?  Not so hard.

  • Villa

    I’m surprised at the number of people who’re are missing the point with regard to over-broad policies.

    The issue is not that over-broad language will be abused.  No one is actually going to apply a standard where hand-shakes are banned.

    The issue is that, as soon as an organization says, “of course we’re not going to follow the policy-as-written” they no longer actually have a written policy.

    • Jasonlee

      You wrote what I wrote much more succinctly. Thanks!

  • http://www.lifeloveandhorses.com/ IcieMeg

    Good to hear rational thoughts on policies, plus recognizing that having policies can be useful. Sounds like everyone could use a good specialist lawyer to review their policies, but this isn’t new ground. There are plenty of conferences that already have policies that are worked out and have plenty of fun and aren’t worrying about friendly hugs, but do have some guidelines and consequences for a bad apple. It’s not rocket science. 

  • SkepticalOne

    I thought Todd’s post was completely reasonable and fair, and from a policy perspective, made several very important points about what makes an effective and balanced policy while minimizing unintended consequences.

    However, I find the tone and nature of many of the responses attacking him, and the widely made implication that all women are perfect and never level false or overblown accusations towards men (or that considering the risk of such is unimportant), unsettling.

    The anger and irrationality around this issue doesn’t bode well for this community.  Yet it continues.

  • Mark Ross

    I really like this well-reasoned approach. I’ve described some of these feminists as fascists in the past because the rules they seek to put in place are sometimes overly restrictive and subjective. “unwanted sexual attention” and “sexualized apparel” are very broadly defined. It also, to be quite honest, smacks of a dress code which is something I’d expect more from a Pentecostal camp meeting than a freethinker convention. I think the types of refinement suggested here take the proper steps to bring these policies from virtually ridiculous to useful tools for ensuring the safety of conference attendees.


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