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.