Skeevy conference presenters and anti-harassment policies

I shot off a couple tweets on this topic, but didn’t blog about it because I didn’t think I had more than a couple tweets worth to say about it. But now I realize I do. So background: Jen made an off-hand comment at a talk about male speakers being skeevy at atheist conferences, and it sparked a whole bunch of conversation, including talk of anti-harassment policies.

The things that have allegedly happened include some fairly serious things, including men groping women against their wishes. But I really don’t know what’s been going on. It’s all hearsay to me, I’ve never been a big attender of atheist conferences (the last one I went to was the 2010 FFRF con), and in fact I’m literally observing this from from thousands of miles away.

That said, my initial reaction was to think that regardless of the actual extent of the problem, some of the proposed remedies would be sensible in any case. I think JT’s “Flirting, Sex, and Lines” post was good, and think some kind of anti-harassment policies would be sensible. But now I’ve realized I have to add a caveat to that, which is that the people in charge of this stuff should be careful that they don’t end up instating policies that ban things few people really want to ban.

I point that out only because one of the things that’s been tossed around as a template for anti-harassment policies is this page on the Geek Feminism Wiki, which includes rules against “sexual language” and “sexualize clothing.” Those rules have already been adopted by at least one atheist con, apparently rather hastily in response to the recent discussion, and with this explanation of the no-sexual-language rule: “While some important and relevant issues may touch upon sexual issues, please keep it professional and in an academic context.”

Now, if some people wanted to have an atheist conference where everyone dresses very properly and all the talks are academic in nature, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that, if they were into that sort of thing. But the (admittedly small sampling of) atheist cons I’ve been to have been much less formal affairs than the academic conferences I’ve been to, and I suspect that’s how most of us want them to be.

For example, I’d personally be thrilled if an atheist con I was at managed to snag Dan Savage as a speaker and he showed up to be his usual, un-academic, un-family friendly self. And while I dress pretty boringly most of the time, my guess is some people would resent being told how to dress beyond basic standards of normal social acceptability.

On top of that, rules governing the tone of talks and how people dress don’t really have much to do with the problems people have actually been talking about. Even if you think they might be a good idea, an unrelated problem is no reason to rush them through.

(Clarification: as written, the clothing rule wouldn’t apply to everyone. But I still suspect some of the people it will apply to won’t care for it, and in any case it’s a separate issue from what actually motivated the policy.)