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.)

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  • jamessweet

    This is a good point, although I will say that in practice I doubt the offending provisions would ever be enforced. Still, good catch in that those particular provisions probably ought not to be in there.

    I still think conferences adopting an anti-harassment policy is a no-brainer. Having worked at a company with a strong anti-harassment policy, I can pretty safely say it doesn’t turn into a “witch hunt”. In fact, you can still get away with telling a dirty (or even sexist, I’m afraid) joke here or there, as long as it’s not habitual. The point of an anti-harassment policy is often less in the specifics, and more in establishing that there is a line, and having a procedure in place for when that line is brazenly crossed.

    • jamessweet

      I retract the second sentence of my previous comment now that the context of these provisions has been explained.

      In any case, a broader point remains: an anti-harassment policy is indubitably a good thing, even if reasonable people may differ over the details of implementation.

  • julian


    Ok, so

    Exhibitors in the expo hall, sponsor or vendor booths, or similar activities are also subject to the anti-harassment policy. In particular, exhibitors should not use sexualized images, activities, or other material. Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualized environment.

    I take it this is the paragraph you have the most issue with (by the way, quoting what you object to really moves conversations along). In case you were wondering that particular portion refers to the “booth babes” that often come attached to expos where certain products are on display. Notice the references to programming, games and other geek stuff in the wiki page you link to? Notice that it specifically refers to costumes and uniforms (ie, the sexy nurse, maid, police officer…)? Notice that the section refers to exhibitors (“exhibitors should not”)?

    Unless of course you’d like copies of the The God Delusion sold by half nude playboy bunnies having a wet t-shirt contest, there’s really no reason to object to that paragraph.

    The other bit you object to

    “Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks”

    (ignoring how it’s overstated) is better explained in the long public version where what qualifies as harassment is specified. In the whole list I can see only two you’d likely object too 1)sexual images in public spaces 2)unwelcome sexual advances.

    Two looks like a landmine I don’t want to step on right now and one seems entirely harmless knowing that the anti-harassment policy requires a complaint and discourages penalizing someone unless it is a pattern of behavior or it is a gross violation and deliberate act (the example given is someone taking an upskirt photo of someone else) Besides, it’s an anti-harassment policy. It won’t do anyone much good if it doesn’t err on the side of caution.

    While there should be some review to make it more germane to skeptic/atheist conferences I don’t see any weight behind the complaints.

    • julian

      If my comment comes across as terse or upset, it’s because I’m sick of people misrepresenting what this policy says. It is not accurate to characterize it the way Chris Hallquist has in the OP where he presents the restriction on sexual clothing without context and heavily insinuates it would require everyone to wear business attire. The policy does no such thing and attendess are still free to dress as they would have before it.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I admit I was confused by the reference to the expo booths. I know they’re a big part of many geek cons, but not the atheist cons I’ve been too. That actually strikes me as further evidence that the policy was cut and pasted without much thought on how to adapt it to atheist events. Even in that context, though, it’s a strange rule.

      I understand the dislike of “booth bunnies,” but many geek cons are also places where people go to dress up (cosplay and so on), and many women want to wear outfits there that could be considered “sexualized,” that includes women who are there to hawk their own stuff.

      And I don’t understand your comments on the second bit at all. I explicitly objected to the “sexualized language” bit.

      • A. Noyd

        I don’t think you understand the dislike of booth babes given the nature of your “but.” The difference between booth babes and general attendees wearing costumes is that the former create a message from exhibitors (ie. on an official level) that their preferred customers are mindlessly horny straight dudes. Both the discrimination against customers and the form it takes (objectifying women) makes for a climate that’s unwelcoming to everyone besides the mindlessly horny straight dudes. Not only is it obnoxious to deal with while attending a con, it extends beyond cons to perpetuate the idea that comics, games, tech doodads, sports cars, etc. are for dudes and only dudes. Go read this pair of featured comments from the Escher Girls tumblr: here and here. That guy’s attitude and sense of entitlement is what exhibitors encourage by using booth babes.

  • skepticalmath

    I think JT’s “Flirting, Sex, and Lines” post was good, and think some kind of anti-harassment policies would be sensible.

    There are a lot of women who disagree with you. And since women are the people being harassed (in general), I think listening to them might be helpful. See, for example, the monstrosity of the comment section on that post, an also, say, this criticim.

    A brief quote:

    Yeeeeaaahh, no. You can’t remove the social context because the social context is what determines how women will respond. they’re not flirting with you in a social vaccum, and pretending otherwise is just fucking stupid. We have to fix the social context first (i.e. not punish women for being above-average-assertive, and instead shut down those why try to punish women for blatantly and “rudely” setting boundaries and even taking initiative themselves), before you can seriously expect women to consistently “help” socially inept guys at flirting by being blunt with them.

    And nevermind that this whole scenario ignores the existence of socially inept women, since it puts the burden of clear communication on them (notice how it’s the women who have to say “no” as bluntly as possible, socialization and possible punishment be damned, but the socially awkward dudes are still allowed to operate within the subtleties of basic human interaction).

    • skepticalmath

      I can’t type right now, apparently. The typos should be obvious, my apologies. “an”->”and” and “criticim”->”criticism”

      • Godless Heathen

        Thank You, skepticamath!

        It pisses me off that all women are expected to be completely socially adept, but that it’s okay if men aren’t.

        Plenty of women are socially inept to some extent and had to learn social norms the hard way. Socially awkward men also need to learn these norms and not rely on women for that.

        Plus, there are plenty of men who ARE socially adept.

  • A. Noyd

    Now, if some people wanted to have an atheist conference where everyone dresses very properly…

    What do you mean by “everyone”? The sample policy is clearly talking about exhibitors and booth staff. It’s not about governing how attendees dress; it’s about ways to avoid creating a chilly climate. A certain subset of attendees might not want to participate in an environment that makes them feel excluded, uncomfortable, and/or threatened. It’s not unreasonable for, say, women to feel excluded when exhibitors use booth babes to lure in potential customers. It’s not unreasonable for women to worry about their physical safety if the con is pervaded with messages that women are sex objects. (And it’s not just attendees who have these concerns.)

    …and all the talks are academic in nature…

    The “sexualized language” bit isn’t the problem you’re making it out to be, either, although the sample policy and the one being used by an actual con could use some work. (But then, no one ever suggested the sample is anything other than a template that should be modified to fit the con in question.) If the most basic concern is making sure cons can invite people like Dan Savage, then they can help people who want to avoid sexualized language by marking in the program which presenters use sexualized language and also posting notices outside the presentation room. The more troubling issue that’s come up is presenters using sexual language outside of their talks in inappropriate ways—but that doesn’t seem to be your concern here.

    • julian

      Probably the most irritating thing about booth babes is that once a convention starts having them many of the men present start viewing every woman as a booth babe. And I don’t just mean sexualizing them (although how brazen they get with some less than polite behavior is definitely worth mentioning). I mean they literally start assuming every woman they find attractive is a booth babe and become increasingly patronizing towards them.

      Total sidenote

      The whole booth babe thing reminds me in part of businessmen whole hold meetings with clients and those the business is courting will at strip clubs. While you can’t prove that it’s done to exclude their female competitors the affect is pretty obvious. Women who do attend are uncomfortable, often feel demoralized and are often treated as if they were one of the dancers.

      • Chris Hallquist

        Okay. I hadn’t really understood the issue with the booth babes; that at least explains the rule’s presence in the Geek Feminism Wiki article.

      • Cara

        Women who do attend are uncomfortable, often feel demoralized and are often treated as if they were one of the dancers.

        Gosh. That does suck.

        I wonder how the dancers feel at being treated like “one of the dancers”.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Actually, Dan Savage may have been a bad example, because sex is so central to what he does.

      Here’s better example (which I initially avoided using for fear it would be misconstrued as a charge of hypocrisy, which it’s not, it’s just an example that I happen to have witnessed personally):

      A number of years back, when the Skepchick Calendar was a new thing, I watched a panel discussion about strategies for young activists or some such, and after many possible things you could do had been discussed Rebecca Watson made a quip about “…or you could just make a nudie calendar.”

      Not exactly an academic comment on sex, but it was a less formal discussion and the quip fit the tone just fine. But do speakers really need to warn their audience in the program / sign at the door if they’re going to make an off-the-cuff quip like that?

      • A. Noyd

        But do speakers really need to warn their audience in the program / sign at the door if they’re going to make an off-the-cuff quip like that?

        My suggestion was specifically in response to your Dan Savage example. Don’t try to make me sound ridiculous by applying it to a completely different scenario. Whatever is or isn’t appropriate language for off-the-cuff remarks is something that planners should determine based on what sort of language they’re worried could drive away attendees the con is meant to attract. Then they could inform both the general attendees and presenters where the line is drawn and enforce line-crossing after a certain number of complaints. They might, for instance, ask presenters to avoid targeted sexual language—that is, language that speaks exclusively to a particular gender or sexuality, either implicitly or explicitly. (For example, if Rebecca had said “…or the women among you could just make a nudie calendar.”) Or language that imposes the presenter’s sexuality/sexual feelings on others (eg. “what you just said was so awesome it gave me a boner”).

        Hopefully as there’s more attempt to enact official policies, cons will hire people to create and refine those policies for their particular needs. That won’t happen instantly, but it would probably be helpful to the process if criticism of policies was directed at actual problems and not imaginary ones.

        • Chris Hallquist

          Sorry, I didn’t mean to try to make your suggestion sound ridiculous, just to point out that it doesn’t solve all the problems with a “no sexualized language” rule.

          And I think your last paragraph is a mistake. Trying to anticipate problems can go overboard into things that are highly unlikely, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it at all. In fact, I think some of your suggestions are potentially helpful, and I’m glad you did that rather than say, “whatever, we’ll worry about that problem when it comes up.”

          • A. Noyd

            What is a mistake about my last paragraph? Copypasta’d policies aren’t something atheist cons should stick with; they should get pros and/or people with experience to create policies specific to their needs. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue the farther we get from this initial period of recognizing they’re necessary in the first place, though. And people who have criticism of policies should be careful that they’re criticizing something real.

          • Chris Hallquist

            I was referring to this sentence: “…it would probably be helpful to the process if criticism of policies was directed at actual problems and not imaginary ones.”

          • A. Noyd

            And? Dress codes for general attendees is an imaginary problem. It’s one the trolls made up to discredit anti-harassment policies.

      • Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

        Well, they can’t. Off the cuff is off the cuff. But presenters need to be put on notice that there’s a line, so that when they cross it they aren’t in the position of saying, “Oh, I didn’t know I couldn’t call heckler’s the C-word. That’s so normal among my friends, why would I think twice?” In those situations the organizers may be hesitant to assign consequences.

        But if there’s a no-sexualized-language clause then the organizers, regardless of excuses proffered, can feel comfortable assigning consequences – dramatically lesser ones for things like, “You could make a nudie calendar” and dramatically greater ones for (trigger warning), “All the women in this room can suck me or go jump in a lake cuz it’s men that carry the load in the skepticism movement, amirite?”

  • satanaugustine

    A couple of people have mentioned “booth babes,” but I’ve no idea why this has been mentioned in the context of specifically atheist conferences. I’ve been to a few atheist/skeptic conferences and I’ve never seen anything like a booth babe at any of them (or anywhere else for that matter). In fact, I think it’s highly unlikely that an atheist or skeptic conference would feature booth babes so the no “sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes” for “exhibitors” rule would seem to address a problem that doesn’t exist. I mean, what group involved with an atheist conference would feature booth babes?

    • jamessweet

      The clause in question was from a template sexual harassment policy, so it covers issues faced by all sorts of types of conferences.

      If an anti-harassment policy were being crafted clean-sheet for an atheist/skeptic conference, it seems unlikely such a provision would be included. That does’t necessarily mean including it is a bad thing, though. I’m personally somewhat ambivalent (I think the odds of anybody trying to use the booth babes tactic at a skeptic conference, as well as the odds of someone getting in trouble over this clause who wasn’t actually doing anything wrong, are both very close to zero)

  • ImaginesABeach

    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.

    If the people it will apply to are exhibitors, who generally attend conferences to sell something, it appears enforcing this language would simply exclude exhibitors who view women as sex objects that are useful only for luring in customers. I don’t actually care if they are forced to find a way to market their products that doesn’t include booth babes.

    And actually, it’s not a separate issue. A place where women are commodities whose purpose is to appear sexually available is likely to be a place where other women are treated as if they are assumed to be sexually available. In other words, a place where sexual harassment is treated with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

  • Iamcuriosublue

    Hallq -

    Thanks for this post; I’ve been hoping a “high bandwidth” skeptical blogger would raise the topic. I agree – nothing wrong with a sensible anti-harassment policy that would prohibit things like groping and other intrusive behaviors, and would clearly and fairly enforce such policies. The overly-broad and ideologically-driven “Geek Feminist” model policy, however, is clearly not one that should be adopted wholesale, especially in any space that is at all pluralistic and committed to open inquiry. (A comparison I’ve made before is that the “Geek Feminist” mode policy strikes me as resembling in places the Dworkin/MacKinnon model antipornography ordinaince, with similar potential for chilling effect.)

    A major problem with this boilerplate policy-pushing is that it fails to take the nature of the conference or gathering into account, but rather pushed anywhere where “geek” interests are supposed to predominate. In my estimation – and I think that of most reasonable people – I expect a very different environment and behavior between, say, the American Society for Cell Biology annual conference and a comic con. In the former, I expect everything to be very sober and formal. In the latter, I don’t think even “booth babes” would be out of place.

    It should also be pointed out how incredibly condescending and infantalizing it is to claim that without absolutely nannyish policies in place, women are unable to participate safely. I think it is safe to assume women (as opposed to girls) are adults, and like other adults, should be safe from being subject to aggressive and repeated demands from other people, but at the same time, should be quite able to deal with simple interactions with people or images they don’t like, as one inevitably has to do in life.