I haven’t actually been to any major atheist/skeptical/freethought conventions, but I’ve been to a few technical conferences, and I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to travel to new parts of the country and do a little sightseeing on the side. One thing I’ve found, though, is that sometimes when you step outside of the hotel or convention center, the panhandlers are waiting for you on the sidewalk, trying to bum some cash off of you. And then again, sometimes they aren’t. It depends on the venue.
I don’t believe in being harsh to panhandlers. I used to work downtown, and sometimes I would be approached by a homeless guy as I was walking to the nearest MacDonalds for some lunch. And generally, he would complain about not having eaten, and I would take him to MacDonalds and buy him whatever he wanted, because it goes against my principles to send a hungry man away hungry. I didn’t try to get the guy arrested, but by the same token there were days when I stayed away from MacDonalds because I didn’t feel like being panhandled again.
The problem with panhandling is not that I can’t handle isolated incidents now and then. Where panhandling becomes an issue is when it starts to become pervasive and persistent, where you can’t even step onto the sidewalk without being latched onto by someone who won’t take no for an answer. And that goes for sexual panhandling as well. You wouldn’t want to go to a business conference that was well-known as a venue where panhandlers not only thronged the sidewalks, but were actually welcomed inside the convention and given the opportunity to accost you and occasionally pick your pocket every time you turned around. It’s no different if the panhandlers are there looking for sex instead of money.
Like I said, I’m an outside observer here, since I haven’t been to any major skeptical/atheist conventions. But the complaint I think I’m hearing is not coming from women who expect the crowds to part and everyone to bow as they walk past in pristine purity. The complaint I hear is that the panhandling is getting out of hand. It’s not that they can’t or won’t respond appropriately to the rare, isolated incident, it’s that the frequency, severity, and persistence of the incidents is raising the nuisance level above acceptable limits.
Take groping, for instance. In my panhandling analogy, that’s like the panhandler who picks your pocket, helping himself to what he wants—except, of course, that in the case of groping, it’s much more difficult for the victim to establish that an actual crime has taken place. And while it’s certainly true that you wouldn’t want to punish all panhandlers as pickpockets when only one of them was actually guilty, that’s not really the point. The point is, would you want to attend a conference or other social function if you knew that the organizers (and a sizable number of attendees) were largely on the side of the panhandlers and pickpockets?
Women shouldn’t have to put up with that sexually any more than any of us should have to put up with it monetarily. And all it takes is for people to agree that, yes, that’s unacceptable, and we have policies against it, and we actively enforce those policies. We shouldn’t need to call in the police and have anyone arrested (except in rare cases), we just need to take a firm stand.