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Jun 01 2012

How Big Is the Problem?

In this ongoing discussion about dealing with harassment at atheist and skeptic events, one question has been asked a number of times. “Is this even a big deal?” The undertone, occasionally asked outright, is “Are you exaggerating the problem?”

The American Secular Census has just released some survey data relevant to the question.

Have you ever felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement?
Responding Yes:
11.4% – Overall
14.4% – Women

Which of these factors contributed to this experience? (Multiple responses permitted.)
77% – Words, actions, or attitudes of other participants
46% – Words, actions, or attitudes of organizers, leaders, or employees
23% – Unwanted advances by other participants
15.4% – Unwanted advances by organizers, leaders, or employees
15.4% – Programs or positions of the organization itself
8% – Choice of activity or venue

It’s impossible to be sure which responses on the second question came from what gender. However, we do now have data showing that the movement has been more hostile to women than to men by a fair amount. Given that men are less likely to classify sexual advances as unwelcome, there’s also a good chance that those numbers disproportionately reflect responses from women. The second set of responses are from women who responded, “Yes”, to the first question.

Is all of it going to be harassment? Of course not. Some of it will be, however, and more of it will be run of the mill objectification: “Hi. So I know we’re here at this intellectual event and all, but, well, I noticed you’re female. Wanna fuck?” (For the record, that starts being harassment as soon as “No” is ignored.) Whatever the specifics, it was enough to make the people who responded–many of them those women we claim to want in the movement–uncomfortable enough to say they “felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed”.

In essence, the numbers aren’t huge. That’s not surprising. No one said they were. But they are not insubstantial either. They deserve to be addressed, plain and simple.

72 comments

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  1. 1
    Pteryxx

    Thanks for this.

    Point of order:

    “Hi. So I know we’re here at this intellectual event and all, but, well, I noticed you’re female. Wanna fuck?”

    is already harassment by the legal definition. It doesn’t get a free pass up until an explicit “No”.

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    Good point. That statement is meant to cover a lot of other formulations of that interaction that have significantly more deniability built into them. As explicitly written, it is targeting based on gender, which is illegal.

  3. 3
    dan-o

    Will this cause the demise of the FreeThought events? One can only hope as I do not wish to see woman discriminated against at any time.

  4. 4
    Jason Thibeault

    So I guess now we’re still waiting on the repeated requests made of DJ by various commenters for evidence that female attendance is down because of the harassment conversation?

  5. 5
    augustpamplona

    How many responses? What is the margin of error?

  6. 6
    Stephanie Zvan

    Good question. They’re not reported. I would suggest asking the census-takers.

  7. 7
    Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle

    Hi, dan-o the christian homophobe!

    ++

    Jason: Its hard to hear you over the deafening noise of crickets coming from Grothe.

  8. 8
    Ben Zvan

    Pteryxx: What if 1 in every 7 people a person interacts with at an event asks that question phrased in that fashion? Unlikely, but really annoying. And the ratio in real life is probably more like 1 in every 100.

  9. 9
    Lorax

    Wait, how is

    “Hi. So I know we’re here at this intellectual event and all, but, well, I noticed you’re female. Wanna fuck?”

    legally harassment?

    It’s crude, rude, objectifying, toolish, trollish, and an asshole approach. I can readily see why being approached in this or even a significantly toned down version of this could make a person (particular a woman who may have had to deal with this behavior hundreds of times) feel unwelcome and even not particularly safe. But harassment encompasses a continued behavior.

    I realize this may be pedantic, but I want to see if Im missing something. Again I want to stress that the behavior is problematic and should be called out.

  10. 10
    Ben Zvan

    Lorax: please read the part of the paragraph that comes before your blockquote. For convenience, I have pasted it below.

    Is all of it going to be harassment? Of course not. Some of it will be, however, and more of it will be run of the mill objectification:

  11. 11
    Stephanie Zvan

    Lorax, harassment can cover what happens within a group as well as what happens between two individuals. If there is an atmosphere in which women are targeted for sexual behavior simply because they’re women, that group can have a problem with harassment, even if each individual interaction doesn’t rise to that level.

  12. 12
    Lorax

    Thanks Ben and Stephanie. I realize I wasn’t clear, but I was addressing Pteryxx’s post#1 where ze suggests the statement is legally harassment.

    I agree with Stephanie’s assessment that not all of it rises to the level of harassment (from a legal standpoint). I also think it’s important to stress that if that kind of behavior is tolerated it sets the stage for allowing or failing to deal with harassment that does occur, as noted by Stephanie (although I wish I had thought of that first).

  13. 13
    Ben Zvan

    Pteryxx: Please allow me to apologize, I didn’t read your comment good.

  14. 14
    karmakin

    Well, the point is that harassment, as it’s legally defined (or even commonly defined) simply isn’t enough. It’s too high of a bar. It’s not going to cover the majority of situations that make people feel unnecessarily uncomfortable.

    Above that bar, I think is pretty easy, and most people are in agreement over it. The problem is all the stuff at or below that bar, and that’s where the argument is. We could accept what is, more or less the status quo, and rely on harassment reports. Now the processes for these definitely can be improved, but I feel that you’re not actually changing very much. Maybe making people self-aware of what they’re doing? But what I’m seeing in these discussions is very little self-awareness. It’s all about the “other” and what they’re doing.

    Anyway, I read http://skepchick.org/2012/05/sex-and-the-newbie/ and thought it was a very good article that explains why a more strict policy may be a good thing.

  15. 15
    American Secular Census

    To clarify the cited data, the statistics for “Which of these factors contributed to this experience?” were limited to the responses of *women* who’d indicated being harassed, harmed, or discriminationed against. Apologies for any vagueness.

  16. 16
    Stephanie Zvan

    Excellent. Thank you for the data and the clarification.

  17. 17
    Eristae

    How was this data collected? Because if it was (for example) collected by asking women at conferences, it will exclude all women who experienced harassment at a conference and never went to another conference. Same thing for asking women at organizational meetings.

    In essence, I don’t see any way that this data can be anything other than a substantial underestimation. Which isn’t to say that the collectors did anything wrong; I don’t know how you account for women who leave the movement as a result of harassment.

  18. 18
    Pteryxx

    Stephanie: FYI I posted some research about surveying sexual harassment over at Ophelia’s and PZ’s places. Apologies for spamming:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/2012/06/words-actions-or-attitudes/#comment-182066

  19. 19
    American Secular Census

    The data is collected online: http://www.SecularCensus.US/ Registrants are U.S. citizens or permanent residents over 18 who are skeptical of supernatural claims including those normally associated with religion. Participants self-select by creating an account on the site and completing a dozen or more forms asking about demographics, voting patterns, opinions on social/political issues, etc. The data discussed here is part of a form which asks about the registrant’s involvement in, and opinions about, the secular movement. There are questions about what the secular movement does well and not so well, what role if any the registrant has played in the movement, and more — as well as the ones about harassment being discussed here. BTW, similar questions about religion and religious involvement are posed on a different form, so we do in fact have corresponding data (as yet unreleased) about registrants’ experiences with feeling unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in a religious group. Thanks for everyone’s interest in the American Secular Census – please consider registering and completing a Census if you are in the U.S.! The larger the registry grows, the more reliable the statistics.

  20. 20
    Pteryxx

    ACS: one of the research reports I just read (and linked to) says that online reporting’s very useful in getting accurate responses to questions about harassment.

    This is from page 44 here:

    http://www.aauw.org/learn/research/upload/DTLFinal.pdf

    Finally, the case for an online methodology was
    especially strong for this project because of its
    subject matter. Sexual harassment is a sensitive
    and personal topic. Some students may feel
    embarrassed to talk about these issues. As
    Chapter 3 reveals, a sizeable number of students
    —especially male students—have never discussed
    their sexual harassment experience with anyone,
    even a friend. An online format where questions
    are presented on the screen rather than asked in
    person is also preferable because the gender of
    the interviewer is not apparent.

  21. 21
    C. Folk

    As American Secular Census states: “[p]articipants self-select”. There is therefore no reason to think that the sample is representative of the population. This doesn’t make the data collected useless, but it does mean that the data cannot be used to make generalizations about the population studied. In social research, this type of data is mainly used in exploratory research to discover areas for future investigation. I’m afraid it is useless for the purpose of determining the extent of harassment at secular events.

  22. 22
    Stephanie Zvan

    C., participation in surveys is always self-selecting to some extent. These respondents self-select for being atheists who want to be represented in the public sphere. They answer these questions as part of a larger survey about their attitudes and experiences as atheists. I don’t know what in that would make them unrepresentative when it comes to these experiences.

  23. 23
    Ben Zvan

    Since there’s some question in this thread I wanted to mention that I recently went through a training course in which harassment was defined as “when someone feels it is harassment.” I think that’s a pretty clear definition.

  24. 24
    American Secular Census

    We actually agree that the American Secular Census is not necessarily the most scientific way to delve into the details of sexual harassment at secular events — or any other metric, for that matter. It is not designed to focus on any one area of demographics or viewpoints, nor was it created to prove any one point of view or to stress any one demographic. The Census is a general survey that includes many kinds of questions that we’ve seen come up in numerous staff and board meetings within the secular movement — questions which (until now) could only be answered by educated guesses and speculation, based on leaders’ personal experiences with members, donors, and others. We felt empirical data would be more useful in understanding and meeting the needs of the secular community, so we launched this project in November 2011 for that rather open-ended purpose.

    Disclaimers aside, the data holds a great deal of potential for deeper investigation of a demographic or a viewpoint. Using the harassment issue as an example, this registry would allow us to quickly create a mailing list of women who’ve indicated problems at secular events (some with names and street addresses, some with just emails). Further research into this problem and possible solutions could focus on their experiences in more detail, either by directing them into a new study or by creating a new Secular Census form just for them.

    By the way, our database also matches each registrant with her/his Congressional district, so filtering is also possible for political and voting research.

  25. 25
    C. Folk

    Stephanie Zvan, the problem is that it can’t be assumed that the respondents are representative of secularists as a whole, for the same reason that online polls (of the common type we see on web pages everywhere)are not representative of any particular group. Scientific surveys usually try to collect responses from a random sample of sufficient size from the studied population that will allow for the results to be generalizable to the entire population. Not every subject replies, of course, and the response rate may make results less certain, but simply allowing self-selection by subjects makes it likely that only those most interested in the survey subject will respond. In this case, for example, it might be that those who have had negative experiences are more likely to reply, causing negative experiences to be overcounted, or it might be that those who want everyone to ignore the harassment problem we’re discussing are more likely to reply, causing the numbers to be too low. Or both, plus many other plausible reasons.

    I’m just trying to caution people that these numbers aren’t necessarily representative of anyone but the subset of registered members of the American Secular Census who actually decided to complete the survey.

  26. 26
    Stephanie Zvan

    C. Folk, would you kindly care to show me where you have a history of “just trying” to caution people about survey data? Then, would you like to show me where you lecture people with degrees in psychology who write about scientific methodology who have just told you about self-selection in survey data–about self-selection in survey data?

    I ask because what you’re doing here is swerving into the realm of hyper-skepticism, and I suspect you want to give that some thought.

  27. 27
    C. Folk

    I understand that you have been personally attacked recently for trying to address the issue of sexual harassment in the secular community, and I’m outraged that you have been. I also understand if you interpret my posts as attempts to minimize the problem or even derail the conversation, but they weren’t. I support you and the others working at this issue, which is why I responded at all.

    Pointing out the limitations of the ASC data is not hyper-skepticism. The fact that the response rates for scientific surveys is never 100% does not make them equivalent to what the ASC survey methodology does, as you know. I’m trying to caution readers not to quote these statistics as a reliable indicator of the amount of harassment at conferences because they aren’t, in fact, a reliable indicator. I don’t understand why it bothers you for me to point it out. I won’t reply again, unless you specifically request it. I’m sorry if I wasn’t being helpful.

  28. 28
    American Secular Census

    C. Folk, please visit the site and read the “before you register” section. If you find language that you believe will attract too many or too few registrants of a certain opinion about sexual harassment at secular events or any other topic, thereby biasing the results, will you please let us know? The topics addressed on the Census forms are quite varied and, other than the few sample questions offered for preview on the demo form, are unknown to the registrant until s/he opens each one in the browser.

  29. 29
    Stephanie Zvan

    C. Folk, I’m aware you’ve been supportive in this discussion, and I appreciate it. You still haven’t, as Mary Ellen pointed out, given any good reason to think this survey methodology will produce data that is at all unrepresentative. This isn’t a self-selecting group, except for self-selection as politically aware atheists.

    When you do a scientific study on an affiliation group, you go to an organization that represents the group and poll its members. Some answer then. Some don’t. Frankly, embedding the questions in a long-form survey the way this census does is likely to create better response rates than an ad hoc scientific study of the same group. There’s nothing wrong with this data that isn’t wrong with most other surveys–which you don’t go around insisting we not use–and certain things that are more right.

    I have no problem at all citing this data with survey questions and answers in place for context and a link that shows how people were recruited to the general census. I have a great deal of difficulty figuring out why you would have a problem with it. Will better data come along? Maybe, if someone wants to put up the money to collect it. In the meantime, however, this is heaps and bounds more usable than a bunch of people in blog and forum comments, which is what we’ve had.

  30. 30
    Ray Staroof

    Ben Zvan says:
    Since there’s some question in this thread I wanted to mention that I recently went through a training course in which harassment was defined as “when someone feels it is harassment.” I think that’s a pretty clear definition.

    I don’t think that clears up anything. Under that definition, an action can be both harassment and not harassment, depending on the observer.

  31. 31
    mouthyb

    Ray Staroof: Yep. It’s harassment if anyone present feels it is. The same training which introduces the legal standards (at least for my training) also introduces the need to be careful not just with the person you’re talking to, but also with anyone else who can hear, see, or be exposed to what you’re doing.

    It’s not actually that hard to not harass people under that standard, you just have to pay attention to what you say, do, put up for others and how you treat them. And there are provisions built into that statement for group dynamics, though they warn you to err on the side of caution.

  32. 32
    Cara

    I agree with Stephanie’s assessment that not all of it rises to the level of harassment (from a legal standpoint).

    Is this pedantry because you’d like to see the policy be airtight, avoiding ambiguity so the creepers can’t wriggle out of it?

    Or is there some other reason?

    I just wonder because it seems that, on this type of thread, there’s an eagerness to derail the basic “Yeah, that’s shitty behavior” message with a bunch of hypotheticals and devil’s advocating and game-playing with technicalities instead of just…accepting the idea that yes, this sucks.

  33. 33
    Jason Thibeault

    Yes, the intentional conflation of “harassment” with “legally actionable harassment” is another facet of the meme that we’re trying to turn the skeptical movement all cold and prude. It’s more noise that we should steamroll.

  34. 34
    mouthyb, Vagina McTits

    Jason: I find myself frequently amused (as funny as the subject ain’t) by the assertion that this debate is all about the cock-block. Just shows the reader how very ubiquitous the idea that explicit consent is not worth considering.

    It also shows me how many creepers there are out there.

  35. 35
    Pteryxx

    I don’t think that clears up anything. Under that definition, an action can be both harassment and not harassment, depending on the observer.

    Actually it’s absolutely clear. For comparison:

    “An action can be both welcome and unwelcome, depending on the observer.”

    “An action can be both frightening and not frightening, depending on the observer.”

    “An action can be both consensual and nonconsensual, depending on the observer.”

    One party does not get to unilaterally impose their view of the situation upon every other party. That’s what concepts like “bodily autonomy” and “women are people” mean – the people put into a situation by someone else still make their own interpretations. Their views are not imposed externally by an aggressor.

    When ANY of the parties involved in a situation of a sexual nature have not agreed to be put in that situation, they have been forced. That is a transgression, and in some cases a crime.

    If that’s still too hard to understand, I suggest reviewing wave/particle duality.

  36. 36
    Jason Thibeault

    If that’s still too hard to understand, I suggest reviewing wave/particle duality.

    HAH!!

  37. 37
    Ben Zvan

    And once the action has been observed as harassment, the quantum state collapses and it is only harassment.

  38. 38
    Ray Staroof

    “If that’s still too hard to understand, I suggest reviewing wave/particle duality.”

    I find it odd that within the overall discussion of making people feel welcome and safe within the skeptical community, you make a statement like this. I’m fairly new to Ftb, have only made a few comments on various blogs, and I was interested enough in this subject to chime in. I thought Ben Zvan’s definition of harassment was not as clear as stated. You could have responded without that last sentence and we might have been able to have a dialogue. But I guess it’s okay to insinuate someone is stupid when he says something is not clear. And then another blogger comes along and high fives the one calling me stupid. Well, fuck you both.

  39. 39
    Pteryxx

    Wave-particle duality IS an example where something is both X and Y depending on the observer, completely free of any gendered or social interpretation. If you really can’t understand that people are individually autonomous and may observe an action differently, then go to wave-particle duality as an explanation of the concept.

    And once the action has been observed as harassment, the quantum state collapses and it is only harassment.

    This is also an accurate metaphor. Perception of harassment takes precedence over perception of non-harassment, because the object is to mitigate harm.

    It’s also snark. It can be interpreted both ways simultaneously, and both are correct. So you ARE capable of perceiving implied offense when that was not the only valid interpretation or intent, at least when it directly affects you instead of women.

    Is that helpful at all in understanding why women might feel unwelcome when harassed?

  40. 40
    Ben Zvan

    He probably felt uncomfortable and decided not to come back.

  41. 41
    Ray Staroof

    Just to be clear, I wasn’t saying fuck you to Ben. And I never said I didn’t understand how women might feel uncomfortable when harassed, only that I found the definition offered by Ben as clear to be a little unclear to me. And yes, I do feel uncomfortable.

  42. 42
    Pteryxx

    Ray Staroof: you were saying “fuck you” to me, because you interpreted my last sentence as an insult, specifically calling you stupid.

    Do you think that’s the only possible interpretation?

  43. 43
    Ray Staroof

    Was I incorrect in my interpretation? Does it matter if I was incorrect?

  44. 44
    Pteryxx

    I didn’t say your interpretation was correct or incorrect. Do you think yours is the only possible interpretation?

  45. 45
    Cara

    And I never said I didn’t understand how women might feel uncomfortable when harassed, only that I found the definition offered by Ben as clear to be a little unclear to me. And yes, I do feel uncomfortable.

    Good God. Around the wheel goes again. Another 306 makes a billion. Maybe I’ll make a cake.

    What is so unclear about the idea that maybe, just maybe, men are capable of treating women they meet like other people?

    I mean, I never hear men say, “I’m afraid I’ll get thrown out if I say hello to that guy.” They seem to know what appropriate behavior is with other guys. They can sense if a guy doesn’t want to talk to them. They have no trouble backing off if a guy doesn’t want to be friends. What the HELL is so different about talking to a woman?

    Oh, wait, I forgot. Women aren’t there to be people. They’re only around to be decorative receptacles.

  46. 46
    Verbose Stoic

    Cara,

    I mean, I never hear men say, “I’m afraid I’ll get thrown out if I say hello to that guy.” They seem to know what appropriate behavior is with other guys. They can sense if a guy doesn’t want to talk to them. They have no trouble backing off if a guy doesn’t want to be friends. What the HELL is so different about talking to a woman?

    You seem unaware of all the times people have to put up with genuinely clueless people — and I admit that I may at times be one of them — who don’t, in fact, sense when someone doesn’t want to talk to them or who doesn’t want to be friends. Men never say that they’ll be afraid to get thrown out/punished for saying “Hello” to a guy because there’s no real standards of anything like harassment for that situation. In short, no one will get punished for that; at best, they’ll be considered a bit socially clueless and maybe laughed at behind their back.

    But with anything that falls under “sexual harassment”, that isn’t the case. And that’s why the “It’s harassment if someone feels harassed” IS so potentially chilling, because a person could act in a completely and totally expected manner and, in fact, treat women just as they treat men and still get accused of harassment, depending on what the person feels is the case.

    For a couple of examples, I used to work with a couple of Italians, and one of them used to stand very close when talking to people. This bothered me, and likely bothers me more than it does other people. But I knew that he wasn’t trying to intimidate or do anything harassing, but instead was just acting the way I presumed was proper in his culture. So I’d step back a bit, but even if he didn’t take the hint I didn’t leap to “harassment”, but instead simply moved back again. But surely someone could be less forigving than I am, and so call it harassment … and yet, it might be perfectly normal in other cases.

    The same thing applies to touching. Incidental touching is actually pretty common in conversations. It bothers me more than it would most people; I notice it more than others. Thus, normal touching that is perfectly fine with anyone else bothers me. Should I consider that harassment, then?

    Returning to the “Wanna fuck?” quote, the problem is that without a solid guideline you aren’t sure whether “Would you like to go for coffee?” is harassment or acceptable. One can try to set some more solid standards but you immediately hit the issue that some people will consider it simply normal behaviour and some people will consider it out of place and harassment. This is why it’s generally better to place the standard on the “reasonable person” standard, which says that it is if a reasonable person under those circumstances ought to know that it will be unacceptable. “Wanna fuck?” might hit that in most cases, while “Go for coffee” might not.

    The problem is that by that standard you will indeed, and MUST, have incidents be examined on the basis of whether or not it was obvious to a reasonable person. This can feel like victim-blaming, but not everything that a “victim” thinks is a problem reasonably is. If someone, for example, cried harassment because someone coming up behind them said “Excuse me” to get them to move aside, surely we’d all agree that that wouldn’t be reasonable. And groping and sexual insults are obvious to the reasonable person. It’s the things in-between where we’re seeing most of the problems, it seems to me.

  47. 47
    Ray Staroof

    ”What is so unclear about the idea that maybe, just maybe, men are capable of treating women they meet like other people?”

    Nothing. I never said that was unclear. You even quoted what I said. Ben’s definition of harassment wasn’t gender specific. But somehow, because I said something was not clear to me, I think women are not people, merely receptacles.

  48. 48
    Ben Zvan

    The definition of harassment is not gender-specific on purpose as harassment is not gender-specific. It is also not religion-specific, nationality-specific, or race-specific.

  49. 49
    Ray Staroof

    Agreed. Which is why I find out odd that saying your definition was unclear to me elicited responses like ”you don’t think women are people.”

  50. 50
    LeftSidePositive

    Verbose stoic, doesn’t the person who is causing offense CARE if the other person feels uncomfortable?! That’s the thing that bothers me about these types of legalists–don’t you have EMPATHY for the other person?!

    If you screwed up, don’t you want to MAKE IT RIGHT, not explain how you’re just “clueless” and then shouldn’t be held accountable?

    It would actually depend on how skeevily the person was asking for coffee–there can be a lot of intimidating body language, inappropriate tone of voice, or pestering them to ask…so I can’t make a definitive statement about the appropriateness of coffee invitations because I don’t know every situation and every impression of every invitation, and they’re all different. That’s why you leave it up for the person who is experiencing the vibe in the situation (and I can tell you from long personal experience that harassers try to imbue very mundane situations with creepiness to maintain plausible deniability).

    Your “excuse me” example is, well, frankly trivializing. Since it doesn’t say ANYTHING that requests a person’s attention or have any possible personal import or really cross any type of interpersonal boundary, I don’t see how it could possibly be misconstrued. (unless they were invading their personal space or something, but then the problem is with the invasion, not the “excuse me.”)

    And if someone has a problem with what you’re doing in these examples given, the worst you would conceivably get is have a conference organizer tell you there was a problem and please be more careful. That’s IT. Is it really such a horrible thing that someone would have an awkward conversation with a professional that we should give cover to how many “plausible-denialists” who are skeeving out women?

  51. 51
    Verbose Stoic

    LeftSidePositive,

    Verbose stoic, doesn’t the person who is causing offense CARE if the other person feels uncomfortable?! That’s the thing that bothers me about these types of legalists–don’t you have EMPATHY for the other person?!

    Empathy, by definition, is subjective, and so while it is useful in social situations it is not, in fact, something that you can base a policy on, and that’s what we’re talking about here, aren’t we? Policies need rules, not vague considerations that depend precisely on the purely subjective views of someone that others have no way of knowing is the case.

    Empathy also works both ways: do you not CARE that you may be asking people to walk on eggshells or take risks because behaviours that are perfectly normal and that 90% of the people in the world will find utterly offensive might bother someone in the 10% and thus be automatically harassment?

    See, without policies what you do is you allow the social structure to handle, in that someone does something that bothers someone, the other person points it out, and the first person apologizes and tries to avoid it in the future. However, there are a lot of jerks out there who abuse that, especially if they can get away with it. Thus, we need policies. But even then, policies must be clear, direct and limited to the most egregious behaviour, the kind that almost certainly is not just a misunderstanding that should be handled nicely by two people who do care about getting along but is in fact INTENDED to cause offense and discomfort. Defining the policy on the basis of discomfort felt doesn’t do that.

    If you screwed up, don’t you want to MAKE IT RIGHT, not explain how you’re just “clueless” and then shouldn’t be held accountable?

    Well, look at my examples that relate to myself. _I_ am more bothered by those than most people, and those things are commonly done in society. Thus _I_ take responsibility for my own discomfort and in making sure that those who are doing so “innocently” without intending to cause me discomfort are not held accountable for MY peculiarities. This is my objection to the “It’s harassment if they feel uncomfortable” criteria; BOTH sides have to take responsibility, not just the purported “victimizer”. Even casting it that way causes real issues for cases where the cultural notions and the personal feelings clash.

    It would actually depend on how skeevily the person was asking for coffee–there can be a lot of intimidating body language, inappropriate tone of voice, or pestering them to ask…so I can’t make a definitive statement about the appropriateness of coffee invitations because I don’t know every situation and every impression of every invitation, and they’re all different. That’s why you leave it up for the person who is experiencing the vibe in the situation (and I can tell you from long personal experience that harassers try to imbue very mundane situations with creepiness to maintain plausible deniability).

    But why should we trust the “vibe” of the person who is experiencing it? Can they not be wrong? It’s different if they make their discomfort clear and the person continues anyway, but if they don’t and are just getting a bad vibe why is their interpretation automatically the right one? Why can they not be being unreasonable in their interpretation?

    And your last statement highlights a big issue here: if harassers are trying to look like they aren’t harassing in order to harass, is the solution going to be to consider — as a policy, remember — even those who are not harassing harassers because harassers are acting like non-harassers? Why should we limit what was or seemed like perfectly reasonable, non-harassing behaviour just because now harassers are taking advantage of it? That’s why we need clear standards, based on the “reasonable person” standard.

    (Which, in some sense, I can’t believe I’m defending, because it has its own problems. But it’s miles better than “If you feel harassed, you are”.)

    Your “excuse me” example is, well, frankly trivializing. Since it doesn’t say ANYTHING that requests a person’s attention or have any possible personal import or really cross any type of interpersonal boundary, I don’t see how it could possibly be misconstrued. (unless they were invading their personal space or something, but then the problem is with the invasion, not the “excuse me.”)

    I deny that it is trivializing. I agree that it is trivial, which was rather the point. It was meant to be a case where no matter how uncomfortable the person felt or even if they had good reason to feel uncomfortable because of that we would all say that the person saying it could not have known that it would and ought not be expected to have known that it would cause discomfort, and so discomfort is not the standard for actions. I would argue that the groping example is at the other end; it is unacceptable behaviour — at least to a stranger with no previous contact to make it seem acceptable — even if most of the people it is done to aren’t actually made uncomfortable by it. So, starting from the obvious cases, we can work down to the gray areas and see what we need to do or if anything needs to be done with those.

    And if someone has a problem with what you’re doing in these examples given, the worst you would conceivably get is have a conference organizer tell you there was a problem and please be more careful. That’s IT. Is it really such a horrible thing that someone would have an awkward conversation with a professional that we should give cover to how many “plausible-denialists” who are skeeving out women?

    The policies, it seems to me, allow for kicking people out of conferences, and there are discussions of not inviting speakers who are known to harass. These are, I think, reasonable measures, and think that a policy that had as its only enforcement “We’ll chat with them” would be too toothless to deal with the purported problem. Thus, the stronger measures are required. However, that means that if these gray areas are considered actionable under the policy, then they could also count towards those stronger punishments. The only way around that would be to consider these to be cases that are likely misunderstandings and so not “really” harassment … but then that is both subjective and suggests that my claims that they ought not count as harassment are accurate, which I believe is what you’re supposed to be arguing against, no? For these cases, then, we can rely on the existing social mechanisms presuming that people are generally reasonable, and rely on the policy to filter out the cases where people are not being reasonable at all. But that means having clear definitions, which is all I’m asking for.

  52. 52
    Stephanie Zvan

    Verbose Stoic, if you’re really that concerned about how sexual harassment policies work, I suggest you go study up on the thousands of them that are actually in place and functioning quite well rather than speculating all over this thread.

  53. 53
    Verbose Stoic

    Stephanie,

    Sexual harassment policies, at least here, generally employ the “reasonable person” standard, not the “if they feel harassed, they were” standard. And I am not speculating, but discussing, actually, pointing out potential issues and problems with the criteria Ben said were the main litmus test.

  54. 54
    Stephanie Zvan

    Ben is talking about a real sexual harassment policy, already in place, working just fine, and not at all uncommon. And yes, you are speculating that all these things could cause problems, because you haven’t done the research on how those actual, existing policies work.

  55. 55
    Verbose Stoic

    Stephanie,

    As does, of course, the “reasonable person” standard, as that, as I said, is what’s used here. Now, are they the same, or are they different? How are they different? Do you have research comparing the two? It seems that the evidence is likely to be similar, and so all that is left are the questions I raised. Which, since you and Ben seem to work under the one you cite, you should be able to answer what it does in situations like that, and how it addresses those issues, if it does. And then we can ask which might be better for the conferences you’re talking about (which do differ from workplaces in some respects).

  56. 56
    Stephanie Zvan

    I should answer your detailed questions about exactly where the lines fall in a policy I’ve never worried about coming close to violating because I don’t have a problem with empathy or boundaries? Ben should? Why? What reasonable demand do your hypotheticals and speculations have on me or anyone else here? Go do your homework. Or, if you’re really worried that your behavior might cross the lines, have a nice little chat with the staff of any of these events before you go. That should clear up all of your concerns.

    I have neither the time nor the inclination to get into the nitty gritty of policy with you, with your history of concern over anything that cuts into male privilege.

  57. 57
    Verbose Stoic

    Stephanie,

    Um, my history on these matters is rather thin, and making an assertion like that demands evidence, not merely assertion. Additionally, I was replying to people, in this thread, that were debating the vagueness or clearness of the proposed policy. Additionally, the question here is: Are the “reasonable person” policy and the “if they feel harassed, they are” policy the same in that they restrict the same behaviour, or aren’t they? If they are, there’s no conflict. I think they aren’t. Since BOTH have been used as effective anti-harassment policies, one would think that if you really did care about the problem, you’d want to know which of them is better … or if either would do just as well.

    I’m not asking you or Ben to do my research for me, but to defend at least Ben’s claim that the policy is indeed clear enough to be used and doesn’t have the issues I say it might. For example, if I ask them for what behaviours will be completely acceptable or ones that will be totally off limits, can they do so without appealing to a “reasonable person” standard?

  58. 58
    Stephanie Zvan

    You go research that. Report back when you’re done.

  59. 59
    Stephanie Zvan

    Turns out Verbose Stoic didn’t like his homework assignment but was perfectly willing to put in the time on a blog post. Go figure.

  60. 60
    Xanthë, Amy of my threads

    When reading threads where ze has commented, I invariably which ze had chosen “Concise Stoic” as a pseudonym…

  61. 61
    Xanthë, Amy of my threads

    * wish (damn auto-incorrect)

  62. 62
    Quilled Mind

    Maybe I’m missing something but why is the harassment making women want to leave the skeptic scene, when harassment happens everywhere in the world? It’s not particular to this scene. I’m also finding it strange that no one spoke a word of harassment until Rebecca Watson has her “video blog issue” with Dawkins and Meyers last year, which sparked a feminist rebellion for months within the scene.
    TAM is obviously NOT a sexist event, when there are so many incredible women speakers and guests. When I attended last year, everyone was awesome and friendly. On a side note, two women flirted hit on me over the course of the weekend…and I’m not the most attractive cookie in the box, in my opinion. Is it just that we were in Vegas and the moon was just right and all that brain power was sparking the fuse?
    Something just doesn’t add up here…like mass hysteria.

  63. 63
    Stephanie Zvan

    So no one ever spoke of being harassed in the movement before Rebecca, feminists are rebels because the organization is…not feminist?, you’re a male who didn’t notice any sexism so you get to speak for the entire event, everything is perfect because you got sexual attention, and this all just boils down to “hysteria”. Did I summarize that accurately?

  64. 64
    Jason Thibeault

    Since you cross-posted, so will I, Quilled Mind.

    You want to read this post on how to actually catch up if you’re seriously wondering why this is all happening. And this one for a timeline of what happened when.

    I’m going to work on a post that talks about the difference between “an unsafe space”, “a safe space”, and “not a safe space” because there’s a huge gulf of difference between all three, even though two sound like they should be identical.

  65. 65
    Quilled Mind

    Not really but I appreciate the anger, loaded question, and assumption that I am male.

  66. 66
    Quilled Mind

    Thanks for the civil reply, Jason.

  67. 67
    Stephanie Zvan

    It’s not an assumption that you’re male. It’s a deduction from how you spoke about being hit on. That’s not how women of my acquaintance who date women frame those kinds of interactions. It’s definitely not how genderqueer people of my acquaintance who date women frame those kinds of interactions.

    Feel free to correct whatever I got wrong. I do recommend reading Jason’s links first, however.

    Also, there’s no anger. I’m just very tired.

  68. 68
    Quilled Mind

    I’d be tired too from the looks of this year-long encyclopedia of nonsense…soooo many blogs…I think this might be the problem. We all know flaming, trolling, and venting are much more prevalent on these commentaries (like YouTube comment sections for example).
    I’m aware of the subject over the past year but unaware of the in-depth complexity of the subject because I LOATHE reading through all of this. I attend these events and am part of a few atheist and skeptic organizations and I have never heard of these problems outside of these blogs. This is why I wonder if something is overblown, in the sense of a few terrible situations that suddenly get far too much put onto it, instead of how they make it sound; it being the peeling of an onion.

  69. 69
    Stephanie Zvan

    Well, if you want to make any informed commentary, you’re pretty much going to have to read.

  70. 70
    Quilled Mind

    Absolutely…if one is willing to sift through the sea of sludge, hoping there is water to filter. When it comes to the internet and the strong views of certain organized groups…this water may be difficult to bottle.

  71. 71
    LykeX

    Maybe I’m missing something but why is the harassment making women want to leave the skeptic scene, when harassment happens everywhere in the world?

    I imagine it’s because attendance at a con is optional, whereas presence in the world is not (at least not in any practical way).
    It might also be because they expected better of us and are pissed that we have the same frequency of assholes as every other place.

    I’m also finding it strange that no one spoke a word of harassment until…

    I put it to you that they were, but you weren’t listening.

    TAM is obviously NOT a sexist event

    And yet, may still be an event where sexist behavior takes place and where people with sexist opinions are present.

    Also, you might want to never again use the term “hysteria” in a discussion like this. It’s like calling black people “uppity” in a discussion about racism.

    I’m aware of the subject over the past year but unaware of the in-depth complexity of the subject because I LOATHE reading through all of this

    If you don’t do the homework, you don’t get to have an opinion.
    Check Jason’s links. He’s doing a lot of work to make things easier for people like you, who’re joining the discussion late.

  72. 72
    jennygadget

    “Maybe I’m missing something but why is the harassment making women want to leave the skeptic scene, when harassment happens everywhere in the world?”

    This question – and the corollary that you then must not be that passionate about the topic – always floors me.

    Harassment can and does happen everywhere, it does not happen everywhere in equal amounts. There are other places and organizations that I am just as passionate about that I can decide to spend my time and money on. And I don’t generally choose to spend my time and money on events where the amount of harassment I might encounter is merely equal to the average for the world at large.

    I mean, I don’t generally choose to get paid to spend time in such places, if I can help it. So why the hell would I pay someone else so that I may have the privilege of doing so?

  1. 73
    Hyper-skepticism: The New Buzzword | insecular

    [...] Zvan recently posted survey data from The American Secular Census related to the mistreatment of women at secular [...]

  2. 74
    So, it looks like Stephanie Zvan has blocked me from her site … « The Verbose Stoic

    [...] I got into a bit of a discussion in the comments here over whether the “if you feel harassed, you were” policy is clear enough, responding to [...]

  3. 75
    So Much Wrong, Part 2: thunderf00t and Sexual Harassment | Greta Christina's Blog

    [...] happen, so they know how serious a problem it is and can take appropriate action. There is actually some data on how common harassment is at atheist/ skeptical conferences — and it’s not trivial. [...]

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