Thunderf00t’s post today on the ongoing sexual harassment policy debate (titled MISOGYNIST!!!) has already generated nearly 600 comments (and that in barely half a day). Almost simultaneously, Cristina Rad has told one story of her own and asked whether it falls under the definition of sexual harassment (Educate Me on Sexual Harassment. Case 1.). (My own answer: it does, but only in the moral sense, not the legal, i.e. it was harassing, and it was sexual, and that’s the kind of behavior we don’t want at events, but not anything we’re calling to outlaw). Earlier this month the “ongoing sexual harrassment policy debate” gained a historical treatment, which anyone who wants to get in on this debate had better read first before assuming they have all the information or have been told the truth about it (because a lot of lies have been circulated and are still being generated regarding what has actually been said and done in this debate): see Harassment Policies Campaign – Timeline of Major Events. IMO, most of it has been debating the debate rather than the issue, and most of it consists of reaction to trolls and bullshit rather than worthwhile disagreement (and I will remind you, most does not mean all).
But I find it boils down to five simple truths:
(1) It’s true that talking about it makes it seem like it’s happening a lot more than it is–but this is a cognitive error in the hearer, not the speaker. (Just as the spectacular school shootings at Columbine and elsewhere caused people to believe school violence was on the rise or even spiraling out of control, when in fact statistics showed it was long in decline and continued to decline ever since. That the human brain has been mistakenly built to translate “talked about a lot” into “happens a lot” is an established cognitive error called the availability heuristic. It is the responsibility of the hearer to correct for this error. Because, as long as they themselves aren’t committing it, there is literally nothing the speaker can do to prevent the error…other than what the USSR did, which is bury the truth by preventing anyone from ever talking about it, but I am not claiming anyone has suggested doing this, because I am assuming anyone who values the truth regards that solution as repugnant.)
(2) That being true does not mean there is no problem to address, that nothing ever happens, and therefore no one should openly talk about it. (School violence, after all, does exist and does need policies in place to address and reduce it and protect against it, and we can do even better at that than we are doing. So, too, anything else that actually happens we don’t like, regardless of its frequency.)
(3) Saying we need to address the problem is a request to discuss what the best policy would be, not a declaration that all must adopt some unspecified draconian policy. (Insert random fantasy here as to what you think a sexual harassment policy would entail.)
(4) There can be rational and friendly discussion over what policy recommendations go too far (e.g. prohibitions on speakers having sex with attendees–not only excessive when the attendees are their husbands or wives, but even the distinction between “married or not married” in this respect is not anyone’s business), and what policy recommendations are not within the means of a group to enact (e.g. controlling behavior in pubs open to the general public), and what policy recommendations might actually be a good idea (e.g. having a reporting procedure in place, making sure all staff know about it and to take it seriously, and thereby keep good records of anything that happens or is complained about and who was involved, and to make sure any attendee knows this will be done and with all requested confidentiality), and what behaviors will be deemed acceptable and not acceptable at any given venue (some venues may have more relaxed rules than others, some contexts at the same venue may have more relaxed rules than others), so that everyone can know what is expected of them and what will earn a negative reaction (such as, a warning for first offense, expulsion without refund for persistent offenses, or even a ban from future attendance for the worst offenders). (The best stock policy, BTW, is outlined on the GeekFeminismWiki, and it’s worth pointing out that even that page says you don’t need to adopt the offered policy as-wrote, but can revise it to suit your conference or community’s own values and preferences.)
(5) Anyone who does not agree with points 1 through 4 is not being reasonable.
Basically, what most women want to know is that the officers and staff at any given venue will have their back. As in: take them seriously, and make clear to them what it is that the organizers will frown upon and what it is that they will allow, and then do whatever is within their means to do to maintain that atmosphere. All major conferences in all fields (from entertainment to industry) have these policies. So for us not to have them makes us look lame by comparison–even openly sex-positive “free love” conferences have them: see Sexual Harassment and the OpenSF Conference Code of Conduct. Indeed, you really need to read the perspective of an outside conference professional: An Organizational Perspective; and for an example of how this problem was recognized and treated by other conference communities last year, like the tech-con community, see Sexual Harassment at Technical Conferences: A Big No-No. (BTW, it is very interesting to compare the behavior and responses in the comments thread following that announcement, with how the same exact thing has been responded to in the atheist community, which has often been alarmingly more dismissive, sexist and immature.)
If conferences want to draw more women, they have to do this. What any minority of women say they are comfortable with is irrelevant, because conferences don’t want to draw a small minority of women. They want to draw a parity of women. And that requires addressing what most women want. And of course that means in a way that doesn’t step on the toes of anyone who is behaving with common decency. We just want a “no douchebags” policy. Not a “no fun” policy. Hence point number four: just because some people propose a bad policy idea (like making speakers sign “no sex” agreements) does not mean all policy suggestions are bad. They are all negotiable (excepting violations of the law, but that ought to go without saying; the role of sexual harassment policies is not to enforce laws already on the books, but to make meetings more comfortable and welcoming and fun, and thus they are more about moral and professional standards than legal ones).
Ironically, in his attempt to point out an “availability heuristic” error in people’s reactions to the sexual harassment policy discussion, Thunderf00t fell victim to exactly the same bias when he cited his own experience as being normative–a classic mistake that any cognitive scientist would cringe at. Experiences have to be aggregated. We can’t assume that our own personal experience accurately reflects the general reality, particularly when the “reality” we are concerned about is something that happens with a low (but nevertheless non-negligible) frequency, and rarely happens in the open public, and is often not visible to a third party even when it does (unless they actually know what to look for).
This importance of aggregating experience is demonstrated by the fact that my experience differs somewhat from Thunderf00t’s. I have had a lot of experience with atheist conferences (and have only been witness there to a low rate of minor harassment), but I have a vastly more extensive experience with atheist meetups and community groups, having toured the U.S. (and beyond) speaking to scores of such groups over the last six years. Everywhere I went I asked why so few women were attending them, and whenever I had the opportunity I asked women I knew to be atheists in the area why they weren’t showing up (or only rarely doing so), and consistently I received the same answer as their number one reason: they don’t like the way the men treat them when they show up. Things have visibly improved on that score over the last five years, but usually, in my experience, it’s a snowball effect: once more women start coming, they can gang up on the men, and the men start behaving themselves. Which makes the group more welcoming of more women. And so more come. And so on.
There was a real behavior problem. It was pervasive. It probably is still–as I cannot believe men the nation over have had a radical personality change in just five years (and the recent debate over the last two years has exposed a large quantity of rather shocking sexism in the woodwork of our community that even I had not thought was there). That they start acting decently only when they can’t get away with it is not indicative of men being reformed. Rather, it’s indicative of women acquiring a greater balance of social power. I must be clear, though: even in the worst cases, it was always a minority of men causing the problem; but the other men weren’t standing up for the women, often because they were oblivious to the problem and sided with the jerks instead of the women. Which is the surest way to communicate to women that they aren’t welcome.
And again, I have actually seen remarkable improvements on this in the last five years (in fact, most of all in the last two), as more men have become more aware of how a minority among them are making the women in their company uncomfortable, and doing something about it. Most particularly, by marginalizing the sexists, the same way we marginalize racists and fascists. And to that end this is not just about harassment policies, which can only target persistent or egregious misbehavior, but also whether we men will stand up for the women among us and defend them against misbehavior that doesn’t rise to the level of policy action but nevertheless can ruin their enjoyment of an event if they feel alone in dealing with it.
And let me be clear again: the problem I’ve been witness to has not only been unwanted sexual advances or behavior (constantly hitting on them, staring at their tits, saying inappropriate things), but all kinds of stock sexism (interrupting women when they speak, distrusting what they say with uncharacteristic frequency, assuming a condescending position of superiority, showing blatant disinterest in any topic of conversation that isn’t what “guys” are into, and so on), which is not something any policy can address, but is something we as individuals can address by our awareness of it and reaction to it. Indeed, the fact that more and more people are expressing the fact that they “get it” now, at the same time that more and more conferences are adopting anti-harassment policies, reflects an awakening. It’s moving inexorably in the positive direction now, no matter what any naysayers may do to try and drag it all down.
If this has been the case in local atheist groups, I would not be surprised if the same dynamic governs attendance at conferences. But that means women have to know going in that they aren’t going to be uncomfortable, a vulnerable minority in a sea of privilege. They have to know that someone there has got their back. That they aren’t going to be dismissed as complainy whiners who just need to get over it. That they aren’t always going to be assumed to have exaggerated because what they’ve reported can’t possibly have happened because (warning: circular argument) it never does. They certainly need to know that the conference organizers share their values when it comes to the atmosphere that will be promoted, which requires a statement of what those values are, which is what a sexual harassment policy is.
And being against that is being very unreasonable indeed.