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So Much Wrong, Part 4: thunderf00t and Sexual Harassment

Here’s Part 4 of my new series on thunderf00t’s horrible post about sexual harassment.

As some of you may know, videoblogger thunderf00t has recently joined the Freethought Blogs network — and has weighed in on the conversation about sexual harassment at conferences. Saying, essentially and among many other things, that:

*THIS REALLY ISN’T A BIG PROBLEM*

and that:

Put simply, YES talking about sexual harassment can sometimes be a bigger problem than sexual harassment.

There is so much wrong packed into this one post, I could write an entire novel-length systematically dismantling everything that’s wrong with it. But I don’t have time or energy for that today… and I can’t imagine anyone having it in them to read it anyway. So I’m going to look at one piece of this wrong at a time, until I get bored or otherwise sick of it.

Here’s today’s wrong — and I think this really cuts to the heart of the matter.

*THIS REALLY ISN’T A BIG PROBLEM*

Straight shooter…. I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em…. and this is my strategic assessment of the extent of the problem.

… and such problems can of course be dealt with quickly and discretely without spoiling the fun for everyone else (the modus operandi of most nightclubs).

So why the 50% drop in female attendance at TAM?

Well like most things its likely to be a mix of factors, but I can tell you there is a reason why nightclubs typically advertise themselves with a little subtext in the bottom left hand corner saying ‘management reserves the right to refuse admission’ and do not advertise themselves as:

(image with text reading, “PULSAR NIGHTCLUB. SEXUAL HARASSMENT IS ENDEMIC HERE SUCH THAT WE REALLY NEED A POLICY AND TO POLICE IT. see three page legal document at entry stating permitted and non-permitted behavior. now with DANCING!”

There’s a reason why nightclubs don’t advertise themselves like this

Because

1) The level of the warning suggests the issue is far more problematic than it is in reality. I’ve heard talks at such conferences (from prominent activists in the community) that literally suggest that to merely turn up at such talks will get you rape threats etc etc. (let me be honest, repeatedly publicizing rape threats from a troll simply shows a crass lack of personal judgment and an immaturity at dealing with the interwebs, rather than a secular community ridden with men looking to rape women at conferences). Put simply the environment is widely being unrealistically portrayed as more hostile than it actually is. If your goal is to encourage women to attend such events, highlighting troll comments as representative of the conduct at such conferences is both willfully reckless and counterproductive to such a cause. Indeed it’s kind of self evident. If these threats had even the remotest air of credibility, the ONLY appropriate course of action is to simply report the matter to the FBI and take it to its logical conclusion, and then drag their legally beaten carcass around the walls of Troy… you get the idea. (and yeah, it’s what I would have done in the blink of an eye had I found such threats credible).

(image reading on the left, “TALKING ABOUT SEXISM IS NOT THE PROBLEM. SEXISM IS THE PROBLEM.” reading on the right, “SCREAMING FIRE WHEN THERE ISN’T ONE IS NOT THE PROBLEM. FIRES ARE THE PROBLEM.”)

Left ‘Copyrighted’ Amy Roth ‘logic’, Right, Why Amy Roth should spend more time thinking and less worrying about copyright.

-Put simply, YES talking about sexual harassment can sometimes be a bigger problem than sexual harassment.

Wow. Where to begin.

Let’s start with the idea that having a code of conduct at a conference will make the conference less inviting, and less fun.

The question that immediately leaps to mind is, “Fun for whom?”

Listen to the number of women in this conversation saying, “We want well-publicized sexual harassment policies at conferences.” Listen to the number of women saying, “We will feel more welcomed, more comfortable, safer, happier, more listened to, more part of this community, more able to participate freely and have fun, if conferences have these policies.” It’s a lot.

And look at the code of conduct at the recent OpenSF polyamory conference in San Francisco — a very strong code of conduct, and one that’s been taken as a template by at least one atheist organization. And look at the comment conversation about it, among people who participate in the polyamory, kinky, and other sex-focused communities… who are saying that plenty of people managed to flirt and hook up at this conference, and at similar sex events with strong codes of conduct. Listen to what those people are saying: Having a clear code of conduct doesn’t make an event less fun. It makes it more fun, for more people.

So when thunderf00t says that having a well-publicized code of conduct, with clear rules against sexual harassment and clearly stated consequences if these rules are violated, makes a conference less fun, I have to ask, “Less fun for whom?” (I will leave speculation on the answer as an exercise for the reader.)

So now, let’s look the idea that having a code of conduct banning certain behaviors at a conference will give people the impression that these behaviors are “endemic,” and will scare people off from the conference.

Let me make an analogy. If I’m traveling, and I’m thinking about visiting a country, and I find out that this country doesn’t have laws against theft… I’m not going to assume, “Oh, this must be a very ethical country where theft never happens.” I’m going to assume the opposite. I know that theft happens almost universally, in any human culture where it’s possible. I’m going to assume instead that they don’t give a shit about theft. I’m going to assume that this country is pretty much lawless, and that nobody will be looking out for my property but me. And I’m a lot less likely to go to that country. I won’t feel safe there. I’m a lot more likely to go to the country that has clearly stated laws against theft, and clearly stated consequences if you violate those laws, and a law enforcement structure that’s willing and able to enforce those laws.

This idea that having clearly-stated rules against a common bad behavior makes people more scared rather than less? This is one of the most ridiculous ideas I’ve ever heard. And I’m the person who heard the argument from tigers.

I think thunderf00t himself may even understand this. Because he had to absurdly overstate the codes of conduct being advocated in order to oppose them. Let me state this very clearly: I’ve been following these conversations about codes of conduct pretty closely. And I have not seen a single person propose that these codes of conduct should include an announcement that “SEXUAL HARASSMENT IS ENDEMIC HERE.” I have not seen a single person propose that these codes of conduct, as thunderf00t suggested they did in a follow-up post, the requirement that anyone initiating physical contact at a bar must get written permission from the conference first. Having a code of conduct does not state either of these — explicitly, or implicitly. It states, “We know that sexual harassment sometimes happens, it happens more than many people think — and we don’t want it to happen here, so here’s our rule against it, and here are the consequences if it happens.” It states, “If you want to have physical contact with someone at this conference, you have to get permission — not from the conference, but from the person you want to touch.” This level of warning seems entirely appropriate to the reality of the problem. The only way to see it as an over-reaction is to deny the seriousness of the problem in the first place.

Which brings me to some of the ugliest parts of this very ugly post. I repeat from above:

Put simply the environment is widely being unrealistically portrayed as more hostile than it actually is.

and:

“SCREAMING FIRE WHEN THERE ISN’T ONE IS NOT THE PROBLEM. FIRES ARE THE PROBLEM.”

Please note the sneaky inclusion of “where there isn’t one” into the above.

And please note the not-so-sneaky, completely open, utterly shameless trivialization of the fact that women get harassed at conferences, and the extent of the problem.

Has thunderf00t been reading the conversations about this? Has he been reading the things women are saying happen to them at conferences? This is a problem. It doesn’t happen every second of every day of every conference — but it happens a distressing amount. It happens more than most people think, because it’s almost certainly under-reported.

And it is not up to thunderf00t to decide, unilaterally, that because he personally hasn’t seen or experienced much sexual harassment at conferences — even though he actually says he has, and completely contradicts himself on this point — therefore women should stop complaining about it, and should not expect conference organizers to take action about it.

It is very hard to speak out about sexual harassment. People who report sexual harassment routinely get ignored, dismissed, trivialized, treated as liars, and/or blamed for their harassment. The fact that people are finally speaking out about this, and are expecting conference organizers to give enough of a shit about them to do something about it… this is awesome. And when you say that we’re “screaming fire when there isn’t one,” you are making yourself part of the problem. You are telling people who are on fire that there is no fire, and that all their screaming about it and saying “Where the fuck are the firefighters?” is ruining everyone else’s fun. You are allying yourself with the harassers.

Please, for the sweet love of Loki and all the non-existent gods, knock it off.

Oh, and as I said yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that: If you think we shouldn’t be focusing so much attention on this issue, then why are you focusing attention on it? If you think we’re paying too much attention to sexual harassment at conferences, throwing gasoline on the flame war is not the way to go.

Note to readers: Some commenters have expressed concern that thunderf00t is continuing to post further posts on this subject, and that I’m going to have to keep writing about this for eternity if I’m going to keep up. Please rest assured: I’m not going to do that. I’m going to finish up dismantling this particular post tomorrow, and I may or may not take a quick look at one or two other pieces by him, and then I’m going to move on. This has been educational, and some people have found it useful, but I don’t have any intention of turning this blog into the “everything that’s wrong with thunderf00t” show.

Comments

  1. Brad says

    Richard Carrier brought up a great point a few days ago about the availability heuristic making the problem seem worse than it is due to the volume (in both senses) of the discussion of the topic. Though this is an error on the part of the reader, and thunderfoot’s assertions about it not being a big deal and talking about it being worse than the problem itself are, at least to me, clearly coming from a bad case of availability heuristic.

  2. jamessweet says

    So I’ve been thinking of doing a blog post on “Sexual harassment policies and the idea of explicit consent.” In a nutshell, I think:

    1) Although I know some FtBers (probably not Greta, but some) would vehemently disagree with me, I think the idea of getting explicit consent for everything is just silly. This is the strawman thunderf00t is constructing with this business about getting written permission for leg-gnawing (although in a different form it is not entirely a strawman; see below), and it really is that absurd. While it does entail some risk of people being put in uncomfortable situations, H. sapiens is simply not going to abide a situation where, in order to e.g. initiate a first kiss with your date, you have to ask, “May I kiss you now?” Flame me all you want for why we should do that; the simple truth is that people won’t do that.

    (Please don’t flame me without reading point 3)

    2) Some anti-harassment policies do seem to call for explicit consent. The American Atheists policy seems to say so, for one — and although I’ve been quiet about it, I’m not super-crazy about the American Atheists draft policy, with that being one of the reasons. This is the sense in which thunderf00t is not completely making a strawman: Some harassment policies, if read literally, do seem to imply that he needed to say, “May I playfully gnaw on your leg now?” no matter how obviously the social cues may have been implying that it was fine.

    To the extent that this has the potential to provoke a backlash against anti-harassment policies, I think it’s better if they avoid calling for explicit consent in every circumstance…

    BUT

    3) In practice, it doesn’t really matter if an anti-harassment policy calls for an unrealistic level of explicit consent. Or more broadly, it doesn’t really matter all that much if any aspect of an anti-harassment policy is overly strict or unrealistic (only to the extent that it feeds into a backlash, but generally speaking I think people who are looking to lash back will find an excuse to do so one way or another).

    Perhaps it is only my limited experience, but despite working for well over a decade at an employer with a very strong anti-harassment policy, I’ve never heard of anyone getting screwed over by such a policy. Remember, simply violating the policy doesn’t necessarily result in repercussions; you have to also be reported. As has been gone over a zillion times, there are all kinds of incentives against reporting, so generally people are only going to report harassment if it’s really getting out of hand.

    And in any case, if you’ve successfully negotiated the social situation so that you know the person is okay with what they are doing, what do you think is going to happen? Is the leg-gnawee going to say to herself, “Well, I was totally fine with thunderf00t gnawing on my leg, I thought it was hilarious… but he didn’t explicitly ask my permission, and it says here in the handbook that he was supposed to, so Alas! Alack! it seems I must turn him in, even though I am not in the least bit bothered by it”?!?

    I suppose we could concoct a scenario where somebody sets a trap, by feigning that they are okay with something, and then busting thunderf00t when he doesn’t ask for explicit consent… but that scenario seems pretty unlikely, and even if it did happen, the sum total of the repercussions would likely be, “Yeah, so-and-so didn’t like that, don’t do it anymore.” (Unless of course it happens repeatedly with multiple people… and really, if there is that broad of a conspiracy against you, they can fuck you over a lot more easily than appealing to the anti-harassment policy, ‘k?)

    In short — do some anti-harassment policies overreach? Yeah probably. Does it matter? Nope, not really. And to the extent that it does, it’s a whole heapin’ lot better to have a strong-but-somewhat-overreaching harassment policy than to have a weak one or to have none at all. For reasons I explained above, nobody really gets screwed when a harassment policy overreaches, because that’s just not the way they are enforced.

    But when a harassment policy lacks teeth or is absent altogether, real people suffer. So what matters more? Real people suffering, or bizarre hypothetical conspiracy scenarios?

  3. says

    @brad

    And yet oddly we have trolls saying that Richard Carrier’s point is that Greta and Pz are in the wrong because of that. I am getting awfully tired of dealing with these people.

    Thanks for all the hard work vivisecting TFs post Greta.

  4. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    …I guess people who have disabilities related to reading body language and subtle signals are just shit out of luck, then?

  5. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Damn it, that was supposed to be in response to Jamessweet but I couldn’t find the right one small part to quote.

  6. says

    @ James sweet

    I don’t think it necesarily calls for explicit consent. Tod brought up handshaking over at friendly atheist in a nice move of missing the point but its a good example of what it means. I don’t run over grab you hand and start shaking for example that’s kind of rude and I don’t necessarily ask if I can shake your hand explicitly. I extend my hand to you in a gesture that I seek a handshake and then if you feel so inclined you extend yours and we shake or maybe you leave me hanging.

    Its not a direct and explicit inquiry as to whether you are willing to shake my hand, but it is still genuine effort to gauge your interest in such an activity.

  7. jamessweet says

    @michaeld: I suppose it’s open to interpretation.

    Many people are crazy about the American Atheists policy, so I wonder if my reservations about it are “just me”. That is not my only objection to it, FWIW; I feel like it’s awkward, strangely informal in parts that seemed to call for seriousness and explicitness, and it vascillated oddly between overly vague and overly specific.

    That was just my impression of it, mind you, and I haven’t mentioned a word about this elsewhere (and won’t say a single additional word about it here) because I think it can too easily become a derail. The fact that they have chosen to adopt a strong anti-harassment policy is a huge victory, and I don’t want to detract from that, especially not in the present climate. And as I described in my earlier post, I think that as long as it has teeth and a solid reporting procedure, the specifics of an anti-harassment policy are of somewhat secondary importance. The way harassment reporting works, innocent people getting in trouble is very nearly a complete non-issue, so it’s more important to make sure there are protections in there for everything that could go wrong than it is to make sure people are still technically allowed to have fun (not because fun doesn’t matter, but because people are going to have fun anyway — and not get in trouble for it — regardless of what the technical manual says).

  8. says

    @ james

    Not just you,Todd Striefel over at friendly atheist for example or a number of similar people with similar points have been around. So if nothing else you have company. And I’m suddenly feeling quite burnt out…. back to thunderf00t!

  9. says

    @Jamessweet in #2:

    While it does entail some risk of people being put in uncomfortable situations, H. sapiens is simply not going to abide a situation where, in order to e.g. initiate a first kiss with your date, you have to ask, “May I kiss you now?” Flame me all you want for why we should do that; the simple truth is that people won’t do that.

    You are making a strawman that is possible slightly smaller, but is otherwise not too dissimilar from Thunderf00t’s. With “explicit consent”, we don’t always mean that it has to be spoken consent, or that giving consent must be formal. For example, consent for a kiss can be given by leaning towards the person who is leaning towards you (and denied by not leaning in or leaning away). For most practical purposes, that is explicit enough.

    Of course, if you’re one of those hypothetical “hapless men”, maybe getting spoken consent may still be a good rule of thumb to adopt.

  10. Laura-Ray says

    I think Jamessweet may have some half baked ideas in the first half of hir argument, but zi makes a fucking great point by the end:
    If you think you can be okay with only implied consent (IE, a woman is looking super into it, etc) and you’re not a rapist who is going to say “Well, she was obviously asking for it” then what the fuck are you afraid of? If a gal likes you, she’s not gonna get you kicked out of a con unless she is unhinged and I’m pretty sure people would notice that. I think the asking for explicit consent is really good for people who are socially awkward or handicapped, or for initiating particularly intimate exchanges with no lead up (IE MAN! LET’S HUG, CAN WE DO THAT? Can we hug, bro?), but it’s most importantly useful AGAINST a harasser who can easily say “Well I could tell by her body language that she wanted me to stroke her thigh” because body language isn’t always trustworthy. So for people not intending to abuse consent, where the heck is the harm in having a harassment policy?? Lack of consent is what’s going to get you kicked out, not lack of verbal consent, which doesn’t always happen. And honestly, if a girl can’t give verbal consent, or is anything but visibly ecstatic, why would you take the risk, NOT of getting kicked out, but of scarring her for life?? WHY IS GETTING KICKED OUT OF A CON A BIGGER ISSUE THAN HURTING A HUMAN BEING?? But I think, due to his slimy artwork stealing, that Thunderf00t really doesn’t give two shits about harming other people, he seems to think he’s the only real person in the world at this point.

  11. jamessweet says

    @Azkyroth, I guess my only question is, what (practically) should be different about what I said? I know that’s a problem. Hell, believe me, I do know; although I wouldn’t put it to the level of a disability, I very much suck at reading body language and other implicit signals. I joke about how unrealistic it is to ask for explicit consent, but I mean, most romantic relationships I have had, most of the escalations have involved explicit consent, because I don’t know any other way to do it, heh…

    Put explicit consent in the harassment policy if you want, I don’t think it matters that much. I guess you could ask that there be a cultural shift where people demand explicit consent even when they don’t need it, i.e. you could try to convince people that they had an ethical duty to, for example, if they are on a date and the other person properly reads the body language and initiates a kiss, the recipient should say, “Well, I really wanted you to do that, but you didn’t ask, so that’s not cool…” I just don’t see that happening, but hey, maybe I am being closed-minded…

    Or maybe there is something else that can be done differently that I am missing? Really, I’m all ears… I’m not saying explicit consent is bad, I’m just saying it’s unrealistic. I could be wrong, though.

  12. jamessweet says

    @Deen: I suppose it’s a matter of interpretation. I think we can agree to disagree on that one, though, and here’s why: While I might differ with you on whether a “lean-in” would technically count as consent according to a given anti-harassment policy, we both agree that the idea of someone actually getting in trouble in such a scenario is a total strawman.

  13. jamessweet says

    I just want to point out that I’ve got Deen and michaeld saying that I am making a strawman by claiming that any harassment policies ask for explicit verbal consent, and I’ve got Azkyroth and Laura-Ray saying that I am wrong when I deny that explicit verbal consent is the best thing since sliced bread. :D

    Anyway, Laura-Ray does a good job of distilling down the points I was trying to make. It’s not like there are Sexual Harassment Cops running around busting everybody’s good time. Rather, the policy gives a victim leverage when somebody is being a creep (or worse). One could even argue that a good harassment policy should overreach just a little since, to use Laura-Ray’s phrase: “it’s most importantly useful AGAINST a harasser who can easily say ‘Well I could tell by her body language that she wanted me to stroke her thigh’”.

  14. says

    “SCREAMING FIRE WHEN THERE ISN’T ONE IS NOT THE PROBLEM. FIRES ARE THE PROBLEM.”

    This shows just how badly thunderfoot misses the point and not just because it implies that harassment isn’t really a problem. I have not seen anyone (apart from a bunch of misogynist trolls) “screaming” about harassment policies, I have seen women calmly asking for policies so that they can feel safer. The correct analogy isn’t “screaming about fire when there isn’t one” but rather asking for proper fire safety measures, just in case there ever is a fire.

  15. Larry Clapp says

    @ Jamessweet #2:

    H. sapiens is simply not going to abide a situation where, in order to e.g. initiate a first kiss with your date, you have to ask, “May I kiss you now?”

    Data point: On my first date with my wife, 12ish years ago, I asked for and got explicit, verbal consent before I kissed her the first time. Neither of us were under the influence of any policy (e.g. not at work, not in college), it just seemed like the right thing to do, at the time.

  16. says

    To be fair I’m entirely with them on explicit consent especially on the more personal the action. In fact reaching out a hand and having them initiate the shaking is an example of non verbal explicit consent albeit based around our cultural norms. But the more personal the action the more verbal the consent one should strive for just to be safe.

    Even with sex for example really not a good idea to just leap into an action without preferably asking them first or at least asking them how they feel about it. For example would you like to try (sex act) or am I (action) too hard? In the end a little verbal communication can just make things more comfortable and enjoyable for every one.

  17. says

    @jamessweet in #12:

    we both agree that the idea of someone actually getting in trouble in such a scenario is a total strawman.

    Yes we do – I even wrote elsewhere that I even think that the much-maligned “no nookie between speakers and attendees” rule is not likely to actually get anyone in trouble for having a hookup that was properly consensual (and discreet), while giving important ammo to people who are getting unwanted attention from big-name speakers.

    But I want to also consider the context beyond harassment policies. I still think that getting explicit enthusiastic consent before progressing is a good rule for everyone to follow. The idea that this somehow impedes or interrupts the fun is harmful to that goal and therefore I wanted to explicitly address that.

    And in #13:

    I just want to point out that I’ve got Deen and michaeld saying that I am making a strawman by claiming that any harassment policies ask for explicit verbal consent, and I’ve got Azkyroth and Laura-Ray saying that I am wrong when I deny that explicit verbal consent is the best thing since sliced bread.

    There is no contradiction here. Getting explicit verbal consent is better than getting explicit non-verbal consent, especially when people are unsure or there is the possibility for ambiguity. Besides, one does not exclude the other.

  18. jamessweet says

    Data point: On my first date with my wife, 12ish years ago, I asked for and got explicit, verbal consent before I kissed her the first time. Neither of us were under the influence of any policy (e.g. not at work, not in college), it just seemed like the right thing to do, at the time.

    As I mentioned in another comment, that could be me too :) I just think it’s unrealistic to think that it would ever become universal.

    Maybe I am wrong — but anyway, my point is that it doesn’t really matter. A sexual harassment policy which overreaches will simply be ignored.

  19. kosk11348 says

    I want to know why Thunderfoot’s baseline for appropriate public behavior is “nightclubs” and why he thinks our meetings should be run like them. That certainly says a lot about where he’s coming from on this issue.

  20. says

    If it makes you feel better consider the worst case scenarios

    You ask when she was really into it: You come off a little awkward but concerned about communication and your partners feelings. Probably still going to kiss you.

    You ask and they aren’t interested you look a little awkward but in the long run no harm was done and you just avoided the next situation.

    You don’t ask and have misread the situation: You might get a a subsequent slap or drink in the face and maybe a good talking to by a bouncer if you really ticked the person off and they make a scene.

    You Kissed and read the situation well and everyone is happy… this time.

    On the whole asking first probably saves you as much trouble as it saves your partner’s feelings.

  21. John Horstman says

    @2:

    While it does entail some risk of people being put in uncomfortable situations, H. sapiens is simply not going to abide a situation where, in order to e.g. initiate a first kiss with your date, you have to ask, “May I kiss you now?” Flame me all you want for why we should do that; the simple truth is that people won’t do that.

    Well, people CERTAINLY won’t do so if they’re not encouraged to do so. But my question is: why not? And also: if we can’t stop every instance of it, why not still make it a social norm and even potentially pass laws (or institute event policies) to support the idea? People won’t ever stop murder, rape, theft, assault, etc. in entirety, but it’s still a good idea to ban them. I’ve never been in a situation where someone has objected to me asking, “May I kiss you?” before I tried to kiss hir. And, because I am not a rapist or assaulter, I actually want people with whom I’m engaging sexually to be enthusiastic participants in any sexual activity. Shocking, I know. All this worry about actually, you know, having to respect people’s stated wishes is fucking creepy – why, exactly, is this a bad idea? Why SHOULD it be okay to not respect clear statements of boundaries, something that cannot be done without clearly establishing those boundaries first? The only real threat I see to requiring explicit consent for something like kissing – sort of a straw argument anyway, though I’ll lend it some substance by supporting the idea – is that people who are unenthusiastic about being kissed won’t be subjected to unwanted kissing. Why is that bad?

    You’re not describing why we shouldn’t try to change law and culture, you’re just pointing out that we have a rape culture (a culture where obtaining consent and respecting boundaries with respect to sexual activity is actively discouraged and therefore frequently not done). You’re describing the need for a change, not why it can’t happen. For example, ‘Flame me all you want for why we should ban slavery; the simple truth is that people won’t give up their slaves.’

  22. says

    @kosk11348: Actually, as Crommunist pointed out here, nightclubs actually often do have strict anti-harassment policies – because they too want women to show up. Any bar or nightclub where the women will stay away because they get harassed to much won’t be in business for very long.

  23. kosk11348 says

    Deen, I have read that, thanks. But my question regarded Thunderfoot’s motivations, and somehow I highly doubt he was citing nightclubs for their robust anti-harassment policies.

  24. says

    @kosk11348 in #23: I got that, just wanted to point out how he’s wrong on more than one level. I wonder if it rises to fractal wrongness yet :)

  25. says

    Jamessweet:
    H. sapiens is simply not going to abide a situation where, in order to e.g. initiate a first kiss with your date, you have to ask, “May I kiss you now?”

    I do that all the time. It has never caused a problem and it doesn’t change the mood at all. (Although I leave the ‘now’ out because who’d ask about tomorrow?) Also, I’ve found that if you’re tugging on the bottom of a woman’s clothing* like you’re going to try to pull it off, a simple, “mmmmm??” with a raised eyebrow works pretty well. Unless you’re such a quickie artist that you can’t slow down for the second it takes, you won’t have a problem.

    I wouldn’t presume to offer you tactical advice but my experience is that if your prospective partner knows that they’re controlling the speed and direction of an encounter, it’s more likely to end up pleasantly all around. That’s an anecdote, not evidence, of course.

    As an aside, I also do a lot of photography of people and have always adopted a policy of asking before I point a camera at anyone and clarifying what I intend to do with the pictures. So, if I were in a bar and wanted a picture of myself biting someone’s leg, I’d probably recruit one of my model friends and set the whole thing up with proper lighting and get a decent shot…

    (* I say “woman” here because I haven’t tried it on other genders. And if I said anything about my sample size it’d look like I was bragging, so I’d rather not.)

  26. says

    kosk11348:
    I want to know why Thunderfoot’s baseline for appropriate public behavior is “nightclubs” and why he thinks our meetings should be run like them. That certainly says a lot about where he’s coming from on this issue.

    ^^ This.

  27. Mike Callahan says

    As another privileged white male I like the new policy not because I am also a feminist but I like the idea that women might feel more comfortable coming to TAM.
    One thing that bothers me about Tfoot is his anonymous handle. Nowhere can you find his real name. In my opinion, to rant and insult under the shelter on anonymity is cowardly.

  28. says

    “Has thunderf00t been reading the conversations about this? Has he been reading the things women are saying happen to them at conferences? This is a problem. It doesn’t happen every second of every day of every conference — but it happens a distressing amount. It happens more than most people think, because it’s almost certainly under-reported.”

    I think that this point has been brought up quite a bit and it’s beside the issue. Even if a single person felt harassed at a conference, it would be beneficial for the conference to have a policy in place for how to handle that single incident. It is an almost entirely cost-free proposition and makes for a more efficient convention. Whether there are hundreds or two incidents of sexual harassment, it’s important for a convention to know how they are to go about dealing with it.

  29. Celestine says

    Please stop with the kissing! No, people may not say, “may I kiss you now?” but it doesn’t take a social genius to figure out that if you lean in to kiss someone and they push you away, move away, turn their head away, or in any other way–physically or verbally–indicate that the kiss is not welcome then you should back off. If you have just met someone (or never met someone) you probably haven’t developed enough rapport and trust with them to, say, take them by surprise by grabbing them. This isn’t rocket science. It’s really really simple.

    And if you do get a kiss in and you think you are getting “mixed signals” back off and use your words. It’s amazing how well you can get to know someone by listening to what they have to say. And if one person explicitly says their not interested, BFD. Move on.

  30. Erista (aka Eris) says

    While it does entail some risk of people being put in uncomfortable situations, H. sapiens is simply not going to abide a situation where, in order to e.g. initiate a first kiss with your date, you have to ask, “May I kiss you now?” Flame me all you want for why we should do that; the simple truth is that people won’t do that.

    As a woman, if a man kisses me without doing something to be pretty darned sure that I’m okay with him kissing me (which can be by verbally asking, although it could be something else, too, I suppose), he and I are going to have a problem. I am not okay with a guy saying to himself something akin to, “Hmm, I have no idea if she’s okay with me kissing her, so I’m just going to take a shot in the dark, kiss her, and hope she is!” That is not alright.

    If you haven’t used verbal or non-verbal communication to determine if a person would be okay with you touching them, you should refrain from touching them.

  31. John the Drunkard says

    Thunderfoot’s screeds are a classic example of thread drift.

    Despite her disclaimers, TF appears to be a ‘libertarian/objectivist’ of some kind. Therefore, she approaches EVERY subject with an a priori commitment to the notion that all problems, in every venue, can only be solved by Free Will and/or The Invisible Hand of the Free Market.

    With this pre-condition, she MUST rationalize away any problem that requires a group consesus or collective action for solution. It can be bloody amazing to see what hoops people can leap through to preserve the underpinnings of such a world-view.

    We still have one chief problem to talk about:
    Predatory behaviour at conferences and events.
    This has stirred up several meta-problems:
    1. Women’s reluctance to report misdeeds.
    2. Misogynistic trolling on the web, and in the Atheist community.
    3. The reluctance of groups to accept bad news about ‘respected’ members.
    4. Whether or not express codes of conduct work in real life.
    etc.

    All of these are worth serious discussion and action. But we can’t get to the problems if every discussion ricochets off into each contributor’s pet grudge du jour.

  32. says

    @john the drunkard…. not to take away from the rest of what you said but ugh thunderf00t is male. I know nothing of his political leanings.

  33. Indigo says

    Speaking as a not-socially-adept lady, if a dude (or lady/genderqueer individual/whatever) I’ve never been intimate with before is about to tag me with their lips, I like a little warning. (And yes, I have been smooched without notice, albeit not on the mouth and in a culture where that kind of thing is considered acceptable.) It doesn’t have to be “may I kiss you?”, although I tend to find that one rather endearing. But giving me the opportunity to realize what’s going on and respond appropriately – not to mention respecting my decision – also isn’t just about the kiss itself. It’s something of a litmus test for further activities. If you’re the kind of person who thinks it’s okay to go ahead and stick your tongue in my mouth without asking me first, how do I know what else you don’t think you need my permission for?

  34. Funny Diva says

    John the Drunkard:

    You certainly seem to be inebriated. TFoot is not a “she/her”. It’s obvious from the OP, from other posters, and the rational wiki link just a few comments upthread.

    Oh, and also from the photo of him biting a friend’s leg on the post that Greta is addressing.

    IOW: WTF are you playing at, using feminine pronouns for an obviously male blogger?

  35. doubtthat says

    Part of what has baffled me about this backlash, Thunderf00t included, is the Tea-Party-on-health-care nature of it:

    When individual parts of the now Constitutional health care law are described to people, they support them in massive numbers, but there’s something about it that drives them crazy, so they melt down and throw tantrums about death panels and socialism.

    With Thunderf00t and all the other nutjobs on this issue, when you just point out what a policy would include, no one seems to object. I have yet to read a commenter explaining why an individual rule is wrong, yet in the aggregate MAKE ME ANGRY!!!

    I think it’s just a sort of inchoate rage at losing special status. Women want in. Most men seem to want women in, but there’s some subset of dudes (and a few ladies, to be fair) who are just furious at the notion that maybe we have to vacuum the living room and dowse a little Lysol on the toilet to make the place more accommodating.

    If someone in a wheel chair said, “Hey, I’d like to go to TAM, but there aren’t any ramps,” it would be fairly obvious that a ramp is just making the event accessible and more comfortable. If you don’t want people in wheel chairs there, tell them that making a ramp is too much work and they should figure out how to walk if they want to participate.

    Similarly, there are A LOT of women who are telling us that some changes need to be made to make the place more comfortable. I think a lot of this nonsensical backlash is just people who don’t want that element in the “movement” but can’t come out and say it directly. It’s the sort of dog-whistling and incoherent nonsense we see regarding racial issues.

  36. says

    “I think a lot of this nonsensical backlash is just people who don’t want that element in the ‘movement’ but can’t come out and say it directly. It’s the sort of dog-whistling and incoherent nonsense we see regarding racial issues.”

    I’ve noticed this a lot in arguing with several of them. When you press on what about these policies is so appalling, they’ll start talking about how this isn’t about sexual harassment policies, it’s about how they don’t think it’s an issue the atheist movement should address or how the people at FTB are big names in the movement and that means they have a responsibility to say what the person I’m arguing with likes (seriously, I got that one). They are trying to use the specific threads to discuss this meta-issue of whether or not we should even be discussing sexual harassment or women’s rights in general.

    And then they tell me how much they hate Rebecca Watson. It always seems to come down to how much they hate Rebecca Watson.

    So yea, it’s not really about whether harassment policies are a good or a bad idea. They don’t want them because people who they don’t like support them. That’s it, that’s all.

  37. HumanisticJones says

    And look at the comment conversation about it, among people who participate in the polyamory, kinky, and other sex-focused communities… who are saying that plenty of people managed to flirt and hook up at this conference, and at similar sex events with strong codes of conduct.

    This very thing is the reason I was absolutely dumbfounded when this blew up into a shitstorm. Do these people not realize that fetish cons have harassment codes? That dungeons and play parties have rules on obtaining consent and what you can and can’t do? And that in spite of all of those [snark]OH SO agonizing barriers to get past[/snark] people still manage to hook up, have a great time, and generally feel safe to stand around stark damn naked without having to worry about unwanted sexual advances?

    I guess I need to check my kink privilege in this discussion.

  38. Elle says

    The only real threat I see to requiring explicit consent for something like kissing – sort of a straw argument anyway, though I’ll lend it some substance by supporting the idea – is that people who are unenthusiastic about being kissed won’t be subjected to unwanted kissing. Why is that bad?

    As far as I can tell the push back seems to stem from a belief that asking is, in and of itself, so desperately unsexy that doing so will cause a woman who otherwise did want to kiss/fuck/whatever you to change her mind. You see before you went and foolishly inquired about her wishes she thought you were a studly, confident man that she couldn’t wait to jump into bed with, but since you asked for her consent, it has become apparent that you are some sort of considerate loser and her interest has completely evaporated. It’s a subset of the “women like jerks meme.”

    To be clear, I don’t mean to imply that this is the attitude from any of the other commentators on this thread, but it seems to be the underlying sentiment in much of the anti-policy crowd I have seen elsewhere.

  39. josh says

    Deen @ 25 and kosk11348:
    It’s you both who have gotten thunderf00t wrong on this point. Crommunist can’t ‘point out’ that nightclubs have anti-harassment policies because thunderf00t said that in his initial post, it was part of the point he was making. What he said is that nightclubs, what with the risque business, have codes of conduct and reserve the right to toss people out. But, they don’t advertise with that, they don’t stop the dances to give you lectures on it, it is your duty as an attendee to understand the rules, and if you don’t you get tossed out. It’s part of his overall argument that proportion of response matters, and misrepresenting the size or nature of a problem is a problem in itself.

    This is weird to me, because Greta quoted this section of thunderf00t’s post rather in extenso. But then she spends most of her post arguing against an entirely different idea. (And, in fairness, thunderf00t presents
    everyone against him as advocating a very puritanical written standard of conduct which they don’t endorse without a rather uncharitable reading.) Maybe a little more rigor and less volume on all sides is called for?

  40. says

    Elle says:
    As far as I can tell the push back seems to stem from a belief that asking is, in and of itself, so desperately unsexy that doing so will cause a woman who otherwise did want to kiss/fuck/whatever you to change her mind.

    Exactly. And a possible partner who is so uncertain that they want to kiss/fuck/whatever that such a simple question would deter them, should probably be counted as a “no” anyway.

    Me: “May I kiss you?”
    Thee: (stares at the floor) “uh, geeeee…..” (uses fingertip to draw the Mona Lisa in salt on the tabletop) “… I, uh….” (looks desperately around the room to see if there are any friends they can leave with) “… I dunno.”

    That’s “no” for short.
    “Yes” is more like: (closes their eyes and arches their neck with a smile playing across their lips) “mmmhmm!”

  41. echidna says

    Josh, re anti-harassment policies:

    <But, they don’t advertise with that,

    But they do. The anti-harassment policy is advertised very clearly in the form of the anti-harassment enforcement. This is what the bouncers are, and in smaller venues, the bartender. Policies are usually posted somewhere as well, but for reference rather than advertisement.

  42. echidna says

    Explicit consent is an important idea; but no-one says it has to be verbal or written, Some men think that if a woman accepts a drink or dinner, then this implicitly constitutes consent to sex.

  43. josh says

    echidna @43:
    I think you’re using the word advertisement rather broadly now, rather than the context it was originally used in, which was thunderf00t’s wording. My main purpose in commenting was to try, (not very optimistically) to head off another stupid round of misconceptions by clarifying thunderf00t’s position, not to argue it for him. I will say that the bouncers and bartenders are equivalent to the… bouncers and bartenders in a conference hotel bar. Or I suppose to the hotel security and conference staff. I.e. that part is already there. So the remaining argument re: conferences is how explicit a code of conduct needs to be or what should be in one. The other argument is scope and seriousness of sexual harassment generally and the related issue of accurately and proportionately addressing a problem.

  44. Yiab says

    If your goal is to encourage women to attend such events…

    Another indication that Thunderfoot is missing the point.

    The goal here is to make events safer, more comfortable and more welcoming to women. I hope that then more women will attend the events, but that’s basically a secondary concern at this point.

  45. doubtthat says

    “As far as I can tell the push back seems to stem from a belief that asking is, in and of itself, so desperately unsexy that doing so will cause a woman who otherwise did want to kiss/fuck/whatever you to change her mind. ”

    In my experience, saying, “God, I’d really like to kiss you right now,” or something similar, has the exact opposite effect these people think it will. Of course, you have to at least be reasonably adept at reading social cues in order to time that right. Timing, timing, timing, people. The difference between sexy and CREEPY is context.

    The irony or maybe Catch22 of the matter is that if you’re ever in a position where the answer to a direct question about sexy time is “yes,” likely you’ve correctly interpreted cues to the point that you’ve gained non-verbal consent, if that makes sense. If the answer to question is yes, likely the result of just leaning in will be fairly positive. In both cases the actual consent was given by both parties over the course of the preceding interaction.

    I think we’re mostly dealing with people who view human sexuality as some inscrutable Rubix Cube of celibacy.

    But that’s neither here nor there as there are obvious ways of gaining consent without that obviousness, but when in doubt, go for obvious.

  46. doubtthat says

    @Josh 45:

    Someone made a similar argument on T-Foot’s thread. The bottom line is that a bar requires fewer explicit rules and regulations because the buy-in is significantly less. If you just walk into a bar, you’re not going to sue them over some ambiguity in their removal policy. There are no damages. You were just denied the chance to stand inside a place you didn’t pay to attend.

    When there’s a cover charge, the security and rules become more obvious. You’re paying someone, there’s more security at the door. You pay for a chance to hear some music, and now rules my be explicitly posted, “no talking during performance.”

    As the stakes and expectations grow, so do the explicit rules. The more you pay for a ticket, the more legal shit is scribbled on the back. Eventually you arrive at a conference that people are traveling large distances and taking significant time away from their lives to attend. The expectations for behavior of fellow attendees increases. If someone’s being a dick in a bar, you can leave, not much harm. If someone’s being a dick at TAM, the thousands of dollars you spent on plane tickets and hotel accommodations are wasted in a horrible experience. It’s nice to know that conference organizers are going to do everything they can to keep that from happening.

    And from the other end, if I was at TAM and some dude just tapped my shoulder and told me I had to leave, like can happen in a bar, I would be furious.

    -Sorry sir, you have to go.
    -Why?
    -You violated our code of conduct, we reserve the right to boot you.
    -What code of conduct? Where are the rules, how was I supposed to know this was prohibited unless you published that somewhere?
    -Nope, we have the right to boot you, bye.

    If the expected behavior is displayed and the process for violations clearly given, it’s much better for everyone.

  47. says

    Oh good. I’ll just let everyone know we shouldn’t have fire codes, since all they do is make people afraid there will be fires everywhere. Because logic, amirite?

  48. echidna says

    I think you’re using the word advertisement rather broadly now, rather than the context it was originally used in, which was thunderf00t’s wording.

    Quite right. I believe that’s what fuelling the outrage is that the ambiguity over what it means to explicitly get someone’s consent, and what it means to advertise.

    Thunderf00t totally misses the intent of getting explicit consent, likening it to getting forms filled out in triplicate submitted to the conference.

    As for the scope of sexual harassment, let’s just say that, as a female engineer, I’ve copped a lot, seen even more aimed at women who did not have the privilege of being engineers, and learned to deal with it in quite effective ways. To be honest, I’ve never needed to even contact HR over an issue, but I needed them to be there nonetheless. The presence of an explicit policy, as well as the obvious presence of enforcement, is vital. From my experience I would expect that any male-dominated environment requires an explicit policy that is seen to be enforced. As for the men who harass, much of it doesn’t even register as harassment in the minds of the men, because women are assumed to want, not mind, or deserve in some way, whatever behaviour is directed at them. Some of it is truly shocking.

  49. echidna says

    If you are a bloke, and the subject is sexual harassment, there is a very strong chance* that you are not speaking from a position of knowledge of the subject. It is very likely that things happen around you all the time that you don’t even notice. If you think that you would notice, just think of the many children raped by sports coaches and Catholic priests, to name two prominent groups, that nobody saw or knew about except for a very few. It’s like that – the signals of very real trauma are just not noticed.

    Very few people think their own actions are unjustified, even harassers and rapists. The Taliban who didn’t let unveiled girls escape from a deadly fire thought they were justified.

    *Not a certainty, just likely.

  50. Sara K. says

    I just want to agree with what most people are saying here: that getting explicit verbal consent often makes an encounter better for all parties involved, and that the idea that explicit consent is not fun is part of rape culture.

    I would say, if you do not have a well-established relationship where boundaries are well understood, always go for the explicit verbal consent. If you’re in a long-term relationship where you know the other party clicks hir heels three times when ze wants to be kissed, then go ahead and kiss hir when ze clicks hir heels three times. However, if you just met somebody at a conference … go ahead and ask.

    I have heard women complain about guys asking explicitly before they kiss, but ONLY when they were in an established relationship with the guy in question – they felt they were far enough in the relationship where they felt that verbal consent every single time was overkill. I have never heard/seen a woman complain about a guy asking for verbal consent on the first encounter.

    The idea that it’s romantic to kiss a woman – which whom you do not have an established relationship – without first asking explicitly – is a part of rape culture where it’s considered romantic for a guy to sweep in and take a woman, regardless of what she thinks. The corollary – that it’s okay if a woman kisses a guy without the guy’s permission, is based on another socially destructive notion – that men are always sexually available (in reality, they are not, and not with every woman, and possibly not with any woman).

    Off-topic response @comment #37

    I am somebody who objects to HCR based on some of the policies. For example, it effectively bans catastrophic health care insurance, which for many people is the most affordable option, and instead forces them to buy health care policies which are overpriced (or pay the penalty for not having health care policy because the government outlawed their most reasonable option). For example, my mother has reached the age of 65, but she is not eligible for Medicare (long story). Catastrophic health care insurance would have been her best option … but now it’s not an option any more. She seriously had to face the possibility that she would have to go without health care AND pay a penalty for it because the government removed all of her practical options (Medicare and private catastrophic health care insurance). She eventually decided her best option was to ‘buy into’ Medicare … she pays out of pocket what is usually paid by the taxpayer, but it’s still a better deal than her (awful) alternatives. Still, catastrophic health care insurance MIGHT have been a better option than buying into Medicare. I recognise that the subset of U.S. citizens who are 65 or older AND are not qualified for Medicare is small … at the same time, I’m not going to support a law which screws over my mother.

  51. says

    Hell, I got sexually harassed twice on Tuesday and didn’t mention it to anyone until now because it’s just part of the landscape of being female on the planet. Men creep on you on the street. One reason women often blow off harassment is that in most cases, speaking up isn’t even useful, and so in those cases—like at conferences—where it could be useful, we forget that there are alternatives. Having a clear, concise anti-harassment policy, if nothing else, reminds victims that speaking up can work in this case (unlike some guy sleazing in your ear on the street before running off, ugh). Which, in turn, can keep it happening to someone else. The knowledge that there are consequences has been known to curtail sexual harassment and violence dramatically without even really having to invoke those consequences often. Harassers are mostly cowards; they only harass if they have reason to believe there’s no way they’ll be caught. If that reason is taken from them, they tend to behave more often than not, even if they don’t want to.

  52. antialiasis says

    All this worry about actually, you know, having to respect people’s stated wishes is fucking creepy – why, exactly, is this a bad idea? Why SHOULD it be okay to not respect clear statements of boundaries, something that cannot be done without clearly establishing those boundaries first?

    It’s a bit strawmanny to go from “it’s not necessary to always have to explicitly ask before kissing someone” to “it’s okay to not respect people’s stated wishes”. I’m pretty sure jamessweet is just arguing that consent can happen without actually asking. In the kissing example, for instance, starting to lean in for a kiss is a way of obtaining consent without asking for it per se: if they don’t respond enthusiastically you’ll stop and not actually kiss them (and probably apologize for misreading them), but if they do, they’re freely indicating that they’re down with it, and actually more so than if they’d given verbal consent, since people often agree to things they don’t actually want when explicitly asked.

    This method can fail for someone with a hard time reading social cues, but it errs on the side of caution: if the person you’re trying to kiss doesn’t realize what you’re indicating, they’re not going to lean in to kiss you, so the cue for you to go ahead isn’t given and you’ll have to fall back to asking. It’s pretty robust, as long as the initiator does wait for an enthusiastic cue, which I’m pretty sure is the way things normally work.

    The worry isn’t about having to respect people’s stated wishes – the worry is about how cumbersome it would be to have to ask explicit permission for everything, even when we honestly do have solid reason to believe we can drop it without causing anyone discomfort. (For instance, when we’re with people we know very well, we generally already understand their boundaries and they’re comfortable enough with us to tell us immediately if we were to inadvertently violate them; and people can indicate clearly through their own behaviour that they’re, for instance, perfectly down with hugs or casual touching, without you asking them about it.)

    But at the bottom line, I very much agree with the point that sexual harassment policies should be strict so that genuine victims have solid leverage even against sleazebags who claim to have been responding to imagined social cues, in the understanding that technical violations where all participants were careful about their cue-reading and everyone enjoyed themselves aren’t going to be reported anyway.

  53. John the Drunkard says

    Ooops!

    Mixed Thunderfoot up with the video bloggette who appeared on FTB at the same time (with link to incoherent anti-feminist rant)

    I think my comments still stand. I COULD comment on any of the subthreads, but could anyone follow the argument through the maze?

    Perhaps the biggest threat of writing codes of conduct is that it can’t be done without doing some critical thinking about our actual conduct. Real life is riven with unexamined assumptions.

    Men and women hurt each other feelings ALL THE TIME, in the smallest and most aggravating ways. Everyone has their own grudge stories. The root issue here is not the problems of sexual etiquette in the modern world

    This is about the Sanduskys and Father Flotskys in the atheist community. We should not be having this much trouble dealing with this shit. Trolling by the equivalent of Bill Donohue (the pro-rapist papist) and personal resentment catalogs from basically ‘normal’ people are mistaking the primary issue: there are bad people out in the real world and we have to deal with them.

  54. doubtthat says

    @Sara K. 52

    Admittedly off-topic, but it’s a hot-off-topic, so maybe we have some leeway.

    I hadn’t heard of the problem you mentioned, probably because it is such a small population. I hope my post didn’t give the indication that Obamacare was a flawless bill, because there’s a lot wrong with it. In all honesty it’s a better budgetary bill that it is a health care bill.

    The broader point, though, is that there are legitimate criticisms of the bill (give away to insurance companies, the problem you mentioned, no public option…), but among them are not STALINOBAMAHITLER DEATH PANELS!!

    Likewise, there are legitimate criticisms of any given harassment policy, but among them are not EVIL KILLJOY FEMINISTS WANT TO OUTLAW SEX!

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