Technical Conferences and Anti-Harassment Policies
February 10th 2011 @ 8:46 pm Tech

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about harassment and appropriateness at technical conferences. It’s been discussed before, of course, but recent events have brought it into the spotlight. It started when a friend of mine – and Apache board member – was the unfortunate victim of a sexual assault at ApacheCon. This was a horrible event and the response from around the community was significant, passionate and mostly positive.

As the knee-jerk reaction was starting to settle and actual solutions were being discussed, someone at LCA had a talk that “struck some attendees as overtly sexual in nature,” according to LWN editor Jonathan Corbet. Once again, discussion spiked.

I have some strong, though probably unpopular, feelings on the subject, and I’d like to share them.

A few words on who I am and why I’m writing

Let me first say that while I am a co-founder of the Southern California Linux Expo, the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of the conference.

Second, it is worth noting that I have many friends who have been sexually assaulted, physically abused, verbally abused, domestically abused, etc. I’ve been involved with helping out domestic abuse support groups. While I’ve never been abused, I believe I have empathy. At the same time, I’ve helped found a conference, and have been on the staff of one for 8 years – in that time I’ve been involved in handling various inter-personal issues that have come up. I’m loud and obnoxious but I also very much want conference attendees to be comfortable. So I feel I have a balanced perspective.

The cure is often worse than the disease

I’ve been reading many of the purposed anti-harassment policies and in nearly every case, it seems to me that the cure is worse than the disease. Making conferences a sterile and business-only environment is unnecessary, unwarranted, and counter-productive.

One Issue At A Time

The first problem I see is a conflation of different issues. Let’s be clear on one thing, a talk that doesn’t single out any person (or potentially a small group of people) is not harassment. You can argue that it may be inappropriate, but it’s certainly not harassment.

Issue 1: Harassment

Harassment is defined as “negative attention perceived as intimidating, demeaning or bothersome to an individual.”

So, to give an example, if I put a dildo on a co-worker’s desk, this may be construed as harassment. However, if I drop off a truckload of dildos in the lobby, that cannot. It’s inappropriate and it might get me fired, but it’s not harassment.

So, we’ve narrowed it to targeting an individual, but that’s still not very specific. So what is harassment? This is the biggest problem I’ve seen with proposed policies: there is no one line you can draw. Period. End of story.

When I’m at a conference, there are people I can hug, people I can flirt with, people I can make overtly sexual jokes to. And they’re fine with it and they appreciate it. However, I would never attempt to do this to an attendee I did not know well. And similarly, those people who are OK with me being this way with them may not be OK with someone else being that way with them.

“What?” you say, “How can I possibly know what’s OK with whom?” Welcome to the world of individual people who have unique relationships with various other individual people.

So how do you handle this? You have a staff who is willing to help anyone who is feeling uncomfortable. You have a staff that will refer anything even close to illegal to the police. And you remind attendees they have the right to express displeasure with someone’s interactions with them – or to have the staff do that on their behalf if they prefer.

Complicated issues require communication. It turns out that good well-meaning people occasionally misread situations or make innocent mistakes. But it doesn’t mean you have to outlaw all fun at a conference. If you don’t like something, speak up. If people won’t listen, find a staff member. This isn’t complicated.

I realize that it isn’t always easy to stop someone doing something you’re not OK with. I am not in any way implying that not stopping someone makes it the victim’s fault. However, unilaterally banning any behavior that can be construed as harassing is, in my opinion, equally bad. That behavior is often welcome and an important part of the social and bonding experience at these events.

Issue 2: Appropriateness

I’m going to be really blunt here: If you can’t handle a penis in a slide in a presentation, you probably need to talk to a therapist. Don’t ever go to Europe, because nudity is pretty common there: on beaches, in advertising, for art. It’s just a body part. We all have body parts.

As it turns out, the great thing about the USA – and many other countries – is freedom of speech. Of course, there are limits: in the US hate-speech is illegal, in Germany pro-Nazi content is illegal, etc. But these are specific exceptions designed purely to prevent significant violence being inflicted on people. It’s not there to protect anyone’s feelings, nor should it be.

When Martin Luther King spoke about equal rights, many white people were offended. It was an affront to their beliefs and their way of life. But clearly it was useful – and greatly beneficial to society. Penises, vaginas and sex in slides are not harmful to you, even if you don’t like them.

I’ve been to a lot of conferences, and they all, always, had more than one talk/event going at any point. So if you don’t like a talk – it’s boring, it’s inaccurate, it’s too sexual, it’s not sexual enough, whatever – you have the right to leave. You’re not chained to your chair. Go.

There seems to be a growing sentiment that the behavior at such events – and in F/OSS projects – needs to accommodate the most timid among the group, and quite frankly, that’s bullshit. It’s no better to shaft the loud people than it is to shaft the quiet people. Some people will be loud and quiet people will need to adapt. Similarly some people will be quiet and loud people will need to adjust. At the end of the day, we’re not a community for extending kindness, love and hugs (although those are all wonderful things); the open source community is a meritocracy. That means you have be able to put your idea forth and fight for it. That’s true for your code as much as your personal boundaries. We’re all adults here, no one should need coddling. If you have a problem, speak up. If it doesn’t work, find a staff member to help.

Putting limits on appropriateness and speech is the wrong approach – ultimately, it’s just censorship with a friendly name.

Completely Unacceptable

In Corbet’s article, he described how the people seemed to fall into several categories. To quote the article:

  • Some attendees were upset by the talk and fully supported the apology.
  • Some participants, while supporting the posted anti-harassment policy, felt that the talk did not violate that policy.
  • Others went further, saying that the language and imagery used were effective and necessary for the talk to attain its objective of making attendees uncomfortable with the current state of affairs.
  • Others yet objected to the entire conversation, claiming that a discussion of whether the policy applied made them feel unsafe and asking people to stop.

Read that last one again. “Others yet objected to the entire conversation, claiming that a discussion of whether the policy applied made them feel unsafe and asking people to stop.” (To be clear, this is not Corbet’s opinion, he’s simply breaking down opinions from the lca-chat mailing list) What? So should rape victims not be able to talk about their experiences and the laws surrounding them? Should companies not give sexual harassment seminars? This is the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard. It’s OK to find the conversation uncomfortable, it’s even OK to not partake in the conversation, but asking people not to discuss important issues is never OK. Especially from people in a community about openness, transparency, and sharing of information. You want to eject people from a conference? These folks get my vote.

So what to do?

I don’t think specific policies need to be drafted. I think conferences should make it clear that:

  • Illegal behavior won’t be tolerated and will be referred to the police (with possible exceptions when requested by the victim)
  • The staff will assist anyone who is being made to feel uncomfortable by behavior towards them by ensuring that behavior stops using reasonable means.
  • That behavior towards individuals which makes them feel uncomfortable will not be tolerated.
  • That everyone is welcome.

What, you say? That’s too vague? Half the behavior I see at conferences would be banned by most of the policies I’ve seen, and I’d probably stop going to those conferences. Conferences are social places to learn and discuss topics (in our case, technology, open source, free software, etc.)

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