After an arduous journey into and out of the state of Missouri for Skepticon, I have many thoughts! The conference was great, and I learned a lot and had a lot of fun. I recommend going! But I want to talk a little about the ongoing online battles over harassment, usually pitched between dudes who like to keep their option to harass women open (and the weird women who want those dudes’ approval) and everyone else, usually characterized as “feminazis”, but hereby known as “normal people who know how to interact with others appropriately”.
Skepticon has been enthusiastic about implementing an anti-harassment policy in wake of complaints that women’s good time was being impeded by dudes who overstep boundaries at conferences. I’ve luckily avoided being targeted by aggressive harassment at conferences, but I have had to extract myself from conversations with men clearly going that direction and have witnessed guys push it with women who clearly were trying to escape in the past, as Skepticon and other events like it. This year, however, my interactions with men were universally pleasant, and I witnessed no incidents of harassment or anything bordering on it. I doubt very seriously that organizers had to intervene in any situations. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the preliminary evidence suggests that merely having a well-publicized policy helps create a situation where would-be harassers either stay away or tamp down their urges.
A selection from the harassment policy that is deemed by the pro-harassment crew as The End of Fun:
Harassment includes offensive verbal comments [related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religious identity], deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. Assuming the absence of problematic behavior (intimidation, following, inappropriate physical contact, etc.), criticism or disagreement regarding an attendee’s belief structure will not be construed as harassment. Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.
Additionally, exhibitors in the expo hall, sponsor or vendor booths, or similar activities are also subject to the anti-harassment policy. Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualized environment.
While Skepticon does encourage an environment of sex positivity where sex and sexuality are discussed, we will make every effort to make our convention attendees as comfortable as possible.
Arguments against this are usually centered around the idea that checking in and making sure you have consent for various interactions, only conversing with people who don’t hate every minute of it, and accepting people’s decision to walk away from you are somehow the same thing as a ban on flirting or humor. I can safely say that this was not the case. Indeed, I participated in many ribald conversations that involved lots of laughing. I’ll even be brave enough to say that my experience suggests that because people remember to monitor others to make sure they’re not uncomfortable, said conversations are even more fun, because there’s no undercurrent of hostility to them. I’m in a long-term relationship, so obviously I wasn’t involved in cruise-y behavior, but I’d be surprised if this overall safe and cheerful tone didn’t also apply there.
The overall conclusion is simple: For men who are genuinely interested in fun and flirting, conferences that have well-publicized harassment policies and an overall culture that takes women’s safety seriously are your best bet. The female-to-male ratio seemed really good at this conference compared to others I’ve been to, a sense that was reinforced by the crowd’s enthusiastic response to Rebecca Watson’s speech denouncing the pseudo-science of “evolutionary psychology”. When women feel valued as equal participants, they tend to be more relaxed and sociable. All these things are good for men who genuinely wish to have interactions with women that are fun and open to more possibilities.
Of course, if what you really want is to be able to keep women on their toes, make them feel like they have to apologize for even being there, and enjoy that rush of power you get by making someone feel unwelcome and uncomfortable, then by all means, continue to throw a fit and demand that conferences don’t give in to “feminazi” demands for harassment-free conferences. But don’t pretend that your social sadism is about “fun” and don’t insult sex by pretending it has shit-all to do with sex. That’s like poking yourself in the eye in order to improve your vision; you just look stupid and no one is ever really going to believe you.
As a total digression and side note: This year, as in past years, we were deluged with fundamentalist protesters. This time, they were sporting signs with references to what I’d call some of the less popular Biblical injunctions, such as Jesus’ opposition to divorce. As usual, many of my fellow atheists get into arguments with these fuckwits over their imaginary god. My question to you guys is this: Why? I can’t for the life of me think of a less useful way to spend my time than arguing with someone who thinks waving a Bible verse at me is going to make me reconsider my sinful ways. What do you get out of these interactions, people who are willing to have them?