Skeptical speakers behaving badly, anti-harassment policies and yammering yahoos

Last week a casual anecdote in a conference speech by Jen McCreight started a whole lot of balls rolling.

At last weekend’s Women in Secularism conference, I accidentally set off a lot of discussion with something I said during a panel. I say “accidentally” because I wasn’t planning on talking about this specific point, nor did I think it would result in such a reaction. I remarked that when I was about to attend my first major atheist/skeptical conference, multiple people independently sent me unsolicited advice about what male speakers to avoid at the con. The same speakers were mentioned by different individuals, with warnings that they often make unwanted and aggressive sexual advances toward young pretty women and that I should not be alone with them.

It certainly made my first big con a little more stressful. But it became more stressful when I realized this was far more pervasive than I thought. As I started getting more involved in these communities, more and more stories came out of the woodwork. Both female friends and strangers confided in me, telling me stories of speakers that talked only to their chest, groped them against their wishes, followed them to their hotel room, or had goals to bag a young hottie at every speaking gig they did. Once after I had publicly criticized someone on my blog, people made sure to warn me that this person had a skeevy record. I had to request friends attending the con to be extra diligent about making sure I wasn’t alone.

Jen also pointed out why she had no intention of “naming names” who had been reported to her on this Lechers List:

Look at what happened to Rebecca Watson when she simply said “guys, don’t do that” about an anonymous conference attendee. Imagine the shitstorm if there were public accusations of sexual misconduct of some very famous speakers. I’m not ready for the flood of rape and death threats. I’m not ready to be blacklisted and have my atheist “career” ruined by people more powerful and influential than me. I’m not ready to be sued for libel or slander. I’m not ready for the SSA or other organizations I’m affiliated with to also be harmed by association.

Various commenters agreed that having seen the results of ElevatorGate, they too would be extremely hesitant about naming names.

Stephanie Van also blogged about the resulting conversations at the WIS Conference. Both Jen and Stephanie pointed out the problems with informal networks being the repository of this information about harassers (not least the lack of due process and accountability in rumour mills), and proposed more formal ways to report incidents and collate data about incidents. Our friends at the Geek Feminism Wiki got a shout out for their model policy which organisations can adjust for their particular needs.

In encouraging results, several conferences have since publicly committed to establishing anti-harassment policies.

In less encouraging results, blogger Scented Nectar and Abbie Smith of ERV decided to revisit grade school insults, because hey! None of the popular girls had called the uppity trouble-making women ugly yet!

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, skepticism

Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. I just want to say thank you for linking to that post because the comments section is truly a wonder to behold. So shiny. I don’t think I’ve seen so many feminist, witty, awesome arguments even on feminist blogs.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, tree! For the benefit of other readers, could you just clarify which of the FreeThoughtBlogs posts that I linked to has the shiny comments? (A lot of the commentors on all of those posts are regulars on all those blogs, so it could be any of them IMO, but presumably one in particular has caught your eye?)

  2. This is such an unfortunate situation, which triggers all my “I’m glad I’m not an Atheist” triggers. An informal social network to let those lucky enough to be in it know who are the creeps to avoid, and the rest of us left to our own devices? Yikes!
    [For the record, I’m a pretty hard-core atheist, but most of the Atheist/FtB Blogs stuff I’ve read resembles my own atheist position when I was a teenager so closely it’s hard for me not to feel their arguments are juvenile. I’m sure there’s some nuances I’m missing somewhere.]

    • I think the idea that this existing network wasn’t helping everybody was part of the problem that had Jen mention it, Aqua – other women attendees weren’t being helped, and the behaviour was not being called out as unacceptable in public, therefore the problem was not being properly addressed through this private back-channel warning system.
      Obviously, these informal notes on whom to avoid where and when have always been part of women’s private conversations with each other, it’s not like it’s only been a problem within the Atheist/Skeptic movement to have concerns about inappropriate behaviour taken seriously. Everywhere that people have agitated for anti-harassment policies and accountable complaint procedures to be implemented, there has been pushback from the bigots and bullies and predators about how it’s TEOTWAWKI, until the policies and procedures actually implemented and life goes on with scarcely a blip.
      As I see the higher level of pushback currently displayed by segments within the fan/geek/nerd/skeptic community? Most are just resistant to institutional change, and also very attached to the idea of the skeptical community as being ethically superior and therefore not needing so many rules, because they really do think that skeptics/atheists are less likely to be exploitative/manipulative/oppressive than other people, and they resent the idea that these rules are actually needed. Then there are the actual exploitative/manipulative/oppressive types, who are successfully whipping up the reluctant-to-change types with cynical rhetoric about secret blacklists, special rights and the terrible awful insult that is being not automatically classed as EverSafe TrustBuddy by people they’ve only just met.

  3. But how are men meant to protect us if we don’t treat them all as EverSafe Trustbuddies?
    Interesting that the politics of naming and shaming is topical this week. It does raise an interesting tension between, on the one hand, providing concrete evidence of bad behaviour to the group and punishing the wrongdoer, and, on the other hand, labelling bad behaviour as the acts of certain bad people and so removing it of its political significance.

  4. Boo…
    Pffft! Just how can we protect you when you try to distract us allknowing men with unimportant stuff when the REAL issue is kids with thimbles and forks picking on Soap dogs? We are not just Ever safe Trust buddies, we are supersmart Ever safe Trust buddies.

    • Very clever Matt, but maybe a bit too meta? Let’s not confuse lurkers who’ve only come to read this thread, please.

%d bloggers like this: