Keeping it on-topic: the problem with discussing sex at technical conferences

TRIGGER WARNING: Brief mentions of rape, discussion of PTSD induced by sexual assault

TL;DR

A computer security conference, BSides SF, featured a talk on a sexual topic. At the request of a BSides SF conference organizer, the Ada Initiative gave them information on the potential negative effect of this talk on women attendees. The BSides SF organizers wanted to encourage women to attend, and decided to cancel the talk in service of that goal. Afterward, several people criticized the Ada Initiative for being sexist and suppressing women’s speech by advising against the talk. They argued that because it was given by a woman, and described as sex education, sex-positive, and pro-women that advocating for its cancellation is sexist and silencing of women.

The Ada Initiative continues to advocate against all off-topic sexual material at technical conferences because of its tendency to disproportionately harm women attendees, regardless of how or by whom it is presented. Certain sexual topics can trigger PTSD in people who have been sexually assaulted, and can be perceived as encouragement to humiliate, objectify, and assault women, regardless of the intent of the speaker. The Ada Initiative explicitly supports discussion of sex when it is on-topic for the conference and done in a woman-positive way, and has published specific guidelines on how to achieve this.

Background

The computer security conference BSides SF (held in San Francisco on 24–25 February 2013) invited Violet Blue [note: sexual imagery at link] to give a talk, subject to be determined. The title of the talk was listed on the conference's online schedule as "TBD" until a small number of hours before the talk, when it was updated to "sex +/- drugs: known vulns and exploits"

In computer security jargon "vuln[erabilitie]s and exploits" are respectively weaknesses in computing and related systems, and ways to take advantage of them in order to break into or "penetrate" the system. The precise meaning of the title is ambiguous, but to people familiar with the jargon, a reasonable interpretation of the title might include using drugs to exploit someone into having sex without consent (i.e., rape).

The abstract of the talk was not available until after the decision to cancel the talk, and does not reflect the same topic as the title of the talk suggests. The abstract of the talk is:

What drugs do to sexual performance, physiological reaction and pleasure is rarely discussed in – or out of – clinical or academic settings. Yet most people have sex under the influence of something (or many somethings) at some point in their lives.

In this underground talk, Violet Blue shares what sex-positive doctors, nurses, MFT's, clinic workers and crisis counselors have learned and compiled about the interactions of drugs and sex from over three decades of unofficial curriculum for use in peer-to-peer (and emergency) counseling. Whether you're curious about the effects of caffeine or street drugs on sex, or are the kind of person that keeps your fuzzy handcuffs next to a copy of The Pocket Pharmacopeia, this overview will help you engineer your sex life in our chemical soaked world. Or, it'll at least give you great party conversation fodder.

Why off-topic sexual talks can harm women at technical conferences

The Ada Initiative has, since its founding, recommended strongly against including off-topic sexual content at technical conferences. This is because sexual content is likely to make the event off-putting, unwelcoming, and even unsafe for women attendees. Sexual content affects women disproportionately for several reasons. Here are a few:

Women are far more likely to be raped, sexually assaulted, pressured for sex, or otherwise have bad sexual experiences. Sexual content, particularly in unexpected situations like a technical conference, can bring up memories and associations of prior bad sexual experiences in ways that are frightening or sometimes disabling. Many women have PTSD triggered by certain sexual topics (this is why the concept of a "trigger warning" was created).

Discussing sex creates a "sexualized environment" which many people take as a signal to treat women as sexual objects rather than as fellow conference attendees, resulting in a higher incidence of harassment and assault of women. Too many women have been raped at technical conferences; we should do everything we can to prevent future rapes.

Sex in many societies is strongly tied to the objectification and humiliation of women. Many people are unable to separate "talking about sex" and "saying derogatory things about women," and take the introduction of one for permission to do the other. While many pro-woman, sex-positive people and communities exist, most technical conferences are not safe spaces for discussion of sex.

Simply put, even the world’s most pro-woman, sex-positive, pro-consent talk about sex is likely to have negative effects on women at a technical conference.

At the same time, discussion of sexual topics is vitally important to women’s rights and well-being. We strongly support discussion of sex and related topics when it is on-topic and done in a woman-positive way.

What the Ada Initiative did

Ada Initiative Executive Director Valerie Aurora was attending the BSides SF conference, and saw this update to the title of the talk. By coincidence, the Ada Initiative happened to have been put in contact with a co-founder of the BSides conferences (not BSides SF) a few weeks previously, to discuss a potential anti-harassment policy that individual BSides conferences could choose to adopt. When the title of the talk was updated, Valerie emailed the BSides co-founder with the title of the talk and an explanation of why it would be unwelcoming to women, with the intention of giving an example of situations which having a policy in place would help. The co-founder replied to the email and cc’d a BSides SF organizer, Ian Fung, which resulted in Ian asking Valerie for more information.

Valerie complied with Ian’s request, and explained the potential effects of a talk about sex, drugs, and exploits in a community known for sexual harassment and assault of women. Ian made a decision on what path to take, executed that decision, and informed Valerie of the results afterwards. As announced by the organizers, Ian cancelled the talk after discussing it with the speaker.

Several people have suggested that the Ada Initiative threatened or coerced the BSides SF organizers into cancelling this talk. To the contrary, in their discussions Valerie emphasized repeatedly that the Ada Initiative would not retaliate against and was not threatening BSides SF. It is true that warning people of a potential bad effect of their actions is a common method of threatening people; that’s one reason why we wait for conference organizers to contact us first. If someone requests our opinion, as BSides SF did in this case, then it is more difficult to mistake sharing our expertise as threats.

Thank you to the BSides SF organizers

We thank the BSides SF organizers for having a strong desire to be welcoming to women. During the conference, women were visible contributors in many ways: giving talks, competing in contests, and serving as volunteers. We need more women in computer security, not fewer. The decisions the BSides SF organizers made were in the service of this goal.

Our recommendations to similar technical conferences

We recommend that technical conferences adopt a strong anti-harassment policy and avoid sexual content in their program. It causes strong, upsetting emotions to many attendees — disproportionately women — that probably aren’t relevant to the core activities of your technical conference. Moreover, unlike some highly charged other topics in the technical world, it is very unlikely that your audience has a uniformly, or even widely-held, negative opinion of harassment and assault. Therefore even if the content is pro-consent and constructive it may spark conversations (jokes, memes, etc.) among attendees that make people who are concerned about rape feel highly unsafe (and possibly even leave the conference).

However, obviously not all conferences are technical and at some events discussion of sexual culture and activities are on-topic or key to the event. In 2012, the Ada Initiative released an update to the example anti-harassment policy, addressing how a policy could work when sex and porn are on-topic at conferences, as they might be at our very own AdaCamps. Our own conferences have this wording in their policy:

Exception: Discussion or images related to sex, pornography, discriminatory language, or similar is welcome if it meets all of the following criteria: (a) the organizers have specifically granted permission in writing, (b) it is necessary to the topic of discussion and no alternative exists, (c) it is presented in a respectful manner, especially towards women and LGBTQ people, (d) attendees are warned in advance in the program and respectfully given ample warning and opportunity to leave beforehand. This exception specifically does not allow use of gratuitous sexual images as attention-getting devices or unnecessary examples.

We recommend that conferences that judge that they are open to including sexual content adopt similar clauses. This serves several purposes:

  • it gives people who do not want to attend a sexual talk sufficient warning to avoid that room, or even the event
  • it gives people who want to attend a sexual talk, but only on certain topics or from certain perspectives (eg, who wish to attend a talk only from a feminist perspective) time to review the talk and decide if it meets their needs
  • it gives the conference organizers ample time to consider issues like choice of room, and scheduling alternatives for people who don’t want to attend

What we recommend to speakers

If you are speaking at a conference without a clear policy about sexual content, we suggest that you review any sexual content in your talk in light of the above: is it necessary? Or are you using its shock value or people’s (perhaps very hurtful, personal and deeply felt) reactions to sexual content to make an unrelated point?

If you are giving a talk about sex or sexual culture, we recommend that you:

  • ask conference organisers if they wish to discuss the topic of your talk with you beforehand
  • flag sexual content in your abstract
  • open your talk with an additional brief verbal warning
  • following the warning, add a sincere statement that people may leave your presentation at any time for any reason, and a strong reminder to the rest of the audience that they should not obstruct anyone from leaving, criticize them for leaving, or even inquire afterwards why they left
  • unless absolutely necessary and again clearly warned for, keep depictions (either visual, verbal or written) of non-consensual activities in particular general and brief

If you are going to discuss rape, assault, harassment and similar, we recommend that your abstract is clear about the perspective you will be taking so that people can be reassured that your content is pro-consent. (It may seem obvious, but so much sexual content isn’t pro-consent!) And remember, no matter how pro-consent or woman-positive your material is, it can still trigger major distress in your audience. Be considerate and thoughtful.