Clarification on the Ada Initiative’s role in the cancellation of Violet Blue’s BSides SF talk

TRIGGER WARNING: Rape

We are writing this blog post to clear up some misunderstandings about the Ada Initiative's role in the cancellation of Violet Blue's BSides SF talk, "sex +/- drugs: known vulns and exploits." We understand that people of good will may still disagree with our actions and opinions. We want to be sure that people agree or disagree with the actions we actually took and the opinions we actually have.

Background

A computer security conference, BSides SF, featured a talk with the title "sex +/- drugs: known vulns and exploits." Translated from security jargon, this title can be interpreted as suggesting that the talk will cover having sex while on drugs, including sex without consent (i.e., rape). "Exploits" in security jargon is used almost exclusively in the sense of "to take advantage of (a person, situation, etc.), esp[ecially] unethically or unjustly for one's own ends." For a conference-goer unaware of Violet Blue's work, it would be understandable to wonder if the talk would handle consent issues well. In addition, no advance notice had been given that would allow people to make an informed decision about attending the conference, the conference had no anti-harassment policy, and it occurred in a community in which a non-trivial minority publicly advocates for permitting harassment of women.

At the request of a BSides SF conference organizer, the Ada Initiative gave them information on the potential negative effect of this talk on some women attendees. After this, the BSides SF organizer spoke to Violet Blue about the subject of the talk and decided to cancel the talk. Afterward, several people criticized the Ada Initiative for advising that the talk be cancelled. You can read the detailed version of the event at our first blog post on the topic.

The BSides SF organizer, Ian Fung, posted an explanation of his decision here. Violet Blue, the speaker whose talk was cancelled, wrote a blog post about her conversation with Ian Fung in which she recounts what Ian told her that the Ada Initiative Executive Director, Valerie Aurora, said to him. You can read Violet Blue's recollection of the conversation here. As a result, some people are criticizing the Ada Initiative for things we did not do and opinions we don't advocate. We are posting this to clear up those misunderstandings so that people can agree or disagree with what we actually did and believe.

The short version is:

The BSides SF organizer requested the Ada Initiative's advice on the talk.

The Ada Initiative did not threaten the conference with retribution.

The BSides SF organizer made the decision about the talk.

The Ada Initiative does support talks about sex, rape, drugs, pornography, and similar topics when they are relevant and organized in a way that is considerate of conference attendees' differing levels of comfort with the topic. (See our guide on how to discuss porn and sex at conferences.)

What Valerie recalls

Valerie's memory of her conversation with Ian Fung is as follows. We aren't using double quotes because no one recorded the conversation and we can't report the exact wording.

Valerie started out with an explanation to Ian of what role the Ada Initiative had taken in previous conference incidents, and reiterated what she said over email: that she was only giving this advice because Ian had requested the advice of the Ada Initiative. She explained that the Ada Initiative was not threatening the conference, but giving advice in response to their request.

Valerie explained to Ian why talks about sex are more likely to have a negative effect on women attendees, on average (details in our previous blog post here). Ian said that he considered sex to be an appropriate topic for the conference.

Valerie then explained that the title of the talk could be interpreted as a reference to rape. She did this by asking Ian what he called using drugs to exploit someone into having sex. He appeared to understand immediately that this is called rape and explained that he hadn't realize the title of the talk could be interpreted as a reference to rape.

Valerie then explained that rape survivors can be triggered by public discussion of rape or sex. Because people often think of rape as something theoretical that happens to other people, not people you know, Valerie disclosed her status as a rape survivor to Ian, and told him she knew several other rape survivors who had been raped at technical conferences similar to BSides.

At this point, Ian told Valerie that he would cancel the talk if it included discussion of rape, but not otherwise. Valerie told him that her experience was that a talk on sex but not rape would still have a negative effect on many women. Valerie reiterated that the Ada Initiative was not making threats, that this was just sharing their knowledge and experience. Ian repeated his decision to cancel the talk if it included discussion of rape but not otherwise, and left to speak to the speaker, Violet Blue.

Ian returned a few minutes later and told Valerie that the talk did include discussion of rape, and that Violet Blue had agreed to cancel it.

Valerie was not consulted at any point about potential changes to the talk such as change of room, change of topic, etc. Her conversation with Ian was restricted to educating him about how the talk was likely to negatively affect some women. Ian takes full responsibility for making the decision to cancel the talk.

The big picture

The Ada Initiative does not oppose harm-reduction, sex education, talking about rape, or other vital parts of promoting women's health, safety, and rights. To the contrary, we published a detailed guide on how to talk about sex, pornography, and similar topics at conferences about 5 months ago. Our own AdaCamp conferences specifically permit discussion of topics like harm-reduction and rape. This is because they are on-topic for AdaCamp, we make specific efforts to make AdaCamp a safer space to do so, and we take every precaution to make sure people are comfortable not participating in those discussions. As an example of an on-topic talk about sex at a technical conference that was quite well-handled, see Cindy Gallop's talk on the Make Love Not Porn project for the Open Video Conference (tagline: "Pro-porn, pro-sex, and pro knowing the difference").

We believe that both Ian Fung and Violet Blue acted in good faith, but that through a combination of stress, time pressure, misunderstanding, and imperfect memory, Violet Blue’s report of Ian Fung’s report of what Valerie said differs from Valerie's recollection (think: the Telephone game). We're glad to have an opportunity to share our recommendations on how sex-related topics can be discussed in open tech/culture in ways that are women-friendly.

We aren't sure what we should have done differently to have a better outcome. Many people have expressed the opinion that we should not have given the BSides SF organizer our advice. However, it seems like giving advice when requested by people who want more women in open technology and culture is a core part of our mission. We are open to suggestions for what we could have done differently in order to better accomplish our core mission of increasing the participation and status of women in open technology and culture.

Thank you

Thank you to everyone working to make the world a better place for women, and open technology and culture in particular. We support different ways of achieving that goal and understand that feminism, feminists, and feminist activism varies widely. Our way isn't the only way, it's just the best way we know how to accomplish our mission. We are always looking for ways we can improve. You can help by speaking up about your opinions and being part of the discussion about the future of open technology and culture.

We apologize for not enabling comments on this post. We have received enough rape and death threats over the past few days that we don't have the energy to moderate any more of them in comments. However, you can share your feedback with us in a blog post, a G+ post, or an email to feedback@adainitiative.org. (Update: if this email address bounced, please try again – we're sorry for the inconvenience.) We can’t guarantee we will be able to read or respond to every piece of feedback if we continue to receive threats via these channels, but we will do our best.