Category Archives: Anti-harassment policy

HOWTO design a code of conduct for your community

Two women standing back to back smiling

Hurray for no jerks!
CC-BY-SA Adam Novak

Now that we know it is possible to go to conferences and not be insulted or harassed, people are starting to wonder: Why can't we have the same thing on mailing lists and wikis? Contributing to open tech/culture is WAY more fun when we don't have to put up with jerks!

We have good news: several open source software projects have adopted a community code of conduct, inspired by the success of conference anti-harassment policies. Besides making your project more pleasant and efficient for people already involved, a code of conduct attracts new people. The OpenHatch wiki explains it this way: "As a new contributor, you might prefer FLOSS communities where contributors pay attention to these sorts of social questions. Having a code of conduct is often an indicator that a project has a sizeable number of contributors and interested in growing."

Two community codes of conduct we especially like are the Django code of conduct and the Rust code of conduct. Why? Because these codes of conduct:

  • List specific common behaviors that are not okay
  • Include detailed directions for reporting violations
  • Have a defined and documented complaint handling process

Without these elements, a code of conduct isn't worth the electrons used to display it on your computer screen. In fact, a code of conduct that isn't (or can't be) enforced is worse than no code of conduct at all: it sends the message that the values in the code of conduct aren't actually important or respected in your community.

Designing a community code of conduct

So you've decided you want a code of conduct for your open tech/culture community! Here are some of the questions you should expect to answer while writing a community code of conduct:

Who adopts and enforces your community code of conduct? With conferences, the answer is easy: the conference organizers. In an online community, the answer to "Who is in charge around here?" is often much harder to figure out. Many open tech/culture communities consider this lack of structure to be a feature, not a bug, making it even more of a challenge. However, most open tech/culture projects do have people in positions of leadership who can enforce policies if they were inclined to do so. Some examples of people in roles who can adopt and enforce policies are foundation board members, employers of project members, mailing list administrators, code maintainers, IRC operators, wiki administrators, and anyone who decides how to spend money associated with a project. Employers usually already have policies that apply to their employees' behavior, but they often aren't enforced when it comes to their participation in open tech/culture projects.

What are the consequences for violating your code of conduct? At a conference, the organizers control access to the physical space, so penalties are easy: asking the person to either apologize or leave the conference, or stopping a speaker's talk, for example. Penalties for violating an online code of conduct are more complicated and varied: perhaps banning them from an IRC channel (chat room), or removing their wiki editing privileges for a few days, or unsubscribing them from a mailing list. Often these forums are administered and controlled by different groups who disagree about what harassment is or what the response should be, which is part of why it is important to write down what your community standards are. Also, it is much easier to get around enforcement by creating a new online identity than it is to change your appearance and sneak into a physical conference. (This isn't a reason not to have a code of conduct, just something to plan for.)

Who decides what actually violates the code of conduct? At a conference, the answer is the conference organizers. In an online community, many decisions are made in ad-hoc discussion where the loudest voices often prevail – and often the loudest voices are the ones arguing in favor of harassment. For example, here is a question that often deeply divides an open source community: Are jokes about penises okay or not? You may think the answer is obvious, but some programmers think the answer is yes, and other programmers think the answer is no. Whatever your stance on penis jokes is, you're going to have to explicitly tell people what it is in your code of conduct because you can't take it for granted that people know what it is. A related point is that sometimes it is the argument over whether something is harassment that makes people leave, not the harassment itself.

Some more encouragement to get specific

In our experience at the Ada Initiative, getting specific about what's not okay is both the most effective and the most cringe-inducing part of writing a code of conduct. Nobody wants to be "negative" – but it's exactly what you need to make potential victims of harassment feel confident and safe in joining the community and in reporting violations. If I, as a new participant, don't know whether the people enforcing the code of conduct think unwelcome sexual advances over IRC are considered okay, I'm not going to take the risk of reporting them and getting scolded for being "thin-skinned." Instead, I'm just going to leave and find a project where I can work on my software in peace.

Here's what I wrote in response to one proposed code of conduct that didn't get specific on what wasn't allowed:

I think this code of conduct won't have the impact you are looking for as a result of a basic design choice: to not list what's not allowed in a specific manner. 90% of the effect and work is in being specific, for several reasons:

The major weapon of harassers is arguing whether something is actually harassing. It is difficult to enforce a CoC if you have to have a month long nasty argument about whether it was violated. It burns out people like you.

It encourages people to report when they are certain they will be taken seriously and not dismissed or argued with.

The list of "don'ts" educates people on what to do, so you avoid problems in the first place.

Finally, it sends a signal to people considering joining your community in a way that "be nice" does not. "Be nice" is a signal to harassers that they can use tone arguments and otherwise play on people's desires to be nice to get away with stuff. For example, Wikipedia's "Assume good faith" is regularly abused by people not acting in good faith. Asking people to attempt resolution by discussion is used both as a delaying tactic and a way to abuse people longer.

Go forth and adopt

Mary and Valerie laughing

Mary and Valerie

Now that you've learned a little more about designing community codes of conduct, it's time to go advocate for one in your community! We recommend starting with the Django code of conduct or the Rust code of conduct. Take a look also at the comparison of codes of conduct on the Geek Feminism Wiki. And if you need some advice on getting over the rough patches, we encourage you to email us at contact@adainitiative.org and we will happily work with you.

Guest post: Nicole Stark’s Survey of Harassment Policies at Fan Conventions

This is a guest post from author Jim C. Hines that originally appeared on his blog as "Nicole Stark’s Survey of Harassment Policies at Fan Conventions." It is a summary of Nicole Stark's paper surveying and analyzing fan convention anti-harassment policies, the first study of its kind that we know of.

After I posted my Convention Harassment Policy Starter Kit, I learned about a study Nicole Stark had done about harassment policies at fan conventions. Stark’s article is available on Google Docs, here. I’ve seen a fair amount of discussion on harassment policies and why we do or don’t need to worry about them, but this is the first example I’ve seen of a more rigorous academic survey and discussion of harassment policies. Stark gave me permission to link to her paper, and to discuss some of the highlights.

ETA: Stark is a M.A. student studying sexual harassment. She asked me to share that her email address is NicoleStark@knights.ucf.edu, in case anyone wanted to follow up with her about her work.

From the abstract:

This study uses content analysis to evaluate a sample of 288 fan convention websites. These conventions took place within the United States from March to November 2013. The analysis was used to determine how common sexual harassment policies are and their characteristics. This study examined both frequencies and descriptions of codes of conduct, including promoted and prohibited rules, sanctions, reporting guidelines, and the existence of a sexual harassment or general harassment policy. Less than half of the sample contained any behavioral policy at all. Those behavioral policies that were present were found to be generally informal, unstructured, and devoid of a sexual harassment policy. However, many policies contained rules that could be used in the prevention of sexual harassment. These rules, when made clear and recognizable, may work as effective policy in informal spaces. (Page 2)

Stark opens by discussing an instance of sexual harassment from New York Comic Con, and goes on to note that:

A study on sexual harassment policy in manufacturing firms revealed that an available written policy resulted in a 76 percent reduction in one year’s reports (Moore and Bradley 1997).

In other words, to anyone arguing there’s no need for a sexual harassment policy, there is actual research showing that such a policy can significantly reduce sexual harassment.

I expect some people to protest that a convention isn’t the workplace, and that’s true. There are likely to be some differences in the dynamics and effects of a harassment policy in a convention space vs. a workplace. But the underlying premise and conclusion here is pretty straightforward: “We created a written policy on sexual harassment, and sexual harassment decreased significantly.”

I assume most people would like to see sexual harassment at conventions decrease significantly as well. Ergo, creating a written policy seems like a really basic and obvious first step.

Stark’s sample comes from the costume.org website’s list of upcoming conventions. The cons were all from 2013, all located in the U.S., and included media, anime, literary, gaming, comics, relaxicons, and more. So what did she find in her study?

Of the 288 convention websites, 59.38%  had no listed policy on their website in regards to behavior or code of conduct. Less than half of all websites (40.62%) had at bare minimum, a behavioral policy explaining acceptable or unacceptable actions while at the convention. These rules ranged from a basic ‘be polite’ to lengthier explanations and examples of what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Of the total sample, only 3.47% used the phrase ‘sexual harassment’. However, 13.88% used the word ‘harassment’, not detailing readily available distinctions between harassments, whether sexual, bullying, or annoying otherwise.

Fewer than half of conventions have a posted policy about acceptable behavior, let alone harassment. And the policy is only the starting point; what about instructions on reporting harassment and other unacceptable behavior?

Only 15.27% (44) of the 288 convention websites contained guidelines on reporting. Of the three conventions participating in Project: Women Back Each Other Up, only one employed the use of purple ribbons to indicate female staff members who were prepared to intervene and handle potential sexual harassment. Several policies listed that if there were emergencies, to dial 911 or building security.  This left 84.72% (244) of the convention websites devoid of response or guidance to potential victims.

Stark goes on to recommend:

…in evidence of the language and audience in these informal spaces, the following are suggestions for a comprehensive policy at fan conventions. The policies need to be recognizable and readily available (Moore & Bradley 1997), properly enforcedinclude and define sanctionstrain employees for prevention and response, (Harmus & Niblock 2000), detail complaint procedure (Fowler 1996), and define sexual harassment in terms that the audience understands. (Emphasis added)

I have very little to add beyond Yes. That.

I recommend anyone interested in the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment in fandom read the full study. And my thanks to Nicole Stark for letting me link to and chat about her research here.

A smiling man in front of shelves of booksJim C. Hines is the author of the Magic ex Libris series, which has been described as a love letter to books and storytelling, and includes a magic-wielding librarian with a laser blaster. He’s also written the Princess series of fairy tale retellings and the humorous Goblin Quest trilogy, along with more than 40 published short stories. He’s an active blogger, and won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. You can find him online at http://www.jimchines.com.

Guest post: Conference codes of conduct as seen from your world and mine

This is a guest post by Andromeda Yelton about how conference codes of conduct actually improve the protection of free speech for women and other disadvantaged groups in tech, originally posted on her blog here. Andromeda Yelton is a librarian and freelance software engineer. She teaches librarians to code; speaks and writes about libraries, technology, and gender; and is on the Board of the Library & Information Technology Association.

In discussing ALA’s Statement of Appropriate Conduct with ever-wider audiences, I get the growing feeling that we stand at different starting lines, and it affects our understandings of the words in the statement.

So if you looked at the Statement and your first reaction was “but…free speech?” or “nanny state” or “political correctness”, this is for you. Let me attempt to explain some starting points. (Trigger warning: graphic violence, rape, rampant misogyny.)

Proponents of these codes are not concerned that people might disagree with them (even disagree passionately). We aren’t concerned that people might not be nice. We aren’t wanting to run to some hammer of authority every time someone says a group we’re in might be other than pure unicorns and roses.

Here is the world I live in:

I live in a world where famed game developer and technical writer Kathy Sierra disappeared entirely from the internet for years after she received a series of death threats, including publishing of her home address, social security number, and false allegations that she had abused her children.

I live in a world where Anita Sarkeesian ran a Kickstarter to support a project on sexism in video games, and as a result someone created and distributed a video game consisting solely of clicking on her face until you had beaten it to a bloody pulp.

I live in a world where merely having a female-gendered nickname on IRC (a chat network important in the technology world) makes you 25 times more likely to receive unsolicited malicious private messages, even if you never say a word.

I live in a world where I have zero interest in going to CES because I don’t want to have to deal with the naked booth babes (and am therefore cutting myself off from the biggest trade show relevant to my interests). Where a friend of mine takes for granted there will probably be naked women on conference slides in her field. Where people complaining that a joke about being “raped by dickwolves” in a comic about gaming isn’t funny leads to its creators selling dickwolves t-shirts and large numbers of people to this day defending this as a reasonable position to hold. Where a hackathon sponsored by a major tech news web site gives time on stage to an app intended solely for sharing photos of women’s cleavage, with a nine-year-old-girl in the audience. Where a major tech news discussion site is so prone to misogyny many women never bother to spend time there, at the same time as it is suspected of repeatedly quashing discussion critical of misogyny.

I live in a world where I treat it as great and inexplicable good luck that no one has yet threatened to rape or kill me just because I blog and speak publicly about technology and sexism under an obviously female name, and I have the backup plan in my head of how to moderate comments and log IPs if it’s ever needed, and the list of which friends have my back enough that I’d ask them to wade through that kind of cesspit for me. I live in a world where using my own name on github and IRC was aspecific conscious choice that required actual bravery from me, because I know that I am statistically exposing myself to retribution for doing so.

Let’s say that again: I live in a world where being myself in public, talking about things I care about under my own name in public, is a specific choice which requires both courage and a backup plan.

In this world some people choose not to be themselves in public. They choose not to speak, or to speak only under disguises – ones they can’t wear at conferences, face-to-face.

That is my concern about free speech. That right there.

That is the aim of conference codes of conduct. To clarify the threats — not to eliminate them, because you can’t ever do that, but to state that this is a place where silencing people through graphic threats of sexual violence or open and regular degradation is treated as unacceptable, that if it happens to you there’s a place to go, and to (crucially) say that the bystanders care too. That you’re not in a place where a lot of people are decent but indifferent and someone somewhere might attack you and it’s all on you to cope, but you’re in a place where a lot of people are decent and affirmatively have your back.

And by clarifying the threats, by publicly affirming the decency of the bystanders, we create a world where you don’t have to be quite so brave to speak up. A world where the uncertain, the new, the outsiders have a voice too. A world where maybe the barrier for being a woman in tech — or an outsider coming in — is not the ability to say “fuck you”, but merely the interest in saying something, anything.

If you have been reading the statement of acceptable conduct from the frame of mind that you haven’t encountered problems and things seem fine and the only speech you can imagine it chilling is the edgier end of the perfectly fine, please go back and reread it from my world. It reads differently.

Lightning reviews for lightning talks: another easy way to make your conference better

Selena Deckelmann and Rebecca Refford at AdaCamp DC CC BY-SA Maírín Duffy

CC BY-SA Maírín Duffy

What's your favorite part of a conference? For many, lightning talks are where it's at – a series of short talks on a wide range of topics given one right after another. At AdaCamp unconferences, we have had talks on how playing the game Nethack helps learn command line interfaces, ancient natural uranium reactors, and a rap on women in technology. Lightning talks are fun, easy, and energizing. Every conference should think about having them (or having more).

The downside of lightning talks is that there often isn't time to review them all before they go on stage. Sometimes a less than appropriate talk ends up in front of your audience. One bad lightning talk can overshadow an entire conference. Take the Titstare lightning talk at the 2013 TechCrunch Disrupt conference. This one talk ended up with more press than the entire conference, and left a bad impression on the conference's target audience.

So what can conference organizers do to avoid bad lightning talks, while still keeping the fun and variety that makes lightning talks so popular? We have one solution: A short questionnaire for lightning talk presenters to fill out when they submit their talk. This questionnaire asks speakers if their talk features things like sexy pictures and jokes about specific sensitive topics, so organizers can take a closer look at the talk before including it in the line-up.

What if the presenter decides to lie in their answers? In that case, this step won't help. But in our experience, most presenters simply don't know that their slide or joke is offensive. In the Titstare case, the developers expressed their surprise at the reaction it got: "Sorry if we offended some of you, very unintentional. Just a fun Aussie hack."

We wrote up an example Google form that conference organizers can use to both collect lightning talk submissions and screen them for potentially unwelcome material. We suggest that organizers use this as a screening tool only that flags submissions for extra review. This encourages presenters to be honest in their replies and prevents good talks from getting rejected on technicalities – especially ones related to fighting sexism and other discrimination in tech.

The entire form is embedded below. To copy the form and use it for your conference, follow the instructions at the top of the form. Best wishes for your conference and any lightning talks you run!

"Why don't you just hit him?" — the worst possible anti-harassment advice

The example conference anti-harassment policy was announced on the Geek Feminism blog in November 2010 by Ada Initiative co-founder Valerie Aurora. Afterwards, hundreds of people suggested a "better" solution to sexual harassment: Knee him in the groin! This is a repost of what Valerie's co-founder, Mary Gardiner, wrote about what's wrong with "Just hit him!" in December 2010.


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"Why don't you just hit him?"

A woman smiling in front of a green background

Mary Gardiner

Valerie has had a lot of comments and private email in response to her conference anti-harassment policy post suggesting that a great deal of the problem would be solved if women were encouraged to hit their harassers: usually people suggest an open handed slap, a knee to groin, or even tasers and mace (no suggestions for tear gas or rubber bullets yet). I sent her such a lengthy email about it that we agreed that I clearly at some level wanted to post about it. What can I do but obey my muse?

OK. Folks…

This is not one of those entries I am thrilled in my soul to have to write, but here's why "Hit him!" is not a solution for everyone and definitely does not replace the need for people with authority to take a stand against harassment.

And I know some people were joking. But not everyone was, you'll need to trust me on this. Your "Jeez, guys like that are lucky they don't get a knee in the groin more often… hey wait, maybe you should just have a Knee In Groin Policy!" joke was appearing in inboxes right alongside material seriously saying that all of this policy nonsense wouldn't be necessary if women were just brave and defended themselves properly, if they'd just for once get it right.

Here are some samples:

  • Duncan on LWN: "What I kept thinking while reading the original article, especially about the physical assaults, is that it was too bad the victims in question weren't carrying Mace, pepper-spray, etc, and wasn't afraid to use it. A couple incidents of that and one would think the problem would disappear…"
  • NAR on LWN: "I've read the blog about the assault – it's absolutely [appalling] and in my opinion the guy deserved a knee to his groin and some time behind bars." (NAR then goes on to note that women should also wear skirts below the knee; which is very much making it about the victim. Dress right! Fight back!)
  • A comment on Geek Feminism that was not published: "…You also need to make it known to women that they need to immediately retaliate (preferably in the form of a slap loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear)… Women -must- stand up for themselves and report the guy, preferably after a loud humiliating slap immediately following the incident."
  • crusoe on reddit: "You need to end right then and there. Its one thing to make blog posts, its another to call a jerk out for it on the conference floor, including stomping a toe, or poking them hard in the belly… Do not stew about it, do not run home and write a blog post about it. Just call them on it right then and there." (As long as crusoe doesn't have to hear about it…)

First up, one key thing about this and many similar responses ("Just ignore him", "Just spread the word", "Just yell at him"):

Harassment is not a private matter between harasser and victim, and it's not the victim's job to put a stop to it.

The harasser is responsible for their actions. The surrounding culture is responsible for condemning them and making it clear those actions and expressions of attitudes that underlie them are not acceptable. (See Rape Culture 101.) The victim may choose to go to the police, yell, hit, scream, confront, go to a counsellor, tell their mother, tell their father, tell their friends, warn people. They may choose not to. Whether they do or not, we are all responsible for making harassment unacceptable where we are. Harassment, and stopping it, is not the victim's responsibility. (See But You Have to Report It!)

Am I against hitting a harasser in all situations? No. Am I advocating against it in all situations? No.

However, here's a lengthy and incomplete list of reasons why victims may not be able or may choose not to hit a harasser and why it is definitely not a general solution for the problem of harassment. I even have a special buzzer on hand that will sound when the reasons are related to gender discrimination. Listen for it, it goes like this: BZZZT! Got it? BZZZT!

Important note on pronouns and gendering: I am largely buying the framing of the "why don't you just hit him?" advice, that is, men harassers and women victims, for the purposes of this post. However, I acknowledge that people of all gender identities get harassed, and that people of all gender identities may be harassers. At various points in the post I will return to this point.

Conferences are a professional, or public hobby, environment. This is the point that applies to conferences most specifically. We are talking about an activity where people give talks with projected words and pictures, where people discuss and write computer programs or sci-fi or cocktail recipes, where people say things like "Oh wow, you're Lord Ogre Face! Oh wow, everyone, I've known this guy online for years and we just met now for the first time ever! Oh wow!"

This is not, generally speaking, an environment in which physical conflict is considered appropriate. How are slaps and knees to the groin (gender note: not all harassers have testicles as this advice somewhat assumes) supposed to fit in again? Conferences should be places where people learn things and have fun… oh yes and every so often something bad happens to someone and they hit the person that did it?

Of course not. Conferences, in an ideal world, are basically an environment of mutual consent: people go to talks they want to hear, they are in conversations they want to have, they party as much as they want to party and so on. The solution to this underbelly of non-consent that we're fighting against here is hauling it out into the light and making a public official stand saying "this is not OK", not adding combat to the list of acceptable activities at conferences.

How, exactly, is this helping build a better, safer world? I'm not personally a pacifist. But the world I'm looking forward to living in is not one in which, in between conference talks, I walk down the corridor to witness any of the following:

  • Harassment
  • Assault
  • Some of the more fantastical suggestions that have come up privately, such as harassers being held down and beaten by multiple people

It's hard to hit people. It requires training, not just to do it well, but to do it at all. Most people reading this, unless trained in combat, have very strong inhibitions about hitting people. To hit someone after a momentary touch or comment means leaping past "Did he really…?" "Did I deserve…?" "Was it that bad…?" to "YOU JERK" *SMACK*!

Getting angry at a harasser, let alone angry enough to hit them, takes many victims minutes, hours, days or even years. Going from incident to slap in seconds flat takes training or a particular type of self-assurance, and funnily enough women are specifically socialised out of that (BZZZT!)

Here are some Hollaback stories that illustrate the difficulty of summoning outrage responses in the moment:

Oh yeah, and then there's doing it well. That means, presumably, enough pain to hurt the harasser, not enough to continue causing pain after a few minutes have passed. Get it wrong in the soft direction and you're the butt of another joke, get it wrong in the hard direction and you've helped make a case against yourself. Speaking of which…

Hitting people can result in arrest and criminal charges. In jurisdictions I've been able to research, there is no "But he was being really jerky" defence against assault or battery charges. The person who who escalated to physical violence first is the person who is in the most trouble. I don't think I need to explain in general why this stops some people hitting others.

But some people have reason to especially fear contact with the police. Examples include people who get disproportionately charged and punished (racial minorities, for example), and people who would have a criminal record used against them (eg in a child custody case) or whose career would be over (lawyers).

When you picture a woman righteously hitting her harasser, what are you picturing? A slender white woman of average height or below? What happens when you start changing those things? Consider me, for example. I'm 6'4" (193cm). I'm relatively weak compared to many men of my height and I don't train in combat, but does it all look so straightforward when you picture me spinning in outrage and slamming one of my enormous hands into the face of a man who is a foot shorter because he'd called me some slur? Or are you starting to think "Hey, steady on, he just…" What would you think about a tall, fat, muscled woman doing this? Or a big woman who is a military veteran, or a black belt?

Maybe you'd be fine with that, I don't know. But I know that person has reason to think the police will regard what she did as a serious offence.

Not everyone can physically attack others. People who can't quickly move over to the harasser; people whose hands need to be on their cane or crutches; people who can't stand steadily or at all, let alone while reaching to slap someone's face or while raising a leg to knee someone in the groin. People who are very short relative to their harasser (BZZZT!), who don't have the reach to get a hand on their face or knee in their groin. People who shake and lose strength under severe stress.

Since it comes up in self-defence arguments: yes, some (not all) of these people can effectively use weapons such as guns or mace. But even in cases of life-threatening attacks, those require being armed with the weapon, being trained with it, and having special regular training on effective use when under stress. But right here, we are talking about harassment broadly, not serious assaults in particular. Attacking harassers with weapons isn't under consideration.

Which brings me to cutting remarks, as a tangent. I'm hoping everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of thinking of the perfect cutting response… 12 hours later? Well, that affects victims of harassment. And it's not just that. Speech impediments, for example, get in the way of getting the perfect cutting remark out in the perfect tone of contempt.

Back to hitting harassers.

It might make the victim more of a target. Maybe it was a weak slap and made a weak sound and the harasser smiled through the whole thing. Or the harasser caught the victim's hand as it came up and is now holding her wrist tightly and grinning at her. Or the harasser pushed at the victim as her knee came up towards his groin, and she fell over.

Hitting does not necessarily make a situation end and it does not necessarily make the physical aggressor look strong and in control.

Hitting hurts. I'm not going to devote a lot of space to being sympathetic towards harassers, and this is a statement of the bleeding obvious but, you're proposing hurting and possibly injuring people.

Onlookers are not sympathetic to the person who hits out. You might be picturing a conversation, I guess, where someone approaches a woman and is conveniently wired for sound and thus everyone hears him mutter that she's a so-and-so and he'd like to such-and-such her.

In reality, here's what you see if women hit their harassers:

  • A man walks near a woman, and she hits him across the face. Did he say something? No one heard.
  • A man is on stage giving a presentation and makes a joke about so-and-so women. It's definitely an ew joke and you feel uncomfortable. You then watch multiple women run on stage and knee him in the groin one after the other. He falls to the ground in absolute agony, crying out in pain that is in no way lessened by some magic jerky-joke-maker insensitivity gene.
  • A man is standing there talking to you. He's a moderately well known geek celebrity in local circles. You feel kind of chuffed to make his acquaintance. A woman runs up out of nowhere and hits him in the middle of your conversation, claiming that he assaulted her the previous evening at a party.

You might still be on the side of the women involved in those scenarios, most onlookers aren't. They're seeing violence.

We are arguing that you don't want these men at your conference, especially if they are repeatedly offending at the one conference. We are not arguing or agreeing that you want them physically hurt at your conference.

The harasser might hit back. Or onlookers might step in. I know a lot of men are strongly socialised to believe that they cannot ever under any circumstances hit a woman. This socialisation is not shared by everyone, far from it. And of course, while this piece is gendered, recall that of course the victim might be a man, or might be a person whose gender presentation doesn't match what the harasser thinks it should be. Those people don't benefit from any real or perceived social stigma about hitting women.

This situation is another especial danger for people without combat training and with some disabilities. It's also dangerous for the average woman (BZZZT!) who is smaller and weaker than the average man; thus rendering a solid majority of physical conflicts between men and women more dangerous for the woman. A martial artist I asked about this advised me that people who are at a weight-strength disadvantage need to, and this isn't surprising, win physical fights extremely decisively and quickly before their disadvantages tell. It takes even more training, mental and physical, to do this.

Let's get rid of the harassment and assaults that are already occurring, huh?

Women don't automatically win by hitting someone. Some of this seems, frankly, to be playing into the idea that being hit by a woman is extremely humiliating (BZZZT! BZZZT! BZZZT!) and the harasser will be thus unmanned and shamed by the violence (BZZZT!) and that others will view him as lesser (BZZZT!)

This might be the true effect on some harassers, and if a victim chooses to take advantage of it to gain power in a particular situation good for her. In the geek feminist utopia, being hit by a woman wouldn't be an especial humiliation; the problem is a dynamic in which men harass women with their humiliating harassment powers and women punish them with allocated women powers (BZZZT!).

In fact a great deal of this "Just hit him!" argument seems to assume that women's violence is necessarily different from and lesser than men's violence. Oh, women's violence isn't, you know, violence violence. No one will call the cops, or get in an extended fight or get seriously hurt! That's a man thing. (… BZZZT!)

This is the kind of advice given by people who don't actually want to help. Or perhaps don't know how they can. It's like if you're a parent of a bullying victim, and you find yourself repeating "ignore it", "fight back with fists" or whatever fairly useless advice you yourself were once on the receiving end of. It's expressing at best helplessness, and at worst victim-blaming. It's personalising a cultural problem.

You are not helpless in the face of harassment. Call for policies, implement policies, call out harassment when you overhear it, or report it. Stand with people who discuss their experiences publicly.

Revenge fantasies feel nice. Yes, they do. And they are cathartic. (This is one reason why Ender's Game is such a popular geek classic.) But why are we getting hit with so many revenge fantasies from non-victims when we're trying to build up a real solution? If you are angry that there have been, unbeknownst to you, harassers at conferences and in communities you know and love, indulge a revenge fantasy or two if you like. And then devote your energy to helping, rather than trying to convince women to enact your fantasy.

Here it is again for the road:

Harassment is not a private matter between harasser and victim, and it's not the victim's job to put a stop to it.


You can help. Support the Ada Initiative's work ending harassment at conferences and supporting women in open technology and culture. Join over 100 supporters who donated to our 2013 fundraising campaign. Donate now!

Conference anti-harassment campaigns do work: Three existence proofs from SF&F, atheism/skepticism, and open source

Woman in armor with dragon[Trigger warning for sexual harassment and assault]

Sometimes fighting harassment and assault at conferences feels like a losing battle. For every step forward, it seems like there's another step back: A science fiction convention adopts a code of conduct, but then doesn't enforce it for a Big Name Fan. People publicly identify a serial assaulter in skepticism, but then he threatens to sue and the blog post is taken down. Is a community without sexual harassment and assault too much to ask for in 2013?

Conference anti-harassment campaigns do work – they "just" take several years of dedicated effort to succeed. In the free and open source community, it took about 3 years of concentrated work to get to the point where the vast majority of open source conferences have strong, specific, enforced anti-harassment policies. In 2013 we saw a record percentage of women attendees and speakers at one of the largest open source conferences in the world. Now open source communities are adopting codes of conduct that apply to online interaction too.

Why a history of anti-harassment campaigns?

We decided to chronicle the history of conference anti-harassment policies in three communities: science fiction and fantasy, skepticism and atheism, and free and open source software. The goal is to create a standard reference model of how conference anti-harassment campaigns usually work so that we can refer to it when the going gets tough. If you know what other communities went through – e.g., a phase of concerted online harassment of women leaders – then you are less likely to give up. We hope this history will help people working to end harassment in other geek communities: Wikipedia, computer security, anime and comics, computer gaming, and perhaps even academic philosophy.

This history only covers the high-profile, publicly-documented events of conference anti-harassment campaigns, but like any social justice movement, much of the credit should go to the many people quietly working behind the scenes to organize and implement the change. We're trying to make that work more visible, so if you were part of this fight and your part isn't mentioned in this history, or we made a mistake, please leave a comment send email to contact @ adainitiative.org and we will make the correction as soon as possible!

Thank you to everyone who actually did the work we write about here. You have changed your community for the better!

Table of contents

  1. About the authors
  2. Stages of conference anti-harassment campaigns
  3. History of the science fiction and fantasy campaign
  4. History of the skepticism and atheism campaign
  5. History of the free and open source software campaign
  6. Current status of anti-harassment campaigns
  7. How you can help
  8. Sources and resources

About the authors

Mary and Valerie laughing

Mary and Valerie
(CC BY-SA Adam Novak)

As a non-profit supporting women in open technology and culture, the Ada Initiative cares deeply about ending harassment in geek communities. Our co-founders, Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, co-authored the most widely used example anti-harassment policy, hosted on the Geek Feminism Wiki. The Ada Initiative's first project was working as full-time advocates for the adoption of policies in the open source community, often working directly with conference organizers and community leaders as advisors and coaches.

Stages of conference anti-harassment campaigns

Conference anti-harassment campaigns work, but it is hard to stay positive when you're in the middle of one. Here's the big picture of how they usually work, broken down into different stages (note that stages can overlap and have fuzzy boundaries – they are just useful reference points). See if any of this sounds familiar to you:

  • Stage 0: Harassment, assault, pornographic presentations, and sexist jokes are rampant at conferences, mainly targeting women. An informal network develops to warn likely victims individually about who to avoid. Victims are afraid to report non-public harassment. Many people quietly stop attending conferences, or only attend the safest ones. Some leave the community entirely.
  • Stage 1: A few very brave people say, "Hey, I was harassed at con X, and I didn't like it!" As a reward, they become the target of even more harassment, usually along the lines of "You are too fat/ugly to be harassed," "You deserve to be raped," and "If you don't like being harassed, leave." If they name their attacker, the harassment is even worse: specific rape and death threats, nasty packages sent to their house, or denial of service attacks on their web sites.
  • Stage 2: A long period of discussion about whether harassment is even a bad thing ensues. Typical arguments in favor of condoning harassment involve women's known love of compliments on their body parts from strangers, concerns about the extinction of the human species through banning "flirting," comparisons to the Taliban, "freedom of speech," and predictions that the quality of code/novels/articles/etc. will take a nose dive if harassment is banned. During this period, some people publicly announce they will stop attending conferences with the worst reputation for harassment and assault.
  • Stage 3: A few community leaders take a public stand against harassment, often prominent men who are horrified and embarrassed to discover this behavior goes on in their community. They are criticized heavily, but rarely the target of rape and death threats. Usually this has a net positive effect for the careers and reputations of the people who take a stand. Opponents of harassment are accused of "dividing the community."
  • Stage 4: Someone suggests adopting a conference anti-harassment policy, usually one already in use by another conference. The organizers of one of the most progressive conferences immediately pledge to adopt a policy, followed quickly by two or three more. Each conference either adopts an existing policy, slightly rewrites it, or develops their own from scratch. A few months pass without new conferences adopting policies.
  • Stage 5: A few high profile harassment incidents occur at conferences with policies. They are usually handled well; when they aren't they cause a huge outcry and more pressure to adopt (and enforce) policies. A dozen or so more conferences adopt policies. Victims of harassment begin to publicly name their harassers, often coordinating with other victims and influential allies.
  • Stage 6: Most conferences have anti-harassment policies, and most enforce them. Emboldened, victims talk more freely about their experiences and begin to notice patterns. At this point, even very powerful harassers begin to be publicly named. Some harassers lose their jobs, are banned from conferences, or lose their influence in the community. But harassers also fight back, with take-down notices, threats of legal action, or direct intimidation and threats.
  • Stage 7: Conferences become more awesome: more fun, more creative, and more productive. They are a safer and more welcoming space for women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, and many others. New people of all sorts begin joining the community. Serial harassers leave on their own or don't join in the first place. The bizarre concept of treating all humans with respect and dignity spreads to other areas in the community, such as online discussion, local meetups, and publications.

When you understand the inevitable progression that begins when people start reporting harassment and assault – and other people publicly back them up – you can see why the backlash against simply reporting harassment is so strong. If the fight against harassment at conferences is successful, some people in the community will end up exposed as abusers, driven out of the community, fired from their jobs, not invited to speak any more, or ostracized. They will also lose what they value most of all: the opportunity to harass, assault, and abuse others.

Now, don't you want to be part of making that happen?

History of the science fiction and fantasy campaign

The big picture: In 2010, Sexual harassment, stalking, and groping were common. Serial sexual harassers operated with impunity. The feminist science fiction convention, WisCon, was one of the only SF&F cons with an anti-harassment policy. Today, over 1000 people have pledged to attend only SF&F cons with anti-harassment policies, many cons have policies, and several serial harassers have been publicly identified, banned from conferences, and/or fired from their SF&F jobs. In terms of stages of anti-harassment campaigns, SF&F is somewhere around Stage 6.

Detailed timeline:

A book cover

Willis' 2006 Hugo Award-winning novella, Inside Job

August 2006: At the WorldCon science fiction and fantasy convention, Harlan Ellison gropes Connie Willis' breast on stage during the Hugo awards ceremony (both are Hugo-award winning authors), kicking off extensive online discussion about sexual harassment in the SF&F community.

April 2008: At Penguicon, a hybrid science fiction and Linux convention, attendees create The Open Source Boob Project, in which some attendees wore buttons to signal whether they are open to requests to touch them sexually. The creator later had a change of heart and publicly stated that he thought the project did more harm than good by causing women to feel unsafe.

Vito Excalibur suggests the idea that becomes the Open Source Back Each Other Up Project, focusing on anime and comic conventions. This is a pledge by individuals to intervene if they see harassment occurring.

Geek Feminism LogoMay 2008: The Geek Feminism Wiki is founded by Alex "Skud" Bayley (formerly Kirrily Robert), becoming a go-to resource for feminists in a variety of geeky areas, including science fiction, computing, fandom, anime, computer gaming, cosplay, and more. Mary Gardiner becomes a major contributor to the Geek Feminism Wiki.

July 2008: Genevieve Valentine reports on harassment of several women at ReaderCon. The offender was quickly ejected from the conference.

August 2008: Girl-Wonder.org launches the Con Anti-harassment Project, focusing on comic, anime, and fandom conventions. Girl-Wonder.org members include Karen Healey and Hannah Dame, who were listed on the press release for the CAHP launch. Several conventions adopt a policy shortly thereafter.

May 2009: WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention, adopts a clear and specific anti-harassment policy after having a more generic one for many years earlier, in response to an incident of harassing photography.

The Geek Feminism Wiki page "Timeline of Incidents" is started. This page records the sexist incidents in geek communities and currently goes back as far as 1973. The Timeline of Incidents, along with the rest of the Geek Feminism Wiki, eventually become vital resources in the fight for anti-harassment policies.

A woman with raised eyebrows wearing glasses

K. Tempest Bradford
(CC BY K. Tempest Bradford)

August 2009: The Geek Feminism Blog is founded by Alex "Skud" Bayley and many others, with frequent contributions from Mary Gardiner, Liz Henry, Terri Oda, K. Tempest Bradford, and many others. With a firm moderation policy, this blog becomes a safe space to discuss geeky and/or feminist topics, including fandom, technology, and activism.

The Backup Ribbon Project is created by thatwordgrrl. The idea is to wear a ribbon indicating that you are willing to help victims of harassment, either by intervening or by assisting them after the fact.

[ENORMOUS GAP HERE PLEASE HELP US FILL IT: Email contact@adainitiative.org or leave a comment.]

A black and white photo of Jim C. Hines, smiling with his arms crossed

Jim C. Hines

November 2010: Jim C. Hines creates a set of resources for reporting sexual harassment in SF&F, updated yearly. The 2013 version is here.

July 2012: Genevieve Valentine reports harassment at ReaderCon from René Walling, a well-known fan. ReaderCon bans him from the con for 2 years, in contravention to their stated policy of a lifetime ban. Hundreds of blog posts and petitions protesting this decision followed, as well as more reports of harassment by René Walling as well as other Readercon attendees, from Kate Kligman, Veronica Schanoes, and others.

August 2012: The ReaderCon board issues an apology, bans René Walling for life, and resigns en masse. Led by Rose Fox and Crystal Huff, the Readercon convention committee commits to many improvements on its anti-harassment policy and its enforcement.

Dragon*Con bans Backup Ribbons from the Backup Ribbon Project, citing concerns that harassers might wear them.

September 2012: Scott Henry writes an article for Atlanta Magazine documenting that Dragon*Con co-founder Ed Kramer has evaded trial for child molestation for years. Kramer continues to receive part of the Dragon*Con profits each year.

November 2012: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) issue a a statement defining their sexual harassment policy and specifying that it applies to all SFWA events.

A women wearing a face shield and holding jewelry wire and tools

Elise Matthesen making jewelry, by Sarah Ahiers

July 2013: In a watershed moment, Science fiction editor James Frenkel leaves Tor shortly after being reported for sexual harassment at WisCon 2013 by Elise Matthesen. Elise announced what she had done, without naming the editor in question, in simultaneous posts on the blogs of Mary Robinette Kowal, Seanan McGuire, Chuck Wendig, Brandon Sanderson, John Scalzi, and Jim Hines. Shortly thereafter, Sigrid Ellis names Frenkel in a comment on John Scalzi's blog post. Mary Robinette Kowal names Frenkel and details all the reasons why someone might be afraid to name him in "Why I am I afraid to name the editor?" K. Tempest Bradford reminds everyone that "high level people at Tor have been aware of Frenkel's behavior for years." More revelations about sexual harassment in SF&F, both by Frenkel and others, follow.

Science fiction author John Scalzi pledges not to attend conferences without strong, specific anti-harassment policies and asks others to co-sign. N. K. Jemisin makes an important clarification that harassment is not limited to sexual harassment. Over 1000 people co-sign the pledge.

A green card with a picture of N. K. Jemisin looking at a small green monster, with the text "N. K. Jemisin, PC Monster, Writes amazing, critically acclaimed, award-winning fiction despite being neither white nor male!!! Uses Guest of Honor platform to brainwash audience with her radical-socialist-fascist-PC message of treating all people as human beings. +5 cloak of Not Taking Any of Your Sh*t.

PC Monster card for N. K. Jemisin

The PC Monsters of SFWA Twitter list is created, to mock members of the SFWA, described as "screeching feminists." Instead, people use it as a "Who to follow" list (DL Thurston made a copy here), and at least some members of the list suddenly gain dozens of new followers. Jim C. Hines creates collectable playing cards to commemorate the honor. The list includes Laura Resnick (@LaResnick), William Alexander (@williealex), Jess Haines (@Jess_Haines), Myke Cole (@MykeCole), Michael Swirsky (@mbswirsky), Josh Vogt (@JRVogt), Jim C. Hines (@jimchines), Amal El-Mohtar (@tithenai), Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed), Sean Wallace (@oldcharliebrown), Alex D MacFarlane (@foxvertebrae), N. K. Jemisin (@nkjemisin), Steven Gould (@StevenGould), Jason Sanford (@jasonsanford), and John Scalzi (@scalzi).

Dragon*Con finally gets rid of child molester and cofounder Ed Kramer by buying out his share of Dragon*Con.

History of the skepticism and atheism campaign

The big picture: In 2010, few or no conferences have policies. Serial sexual assaulters and outright rapists are common enough that women speakers have an informal network to warn each other about them. Victims are too afraid to name or report their attackers. In 2013, most conventions have anti-harassment policies, many leaders vocally oppose harassment, and at least three high-profile serial harassers and assaulters have been publicly identified. However, many victims and advocates are still stalked, harassed, and threatened, and need continuing support from the community. Several accused harassers and assaulters have threatened legal action against those reporting them. In terms of stages of anti-harassment campaigns, skepticism/atheism is somewhere around Stage 6, despite the on-going efforts of abusers to hang on to their positions and privileges in the community.

Detailed timeline:

A woman red hair on a black background

Rebecca Watson

June 2011: Rebecca Watson video blogs about being sexually harassed at the World Atheist Convention and suggests: "Guys, don't do that." In response, she is viciously harassed by members of the skeptic/atheist community for at least 2 years (the harassment is still on-going as of August 2013).

A smiling woman holding a paper printed with the word atheist

Jen McCreight

May 2012: Jen McCreight says on stage at the Women in Secularism conference that women speakers share the names of speakers who are likely to harass or assault them with other women speakers. Stephanie Zvan blogs about Jen's comment and about harassment at skeptic/atheist conferences and suggests adopting anti-harassment policies at atheist/skeptic cons, linking to the policy on Geek Feminism Wiki as a good example.

Sarah Moglia and David Silverman commit to (and follow through on) adopting an anti-harassment policy for the Secular Students Association and AACON respectively. Many more conferences follow, led by Jen McCreight, Chris Calvey, Stephanie Zvan, and many more.

Ashley Miller publicly reports her experiences with harassment at TAM 9, countering earlier claims that no harassment was reported at TAM 9. In a positive turn of events, Elyse reports favorably on SkeptiCamp Ohio's handling of harassment complaints according to their anti-harassment policy. Sasha Pixlee of More than Men begins maintaining a list of skeptic/atheist conferences with anti-harassment policies and advocates for more policies.

June 2012: Rebecca Watson and Jen McCreight announce they will not attend TAM due to DJ Grothe's recent statements. Among many other things, DJ blamed Watson and many others for discouraging women from attending TAM by telling the truth about their experiences of harassment in the community. (Ironically, Watson raised money for travel scholarships for women to attend TAM for several years.)

A cartoon drawing of a man with glasses, beard, and two wings

PZ Myers' gravatar

PZ Myers explains why he's in favor of conference anti-harassment policies in response to a claim that they are unnecessary because hotel security exists.

WylloNyx explains why anti-harassment policies are not sex-negative and would not prevent consensual sexual activity at conferences. "A lack of statement about non-harmful sexual expression is neutral on the sex positivity scale. That harassment policies make it clear that they offer protection against non-consensual sexual expression makes the harassment policies sex positive. It means that not only the 'yay, sex is awesome' part isn't shamed but also the 'sex isn’t always awesome' aspect is addressed to the protection of attendees and speakers. To address both aspects of sex positivity clearly without shame makes sexual harassment policies sex positive."

Greta Christina points out that the OpenSF 2012 conference for people in open, polyamorous, or ethically nonmonogamous relationships has a detailed code of conduct, including things like: "We know this is California and everyone hugs, but please do that awkward 'wanna hug?' gesture before actually hugging."

Ashley Paramore reports being repeatedly groped in front of several people at TAM in 2012, without naming her attacker. The conference anti-harassment team banned the assaulter from future TAMs. Several other people back up her story. Paramore is still harassed and threatened for publicly reporting her attack.

August 2013: Ian Murphy, Dr. Karen Stollznow, Carry Poppy, PZ Myers, Jason Thibeault, and many more begin naming names of specific serial sexual assaulters and harassers in the atheist/skeptic community. Jason Thibeault creates a timeline of the sexual harassment accusations. Several of the named abusers threaten legal action, causing accusers to switch to using obvious pseudonyms instead.

An Indiegogo campaign is launched to raise a legal defense fund for one of the accused rapists. Ashley F. Miller points out that a quote from the campaign page makes it clear that the goal is to silence victims: "A show of support will send the message that we as a community will no longer tolerate illogical attacks on people who do not condone nor support sexual harassment, sexual predation, or rape any more than we support defamation of our community members from anonymous allegations."

A skeptic comedian mocks the rape allegations by claiming that it is the victims' responsibility to turn down alcoholic drinks if they don't want to get raped and comparing the reports to religious texts. Jason Thibeault provides a transcript of the video with these remarks and explains what is wrong with the idea that getting drunk should be punished with rape or comparing the reports made directly to PZ Myers and others with religious gospels.

History of the free and open source software campaign

The big picture: In 2010, groping, pornographic presentations, and sexist jokes are common at free and open source conferences. Upskirt and other non-consensual photography is a known problem. A few conferences have anti-harassment policies. In 2013, the vast majority of open source conferences have specific, strong, enforced anti-harassment policies. Some conferences even have photography policies. The focus is shifting to codes of conduct that apply to online behavior as well. In terms of stages of anti-harassment campaigns, free and open source software is somewhere around Stage 7, though with occasional relapses back as far as Stage 3.

Detailed timeline:

July 2001 – July 2009: At OSCON over several years, open source consulting company Stonehenge repeatedly throws parties featuring women providing entertainment in a sexualized manner. Complaints to OSCON management have no visible effect.

January 2007: At linux.conf.au, several people tell women attendees if they don't switch to the Reiserfs file system, Hans Reiser will continue killing women (a reference to an open source developer, Hans Reiser, who was on trial for murdering Nina Reiser). At least one person is expelled from the conference.

A fat cartoon penguin

Linux logo

July 2008: At the Linux Symposium closing session, organizers joke about providing "ambassadors" for the next conference, understood to be female sex workers by the audience.

February 2009: At the PHP UK conference, a presenter uses a pornographic application featuring a "Page 3 girl" extensively during his presentation.

April 2009: At the Golden Gate Ruby Conference, a talk entitled "CouchDB: Perform like a pr0n star" features extensive pornographic pictures and sexual innuendo. The reaction to the talk is mostly critical, with one conferenc organizer saying, "I haven't yet figured out the best way to prevent this from happening again, but I'm determined to find a way to do better next time. [...] And to be clear, I don't think Matt's talk was appropriate for a professional conference."

June 2009: Alex "Skud" Bayley creates the Porny Presentation Bingo Card. It gets a workout over the next few months. (More about bingo cards and their uses can be found here.)

Porny Presentation Bingo CardPorny Presentation Bingo Card

July 2009: Free software founder and leader Richard Stallman gives a keynote in which he calls "women who have never used EMACS" "EMACS virgins" and exorts listeners to "relieve them of their virginity." This is part of a "joke" skit about the "Church of EMACS." Stallman refused to apologize. Due to his leadership position and fame, an extensive round of discussion ensued, hitting the usual high points of "He's just like that," political correctness, "Sex is beautiful," and the rest.

A woman smiling wearing a gardening hat

Alex "Skud" Bayley, Geek Feminism founder

At OSCON, Alex "Skud" Bayley gives a keynote speech on diversity in open source. During the same conference, Stonehenge throws another party with women providing sexualized entertainment. This time, Robert Kaye blogs about the party, calling it "a sad state of affairs." A several-hundred comment-long debate follows, with the majority against Stonehenge.

November 2009: At DojoCon, a presenter begins his talk with a slide of two women wearing only t-shirts and thong underwear. When asked why he included the slide, the response filled out most of a Porny Presentation Bingo Card.

Sometime in 2009: In response to the avalanche of porny presentations in open source, Esther "Moose" Filderman informs speakers at Ohio LinuxFest, an open source conference, that no sexualized presentations will be allowed at OLF. Ohio LinuxFest subsequently adopts both a speaker policy and a general code of conduct.

January 2010: Open source software conference linux.conf.au 2010 adopts a discrimination policy that specifically bans several kinds of harassment.

June 2010: At Southeast LinuxFest, an attendee sexually harasses, assaults, and follows several women around the conference. The incidents aren't connected until the last day of the conference, when the organizers finally eject the harasser from the conference.

Smiling woman with short pink hair

Nóirín Plunkett

November 2010: Nóirín Plunkett (formerly Shirley) is groped at open source conference ApacheCon by another attendee. She names her attacker on her blog after explaining that this is far from the first time she has been assaulted at a tech conference. She is attacked online by hundreds of people with rape and death threats, victim-blaming, and sexual comments.

Valerie Aurora announces an example anti-harassment policy on the Geek Feminism blog. The policy and its supporting materials were written by Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner, with assistance from Esther Filderman, Beth Lynn Eicher, Sarah Smith, Donna Benjamin, and many members of LinuxChix and Geek Feminism, and based in part on the Con Anti-Harassment Project policy.

Woman with pink hair speaking and gesturing

Valerie Aurora (CC BY-SA Adam Novak)

December 2010: Valerie Aurora publishes an article on a Linux web site about nine women's experiences being harassed at open source conferences, including her own. Comments are mostly positive. The article links to the example anti-harassment policy hosted on the Geek Feminism Wiki.

Mary Gardiner explains why "Just hit him!" is not a useful response to the problem of harassment at conferences.

OSDC becomes the first conference to use the Geek Feminism anti-harassment policy template as the basis of their policy.

January 2011: At the second open source conference using the Geek Feminism policy, a keynote speaker gives a talk filled with violent and sexual imagery and language. The conference organizers apologize to attendees immediately and the speaker apologizes via Twitter shortly thereafter. The incident provokes a long discussion on the conference mailing list including several instances of rape apology by leading community members.

Ada Initiative logoFebruary 2011: Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora publicly launch the Ada Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to supporting women in open technology and culture, after several months of behind the scenes work. The Ada Initiative's first project is promoting the adoption of conference anti-harassment policies in open technology and culture.

July 2011: Nóirín Shirley blogs about her reluctance to speak at OSCON and the related Community Leadership Summit due to being harassed at both events the previous year. Neither has an anti-harassment policy. Many other OSCON speakers pledge not to speak at OSCON if it does not adopt a policy. After working with the Ada Initiative and reading the Geek Feminism Timeline of Incidents, O'Reilly adopts a code of conduct for all their conferences.

June 2012: Michelle Smith proposes that Django community members take a pledge not to attend conferences without a code of conduct. Julia Elman and Paul Smith create the Let's Get Louder web site to collect signatures from the Django and Python community members who "pledge only to attend, speak at, assist, sponsor, or otherwise participate in conferences that publicly promote an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination code of conduct policy." As of August 2013, it has 300 signatures. Mark Lavin also assisted.

November 2012: Remy Sharp creates http://confcodeofconduct.com/, a web site collecting translations of a conference code of conduct based on the Ada Initiative template.

Python Software Foundation logoPython Software Foundation logoDecember 2012: The Python Software Foundation resolves to only fund conferences with a code of conduct in addition to requiring all PSF events to have codes of conduct. This is the first formal announcement of such a standard; many conference organizers report that sponsors have an informal requirement for a code of conduct.

January 2013: The Django Software Foundation follows suit and requires a code of conduct for DSF funded events.

March 2013: A record-setting 20% of attendees and speakers are women at PyCon 2013. While the conference responded quickly to several incidents of harassment, these stories are overwhelmed by the racist, misogynist, and anti-Semitic backlash against Adria Richards after she tweets a photo of two PyCon attendees who were making sexual jokes behind her. Richards' employer fires her after their web site comes under a DDoS attack from people calling for her termination. However, one of the people she reported for harassment is also fired, with hints that this incident was not the only factor in the decision.

Woman smiling with windblown hair

Sarah Sharp

July 2013: Linux kernel developer Sarah Sharp confronts verbal abuse from a powerful Linux community member. Sharp receives widespread support and several major media outlets report on the story.

Current status of anti-harassment campaigns

As you can see, the SF&F, atheist/skeptic, and free and open source software communities have made great progress in fighting sexual harassment and assault at conferences. So what's the big picture for conference anti-harassment campaigns in other communities as of August 2013?

  • Wikipedia and related projects: All Wikimedia Foundation events, including the world-wide Wikimania conference, have anti-harassment policies in place and enforced. Discussion of online behavior standards is in progress (Stage 6-7).
  • Computer security: A few conferences have anti-harassment policies. Raising awareness of the problem of sexual harassment and assault at conferences continues (Stage 3-4).
  • Computer gaming: Some computer game conferences have anti-harassment policies, but booth babes, sexualization of women, and groping remain rampant at most (Stage 3-4).
  • Anime and comics: Some cons have anti-harassment policies, but consent for photography and sexual harassment remain problems at many of cons, especially the larger and more commercial ones (Stage 3-4)

We're not all the way there yet in any of the geek communities we've looked at, but we've come a long way from where we started. If we continue working together to change our communities to be more welcoming to women, we will eventually overcome.

How you can help

CC BY-SA Adam NovakWhether you are the leading novelist in your field, or a lurker on a mailing list, you can take action to stop conference harassment. You can use your words, your influence, your money, and your participation to change the culture in your community.

  • Only attend conferences with (enforced) anti-harassment policies
  • If a conference doesn't have a policy, ask them if they plan to have one
  • Start a pledge to not attend conferences without policies (a la John Scalzi's pledge)
  • Start new conferences if existing ones won't adopt policies
  • If you sponsor events, only sponsor events with policies
  • Publicly support victims of harassment, especially if you are exceptionally influential
  • Publicly support anti-harassment campaigns, especially if you are exceptionally influential
  • Learn more about bystander intervention
  • Buy books from the PC Monsters of Genre
  • Buy Skepchick merchandise
  • Don't buy the works of people who harass or support harassment

You can also donate to support the Ada Initiative, which has been working full-time on ending harassment in open technology and culture communities since January 2011. Our 2013 fundraising campaign ends August 31st. Learn more about our progress so far and our plans for future work in 2013 and 2014.

Donate now


Sources and resources

List of geek conferences that have adopted anti-harassment policies
Resources for reporting sexual harassment in science fiction and fantasy
The Geek Feminism Wiki Timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities
Ada Initiative anti-harassment policy page

Author Jim C. Hines on fighting harassment in SF&F and writing librarian heroes

A black and white photo of Jim C. Hines, smiling with his arms crossedJim C. Hines is the author of several fantasy series. He also posed for a series of gender-flipped book covers, seriously endangering the health of his back. His latest book, Codex Born, is about a secret society of librarian magicians working to save the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @jimchines.

The Ada Initiative asked Jim about why he created a list of resources for reporting harassment in science fiction and fantasy (SF&F), the upsides of being named an official "PC Monster" by disgruntled fans, and why he chose librarians as the heroes of his Magic Ex Libris series.

[Trigger warning: Discussion of reporting sexual harassment and violence]

In 2010, you started collecting and publishing a list of resources for reporting sexual harassment in the science fiction and fantasy community. What inspired you to do this?

I’ve been writing about sexual violence and harassment for a long time, but what triggered that particular blog post was attending [SF&F convention] WorldCon and talking to three different women who mentioned having been harassed by the same editor. These were separate conversations, and I wasn’t actively seeking out stories of harassment.

Basically, that post came about because I was pissed off. I strongly believe everyone gets to make their own choice about reporting, and not having witnessed anything first-hand, I wasn’t in a position to report this guy anyway. But I wanted to do something that might help those who chose to do so.

One of the first things you say in that document is "If you’ve been sexually harassed, it’s your choice whether or not to report that harassment." Why did you emphasize this point?

I emphasized it because so many people seem to not get it. I am so tired of hearing people say, "Well, if you didn't immediately report it to the police, then you have no right to complain about it now" or "You have to report it or else it's your responsibility if he hurts someone else."

Bullshit. The responsibility falls on the person doing the harassment. And there are so many valid reasons someone might choose not to report. Have you seen how our legal system treats victims of sexual violence? I think it takes a great deal of strength and courage to report harassment, and I’m glad when people choose to do so, but the instant we try to take that choice away, we become part of the problem. Instead of trying to force victims to report, maybe we should be working harder to support people who choose to do so, and to address the problems that make reporting so difficult.

One of the reactions to the movement to end sexual harassment in SF&F was the creation of a Twitter account called PC Monsters of the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). Besides creating a handy list of feminist SF&F authors to follow, what other effects did it have?

A green card with a picture of N. K. Jemisin looking at a small green monster, with the text "N. K. Jemisin, PC Monster, Writes amazing, critically acclaimed, award-winning fiction despite being neither white nor male!!! Uses Guest of Honor platform to brainwash audience with her radical-socialist-fascist-PC message of treating all people as human beings. +5 cloak of Not Taking Any of Your Sh*t.

Card for author N. K. Jemisin

Aside from bringing laughter to the folks on the list? I’d say it served as a reminder that there are still some very hateful people in our community. It also prompted someone to create PC Genre Monsters cards for some of the folks on the list, which was tremendous fun.

From what I’ve seen, everyone on that list also got a significant boost in Twitter followers. I think it’s safe to say the original account did not have the effect they intended.

How does your work opposing sexual harassment and assault inform your writing, and vice versa?

I try not to preach or lecture in my fiction. I’m telling a story, and that’s always the priority. With that said, I try to be aware of and avoid the multitude of sexist tropes, clichés, and stereotypes that permeate the genre. I absolutely refuse to use rape as a random plot twist or a way to motivate a female character to go out and seek vengeance. I’ve written about rape in a few of my books, but I try to do so with an understanding of rape and recovery, remembering that rape is traumatic, but it doesn’t define who someone is.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to write different kinds of strong women characters. They may not all be strong enough to go toe-to-toe with a wendigo, but they're all people. They’re not plot devices or rewards for the hero or helpless damsels to be rescued.

Basically, after working against sexual harassment and violence for so long, I’ve come away with the radical notion that women are people, and should be written as such.

What advice would you give to other communities looking to put together a list of resources for reporting sexual harassment?

Reach out to people and ask for help and suggestions. I was amazed at how many publishers responded to my emails asking for contact information. They took it very seriously and seemed to genuinely want to help. They were also able to offer suggestions and information I hadn’t considered.

Also, a project like this will need to be updated. Companies change policies, individuals move from one job to another, and so on. [Editor's note: We created a publicly editable list of contacts on the Geek Feminism Wiki.]

Book cover with the words "Codex Born" and a smiling woman standing straight and holding a sword

Magic! Librarians!

Your new book, Codex Born, features librarian magicians saving the world. What inspired you to write about librarians?

I wanted to write about a character who was passionate about books and magic and genre, one who was well-read, and who would be able to use research and intelligence against the bad guys. Along with laser guns and light-sabers and whatever else he pulls out of his books, I mean.

And also because librarians are just cool. I hung out with some of the library students during grad school, and they were some of my favorite people in the world. Even if they did always whup my ass in Trivial Pursuit.


Do you like attending conferences with anti-harassment policies? The Ada Initiative was a leader in the fight for strong, enforceable anti-harassment policies at geeky conferences. We need your help to keep doing this work! Donate now and support the Ada Initiative's work fighting sexual harassment at conferences and in Wikipedia, fan fiction, and open source software. Our fundraising drive ends August 30th, 2013.

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Rebecca Watson of Skepchick: "Why would you want to hang out with those jerks anyway?"

Rebecca Watson with red hair on a black background

Rebecca Watson of Skepchick

Rebecca Watson is a well-known feminist and skeptic activist, as well as a sought-after public speaker. She leads a team of activists who write for the Skepchick network of blogs, which covers science, skepticism, feminism, atheism, secularism, and pseudoscience. You can watch videos of Watson speaking on YouTube, like this talk about pseudoscience about women, and follow her on Twitter at @rebeccawatson.

We asked Rebecca Watson about how she got started as a public speaker, why she only speaks at events with 35% women speakers and an anti-harassment policy, and what her dream speaking engagement would be.

Q. You are a popular speaker! Tell us a little about how you became a sought-after speaker and what sort of invitations you get.

That one continues to baffle me, actually. It's not something I pursued – I would just deliver a talk whenever someone was nice enough to ask me, and I guess people liked them and invited me to give more. Having a popular blog and podcast helped, too. I enjoy speaking on a variety of topics, so I get invites from skeptic groups, science advocacy groups, atheist groups, and now feminist groups as well. Pretty much everywhere I go, I meet amazing people and have a blast. I'm a very lucky lady.

Q. Popular speakers usually have a list of requirements for speaking at an event (a.k.a. speaker rider). Yours includes two unusual requirements: an anti-harassment policy, and 35% women speakers. Why did you add these?

Anti-harassment policies just make sense. I've heard from many women who have told me they'd feel safer at a conference that has one; the only people I've heard who hate them are the people who harass me online, so it seemed like an easy call. I want to support conferences that are inclusive and welcoming to women and minorities, and that's one very easy way they can do that.

I've also seen that the more women who speak on stage, the more women show up in the audience. People feel more at home when they see people like them in prominent positions. Because the conferences I attend are usually heavily male-dominated, having a minimum of 1/3 female speakers is another easy way that conference organizers can show they place a high value on diversity. 35% is actually ridiculously low considering women are 51% of the population, but then, I've always been pretty easy-going. Despite the rumors. Next year I may up it to 40% and add a "non-white" percentage for fun.

Q. What usually happens when the event inviting you doesn't already have an anti-harassment policy or 35% women speakers?

So far, every conference organizer has leapt at the chance to institute these things. Often it's something they were considering anyway, but maybe they needed a little push and a little help. I offer to help them (or find them someone more qualified to help them) if they need. I have a thick Rolodex (not actually a thing anymore) full of smart, funny, entertaining women who can sell tickets so it hasn't been an issue.

Q. How has your speaking career changed since you added those riders? Do you think it has hurt or helped you professionally and/or personally?

It doesn't appear to have changed at all, actually, except for that it's a bit more satisfying to know for sure that I'm supporting the right organizations. Only one organization has not responded after I sent them my rider, and they ended up canceling their event, anyway. It's possible I destroyed their event with my mind powers (but not likely).

I knew it was possible people would stop inviting me places because of it, but I figured then I'd have more time for video games.

Q. What is your dream speaking engagement?

I like speaking in pubs, because everyone is relaxed and there's beer. So I suppose my dream speaking engagement would be on a panel with Hillary Clinton, Lucy Lawless, and Amy Poehler, in a pub full of sloths, and also we're on a spaceship.

Q. What advice would you give to other pro-women folks who speak at events regularly?

If you're speaking at the right events, then the organizers care about diversity and reaching out to new audiences. Don't be shy about asking them to find a good representation of women and minorities, and offer to help if you can. If you're a man, you could refuse to speak on a panel that doesn't have a woman on it. The worst that can happen is that you get disinvited, at which point just imagine what your mom would say: "Why would you want to hang out with those jerks anyway?"

Like this interview? Read more of Rebecca Watson's writing at the Skepchick blog.

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.

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.