Conference anti-harassment work in skeptic communities, 2014 edition: more victims speak out as the world takes notice

[Trigger warning for sexual harassment and assault]

It’s been another difficult year for opponents of sexual harassment and assault in the skeptic community and related communities such as atheism and science, as prominent figures accused of harassment and assault continued to be celebrated and defended by some of the community. However, signs of change continue, with others speaking up publicly about their own and their colleagues’ experiences of harassment and assault.

Keep reading for our updated history of conference anti-harassment work in the skeptic community (with some related events from the science blogging community), adding the events from October 2013 to September 2014. Part of anti-harassment work is giving credit where credit is due, so we hope you take a minute to read through and honor the many different voices that have worked hard to make skepticism more welcoming, sometimes without recognition or fanfare for years. This entire post is licensed CC BY-SA the Ada Initiative – please feel free to reuse and remix according to the terms of the license!

Remember: Conference anti-harassment campaigns do work – they “just” take several years of dedicated effort to succeed.

Table of contents

  1. About the authors
  2. Summary of the skeptic anti-harassment campaign
  3. Detailed timeline (skip to the updates)
  4. What’s changed in 2014
  5. How you can help
  6. 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 advocating full-time for the adoption of policies in the open source community, often working directly with conference organizers and community leaders as advisors and coaches.

If you find our work inspiring, we hope you will join skeptics in supporting the Ada Initiative’s anti-harassment work. We can only do this work with the support of people like you!

Donate now

Summary 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 2014, 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. Some harassers and assaulters have lost their jobs and positions of power. 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 or begun legal action against those reporting them.

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 September 2014).

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.)

Dr. Pamela Gay gives a talk, Make the World Better, at TAM calling for skeptics to fight harassment in their community, and describing harassment she had personally experienced, although without naming the perpetrator.

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 was harassed and threatened for months for publicly reporting her attack.

August 2013: Ian Murphy, Dr. Karen Stollznow, Carry Poppy, PZ MyersJason Thibeault, and many more begin naming names of specific serial sexual assaulters and harassers in the atheist/skeptic community. Jason Thibeault (@lousycanuck) 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, Michael Shermer. 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.

Smiling woman with glasses

Dr. Danielle Lee

October 2013: In the related science-blogging community, biologist Dr. Danielle Lee (@dnlee5) describes being called an “urban whore” in a blog post hosted on Scientific American. Scientific American removes the blog post and eventually reinstated it.

Following discussion about the Scientific American blog takedown, Monica Byrne then names a science editor she had described in 2012 as approaching her for sex inappropriately: Bora Zivkovic, then-Blogs Editor for Scientific American. Zivkovic apologises for his behavior to Byrne, but other women describe similar experiences. Zivkovic then resigns from Scientific American and Science Online, and Science Online states he will not attend their events in 2014. The #RipplesOfDoubt discussion arises from this incident.

November 2013: In response to #RipplesOfDoubt, Dr. Pamela Gay publicly describes the fallout from her TAM 2012 talk, including threats to her career.

January 2014: Bora Zivkovic publishes a (since deleted) New Year blog post asking how he can prove himself trustworthy. Science Online co-founder and board member Anton Zuiker publishes a long article calling for the online community to forgive Zivkovic, including a discussion of an unrelated false rape accusation. Two days later, the board of Science Online states that Zuiker has been asked to not comment further on Zivkovic.

February 2014: Ben Radford files suit against Karen Stollznow, and posts about false accusations on the Centre For Inquiry’s blog.

March 2014: Radford posts a statement to his Facebook wall, an apparent retraction of Stollznow’s allegations of harassment. allegedly co-signed by her. Stollznow categorically denies agreeing to it or signing it; Stollznow’s husband Michael Baxter states that he had worked on a joint statement draft with Radford or his representatives but that it had not been finalized nor had she agreed to it. Stollznow raises $60,000 on Indiegogo for her defense fund. Jason Thibeault creates a timeline of the statements released by different parties.

Woman's portrait

Janet Stemwedel

Back in the science-blogging community, Dr. Janet Stemwedel (@docfreeride) publishes a report-out from an impromptu gathering of people at the ScienceOnline Together conference concerned about the ScienceOnline board’s handling of violations of its anti-harassment policies.

May 2014: Dr. Pamela Gay describes the assault she experienced in 2008 and alluded to in her TAM 2012 talk and her November 2013 blog post and subsequent communication from her assailant.

September 2014: Mark Oppenheimer’s Buzzfeed piece Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement? is published, documenting harassment and assault of several women in the skeptic and athiest communities, including several not-previously described accusations, particularly about Michael Shermer. Jason Thibeault releases an updated timeline of harassment and sexual assault allegations in the skeptic community, including several women who allege Shermer harassed or assaulted them.

Adam Lee (@DaylightAtheism) publishes a post in which Dr. Pamela Gay goes on record as saying that D. J. Grothe is the person who originally intervened when she was sexually harassed but later pressured her into silence.

What’s changed in 2014

The rumbles and cracks that grew around sexual harassment and assault in 2013 continued to grow in 2014, with a growing part of the community no longer willing to be silent about their own experiences and those that their colleagues and friends reveal. The unhealthy parts of the culture of the skeptic community have begun to attract mainstream attention. But powerful people within the community are accustomed to its norms and keen to defend them through silencing their victims with professional and legal consequences. Much more support is needed for those speaking up, from individual support through to institutional reform that protects them from reprisals.

How you can help

Two women smiling

Sarah Sharp and Sumana Harihareswara, CC BY-SA Jenna Saint Martin Photo

Whether 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 cons without policies
  • 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
  • Exclude well-known harassers from your events and let them know why
  • Educate yourself on responding to harassment, especially if you are a con organizer
  • Learn more about bystander intervention
  • Don’t promote the work 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 2014 fundraising campaign ends October 8th. Learn more about our progress so far and our plans for future work in 2014 and 2015.

Donate now

Sources and resources

List of geek conferences that have adopted anti-harassment policies
The Geek Feminism Wiki Timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities
Ada Initiative anti-harassment policy page