American Atheists Want People to Have Sex at Their Conferences

How do I know this? Dave Silverman just told me so on a conference call. “I want people to have sex at our conferences.”  This was also the conference call on which he said, “I am emphatically intolerant of harassment.”

I endorse both these statements, and I think American Atheists have done a great job of putting together a policy that is, as Dave described it, “sex-positive and harassment-negative”.

Dave was one of the first people to commit to getting a policy in place. He volunteered the information that AA would be adopting a policy within hours of the suggestion being made and without being specifically contacted on the topic. As he explained on the call, AA had already been looking at policies because there was a report of a problem at the end of the last conference. There wasn’t a process in place then to deal with it, and Dave didn’t want to be caught unprepared again. I offer big kudos to him and to AA for being proactive about this.

The majority of the call was handled by Amanda Knief, American Atheists’ Administrative Director. She’s also a lawyer, so she was prepared to respond to questions and suggestions on the spot, which she did. 

The result is a document that is an excellent starting place. It is based on the policies from the Geek Feminism Wiki, the OpenSF conference, the National Organization of Women, and the ACLU. These documents were used because AA liked their positive policy statements. This is what we expect. These are the people we want to feel welcome. This is what will happen if someone does not respect your limits at our conference.

This policy also goes well beyond dealing with sexual harassment. It deals with the accomodations AA makes for people with disabilities. It commits to making these conferences family friendly. It reminds people to turn off their cell phones. It is, in fact, a comprehensive code of conduct for an open, welcoming conference. It should go a long way toward Dave’s goal of making AA’s conferences “happy, safe, and informative”.

It is meant to be a living document, with updates made as AA has conferences. It will be adjusted as necessary after the regional conference here in Minnesota in August. It will be adjusted as necessary after the regional conference in October (which location I missed and can’t immediately find). It will be adjusted as necessary after the national conference in March.

This document will be easy to find. It will be:

  • Posted on the AA website today.
  • Touted by press release in the next day or two.
  • Posted on each individual conference website.
  • Sent to speakers. (I presume this will apply to vendors as well, though I didn’t think to confirm it on the call.)
  • Printed in the program in at least a condensed form with a link to the full online version.
  • Discussed in the opening of each conference.

There will also be training that goes with this policy. AA staff will receive training on sexual harassment from the same people who train government employees. This training will be adapted for conference volunteers, and Amanda herself will train them. She will also be the person responsible for collecting reports of harassment, although Dave will have the ultimate call on what happens with any individual reports. Additionally, AA is working to identify ways to have victim advocates available to the participants at any individual conference.

I will update this post to link to the policy once it’s in place, but for now, you can see it at Jason’s. He also has some excellent news on progress on the TAM harassment policy. It’s very good to see JREF both taking this seriously and communicating about that publicly. Kudos to D.J.

Update: The policy is posted!

American Atheists Want People to Have Sex at Their Conferences

32 thoughts on “American Atheists Want People to Have Sex at Their Conferences

  1. 2

    CFI has also created a harassment policy for conferences. The abridged version was included in the program for the Leadership Conference this weekend and we were told that the full version will be online within the next few days.

  2. 3

    Excellent. I knew CFI had a policy coming. I wasn’t sure when anyone would be ready to talk about it publicly. I’m looking forward to seeing it. Thanks, Simon!

  3. 4

    October is in Kansas City, I believe. Missed whether that’s MO or KS.

    Your writeup kicked my writeup’s ass. 😉 Love it, and love love love American Atheists!

  4. 6

    Heh. I’d been concerned that all people were going to hear on the call was my pencil scratching away.

    Also, Dana, you included things I didn’t, so…nyah. Or something. 🙂

  5. 8

    The problem is that, by making it obvious that having a sensible policy is both easy and a good thing, this move makes the TAM organisers look terrible; ergo this policy is horrifyingly discriminatory against TAM organisers, and constitutes bullying against misogynists, creeps and gropers; ergo nobody is allowed to adopt this policy.

    I hope that’s /snark, but I fully expect to see this argument made seriously.

  6. TK

    People taking needed action and making changes based on real, rational concerns from members f their community. Go atheism!

  7. 10

    Sawells, I hope that part about making the TAM organizers look bad is snark as well, considering that they had a sexual harassment policy last year.

  8. 14

    I love it that these documents are being produced so fast and so publicly.
    But these documents are the portion of the policy applying to the public. I would also like to see the policy document for the staff, detailing things like what is recorded when someone makes a harassment complaint. What are the possible consequences for the person accused of harassment etc.
    I myself am a member of a rather new group in the Netherlands, and I’d like them to adopt a policy as soon as possible. Having a good template not just to present to the public but also for the organisation would be great!

  9. 15

    It’s weird to me that anyone would think a harassment policy would prevent you from having sex. If you need to harass someone in order to get them to sleep with you, you have crossed the line, and shouldn’t be allowed into conferences.

    This is all such a no brainer I have to force myself to acknowledge that people actually oppose this.

  10. 16

    @Gretchen: TAM had a policy last year, but JREF has been actively denying the need for such policies for the last month month while American Atheists has been writing one and multiple other organizations have put theirs in place. Only this week did TAM publicly state that “The safety of our attendees and speakers is a priority” on the FAQ, and even then they have failed to have a real policy, just a general statement of wanting attendees to be safe within the conference area and complain if they “encounter a problem.” If I was them, I’d be supremely embarrassed.

  11. 18

    I think the policy (like the several others from other organizations that have been made public) is overall very good, but I think the decision to list “religion” in the following paragraph is a fairly bad one:

    American Atheists does not tolerate harassment of or by conference participants, speakers, exhibitors, volunteers, or staff in any form. Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

    (Emphasis added.)

    I’m strongly in favor of AA and any other similar organization taking very seriously claims of harassment based on “offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, … sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.” But taking equally seriously claims of harassment based on offensive verbal comments related to religion seems to me a per se bad idea, not to mention incompatible with what American Atheists presumably wants to go on at its conferences.

    As far as I can tell, the only way for AA to operate under the above policy without cutting the heart out of its message is to treat reports under the policy that are based on religious offense totally differently than one treats reports based on all of the other listed varieties of offense. Which seems to me disingenuous and hypocritical.

    Harassment based on gender, sexual orientation, and the other non-religion characteristics listed in the policy is a major issue that must needs be treated carefully and seriously. “Harassment” based on offense to religion (see, for example, Gelatogate) is not. It seems to me that the AA policy should recognize this (at least tacitly, by omitting “religion”) rather than misleading readers… or sacrificing AA’s out-and-proud gnuishness, which it seems to me an evenhanded application of the above policy would require. (Actually, as numerous folks on the atheist blogosphere have pointed out, there’s really no lower bound to how inoffensive a atheist’s public statement could be and still elicit cries of “offense to religion” from the theocratic set—so the above policy, applied evenhandedly, might well force AA to close up shop entirely.)

    I’d replace the above paragraph with the following very similar one (I also made some anal-retentive punctuation changes):

    American Atheists does not tolerate harassment of or by conference participants, speakers, exhibitors, volunteers, or staff in any form. Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, or race; sexual images in public spaces; deliberate intimidation; stalking; following; harassing photography or recording; sustained disruption of talks or other events; inappropriate physical contact; and unwelcome sexual attention.

  12. 19

    Ben Zvan said:

    @Gretchen: TAM had a policy last year, but JREF has been actively denying the need for such policies for the last month

    Can you quote an instance of a JREF representative doing such? I’ve been following this entire issue quite intently and haven’t seen that happen.

  13. 20

    Sure Gretchen,

    Here’s a fellow named DJ Grothe, who is the current president of JREF and who I feel is appropriate to refer to as a representative of the organization in that capacity as president.

    In the linked comment he states that “there have been zero reports of such harassment at the TAMs I’ve been a part of” (which has been demonstrated false), and that “So much of that feels to me more like rumor and distasteful locker room banter, often pretty mean-spirited, especially when it is from just one or a few women recounting sexual exploits they’ve had with speakers who are eventually deemed as “skeezy,” and whom they feel should be not allowed to speak at such conferences going forward.” which is a clear statement that he feels such policies would be abused if in place.

  14. 21


    I agree there is a problem but I don’t think the solution is taking out “religion” – although it should be changed to “religious, philosophical or political identity” to differentiate attacking religious people from attacking religion.

    “Gender” is not encompassing enough. It should be “gender, sex, gender identity, gender expression” – or just “gender identity, gender expression” since you have physical appearance already in there to cover apparent sex and cis-gender people have gender identities too 🙂

    For example ZJ who was originally assigned male (at least at one point) did not identify strongly as female, but still had a feminine gender expression. She also didn’t identify as transgender and I have no idea if she does now or not. At ANY rate – she endured a great deal of personal and internet harassment for her gender expression, not her gender identity.

    I think the term “offensive” is extremely problematic and they should consider using the term “abusive” – to make sure nobody gets the false impression that they have the right not to be offended.

    You have the right not to be abused – and I think reasonable people can tell the difference.

    For example – I can be offended that someone openly states that there is no such thing as “triggering” and that is not harassment. What the “Amazing Atheist” did to attempt to prove a point supporting that stance was clearly abusive – not just offensive.

    I don’t think religion should be taken out. Religious people should feel safe at conferences. Nobody should be yelling BABY MUTILATOR! at Jews or WOMAN HATER! at Catholics. However, if people bring those subjects up in talks or conversations and those people are offended – tough.

  15. 23

    They also might want to include an “is not limited to” to address any exceptionally creative form of harassment someone might invent. It does say, “in any form” before the examples – but it’s generally a good idea not to create a list that can be implied as being all-inclusive because some jerk is going to attempt to justify hir bad behavior by pointing to it not being on the list.

  16. 24

    On second thought – “religious, philosophical or political identity”

    “Affiliation” might work better.

    “past or present religious, philosophical or political affiliation”

    I don’t know.

    Oh yeah – and where in the world is “age”, “ethnicity”, “veterans status” and “national origin” – it’s like they haven’t written an anti-discrimination policy before! HA!

  17. 26

    Gretchen: you are having a reality comprehension fail.

    If someone says they’re a vegetarian, you don’t put meat on their salad. If someone says the problem isn’t harassment, it’s people talking about harassment, they’re not calling for an anti-harassment policy.

  18. 27

    One thing about rules, it allows for people to look for loopholes in the rules. And that can happen now. Which can lead to tighter controls to combat the problem.

    I ask my 70+ year old mother how she would have dealt with sexual harassment, and she replied that she would tell the person doing it that it offends her and to stop. If the person did not, then she would leave and report it to the authorities and get a case number to follow up on. But then that is “old school” I guess.

  19. 28

    70 years ago the authorities would probably have told her to be flattered. Putting guidelines in place sets expectations things like that won’t happen.

  20. 31

    There is a concept in education – only understood if already known. We have a tendency to assume that other people are on the same page as us – when sometimes they really aren’t.

    I might assume that hanging out on facebook during class is rude, and that everyone of my students with any sense at all would know that. However, they don’t.

    If I take the time to say – “Don’t hang out on facebook during class because it’s disrespectful and distracting to other students.” Then they know.

    It’s not making up NEW rules – it’s making the ones that most people already ASSUME to be common standards of civility and respect for others (NOT their opinions, but THEM as people), explicit.

    In doing so, you protect the rights of everyone. Having written rules is not always MORE restrictive than not having them – as the “authority” is not always the ones doing the infringing.

  21. 32

    […] been emphatic they have no problem with mutually consensual hookups. Dave Silverman even said ‘I want people to have sex at our conferences’, when he introduced AA’s harassment policy. If in your words people find that fun, no one’s […]

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