How Not to Handle Harassment

D.J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, has a disaster on his hands. It didn’t have to be. There is a sentence he could have said at the very beginning, when folks were talking about the need for good, solid harassment policies at conventions and conferences. He could have said, “JREF takes harassment very seriously, and we will ensure a strong policy is in place to ensure speakers and guests are safe at TAM.” Then all he needed to do was to make sure an excellent policy was prominently posted, complete with reporting and enforcement procedures. Had he done so, two prominent women in the skeptical movement would not have withdrawn from TAM due to issues with his handling of harassment and threats.

This was never about TAM until he chose a different route. He chose to make it all about TAM. Those who already know the sordid history can skip this next bit, unless they wish to see D.J.’s spectacular fuck-up once again.

Observe this Facebook thread, wherein the possibility of a panel at TAM on sexual harassment was raised, and he responded thusly: “Hi Sophie, sounds like an interesting topic. But as you guessed, it is too late to add a panel to this year’s show. (The program is largely set many months out.) Also, I tend to agree with Barb that the topic seems sort of unrelated to JREF’s mission and the focus of TAM, scientific skepticism. Do you aim to debunk junk science in the field of sexual harassment or merely to educate folks and raise their awareness about the important topic?”

Please do take especial note of that “merely.” The hastily-appended “important” doesn’t balance it. “Mere” education and consciousness raising about the harassment and harm women endure has no place in D.J.’s organization.

Downstream in the thread, he says this:

“Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.) We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking, and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.”

The amount of fail contained herein is unbelievable for the president of any organization, much less the flagship skeptic’s organization. And he piled fail upon fail. When you claim there were “no reports of such harassment,” yet you were the one personally throwing out at least one harasser, and you blame your falling numbers on the women who speak of TAM like it’s some sort of skeptic mecca while they raise funds for more women to attend, you are telling women that for all you may claim you give a shit about them, in reality, you don’t give a shit about them. Neither does the organization you lead.

And when your immediate response to the news that one of your speakers is withdrawing due to threats is, basically, “meh, that’s too bad,” no subsequent response will be adequate to preserve the tattered remains of your organization’s reputation. Not now. Not until after a very long, sustained, and strong commitment to fixing all the shit you fucked up in the first place. Only time will tell whether the damage is too severe for even those measures to work, assuming D.J. and the JREF care enough to try. Nothing I’ve seen from them so far leads me to believe they will make more than a token effort, wrapped in a few pretty words that manage, once again, to blame women for the problems they face.

I’ve seen in many comments threads resulting from Ophelia’s announcement that, due to threats, she would not be attending TAM, variations on the following question: “How are those threats TAM’s fault?”

They are the fault of the person who made said threats, of course. But D.J. created an environment in which such threats could not be reasonably expected to be taken at all seriously by anyone associated with TAM. This is the extent of any policy they have to deal with issues such as this:

Registration Policies

Prices are subject to change without notice. Refund policy: 50% of charged amount will be refunded if canceled by June 15, 2012. Audio/Visual Recording for personal use only. We reserve the right to refuse entry to anyone. Disruptive individuals will be asked to leave. Questions? Email [email protected].

There is no harassment policy visible on their site. There is nothing spelling out how harassment will be handled, other than that “disruptive individuals will be asked to leave.” There is nothing explaining how and to whom incidents should be reported, what steps will be taken to ensure the comfort and security of attendees. No zero tolerance emphasized for threats or predation. And after watching D.J.’s demonizing performance over the past few weeks, after hearing nothing but thundering silence from the JREF board, after the viciousness displayed by supporters, after no policy other than those two pathetic sentences has been proffered when people have asked, “Where is TAM’s harassment policy? How will it address the obvious gaps in reporting and management that previous incidents at TAM revealed?” how can any person with two functional brain cells to their name possibly ask what responsibility TAM has for some of its speakers not feeling safe?

Conferences have a responsibility for the safety and security of their attendees. Good conferences take threats extremely seriously. They do not begin by creating an environment in which previous harassment is denied, and hence signaling to harassers that few, if any consequences will be faced. They do not achieve safety and security by creating the impression that victims are on their own, aside from hotel security, if they can even interest security in the situation in the first place. TAM did nothing to make a reasonable person believe they would do a damned thing to protect their guests. Why should their speakers expect more?

Tomorrow, realizing that a mild expression of regret is not the appropriate response to a speaker who is withdrawing because of threats, some JREF officials may decide to belatedly ask what they can do, and offer heightened security. That will be too little, too late. The immediate response to someone reporting that they have been threatened with harm if they attend is to do everything possible to mitigate the hazard and assure the world at large that threats are taken with utmost seriousness. Doing that later, when people have formed the opinion that TAM just doesn’t give a shit about women, gives the impression that it is reputation, not safety, that is foremost in their minds.

And if TAM treats its speakers with this kind of blatant disregard, what should I, as a mere female attendee, expect? I can tell you this: although I know many people who went to previous TAMs and had the best time of their lives, I won’t be going. Not now. Not since virtual carte blanche has been given to those who harass and those who harm. I can see for whom the green light shines. It isn’t shining on people who wish not to be harassed.

When your numbers drop to single digits, D.J., and you go searching for blame, you have only to turn to your mirror.



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How Not to Handle Harassment
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44 thoughts on “How Not to Handle Harassment

  1. 1

    “…the topic seems sort of unrelated to JREF’s mission and the focus of TAM, scientific skepticism.”

    It has always struck me as kind of strange that skeptics and rationalists seem to miss the connection between (a) rational, skeptical thinking and (b) identifying and describing abusive behavior, be that verbal or physical.

    Abuse often involves twisty logic at some point (the classic being “she was askin’ for it”, of course, but there are many more), and you’d think logicians and chronic debaters would enjoy honing their skills for a good cause while generally raising the level of rationality in the world.

    I guess some do, and some… have a non-inclusive agenda, perhaps.

  2. 2

    Yeah, DJ really fucked the dog on this one. What could have been an opportunity to hold aloft the anti-harassment policy they instituted last year (with needed improvements, of course) has been turned into a cataclysmic event. By blaming “teh feminazis” and lieing about the incidents that have happened he’s made the priorities of JREF all too clear (as if Penn Jillette needed help).

    TAM is not a safe space for women, it is a meat market where you should “expect to be hit on”. Well fuck that. We’re (meaning the progressisve, humanist atheist community) better than that and we don’t need this Rich Old White Man horseshit. There are plenty of other conferences nowadays and there is zero reason to support this org unless and until we see evidence of positive change.

  3. 3

    It didn’t have to be. There is a sentence he could have said at the very beginning, when folks were talking about the need for good, solid harassment policies at conventions and conferences.

    Indeed. And people all over the blogosphere have been trying to feed DJ other lines to minimize the damage ever since. It’s interesting that he’s ignored them at every turn.

    One small request: could you change the long quote from DJ in the fifth paragraph into a <blockquote>? I think it would read a little bit easier that way (especially for those of us who have seen the original quote and may want to skim/skip it).

  4. 4

    I’ve said it on other blogs and I’ll say it here again: What DJ seems to be missing is the fact that harrassment doesn’t scare off attendees who belong to groups often targeted by harrassment. Those of us who deal with harrassment on a regular basis (trans* folk, gay people, lesbian people, bisexual people, women, etc) generally accept the reality of harrassment as a chronic problem pretty much everywhere we go.

    What would scare many of us off is an environment that is hostile, apathetic, unsupportive, and/or dismissive of victims. And I’d say that DJ is doing a damn good job of making TAM seem like it’s got 4 for 4.

  5. 5

    Abuse often involves twisty logic at some point

    Not to mention, it’s more likely that people will speak their minds when they don’t feel as though they’re surrounded by obnoxious and thoughtless people.

  6. 6

    I think JREF is flirting with becoming a place where only the obnoxious and supremely self-confident go. People who are abusive don’t typically confine that abuse to one gender. They’ll do it to anyone who they think will let them get away with it.

    As someone who is not comfortable with crowds anyway, the likelihood of having to deal with abusive behavior makes a big meeting like TAM even less attractive. Refusing to either put a policy in place for this sort of behavior, or at least have a respectful discussion about it, tells me that it will be more likely in the future, not less.

  7. 7

    Good post Dana; and don’t hesitate to speak out. I love your UFD’s, rocks, and flowers; but they’re small potatoes in the big scheme of things.

    I’ve been following the issue with some sadness since it started. I became a big fan of Randi and the JREF about 10 years ago and joined the JREF forum. About seven years ago I fled (although I think my account’s still valid) and found a safer place to hang out. The place was just too hostile for me. Kind of like Pharyngula, where I not only don’t comment but rarely even read the comments. I’ve occasionally thought it would be cool to go to TAM, even though it’s in Vegas, which I loath despite never having been there. Sounds like it’s pretty much on a par with the forums these days.

  8. 9

    Doing that later, when people have formed the opinion that TAM just doesn’t give a shit about women, gives the impression that it is reputation, not safety, that is foremost in their minds.

    I got the impression some time ago, long before Ophelia pulled out, that DJ was more interested in TAM’s reputation and safety was a very secondary consideration. When he identified a problem with women not signing up for TAM, DJ wasn’t trying to fix the problem, he was trying to place the blame. Later it was determined that DJ had been less than honest about reports of harassment at TAM. Instead of “oops, my bad, I mispoke” he was pointing fingers randomly towards the blogosphere.

    DJ Grothe has, almost singlehanded, managed to piss off and alienate large numbers of people who might be interested in going to TAM. But he’s not stupid. So I have to conclude that he’s doing this deliberately. I just don’t know why.

  9. 10

    I’d actually never read the Grothe’s very first comment which you quote here.

    Also, I tend to agree with Barb that the topic seems sort of unrelated to JREF’s mission and the focus of TAM, scientific skepticism. Do you aim to debunk junk science in the field of sexual harassment or merely to educate folks and raise their awareness about the important topic?

    Frankly, I think this is worse than all the subsequent responses and lack of responses combined. This is the true, honest opinion of Grothe, and, by extension, JREF itself. I read this as “Women can go fuck themselves or get raped or harassed or stalked or whatever, we don’t give a shit. It may be an (ahem) “important” topic out there beyond TAM’s pristine Walls of Scientific Skepticism but in here, all we want to do is gaze at our navels and think about how there’s no credible evidence for bigfoot in there.”

    I don’t care what they do in the future, I will never give JREF a cent and I will never attend any of their events.

  10. 11

    I wandered over here to FtB when a “little birdie” told me that I needed to do some feministing in support of my fellow atheist/skeptic “sisters” who were being blamed for TAM registration declines and who were accused by MRA/PUA drama queens of launching a “witch hunt” — to which I posted a scolding response on Jason Thibeault’s blog which he put up as a stand-alone blog piece.

    Of course, it was over the next 48 hours thereafter that the Great Penis Debate was broadcast via Google podcast where these guys showed their asses for the whole world to see them as they really are: vile, rape apologist, mansplaining, misogynistic alpha dipshits and they just kept digging their own holes deeper on the FtB posts thereafter.

    And I thought the Vatican had problems washing its dirty underwear in public, but these guys (Emery, Wendell, BJ Kramer, Travis Roy, and Mallorie Nasrallah and Sara Mayhew) really take the cake.

    So after yet another woman has been targeted for threats and harassing emails (Ophelia Benson) and decided to bow out of TAM, I decided to put my unembedded/freelance investigative journalism hat on and call DJ Grothe myself to ask him point blank what the hell is going on with him, JREF, TAM and these accusations against the women that had been JREF’s and TAM’s biggest cheerleaders (until the shit hit the fan with this fiasco). I got his answering machine and within 10 minutes he called me from his cell phone and promised to call me back when he returned to his office within 15 minutes. He never called me back. Instead, I got this email on Facebook from Carrie Poppy:

    Hi Jacqueline,

    My name is Carrie and I am the Communications Director for the JREF. I understand you called our president to request an interview today. I apologize that you didn’t hear back from us sooner. Unfortunately, DJ has been tied up with urgent TAM meetings and preparations, and isn’t able to call you back today. If you have any specific questions, would you email them to us? I will make sure you get a response quickly. My email address is [email protected], and DJ’s is [email protected].

    Thanks so much, Jacqueline, and sorry again for the delayed response.


    So I will be emailing those tough “specific” questions I planned on asking DJ on the phone and share the answers with you, Stephanie, Ophelia, and the rest of FtB’s readership because I think people deserve to know the truth, not just a polite kiss-off answer. I can already guess what the response will be.

  11. 12

    Jacqueline… I look forward to the responses.

    I’ve been following the issue myself, and although I’ve been having a mental back-and-forth, I’m just sick and tired of it all. Sick and tired of the bullshit from DJ Grothe, TAM, and their supporters, sick and tired of the explaining away of harassment… it’s annoying. It’s pathetic. It’s wrong.

    I love how TAM supporter and slimepit denizens are calling the FTB’er and feminists reporting on this stuff “bullies”. I’ve seen bullies… I spent a good 9 years of my life as a bully-target. I know what it looks like… so I know which side are the bullies, and it ain’t the FTB’ers and feminists.

    On a different note… can someone please explain to me how to subscribe to a specific FTB blogger without posting a comment on one of their posts?


  12. 13

    Interesting. I guess we’ll get to see what kind of communications director they’ve hired.

    I’m probably reading too much into this, but from your account I’m getting a mental picture of DJ running the idea of a phone interview past his new communications director and her going “For the love of god, NO! You’ve done enough. Shut up and let me handle this.”

  13. 17

    Your wish is my command. That was a bit of a verbose quote.

    As for what DJ’s thinking, I cannot speculate. I can only slam my forehead into the nearest hard surface until one sort of pain trumps another.

  14. 20

    Thank you, my dear! I’ll work the occasional UFD in, though. We all need sanity breaks. And we must still have our fun. My dad taught me a person doesn’t have to give up fun whilst doing important things. ;-)

    I dipped in to the JREF forums. They have some remarkably dense people there. Also one or two embattled feminists trying to hold their own, which made it tolerable, but the fools outnumber them by far.

  15. 21

    If JREF doesn’t end up with a new president soon, that will speak volumes to me. DJ’s had a long and storied history of really wedging his foot in and trying to follow with the whole leg…

  16. 22

    I’d not read it before last night. Fair made my jaw drop, that did. Here I was looking for context that might paint him in a more flattering light, by way of being fair. Whoops.

  17. 23

    You. Are. Glorious. People with larger platforms than mine will be offering you space to publish the result, no doubt, but I will amplify. Good luck!

  18. 25

    That made me lol. I think you’re probably right. I know she accepted that job of her own free will, and from what I’ve heard she’s tough, but I can’t help but feel for her…

  19. 28

    Thanks (for fixing the quote, not for slamming your head against hard surfaces – I’m not sure that’s healthy).

  20. 30

    He (and his fellows) don’t think they’re ruining TAM. That’s the whole point. They think they’re saving TAM. Complaints of harassment and whinging women are distracting and averse to TAM’s True Mission. The answer is to alienate anyone who thinks being harassed is a problem.

    If you’re a girl, expect to be hit on. Now that that’s taken care of, let’s talk about the Loch Ness monster.

  21. 31

    We already know the truth. And I imagine what you’ll get back from e-mailed questions is polite and very concerned spin. I’m still curious, but everything Grothe or his communications director can say at this point will come across as at best disingenuous or at worst doubling down.

  22. 33


    We don’t expect to be safe from harrassment at TAM.

    But we do expect to be safe from having to deal with the consequences of harrassment at TAM.

  23. 34

    I don’t think I’ve commented here before – so this will probably be modded (Hi Dana, been reading off and on for some time).

    I must admit I haven’t got any first-hand knowledge of TAM/JREF, but my impression is that the organization is pretty much the old guard of scepticism.

    The old male guard to be precise.

    So I suspect within the woodwork there’s a lot of old guys who either have no interests in women in public fora and tries to ignore them most of the time (picture a caricature of the Victorian scientist type) or rampant misogynist with a black belt in cognitive dissonance (Case study: Penn Jillette).

    I think much of DJs behaviour can be explained by either:
    a) Pandering to those types, or
    b) Identification with those types.

  24. 35

    The previous president of the JREF was Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer. I keep wondering how he’d have handled this, and hoping he’ll post something on his blog. He hasn’t, so far. He quit the JREF job to do a (failed) astronomy show on the Discovery Channel.

  25. 37

    If by subscribe you mean to the RSS feed, what I’ve found is that if you click the RSS button at the top and it doesn’t take you to the standard “how do you wish to subscribe” page (ie where I put in Google Reader)…if you instead right click on the orange RSS button and copy the link, you can then go paste that in your RSS reader of choice’s subscribe area and it should add it in. Hope this helps :)

    And Dana, this is another very great and thoughtful response…I’m getting to the point of having too many FTB posts open to refresh and see the comments it’s bogging down my system…but I’ve learned so much from every post I can’t help it. Still clueless white male, but getting more and more of a clue as time goes on I hope :)

  26. 38

    I’ve been waiting to see some response from Phil as well, but it may be that he’s trying to keep himself out of it because he really ISN’T in the leadership role for JREF he was, and anything he says now may be misconstrued. If he sides with JREF, how much respect does he lose from the group that can see who the real bullies are…and on the other side, if he sides against the JREF he can be seen as second guessing the current person in charge and get negative publicity that way. Since we haven’t heard from him yet, my guess is he’s hoping something gets resolved soon that he can support without getting anyone mad at him personally…but that’s about the best I can come up with.

  27. 39

    Gnumann, If one is in the same room with someone like Eugenie Scott, Rebecca Watson, our Dana, Ophelia Benson, (and so forth for hours) AND Penn Jillette, one will only hear the opinion of Penn Jillette.

    Even his partner stopped trying to speak up. /snark

  28. 40

    I don’t think they ARE logical. Or even skeptical.

    I think they believe what they believe and like feeling smarter than the dumb religious people or the dummies who believe in Bigfoot, so they created an organization where they could get together and revel in their alleged brilliance. And giggle about boobies.

  29. 41

    That’s sort of the mind-boggling part, though–if you’re a girl, expect to be hit on. Fine. But then, why snivel about the fact that girls aren’t showing up because they don’t want to be hit on?

    Sooooo confused. There is no logic there. Again, this lends credence to my theory that they are NOT skeptics, not logical, nor even rational. Merely a bunch of old white guys who like to laugh at the dumb religious nuts (and would love the chance to get a little strange while the wives think they’re just away for a weekend pontificating about Nessie).

  30. 42


    I just want to thank you for one of the clearest and most level headed analyses I’ve seen yet of this whole mess. I also can’t help but notice the lack of derailment and vituperation we’ve seen everywhere else this has been discussed. I wonder; Is this due to your moderation and comments policy? Is everyone just worn out? Of course I like to think you are just that much of a writing ninja ;-)

  31. 43

    I’m sorry I couldn’t keep up with the personal responses. Those who’ve been around know I usually don’t jump in to threads anyway, although I do read each and every comment. I want all of you to know how amazingly fucking awesome you are. I’ve seen the shit other bloggers have to put up with, and I was prepared for it. What I wasn’t prepared for was you. Wise, and insightful, and frequently funny, and supportive of each other, far more interested in building up than tearing down – I feel like I’m looking at our future, and I love it.

    Emptyell asked, “Is this due to your moderation and comments policy? Is everyone just worn out? Of course I like to think you are just that much of a writing ninja ;-)” Well, from what I’ve seen, it’s not due to adversaries being worn out – other threads are still bulging. It’s certainly not my mad ninja writing skillz. And I can’t credit moderation – the only comment I had to kick back to the author was a response to someone on another blog posted here by mistake. I don’t think the people blowing up other threads care much about policies. So I think what it came down to, ultimately, was having so many good people fill the thread before those who enjoy misrepresenting, derailing and various other (and often less savory) tactics found this.

    So, thank you, all of you, for making this a safe and productive space. Gracias y salud!

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