Here's What I Don't Want to Do At Conferences

I’ve been seeing, in various and sundry threads on the matter, a lot of people babbling nonsense like, “Just report harassment to security and/or the police! And if they don’t take you seriously, look for someone who will!” This is their brilliant solution to the harassment problem. No policy needed! There’s cops and security guards. Problem solved!

There was also one person with apparently magnificent muscles who advocates a physical response, and suggested that Salman Rushdie, for instance, could have responded to a fatwa condemning him to death by gathering a gang and marching through the Iranian streets. This is only the most amusing amongst those who have proffered helpful advice along the lines of, “If someone bothers you, kick ’em in the nads!”

(Note to the nad kicking advocates: I tried this on my rapist. He turned out to be very good at blocking.)

Nearly every thread is salted with such sage advice. But you know what? When I venture from my home and attend an event, I do not want to have to gather a gang and stage a Big Trouble in Little China scenario. I don’t want to wear steel-toed boots just in case any delicate bits might have to be prodded so as to emphasize the words, “You are being inappropriate. Go away.” I don’t want to spend the majority of my time there tracking down security guards and policemen and harried organizers in order to explain that some nimrod grabbed my boobs, and that I subsequently assaulted him on the advice of internet geniuses. I don’t want to spend time in jail because I took the advice of said geniuses, and this turned out to be a more egregious offense in the eyes of the authorities than the boob-grabbing.*

I want to enjoy the event in peace.

Now, it’s possible I’ll go to the conference with no harassment policy and be one of those lucky buggers who has nothing bad happen at all. I may not witness anyone being harassed. All may be peaches and pastry, with a little champagne on the side. But should the lottery return my number, I’d rather not spend the rest of the event pursuing justice. I paid to see talks and have a good time with like-minded individuals. I did not pay to put up with the shit I already have to put up with in public areas containing arseholes.

News flash for the terminally hard of thinking: most people attend conferences with broadly similar goals.

A good policy does several things that makes this experience likely to be a happy one for all but those who have an irresistible impulse to harass.

1. It lays out the ground rules. It sketches out appropriate behavior, so that everyone has the same expectations, and a clear idea of what’s acceptable and what is not. This tells potential harassers that their hijinks are not welcome, and will prevent some of them from going, and others from misbehaving.

2. For those who think the rules don’t apply to them, it gives victims good recourse. It’s not just a sheet of paper with marks upon it. It is backed up by people scattered throughout the conference who are readily available to report to. It spells out how such reports will be handled, and records such incidents for posterity. It ejects abusers and protects the abused.

3. It allows everyone to get on with the business of enjoying the conference or event reasonably harassment-free. This way, paying attendees who did not engage in inappropriate behavior don’t have their experience ruined by either having to tolerate jackasses, leave to avoid them, or spend inordinate amounts of time trying to get the situation taken seriously and taken care of.

4. Oh, and it covers the asses of the organizers. This is a bit critical. Legal protection is essential. So is telling your attendees, who have paid you cash money for a pleasant time, that their money shall not be wasted. This allows attendees to extol your virtues to other potential attendees, a not insignificant number of whom will choose to pay you cash money in the future for the pleasure of attending your event. This prevents attendees from finding it necessary to sue you in order to be compensated for what you had a responsibility to prevent but couldn’t be bothered to even do a half-arsed job at, much less make a good-faith effort. It’s called “good faith and due diligence.” Know it. Embrace it.

The genius thing about a good harassment policy is that it works for everyone. For instance, if I corner you during a mixer and imply I will kick you in the nads with my shiny steel-toed boots if you do not pay attention to me, you can flag down one of those handy conference people who are mixed in with the mixers and have them make me go away. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rough-and-tough man who could have simply picked me up and set me out of the way. You don’t have to risk being accused of assault and battery by handling the situation yourself.

Just to be clear, I would never harass anyone in this fashion. But I use myself as an example to show that such a policy is good for all attendees, not just those traditional targets of harassment.

This is it. This is the request that has stirred up such a shitstorm: have a policy in place that will prevent at least some harassment and deftly handle any that does occur, without blaming victims, without being unfair to the accused, without interfering with the fun of any except predatory fuckwits.

This is what some conferences haven’t yet done.

It bloody well boggles my mind.

As for those who propose roving gangs and brawling as an appropriate remedy for harassment, I suggest a course of vigorous brain exercise. I’m afraid those two lonely neurons of yours are wasting away from disuse.


*We will be discussing the danger of escalation in a future post. People who advocate a firm foot to the fruit as a solution to all problems apparently do not live in a world where this often leads to an unequal and opposite reaction. We, alas, do.


(Standard reminder for posts on sensitive subjects: First-time comments go automatically to moderation. Due to the vagaries of work and sleep, they may not be released immediately. Swearing and disagreement are fine, but keep it within bounds. Gendered epithets, misogyny, abuse of other commenters, and other misbehavior won’t be tolerated. You might wish to review the cantina’s comment policy before you comment. There are also ground rules for this discussion here.)

Here's What I Don't Want to Do At Conferences
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21 thoughts on “Here's What I Don't Want to Do At Conferences

  1. 1

    Well said. I’m very glad you decided to contribute to the discussion on this, Dana.

    People who advocate a firm foot to the fruit as a solution to all problems apparently do not live in a world where this often leads to an unequal and opposite reaction. We, alas, do.

    Having accidentally kicked a schoolmate in the nads once (in my late teens), I can tell you that he did not collapse comically to the ground and remain disabled for a long period like it does on TV. His eyes watered and he got really angry for a moment, then he stopped himself from retaliating because (a) I was a girl and (b) he knew it was an accident.

    Life it not a B movie.

  2. 2

    Sorry, just realised that my previous comment focussed on stuff you mean to be discuss in more detail in a future post.

    This is the request that has stirred up such a shitstorm: have a policy in place that will prevent at least some harassment and deftly handle any that does occur, without blaming victims, without being unfair to the accused, without interfering with the fun of any except predatory fuckwits.

    This is what some conferences haven’t yet done.

    It bloody well boggles my mind.

    Exactly. It’s such a small hill to decide to make a stand on. Why choose this one?

  3. 3

    P.S. the link to your comments policy in your post is borked. I was able to find it anyway because ninja but it might be a bit hard to find for others.

  4. 4

    Here’s something else that people like the one advocating a physical response don’t get: If you’re, say, 5’4″ and 125lbs (like me – having a healthy body weight makes me lighter than about 2/3 of women in my area, and I’m only half an inch shorter than average), and a guy tries to assault you, chances are he’s 1) taller, with a reach advantage inherent. 2) heavier, with strength and weight advantages inherent. 3) stronger, which will make overpowering you easier, and 4) has more experience at this than you.

    Realistically, unless you’re trained very well, you lose that fight. And get beaten up or killed for your troubles.

    People who advocate a physical response are, I think, used to being roughly the same size and ability as their attackers. They believe in the idea of a fair fight – which doesn’t exist when a sexual predator is attacking someone. These people choose their victims, and among other things, they select for victims that won’t be able to fight back effectively.

    “Just fight back,” they say. Let me ask you this: if you’re a man of average height and a dude came up who’s around 6’6″ tall and weighed half again as much as you, would you be inclined to fight back if he threatens you? Because that’s about as much of a size disadvantage an average woman faces. If a guy of average height and healthy weight comes up to me, odds are he’s got about 65lbs and 6′ on me. If he’s overweight, he has even more of a weight advantage.

    Ever see a featherweight fight a heavyweight in an official event? Probably not. There’s a reason for that. I fight much bigger people all the time at my martial arts club, and it’s hard. Even though I’m trained better than most of them, it’s hard. If I’m up against someone with a similar amount of training to me, I lose 2/3 bouts. Why? I’m smaller and lighter. They can hit me before I can hit them, their hits land harder so I recover from hits slower, and they control more space than I do. Skill and training equal, I have a harder time of it because I’m smaller. And that’s in a controlled setting. On the street, they can do stuff like grab me and pull me to the ground (and yeah, I know some grappling, but contrary to what BJJ folks will say, sheer brute strength plays a big role on the ground, too – one that superior technique only partially compensates for) or shove me up against a wall and lean on me.

    Aside from the physicality of the fight, chances are the assailant has done this before. Several times. Most people aren’t trained in fighting, so chances are, the assailant is better than the victim at this. An orange belt can control a fight with a white belt. A brown belt can control it just as much with the orange belt. I can control it just as much with the brown belt. My sempai can control it just as much with me, and Sensei can control it just as much with him. If you’re up against someone better than you, you lose. Full stop. Superior training negates pretty much everything else except luck. It’s harder for me to control it against a brown belt because of size, but that’s the difference between winning 9/10 of the time versus 19/20, okay? Superior skill beats all.

    Finally: Real fights aren’t like sparring in a dojo. There’s a lot of what ifs. What if the attacker has a weapon? What if the attacker just goes berserk when you resist? What if the attacker gets a lucky hit? What if there’s nobody around you can yell to? What if the attacker threatens to kill you if you twitch funny? What if there’s more than one attacker? What if?

    I have two black belts. I’ve been doing martial arts off and on for 20 years (since I was four). Before that, I was at the dojo watching my parents train. I was pretty much raised in a self-defense/martial arts heavy environment, to the point that my first pair of pajamas when I came home from the hospital was a baby gi. My dad had a misspent youth and is ex-military, so he knows from experience what works and what doesn’t, and he taught me a lot. Since then, I’ve had the priviledge of training with ex-cops, ex-special forces people, an ex- French foreign leigon guy, and current army people, all of whom have had cause to apply these skills in real life. Do you know what my training tells me, if someone is hostile and I’m alone?

    Run. Run long and hard and fast and don’t stop running until I’m somewhere safe. If I have good conditioning and can stay ahead of the assailant for 100 yards, chances are I’ve outrun the assailant since most people have shit conditioning and can’t run far or fast once their sprint runs out. If I can’t run, get to a position where I can. If I feel fighting back increases my chance of survival, fight until I can run. Otherwise, do whatever the hell the assailant wants me to do until I can run or the assailant leaves. Survival is what counts, not nose-breaking, not bragging rights, not machismo or pride or anything. Survival. Emotional and physical scars heal. Death doesn’t.

    Tl;dr: There’s a lot of reasons why a physical response is not typically a great idea. One: Size matters. Two: Skill matters. Three: Fights are unpredictable, dangerous things. Four: Survival is all that counts.

    Sorry for the rant, but all this “just fight back” bullshit pisses me off. It’s wrong for bullying, it’s wrong for sexual assault, it’s wrong for mugging and robbery, it’s just. plain. wrong. Not in the moral sense (I have zero problem with self-defense morally), but in the practical, will-this-let-you-survive-this-encounter sense. Fighting back is not a pancea for violent encounters. Real life is more ccomplicated than that.

  5. 5

    ^ If a guy of average height and healthy weight comes up to me, odds are he’s got about 65lbs and 6′ on me.

    6′ is supposed to be 6″. Obviously. That’s what I get for not proof-reading.

  6. 6

    I am a woman and ten years ago I was brutally raped. I am 5′ 10″, and in terrific physical condition (I compete in endurance horse-riding)

    He was about 5′ 8″ and pretty skinny, definitely not great physical condition. He was also on drugs, had a gun, and was mentally unstable and off his meds.

    Guns make a difference, drugs/crazy makes a difference. Even the police said I was very, very lucky not to be dead.

  7. rq

    I really like the way you write. Things just seem to make so much sense when you explain them so rationally.
    (This applies to your geology and other posts as well.)
    And once again it raises the obvious question of why this should be an issue at all. Because the way you put it, it would just make logical, rational sense to have a harassment policy. (I hesitate to say ‘common sense’, also for obvious reasons.)
    Thanks for writing.

  8. 9

    Well,ischemgeek, you beat me to it…and you’re right…I used to train with a group where everyone outweighed me by at least thirty pounds. I was in great shape, but a I got thrown around a lot…;)

    Self defense, as I was taught, is mostly about awareness, avoidance and, if you absolutely have to, doing something physical to give yourself enough time and space to run.

    And be loud; your voice can be your best weapon.

    I’m glad to see another sensible, straightforward post like this one; like Ms Hunter I’m amazed that what appears to me to be a blindingly obvious course of action; ie have a clear policy and communicate it, could be the cause of such an angry reaction. Especially from people who supposedly put a high value on reason.

  9. 10

    As someone who fights a lot more than he should, let me just say a kick to the nuts will get you a jab to the nose best case scenario. Worse he’ll know how to handle himself and just snap your foot for trying something so weak.

    Your legs provide stability and grounding. Unless you know what you’re doing don’t throw a kick. It’ll get caught and you’ll be stuck.

    Survival is what counts, not nose-breaking, not bragging rights, not machismo or pride or anything. Survival. Emotional and physical scars heal. Death doesn’t.


  10. 11

    There’s a couple of reasons, at least in my mind.

    #1. Social privilege. To a lot of people (a LOT of people) the idea that the social norm should be that one should be able to push oneself into somebody else’s personal/emotional space is sacrosanct. Sometimes this is desired, of course, but the problem is the assumption that it is, when it’s not always the case. Which is why people should learn to be REALLY careful towards this sort of thing.

    #2. Moral Force. People put a lot of moral force against harassing. We say that it’s a bad thing, and that people who do it and protect it are bad people and need to change. I think to a degree moral force is something that, as atheists most of us are concerned about, as this sort of social pressure is something used by religious groups quite often.

    It’s not just about this issue either, as down the line we will start to use moral force (and rightfully so) to push for issues of more general social justice.

    #3. Tribalism Quite frankly, some people just feel like they’re part of a tribe and they want their tribe to win at any cost.

    Anyway, that’s my opinion on why people are making this their “hill to die on”

  11. 12

    It is hard to believe that conferences don’t have a policy in place to deal with sexual harassment and other kinds of violence. Are they just ASKING to be sued?? Because one day, that is exactly what will happen, and nobody will ever again want to attend a conference, knowing that they won’t be protected or taken seriously in case of a violent attack. Hell, I don’t think I want to attend one now. Other people can film it and I’ll watch the videos on YouTube. :o/

  12. 13

    I’d say that most of the people advocating a physical response have been watching way too many movies and TV shows. As you say, real-life violence is a messy and unpredictable business. (And yeah, I got taught that, along with the advice to run if at all possible, as part of my martial arts training too.)

    Escalation is almost always exactly the wrong thing to do.

  13. 14

    Not just that; I’ve spoken to people who should damn well know better considering their training and experience who advocate the just fight back view. Those people either buy into the fair fight myth or into the ‘all criminals are cowards who will fold the moment you resist.’

    Which, y’know, totally worked the times I got the shit kicked out of me by a group of assholes in elementary and high school. Oh wait.

  14. 16

    Thank you. This is the first time I have spoken about outside of police reports and my family.

    Usually I would agreed completely running away is the best thing. Being shot in the knee took away that possibility.

  15. 17

    This is the best post on the subject I’ve seen. Just practical, down-to-earth common sense – something that every skeptic should be able to appreciate. Women are paying customers at these conferences. We can get harrassed at the local bar for free.

  16. 18

    It’s called “good faith and due diligence.” Know it. Embrace it.

    Rock woman, you speak my language.

    For me, this whole thing is like watching a road accident in slow motion. Or an avalanche.

    And the “just fight back” thing? I’ll look like I did, if I facepalm much more over that.

  17. 19

    Great post!

    I have been baffled by the idea that anyone would voluntarily spend their time and money attending a conference that can’t be bothered to implement even a rudimentary harassment policy. Even as a tall, fit male with about zero chance of being harassed I have no interest in attending a conference where the organizers can’t be bothered to take even basic, standard precautions to ensure the comfort and safety of all attendees.

    Moreover it seems to me that all men should welcome anything the conference organizers can do to make women feel welcome, safe and comfortable and thus relaxed and open to conversation, networking and yes even flirting. But perhaps this is the origin of the old “nice guys finish last” trope. By the time women are done dealing with all the clueless, the pick up artists and the full on harasserst there is little time, energy or interest left to meet the guys who prefer to take their time and actually get to know someone before considering whether sex is even an option.

  18. 20

    I’m so glad you survived! And thank you for speaking out – I know it’s not easy. I wish we didn’t have to explain this over and over, but apparently some cowboys can’t accept the fact that fighting back won’t always, or even often, stop an attack. Survivor’s stories will hopefully open a few eyes. And they show others that they are not alone, and need never be ashamed.

    Tip o’ the shot glass to you!

  19. 21

    You folks are fantastic. You all knew that, right?

    My arm’s tired from being thrown up in the air whilst I shout “YES!!” Thank you, everyone.

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