So Much Wrong, Part 2: thunderf00t and Sexual Harassment

So here’s Part 2 of my new series on thunderf00t’s horrible post about sexual harassment.

As some of you may know, videoblogger thunderf00t has recently joined the Freethought Blogs network — and has weighed in on the conversation about sexual harassment at conferences. Saying, essentially and among many other things, that:


and that:

Put simply, YES talking about sexual harassment can sometimes be a bigger problem than sexual harassment.

There is so much wrong packed into this one post, I could write an entire novel-length systematically dismantling everything that’s wrong with it. But I don’t have time or energy for that today… and I can’t imagine anyone having it in them to read it anyway. So I’m going to look at one piece of this wrong at a time, until I get bored or otherwise sick of it.

Today’s piece of wrong:

Further it’s my personal experience that sexual harassment affects only a very significant minority of attendees. Indeed I personally know prominent women who went to TAM last year who said from a harassment point of view, it was the cleanest TAM yet (battle fought and game won?). So the full scope of the problem is a minority of a minority. As such do you really think this is the priority target where you will get best bang for your buck in terms of focusing hard won resources, or focusing the attention of the online community?

Where to begin? So much wrong, packed into just one paragraph.

For starters: “thunderf00t’s personal experience” does not equal “accurate statistics on the frequency of sexual harassment at atheist/ skeptical conferences.”

This is one of the reasons many people think reporting procedures are a crucial part of a conference’s code of conduct. Organizations need to know how often these incidents happen, so they know how serious a problem it is and can take appropriate action. There is actually some data on how common harassment is at atheist/ skeptical conferences — and it’s not trivial. It’s not happening every second of every day, but it’s more common than many people think, and it’s almost certainly under-reported. (And my guess would be that it’s even more under-reported to thunderf00t: given his evident lack of sympathy or concern about this issue, he’s pretty much the last person I’d talk to about being harassed.)

Second: So what if it only affects a minority of participants? Assault only affects a very significant minority of the population. Should we therefore not have rules against assault?

This point literally makes no sense. Yes, most people at conferences are decent people who behave themselves and treat one another well. But sexual harassment does happen, and it’s not some wildly implausible one-in-a-billion event. At the last TAM, it happened at least twice in the course of the long weekend — and those are just the incidents that have been publicly reported and widely discussed. Why shouldn’t conferences have rules against it?

I’m mostly trying to avoid getting personal in this series. But I feel like I need to say this: It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, when thunderf00t says that sexual harassment “affects only a very significant minority of attendees,” what he means is, “it doesn’t affect me — therefore, we can all ignore it.”

Third: It’s very possible that, from a harassment point of view, last year’s TAM was the cleanest TAM yet. Again, we don’t know, because we don’t have records. But assuming for the sake of argument that this is the case:


If the battle against sexual harassment at conferences is indeed being won, why would you argue so vehemently against what is very likely one of the key elements in that victory?

Fourth: Where does this idea come from that creating a code of conduct is some huge drain on our organizations’ resources? There are several templates for codes of conduct, readily available for conference organizers to either adopt as is or to adapt and modify for their own needs. It’s standard procedure at most professional conferences to have these codes of conduct, and it’s really not that hard to create. And it’s a whole lot less hard than doing the damage control, and facing the possible legal repercussions, if a serious incident of harassment does happen and the organization didn’t have a policy in place to prevent it and/or respond to it.

And fifth — and finally for today — regarding the attention of the online community, and whether we’re spending too much time and attention on all this:

This could have been, and IMO should have been, a fairly short conversation in our community. Here’s how it could have played out, IMO should have played out, was beginning to play out before it got derailed: At the Women in Secularism conference, Jen McCreight brought up the subject of sexual harassment at conferences. Some people started writing about it, saying, “Hey, yeah, this is a problem, what can we do about it? Having sexual harassment policies at our conferences would be a good start.” Some organizations that host conferences said, “Hey, yeah, that’s a good idea, let’s do that.”

It could have stopped there. Or rather, it could have moved into a conversation about what the details of those policies could be. Instead, it got derailed into a firestorm, in which the people raising the issue were blamed for making women feel unwelcome at conferences, and women who reported their experiences of harassment were accused of lying, and women discussing the issue were told that nobody would ever harass them anyway because they’re ugly, and codes of conduct at conferences were compared to the Taliban, and people discussing the issue were condemned both for not naming names and then for naming names, and harassment victims who didn’t report to the police were dismissed or treated as liars, and any form of harassment that fell short of criminal activity was trivialized, and women who reported sexual harassment were told that they simply had sexual exploits they later regretted, and people started attacking straw-man versions of these policies and claiming that having an anti-harassment policy meant requiring written consent in triplicate for any sexual interaction or friendly horseplay.

The reason this conversation is going on for so long is that we’re having to do Sexual Harassment 101. And that takes time.

As I said yesterday: The conversation about harassment at conferences is only part of an ongoing conversation we’ve been having for a long time about sexism and misogyny in the atheist/ skeptical communities, and making these communities safer and more welcoming for women. It is going on for longer than it needs to because there is a lot of stupid in our community that needs to be dismantled.

And as I said yesterday: If you think we shouldn’t be focusing so much attention on it, then why are you focusing attention on it? If you think we’re paying too much attention to sexual harassment at conferences, throwing gasoline on the flame war is not the way to go.

So Much Wrong, Part 2: thunderf00t and Sexual Harassment

36 thoughts on “So Much Wrong, Part 2: thunderf00t and Sexual Harassment

  1. 1

    Instead, it got derailed into a firestorm,…

    Indeed. How many hundreds of acres of straw must we lose before we get back to talking about what makes a better policy.

    I’d love to see us move on to debating pros cons of the geekfem policy versus say AA new policy (influenced by the open sf policy).

  2. 4

    I wouldn’t quit reading if there were a part 3. What I find really rich here was that in the accompanying YouTube video, he talked about diving the house of atheism and weakening the movement, but this only seems to apply when other people disagree with him. When he picks fights with PZ, DLandonCole and Richard Coughlan, they’re the ones being divisive.

  3. 5

    And as I said yesterday: If you think we shouldn’t be focusing so much attention on it, then why are you focusing attention on it? If you think we’re paying too much attention to sexual harassment at conferences, throwing gasoline on the flame war is not the way to go.

    This is a case of people who insist something can’t be done, getting in the way of those who are doing it.

    (And they insist it can’t be done because they don’t want it to happen.)

  4. 6

    Sexual Harrassment of any degree should not ever have its importance minimized into oblivion. This is not a, “I have a bug bite, but it’s not really a problem so I’ll ignore it until it goes away.” kind of problem. It’s not okay to say, “You were the only one who was nearly sexually assaulted, so we don’t think this is important.” I don’t understand how anyone can really justify that.

  5. 7

    It is incredibly unlikely that a natural disaster will happen in Vegas while TAM is going on. And yet, I would assume that the JREF and South Point have emergency plans that would go into effect if one did, so that staff know what to do.

    Sexual harassment doesn’t need to happen to a lot of people before one can start planning for how to handle it. It’s smart for the organization to figure out how to respond to these things before they happen. And as you point out, the presence of a policy on its own can cut down on harassment without staff having to do anything further.

    I really don’t understand how anyone can reasonably object merely to having policies. Sure, there are discussions to be had about what exactly should go into them, but their existence should not be up for debate.

  6. 8

    You know, I do agree with him, “This really isn’t a big problem,” if by “this” you mean. “coming up with the sort of policy that everyone was talking about in the first place.”

    What is the difficulty? Oh, look at that conference. Hey, they’ve got a webpage…let me just check out the part about code of conduct, ah, nice, a harassment policy. Let me just highlight that with my mouse…and…ctrl+v onto the TAM webpage…done and done.

    It probably could have been done in the time it took DJ to type out that stupid Facebook post.

  7. 10

    The issue seems so straightforward that my usual paranoia kicks in and makes me wonder if I’m getting it wrong:

    Make sure people can report incidents of harassment to conference officials and hope they are properly resolved and then that everyone in the world can see how that particular conference handled harassment claims?

    Isn’t that what everyone’s suggesting?

  8. 11

    Pretty much. Add on to that making sure that conferences have channels of communication so they can share data so they’re not each putting out the same fire individually, but yeah. That’s what everybody is suggesting, more or less.

  9. 13

    I read a comment on there , a few actually, saying that sexism/harassment is SO rare in the geek/atheist community.
    That made me think of video games. I know there are young kids who love swearing and we won’t even count them, but the majority of guys I’ve interacted with in games are sexist. They might not be terrible or trying to be mean, they just want to know about your tits and say something else totally irrelevant to the game. My fiance is a dude and he basically never experiences that. I just don’t know how people’s experiences could make them think this is rare.

  10. 14

    I really don’t understand how anyone can reasonably object merely to having policies.

    Because it’s a plan by the Galiban, bro!!! They’re all just shrill harpies that want to outlaw sex!!! If they make it illegal to treat women like objects, how are we supposed to get laid, brah?!@? Next thing you know they’ll be making it against the law to have a penis or something!!!!!!

    I feel all gross now.

  11. 15

    I’m mostly trying to avoid getting personal in this series. But I feel like I need to say this: It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, when thunderf00t says that sexual harassment “affects only a very significant minority of attendees,” what he means is, “it doesn’t affect me — therefore, we can all ignore it.”

    One of the things I try to keep on watch for with oppressive groups and misogynists is tropes like this. Hypothetically, a clueless or inarticulate person could stumble into one without meaning it. If I end up doing something like that, I’ll apologize and work on rephrasing what I said to remove unwanted implications. I know I’m socially awkward, and I know that means if something goes wrong, there’s a good chance I’m the one who made the mistake, and thus I need to take some time to listen and figure out the correct thing to do.

    Unfortunately, the fact that some people might accidentally stumble into it also provides the offending party with plausible deniability if they’re called on it, which lets them use it again once the heat’s off. It loops back a bit, however, if such a trope becomes commonplace among willing offenders, it becomes code language. Much of the time, these are tropes so prevalent and widely criticized, I find it hard to believe someone really can be that ignorant.

    I try to pay attention to the tropes dominant groups use when they speak of a minority so that I reduce my risk of looking like one of them when I interact. I’ll try to bring attention to such tropes when I spot them so that other people can recognize them.

    Recently I read a bit of a wingnut complaining about a Gay Pride Parade and he took an opportunity to slip in how they were only 3% of the population, therefore, by implication, their concerns about being treated equally under the law were trivial. Civil rights exist to protect minorities and individuals. The majority doesn’t need protection in a democratic government.

    It should also be intuitive that minority protection is in everyone’s best interest because we’re all a minority in something. If we allow someone to trivialize sexual harassment because it’s uncommon, what’s going to stop racial harassment from being trivialized? What’s going to stop LGBT harassment from being trivialized? The wrongness of an action shouldn’t depend on demographics.

  12. 17

    Greta, I think it would be helpful if you reminded people the secondary outcome of harassment policies. It helps social clods better their chances of getting laid. Creating a safe environment leads to more equal representation. Giving hetero men a few good tips like “don’t do that” increases the chance that they will make better passes that have a greater chance of being accepted. This isn’t about cock blocking or spoiling the fun. Never has been.

  13. 19

    Keep writing these. They’re helping.

    Also, #17 dennismadsen has the right idea. A good policy will result in more fun and good times for everybody.

  14. 20

    The reason this conversation is going on for so long is that we’re having to do Sexual Harassment 101. And that takes time.

    While i’m sorry that the process is taking so much time, energy, patience, and other spoons, i continue to appreciate the devotion of so many members of FtB and Skepchick in dissecting these issues into crystal clarity. The basic picture was clear to me at the outset, but the subtleties raised have been fascinating and highly educational. I almost hope a Sexual Harassment 101 For Skeptics booklet evolves out of this.

  15. 21

    All the time and energy on the “firestorm” isn’t being wasted. I was already an enthusiastic supporter (despite being male), but the numbers post included a link to this one, that made the issue so much more relatable:

    It’s can be very hard to put yourself into someone else’s boots, and these firestorms really can help people understand a little better how important the issue is, even if they’re already on “the right side”.

  16. 22

    Definitely enjoying this series & I can’t wait for part 3–and there’s a lot to be said for combing through the multiple levels of fail on which this privileged, assumption-based, self-satisfied thinking operates!

    But I hate to break it to you…he’s written a reply to PZ now, which is damned long and has a whole new helping of wrong. He’s churning out wrong faster than it can be deconstructed!!

    It’s practically a Gish Gallop of sexism.

  17. 24

    Last year’s TAM didn’t burn to the ground, therefore we don’t need fire marshals or an evacuation plan.

    See how stupid that sounds?

  18. 25

    What I find so stupid about TF’s “It shouldn’t be an issue because harassment at conference only affects a tiny part of the atheist community” is that all big social issues are made up of thousands of tiny issues. And while it’s good and important to always keep the big picture in mind, ignoring the details because they’re “just details” isn’t going to get you very far. Because usually the details are exactly the things that you can tackle directly and have a real-life impact on.

    If you agree that sexism/misogyny is a problem in the atheist/sceptics community, it’s completely disingenuous to then turn around and say “we shouldn’t focus on solving the small, solvable issues, we should fight the problem as a whole”. Because fighting abstract concepts/mindsets is hard – and I dare say almost impossible if you refuse to take care of the actual manifestations of this mindset in the real and virtual world.

    I’m not saying ranting against sexism and misogyny and theoreticising about it’s causes and mechanisms is unimportant, but it’s not going to have much of an impact if sexists/misogynists are free to live their lives unaffected and can just keep on harrassing/trolling/abusing.

  19. 28

    #17 not sure that spinning anti harassment policies as being a leg up on getting your dick wet is quite in line with the general spirit of anti harassment discussions in general. Just MHO.

  20. 31

    Why so many speakers focusing on “Wimmin” at skepticon anyway? I thought it was ONLY a part of being Skeptic anyway. It seems to me that the whole Skeptical/Atheist community has been de-railed & will probably come to a shuddering halt with NOBODY getting what they want & NOBODY being happy. Calm down children & have a nap for fsm’s sake, or you risk everything-That is all!☮

  21. Nyx

    Thank you for illuminating the stupid. Yes, we have to teach many men about sexual harassment 101 and that’s exactly what’s going on here. I actually unsubbed from Thunderf00t’s YT channel because of his sexist remarks.

    It DOES sound like he wants free reign to do as he sees fit and that it’s not a problem because it’s not a problem for him.

    I see him doing typical patriarchal BS talk. It really sickens me.

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