How to Critique Harassment Policies — And How Really, Really Not To

If there’s a small problem with one part of a generally good rule or law or policy, is it best to modify that part of the rule/ law/ policy… or to scrap the entire thing? Or, indeed, to scrap the entire notion of rules and laws and policies?

There’s been some recent conversation about sexual harassment policies/ codes of conduct at atheist/ skeptical conferences. (Yes, still. This is still a thing. There are still people insisting that having rules at conferences will ruin the fun for everyone. Seriously.) In particular, there’s been conversation about the harassment policy at the recent SkepTech conference, which read, in part:

Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.

There’s been conversation about the fact that there was a panel at SkepTech specifically about sex (“Sex in Cyberspace; Porn, Okcupid and the Internet”), a panel at which sex was obviously discussed, and at which there was obviously sexual language. And there’s been conversation about whether the existence of this panel was in violation of the harassment policy.

Here’s the thing.

I actually think the part of the SkepTech harassment policy/ code of conduct being discussed was somewhat unclear, and needed some adjustment. I think it would have been better and clearer if, instead, the policy had read something like this:

Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any official conference venue, including talks/ panels/ presentations, except when directly relevant to the topic of the talk/ panel/ presentation.

That was the obvious intent, and it seems to have been taken as such by everyone at the conference. But yes, I think it would have been better if this intent had been spelled out.

So again, here’s my question: If there’s a small problem with one part of a generally good rule or law or policy, is it best to modify that part of the rule/ law/ policy… or to scrap the entire thing? Or, indeed, to scrap the entire notion of rules and laws and policies at conference — of any kind, at all?

Let’s make an analogy. Let’s say that a city or county or country had laws against assault, and the section of the legal code banning assault basically said, “It’s against the law to hit people.” (Yes, I know, harassment policies/ codes of conduct at conferences aren’t laws, and shouldn’t be laws. This is an analogy.) Let’s say that the section of the legal code banning assault didn’t make a clearly specified exception for hitting people in self-defense, hitting people in defense of someone else who’s in immediate danger, or hitting people in consensual situations such as contact sports and consensual sadomasochism.

If someone responded to this by saying, “Well, this part of the legal code obviously doesn’t make sense — therefore, let’s scrap the whole thing. In fact, let’s scrap the entire idea of having laws at all. Having laws is infantilizing and insulting: it insults the morality and integrity and intelligence of everyone in this city/ county/ country, by treating everyone as potential criminals. Also, this part of the law isn’t always enforced consistently — and that obviously undermines the very idea of having a law. Any law, not just this one. And besides, the law can’t be written perfectly, some people will maliciously game the law and find loopholes in it — so again, the entire concept of having laws is bankrupt, and should be abandoned.”… would you consider that a reasonable response?

Or instead, would the reasonable response be to say, “Well, this part of the legal code obviously doesn’t make sense, and can’t be enforced consistently as written — so let’s revise it so it makes sense”? Would the reasonable response be to add in a section making it clear that self-defense, defense of others, and consensual situations are exceptions to the laws against assault?

I have no problems with people critiquing the specifics of harassment policies and codes of conduct at atheist/ skeptical conferences. These policies and codes are relatively new to atheist/ skeptical conferences — it’s actually kind of embarrassing just how new they are, given how standard it is for conferences in every other field to these policies — and they are therefore works in progress. (To give a different example: Many conferences have had policies banning offensive comments related to religion — written in language which, strictly interpreted, would ban 80% of the content at an atheist conference. So some conferences have been revising their policies, making it clear that people of all religious beliefs are welcome at the conference, and hostile behavior towards people based on their religious affiliation is not acceptable… but that criticism of religious ideas is obviously fair game.) These policies are embarrassingly new, they’re works in progress, and some of them could use refining.

So yeah. If people have good-faith critiques of the specifics of conference harassment policies/ codes of conduct, I think most conference organizers would want to hear them.

But if critiques of harassment policies/ codes of conduct are steeped in a persistent rejection of the very idea of conferences having any policy or code whatsoever — if they’re steeped in the contemptuous trivialization and dismissal of the very real problem of sexual and other harassment at conferences, and in the idea that this problem can just be ignored — I don’t think we need to take them seriously.

How to Critique Harassment Policies — And How Really, Really Not To
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22 thoughts on “How to Critique Harassment Policies — And How Really, Really Not To

  1. 1

    1)it’s 3:40 am here. Just what time is it in California (translation: why are you not in bed, young lady!?) :-p

    2)I would write that as:

    Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any official conference venue, including talks/ panels/ presentations, except when directly relevant to the topic of the talk/ panel/ presentation and the talk/panel/presentation indicates that it will include sexual content.

    it’s long and pedantic, and it would require e.g. PZ to actually note that sex will be part of his presentation on evolution; but apparently that’s necessary.

  2. 2

    the reason I’d make the change is because I guarantee you that you’ll get shitweasels thinking that random sex-jokes in relation to content of any given talk on any topic will fall under the exception

  3. 3

    How about the Blair Scott appearance at the American Atheists convetion? See

    Should Scott be banned from future AA conventions? Given that Silverman was well acquainted with Scott, shouldn’t he have known that Scott’s routine would violate the AA policy? What does it say that Scott was invited anyway?

    Forgive me from linking to V*cula’s blog, but his post on this topic is representative of the critique these policies receive. (The post is rather civil, I can’t vouch for the comments.)

  4. 4

    How about the Blair Scott appearance at the American Atheists convetion? See

    Should Scott be banned from future AA conventions? Given that Silverman was well acquainted with Scott, shouldn’t he have known that Scott’s routine would violate the AA policy? What does it say that Scott was invited anyway?

    georgelocke @ #3: The existence of a code of conduct is not a guarantee that there will not be violations of it. It does not make the conference organizers capable of knowing in advance who will violate the policy. And “banning from future conventions” is not the only appropriate response to code violations, or the only response required by any code I’ve seen.

  5. 5

    The problem with the analogy, and indeed the problem that people have with the policies, is that the wording of any law or stricture or policy is subject to interpretation by someone acting as a judge. They are in a position to judge the fairness of the charge and the intent of the law. There will be consequences for anyone found in violation of the law/policy/whatever. And because a stated policy takes the power of judgment away from the person who is committing the infraction, that person has a lot to lose.

    The problem isn’t that there are rules. The problem is that ‘the wrong kind of people’ get to decide what does and doesn’t qualify as infraction. This is the central issue with this fight and all fights like it, and always has been.

  6. 6

    The problem isn’t that there are rules. The problem is that ‘the wrong kind of people’ get to decide what does and doesn’t qualify as infraction. This is the central issue with this fight and all fights like it, and always has been.

    Crommunist @ #5:I agree that this is one of the big problems many people have with these policies, and arguably the biggest problem. But I don’t actually think it makes the analogy fall down — since we see the same thing happen with laws. As people who have been marginalized start to get their voices heard and listened to, and start to get more of a say in how laws that affect them are written or enforced, privileged people who will have their privilege limited by the new laws or enforcement will squawk.

  7. 7

    @5: And, of course, “the wrong kind of people” is always “people who don’t agree with me.” The more specific a law is, the less room there is for personal biases to inflect the interpretation, and the less room there is for adaptation to unanticipated (perhaps because the positionalities or biases of all the legislators left them blind to a potential concern) circumstances. Specificity and vagueness both have advantages and disadvantages, and how each functions tends to depend on the extent to which those involved are invested in sustaining or dismantling systems of privilege.

    In response to your question, Greta, I don’t think there can be a single answer. It all comes down to the specific case we’re discussing. For example, I think the Affordable Care Act is, on the balance, extraordinarily harmful (far more harmful than the status quo that existed before it was passed, though who’s harmed and whom benefits changes; one quick example: if you’re poor and you smoke, you’re especially screwed, because smoking allows insurers to charge you up to 50% higher premiums, and this increase cannot be offset by subsidies for the poor that are supposed to allow them to afford health insurance to avoid the tax penalty they also likely can’t afford), and I think the odds of being able to fix any of its problematic provisions in the next decade are exceedingly low, so in that case, I would say scrapping the entire law is the best option (especially since the likelihood of being able to pass something better, like a public health care system, or even public health insurance, is much greater without anything in place than it is with a bad law in place). With respect to the harassment policy, some additional specificity might be better, and keeping the policy at large is a good idea. We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but we likewise have to stay vigilant that the good doesn’t work as the enemy of the perfect.

    Marriage equality is another example (this one veers off-topic, so feel free to skip the rest if you have no interest in reading my criticism of the gay marriage movement, or don’t think this is a good spot for it; I do keep it connected to the idea of the good versus the perfect, though). Ideally, our government shouldn’t be privileging any particular family/living arrangement, given the wide variety in cultures, ethnicities, personal histories, and economic circumstances in our country. However, we established a set of laws that privilege exclusively-partnered heterosexual couples in many ways. Many gay people and allies objected, and now we might see homosexual marriage become the law of the land. So, exclusively-partnered gay and straight couples might now have a bunch of privileges. But single people and any other households that don’t consist of (only) a couple and their children are still relatively disadvantaged. The problem is that an overwhelming majority of gay marriage advocates were not, in fact, objecting to one group having a privilege in marriage. They were objecting to them (or their friends and family members) not being granted those privileges. Most gay marriage advocates are not going to support efforts to scrap marriage law entirely, which is the only solution equitable to those not in (and possibly not interested in) exclusive coupling as the basis of their households, because they actively desire those privileges accorded married couples. In this case, the good is the enemy of the perfect, because if gay marriage rights are achieved, the mainstream gay rights movement no longer views marriage as a vector of inequality and marginalization, even though it continues to be such for many, many people (and every single person at some point in their lives). I realized the fact that we were going to lose most of the support for true marriage equality (i.e. no legal marriage at all) if same-sex marriage was universally legalized, so I had to drop support for any and all pro-same-sex-marriage campaigns. I’d love to back all of them (and was working with and donating money to a number of them, which is how I discovered the hostility to the idea of scrapping marriage entirely), but I can’t be involved with a supposed social justice movement in which a majority of the members are simply seeking to secure additional privileges for themselves. Ironically, the Right-wing charge that gay marriage proponents are seeking special privileges is correct, just not in the way they think: gay couples are seeking the same privileges accorded to straight couples, but as long as (legal) marriage exists, period, we can’t have equality because we’re still privileging a particular (and definitely problematic or sub-optimal in various circumstances) family/household arrangement over other possibilities. The perfect is not the enemy of the good in this case – I would rather have fewer groups marginalized than more – but the good is the enemy of the perfect – a majority of gay marriage proponents WOULD, in effect, like to see continued marginalization of non-couple-based families.

  8. 8

    @5, 7: I should add that I usually prefer specificity, since the interpreters of the policy/law frequently have a vested interest in perpetuating the systems of privilege that put them into the position to do the interpreting.

  9. 9

    I have been reading about this on all sides, and I’m starting to wonder if what is happening here is what happens with interpreters of government documents, such as the US Constitution. Conservative judges tend to have an originalist, or more literal interpretation (right?), and liberal judges seem to be about the “spirit” of the law, trying to interpret intent in context of the underlying principle.

    When I read oppositional responses (like Vacula’s), I can’t help but feel like I’m reading an interpretation that is too “lawyerly” or literal, where the intent is obvious to me. Now, I recognize that some level of specificity is required (to avoid ambiguities and such) but I think I agree that we need to try to improve guidelines and policies, not abandon them.

    Am I onto something, or am I just talking out the rear end?

  10. 10

    I kind of have the same problem with this that others have. The key factor is who interprets the “laws” and who will utilize the instruments of enforcement. I have a creeping suspicion that sometimes these policies will be used to attack or silence unpopular elements within the community, although I fully acknowledge their utility and beneficent potential. You make the comparison to legal codes, but history is replete with those able to exploit the power of the law to confound those with a lesser capacity to use it on their behalf.

    Warning: here’s a tube chop I published on the evil, evil Slymepit. In its way, I think it’s far more illustrative than the entire Sex in Cyberspace example:

    Why is this significant?

    First, PZ is the player.
    Second, I think it’s in clear violation even of the new, improved, up-lawyered code.
    Third, nobody seems to mind. In fact everyone seems to think it’s rather funny, but this is probably due to the relatively lascivious college age crowd. Does that matter? Should that matter? A different audience might (probably would) find this comment rather offensive.
    Finally, PZ doesn’t seem to give it a second thought, and I think this is important, since an alternative statement, perhaps one addressed to another gender, almost certainly would have been noteworthy.

    I draw a few things from this. For one thing, as is, what might be considered innocuous statement might still fall within the ambit of existing harassment policy, and this ambiguity is just waiting for exploitation. Those who are secure within the community establishment can walk with relative immunity within these margins, while others are open to attack at the option of anyone who happens to dislike them and/or some interpretation of what they said in a talk.

  11. 12

    You know, the more I think about this, the more I dislike either version of the policy. One of the biggest obstacles that we’ve had to constructing sensible and positive discussions of sexuality is that there has always been this big fence drawn around the topic. In either form, it seems like these policies as written above amount to setting the default mode to “Don’t talk about sex.” It makes sex this very special case that is verboten.

    And I absolutely understand the logic behind it. Even in supposedly “sex-positive” environments, I regularly see people twisting discussions of sex into ugly shapes. But the policies above—even your rewritten version—are way too general and vague for me to be comfortable. If this is something that has to be dealt with by a written policy, then that policy needs to be a lot more descriptive about what kinds of behavior are inappropriate. All this says to me is that sex is off-limits as a topic. Merely defining what “sexual language and imagery” is is a huge hornet’s nest. One of the problems I see this causing is that expressions non-mainstream sexualities or genders are more likely to be seen as “sexual” than those that are mainstream. For instance, one of the protest tactics used by Queer Nation in the 90s was having public “kiss-ins.” They were effective and attracted attention specifically because in a heteronormative context, an act that is chaste and sweet between a man and woman is seen as sexual and lewd between two men, two women, or a transgender couple. Similar phenomenons happen based on exoticized ethnicities or genders.

    Another question is how you judge if sexuality is “directly relevant” to a speech or panel. One of the reasons that I geek out on sex is that it’s this massive nexus point where everything comes together. Talk about sex, and you’re talking about religion, technology, sociology, race, biology, pop culture, etc. I can’t think of anything that it’s not relevant to, and that’s what fascinates me about it. And frankly, I think that presentations or panels that only stick to the stuff that’s “directly relevant” are incredibly dull. Maybe my brain isn’t linear enough, but for me, the most interesting parts are often the tangents and potential implications of a topic. I like wandering down the side alleys, as long as they don’t become the whole trip.

    I think that one of the reasons that people act like such assholes about sex and use it as a tool for intimidation is that we haven’t been able to normalize it as a topic of discussion. If we just build a fence around sexuality as a vaguely-defined category, it only heightens that tension. I realize that in a lot of ways, the community is in a state of crisis because some people just can’t act like fucking grownups, and something needs to be done. But I think that we need to do better than this. Even your revised version brings more questions than answers for me.

  12. 13

    Chris Hall @ #12: I see your point. Here is the problem that this part of the policies is trying to address: maybe you can propose an alternative.

    The problem is that in conference presentations, it’s depressingly common for presenters to use sexual language or sexual imagery in wildly inappropriate, offensive, marginalizing ways. Putting in random unrelated slides with sexual imagery, for instance, to “wake up” the audience. Or making sexual jokes and remarks about audience members or other presenters, thus sexualizing people (usually women) in what’s supposed to be a professional or political context. How would you propose writing a policy that addresses this problem and makes it clear that it’s not acceptable, but that still makes room for conversation about sex?

    As for the relevance question: I don’t actually think that’s going to be a problem. If you’re talking about evolution and you bring up sex… that’s relevant. If you’re talking about human psychology and you bring up sex… that’s relevant. If you’re talking about gender roles, or epidemiology, or the history of the queer movement, and you bring up sex… that’s relevant. If sex is relevant to the topic, even as a side alley, then it’s relevant. But if you’re talking about astronomy, and you stick in a slide with a picture of a girl in a bikini to “wake up the audience,” or you make jokes about how hot the last presenter was… that’s not relevant.

  13. 14

    huntstoddard @ #10: Yes, making sure policies are enforced fairly and consistently is a problem. It’s a problem with any rule, any policy, any law. So I will say again: Are you proposing a way that the policies can be modified to correct or alleviate this problem — by making them clearer, for instance? Or are you proposing that, because there is a problem with the policy, the entire policy should be scrapped — and indeed, the entire idea of having any policy at all? Would you propose that about a law — that because fair and consistent enforcement might be a problem, therefore the entire law should be scrapped, and indeed the entire idea of having laws at all?

    If you’re proposing the former, I’d be interested in hearing it, and I think conference organizers would be interested in hearing it. If you’re proposing the latter: Your concerns are noted. Thank you for sharing.

    Oh, and for the record: When you make dismissive jokes about “the evil, evil Slymepit” and acknowledge that you participate in it — a place that has been the single greatest and most consistent source of harassment, threats, and directly invasive behavior aimed at me and my colleagues and friends — it raises multiple red flags. Just so you know.

  14. 15

    My ideal proposal would be to just write a policy saying “Don’t be an asshole.” In my dream world, everyone would realize that these things fall under that umbrella. But, I’m sure that would work about as well as asking Santa for a pony did. So, back to reality….

    First of all, I don’t think that these things can be entirely encompassed by policies. There has to be a certain amount of informal pressure from the community that communicates that you’re making yourself look like an ass when you do this shit. And I think that we’re doing pretty well at building that internal pressure. Of course, we can never build the perfect policy that will never be changed.

    The first thing I’d say is that I think that it’s too complex an issue to be encompassed by a single line or two. As an editor, I hate to say this, but the policy is just too damn short. It’s practically begging to be interpreted broadly.

    That being said, I think that some examples of things that the policy would apply to would help clarify its reach. It’s not unheard of for examples to be written into policies, and it would provide some specificity to the policy, hopefully making it harder for IACB & rhymes-with-Dracula to play ridiculous rules-lawyering “gotcha” games.

    In addition, some sub-clauses relating to specific aspects of sexual references would help. E.G.: 1.1: Verbal references to presenters and audience members – Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Morbi in justo ipsum. Nullam aliquet iaculis.

    And, as I say, policies without community support are useless, so we need to keep having these discussions with the people around us, with or without policies.

  15. 16

    Chris Hall @ #15: I think the addition of examples is an excellent idea. I’ve seen some policies that do that, and it does help. As for making the policies longer: I think that’s a good idea, but there’s a limiting factor: if they’re too long, people won’t read them. One thing I’ve seen done is to have an abbreviated/ summary version in the conference packet and the home page of the website, and have the full version elsewhere on the website.

    And, of course, a big Yes to continued community support and discussion, not just of the idea of harassment policies, but of the principles and values that lie behind them. Policies are important, and it’s worth hashing them out, but they’re only one part of the solution. It’s that community support and discussion that got the policies instituted in the first place, after all.

  16. 18

    To be clear, I generally think anti-harassment policies would be wise to tread carefully in trying to monitor “sexual content”. The problem is not and never has been sex, but harassment. It would be very easy to write more productive policies pretty quickly IF the bad faith actors are excluded from the conversation. Policies governing interpersonal interaction need to focus on consent. Policies on images and content in speeches and booths should mostly focus on if the materials are sexist, hostile, or objectifying. This is a pretty good post on telling the difference between sexy and objectifying:

  17. 19

    amandamarcotte @ #18: I agree that writing policies monitoring sexual content of presentations is tricky, and needs to be done carefully. I don’t want to restrict good discussions of sexuality at cons, and I don’t want to limit them to “the sex talk.”

    But i don’t agree that harassment is the only problem. Phenomena like booth babes, irrelevant sexual imagery in presentations, comments made by presenters that sexualize conference participants or other presenters… these create a hostile environment at cons. I would argue that they contribute to harassment, since they create an environment in which women are seen as sexual objects rather than equal participants. And even if they don’t increase the likelihood of harassment, they create a hostile environment just by themselves. I’m not sure if there’s a way to clearly define in a policy which sexual content is sexist, hostile, or objectifying, and which is valid and relevant. Maybe there is, though. If there is, I’d certainly love to see it.

  18. 20

    Greta @14. It’s important that two classes of people are not established under the code: those who need to self-censor and heed them, and those who flaunt them and walk with relative immunity. Every extra-legal “code of conduct” is vulnerable to that type of exploitation. You might say, oh that won’t happen here because we’re ——. Well, a lot of people have said that.

    One question is whether the risk of creating a paranoid, censorious environment outweighs certain versions of the codes. It’s possible to make them much, much less broad and yet still have conduct policy. For instance, inappropriate behavior could be limited solely to those directed at specific individuals. This would, however, preclude the prevention of some of the things you mentioned second paragraph @13. Is the ability to exclude a slide with hot girls to “wake up the guys” worth the risk of someone getting called on a random slide with attractive women? I don’t know. That type of thing needs to be considered, and there are going to be many instances of “that type of thing.” My opinion leans toward covering these by the “don’t be an asshole” general rule, and for offenses at at level, that may be enough. A few “boos” would probably be enough to prevent a repeat offense.

    “As for making the policies longer: I think that’s a good idea, but there’s a limiting factor: if they’re too long, people won’t read them.”

    This might not be all that important. For instance, legal codes are extremely long. Nobody is expected to read them, but everyone is still subject to them. “I didn’t know that law exists” usually doesn’t work on the traffic cop. There is value in having things written down in great detail. Merely having things written down often seems to creep into people’s conscience by osmosis (collective group knowledge.) So if that is the routed decided, I don’t think length should be a hindrance.

    I note your ill-regard for the Slymepit, and I don’t expect you to give it a pass. I am myself still experimenting with the forum, and I wanted to be honest. Thanks for not zapping my comment by association.

  19. 21

    @ greta #18
    You’re right about the effects of booth babes, irrelevant sexual images and such, and the anti-harassment policy was indeed designed to ban these things.

    You’re wrong about one thing though, and that is the intent of the policy. To gauge it’s intent, it is best to go the source of the policy, which are the geek feminism wiki and the Ada Initiative.

    The Ada Initiative states:

    Why off-topic sexual talks can harm women at technical conferences

    The Ada Initiative has, since its founding, recommended strongly against including off-topic sexual content at technical conferences. This is because sexual content is likely to make the event off-putting, unwelcoming, and even unsafe for women attendees. Sexual content affects women disproportionately for several reasons.

    Simply put, even the world’s most pro-woman, sex-positive, pro-consent talk about sex is likely to have negative effects on women at a technical conference.

    The geek feminism wiki states that the topic of sex is “blanket prohibited” by it’s policy and provide an addendum to allow exceptions when it is on-topic.

    Conferences in which sex, pornography, racism, etc. are on-topic
    Some conferences are both welcoming to women and include discussion on topics which are blanket prohibited in the example anti-harassment policy. … We have written an example addendum to the policy that allows discussion of these topics in a women-friendly manner.

    Because SkepTech did not use this addendum or a comparable exception, the panel in question is obviously in violation of the intent of the anti-harassment policy. It should be noted that this policy was originally written for purely technical conferences (the authors are mostly software engineers), where discussions of sex generally are off-topic. For an event like SkepTech, which discusses a broader range of topics, using this policy without the addendum (or other modification to the same end) was a mistake.

  20. 22

    huntstoddard @20: If one group is following the code and another is flaunting it with relative immunity, that’s a problem of the enforcement of the code and not with the policies written in the code. Yes, there is no guarantee that enforcement will be equitable, but again that’s not a problem caused by the code.

    Also, your example of “someone getting called on a random slide with attractive women” is not actually a problem. Working on the assumption that the hypothetical slide was actually innocent in intent and result, it’s okay if someone complains about it and convention folk look into the situation and determine that the code wasn’t violated. In fact, that’s what should happen. Conference staff should look into complaints, determine if conference policy has been violated and act accordingly. Doing so doesn’t have to be a major disruption or pain for the individuals involved.

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