On the “Talibanesque”-ness of harassment policies

The trollitariat have been out in full force recently about the real progress we’ve made recently in finally putting into place structures that will protect women from unwanted sexual advances at atheist/skeptic conventions. They’re getting some help from prominent skeptics like Russell Blackford, who evidently created the meme of the Talibanesquery of this initiative according to some commenters, resulting in wave after wave of sockpuppeting trolls repeating the meme despite being debunked repeatedly.

The trolls are even getting some help from local FtB bloggers who apparently bought that line of argumentation without looking at the policy itself, when actually looking at the policy in question is all it takes to turn the whole issue on its head.

The repeated comparison of this harassment policy to Taliban-like laws, is entirely about the “sexualized clothing” bit. Apparently all the rest of the proposed policy is perfectly fine to these people, and anyone pushing back against the meme is just strawmanning. Never mind all the myriad other ways the comparison to the Taliban doesn’t fit — like the actual protection of women, rather than slut-shaming and stoning them to death; like allowing them autonomy and self-direction instead of subjugating them to man’s will.

The actual part of the proposed template policy, as expressed in the Geek Feminism wiki entry, is pretty specific though. Much more specific than the trolls are letting on.

Exhibitors in the expo hall, sponsor or vendor booths, or similar activities are also subject to the anti-harassment policy. In particular, exhibitors should not use sexualized images, activities, or other material. Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualized environment.

The trolls are interpreting this to mean that there’s a dress code for all con-goers. This is, of course, patently wrong. The code applies to conference employees, speakers and vendors. It is pretty much expressly designed to end the “booth babe” phenomenon, where vendors put scantily-clad women in front of their wares to sell to the apparently-predominantly-hetero-males who attend.

That practice has a chilling effect — multiple, actually — on the participation of women in a conference. The use of booth babes a) suggests that only men are interested in buying things, or that the vendors are only interested in selling to men; b) adds an officially-sanctioned bit of sexualized imagery and sexploitation to the convention itself; c) probably helps give those socially-awkward folks that everyone’s always bawwwing about the impression that women (especially the women at that conference) are pieces of meat.

There’s nothing really objectionable about con-goers dressing up as their favorite anime or Street Fighter characters if they want, even if those characters are scantily-clad. Those folks even deserve protection, and conferences that enact anti-harassment policies understand this, as evidenced by CONvergence’s “costumes are not consent” posters. And the policy stating that the convention handlers and vendors on-site won’t wear anything overtly sexual does not affect the participants in any way. Excepting, of course, for those mandudes that really just want to defend their right to have pieces of woman-meat on display at their favorite vendors.

The other thing the trolls are questioning in this template — note, carefully, that this policy is a TEMPLATE and should be adjusted as appropriate — is that there’s a clause saying that speakers shouldn’t use overtly sexualized language. The intent here is to prevent people like Dell’s blatantly sexist speaker, not to prevent people like Dan Savage from talking about sex. Since this is just a template, and we can reasonably assume that convention handlers really want to invite people who do talk about sex now and again (e.g. Stephanie, Jen, Greta, etc.), I think it’s safe to assume that any con adopting these policies will tailor them to the specific speakers in question, and that everyone going into these cons will understand that sex speakers talk about sex, while still preventing random other speakers from talking about how much they’d like to fuck everyone in the audience or what have you. And hell, this’ll even prevent sex speakers from making those same kinds of odious personal sexual attacks on others.

And yet, nobody’s speech is restricted, nobody’s rights are curtailed, and the framework for reporting issues is in place so that real issues can be really heard and worked on, to everyone’s benefit. Harassment and the chilly climate are our targets, and they’ll be dealt with privately and with appropriate hearings on the evidence, without the name-and-shame that the trolls so relish because it gives them an opportunity to further victimize the victims.

The name-and-shame policy is appropriate when you’re making vague “down with this sort of thing” statements like Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick”, without naming the sort of behaviour that’s inappropriate or showing that it’s even happening at all. Name-and-shame is not any more valid with harassment, which we know to be happening and understand what it’s about, than it would be to have rape victims have to make their accusations in the local newspaper instead of in the court of law. Or like the Taliban where the rape victim would probably get stoned to death for not screaming loud enough to stop the rape. There’s probably a damn good reason the trolls find this so hard to swallow — they don’t want to be put into a position where trolling == harassment and they might get in trouble for it. Either that, or they’re actually interested in BEING pick-up artists and misogynist asses themselves. I can never tell how deep the anti-woman streak runs with any particular troll.

Putting into place a framework to deal with the harassers, and bullies, and pick-up artists who hide behind the clueless, in a fair and private and even-handed manner is anything but Talibanesque. Anyone who thinks otherwise can screw off is welcome to tell me why in the comments.

On the “Talibanesque”-ness of harassment policies

62 thoughts on “On the “Talibanesque”-ness of harassment policies

  1. 51

    My main concern here is that rules which are unnecessary, but don’t hurt anything, tend to eventually end up being selectively enforced on people who annoy those in power. On the other hand, it may be harder to atop the booth-babing practice once it’s entrenched than keep it from forming. PAX took a lot of flak for their anti-booth babe policies. E3 ended up like this (and attempts to change have gone nowhere), though, so I can see why they wanted to avoid it.


    I really don’t want to see any news story about Skepticon than even vaguely resembles this.

  2. 52

    Stepping aside from the topic for a moment, I’ve noticed that many people on the various blogs like to declare that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a troll. A troll is actually someone who says something they don’t really agree with just to get an emotional response out of people. If a blogger disagrees with someone, then say why rather than just calling them trolls.

  3. 54

    My main concern here is that rules which are unnecessary, but don’t hurt anything, tend to eventually end up being selectively enforced on people who annoy those in power.

    This isn’t the KGB we’re talking about. It’s a convention, where those *in power* want to keep everyone as happy as possible, not eject paying attendees at random. I doubt a person who’s not harassing anyone would have anything to worry about.

  4. 55


    It’s still a potential issue down the road. It’s one reason I’m fairly conservative in my approach to creating new rules. An ignored but still very much on the books rule could (I’m not saying by the current people in charge) be used as a gotcha clause if all other attempts to bar the person fail.

  5. 56

    It’s still a potential issue down the road. It’s one reason I’m fairly conservative in my approach to creating new rules. An ignored but still very much on the books rule could (I’m not saying by the current people in charge) be used as a gotcha clause if all other attempts to bar the person fail.

    julian: the clause in question affects the convention staff and employees and vendors, not the participants. It is a vow that the convention won’t endorse ridiculously sexist behaviours like booth babes or (say) wet t-shirt contests. I don’t see a problem with that in any way, even if it’s not something the conventions in question ever do *presently*. In fact, I see it as heartening that these conventions would say “we also won’t do it in the future”. That’s a good thing.

  6. 57

    One one hand, I agree with the idea that “non-Talibanesque” anti-harassment policies are very much possible and desirable, I think the Geek Feminism boilerplate is, in fact, quite “Talibanesque” and does not rise to the level of a well-balanced policy. It’s highly politicized anti-“sexualization” clauses is very much prudish and sex-negative, sounding uncannily like the Dworkin/MacKinnon model antipornography ordinaince in places. I do not think such a policy is appropriate to any space that is has a non-captive audience, is at all politically and ideologically pluralistic (and a space where the only common thread is skepticism most certainly is), and committed to the open exchange of ideas.

    There is a lot of talk that such policies can be modified as needed, but if so, why is the “geek feminist” “model” policy pushed so hard, rather than a more specifically focused, less ideological version?

  7. 60

    I agree with you on points A and C of the chilling effects, but voluntarily working for fun and profit at a booth while wearing a tank top is not exploitation.

  8. 61

    I think you desperately miss the point of B), Skepgineer. It’s not that sexploitation (the manipulation of people’s sex drives to sell a product) is necessarily a bad thing or exploitation of the person willing to participate (e.g. women who feel self-empowered by self-objectifying), but that it becomes an OFFICIALLY SANCTIONED piece of sexual imagery and objectification.

    It’s the difference between hosting a wet t-shirt contest and someone coming in soaked from the rain and they happen to be wearing a white t-shirt and no bra. The former is officially sanctioned objectification, the latter is someone who needs to be protected from predations by a strong harassment policy in case someone gets the big idea that her wet t-shirt implies consent.

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