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10 Thoughts on Inappropriate Sexual Behavior at Conferences

Dec 31, 2012 / Relationship Management / Trackback

Lately, and a lot over the past few days – I have read about and been involved in conversations about the struggles some women have in various networking and conference venues, online and in person, with some men. Is this a new moment in gender relations, the new4th wave feminism, american machismo being smacked down?I started a post yesterday about it, quit afterthree hearty paragraphs and wiped them out. It was going to be too much work, how would I keep it blog post length and not as long as War and Peace?

But, after a day of rumination, I have reconsidered.Of course this is a blog post not a white paper, and keeping it brief presents a lot of challenges (I keep writing and deleting to give you an idea)…

These conversations of late, bursting at the seams with frustration and quite often anger involve the tech and atheist communities and theinhospitable environment women sometimes (some say often or usually) find. There is theory that because there is a large crossover of membership in these communities the problems are interlaced. I believe the problem isn’t unique to these communities and isn’t unusual in male dominated venues and professions.If you are feeling lost right now, you need only search ‘sexual harassment at conferences’ and grab a cup of coffee, the list is long..

According to a2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control, non-contact, unwanted sexual experiences were the most common form of sexual violence experienced by women. One-third of women will experience this type of sexual violence in their lifetime, compared with 12.8% of men (Hey baby! Women speak out against street harassment oncnn.com).

It’s bizarre theTitle VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964took so long and such a fight by so many in our history to afford equality in the workplace.We all know now, 40+ years later, what is acceptable behavior in the workplace, from managers and peers. Yet, even in the highly regulated environment of most workplaces, sexual harassment still exists. Not a day goes by that claims across the country are not filed by those facing unfair and illegal discrimination andharassment.The Federal definition of sexual harassment is:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

But the Federal protections guaranteed by Title VII don’t protect us against ‘street harassment’ – that which occurs in public life. Outside of work, harassment is dealt with on a state-by-state basis, with varying definitions. Though it may be unwelcome, catcalling and propositions alone aren’t considered crimes. When improper touching or threats occur there are more options for action and legal recourse, though even being groped on public transportation typically goes no where when reported.

Back to these conversations about the tech and atheistcommunities. Some women are calling out inequality and and sexual objectification. Some report incidences of not only unwelcome sexual advances but threats and attempts to make them feel unqualified and inferior.It’s happening at conferences and online. Sometimes it’s subtleand often not quite criminal but unwanted sexual advances that make people (in this case women but clearly it can happen to any gender) upset, uncomfortable and outraged.

What can be done about it? How can respect and balance be achieved when mixed genders get together ? Here are some of my thoughts on it:

  1. Leadership by example, peer pressure and positive reinforcement are proven strategies for fostering good behaviors. There are manystronglyegalitarian men who are role models for others. Know who they are in your world and ensure they are encouraged to participate in your communities on and off line. Let them know they’ll be expected to support positive behavior and nip the negative.
  2. Mixed messages weaken credibility, all genders need to walk the talk as advocates for equality and respect. Think personal branding. Forgive me for these odd but real examples; don’t let others shove money down your tank top at an event and then talk about people not respecting your personal space. Don’t stand at a podium and sexually proposition a conference attendee (even in humor) and then talk about how other men don’t respect women – present yourself as you wish to be known .
  3. Do not be vague or non-assertive in an unwanted situation. Make your feelings and needs immediately clear – “I feel uncomfortable when you stare at my chest, you must stop” and “I do not want to be touched, stop” are two examples of positive assertiveness. If someone doesn’t apologize and back off let them know “this isn’t a no means yes situation – no means no, leave me alone”. If the behavior is not corrected, walk away and tell someone in a leadership role, the facility manager, and if there was illegal action, such as a threat to harm you – you must report it to the police. Wishing the person will go away or huddling in fear without speaking out will not likely have positive outcomes and the individual will assume the behavior is acceptable to you or that you are an easy target who will tolerate whatever is going on – or worse, that you like it and want more of it.
  4. Sometimes people are not completely aware of their own behaviors like staring or being too close for your comfort, some are touchy feely types and some are not a good judge of personal space. State your feelings and needs firmly with the expectation the behavior will stop. Save the public flogging – if someone violates your boundaries but they correct their behavior and the situation ends, humiliating them publicly isn’t respectable practice.By all means – if you are being attacked or threatened with harm defend yourself in whatever manner you deem most helpful; yelling, physical self-defense, mace, etc.
  5. Sarcasm is like a boomerang. Be careful what you dish online, it’s likely to come back to you. When an individual has aggressive behavior (sarcasm qualifies) it’s likely others are going to take the bait and bite back. If you don’t want that type of dialog, don’t initiate it. Set the tone. This is common in social media, online forums and blogs. Pretty soon, it’s a 200 comment thread that is like a plague of locusts.Yes, it’s your space on your page or blog – but if it’s visible to the public and you have comments enabled, expect not everyone to agree with you and many people to take your same tone and fling it back at you. Horrific tragedies likethe mass murders in Newtown CT and the gang rape and death of Daminiattract a diverse and often unkind commentary in online news sites. Take a lesson from them – these websites understand the value of public discourse and that it isn’t always very civil but it is largely self-policing. I can’t stomach the hate I read sometimes, whether it’s trolls or simply ignorant or mean people – but humans come in all flavors. I watch the peer smack down and I too participate when moved to do so.On the other hand, using your space to have meaningful discussion on topics of importance to you is a wonderful way to help affect social change. Again, be mindful of your tone and demeanor – they tend to have a mirror effect. If you are snarky expect snarky back. If you are accusatory, call people names or use foul language, expect it in comments from readers too. If you don’t care and want a free-for-all then have at it. If you don’t want to hear the opinions of others, don’t enable comments.If you are threatened, you must report it for your safety.
  6. Online community andevent organizershave a responsibility to ensure the well-being of their participants – moderating content and comments, safety strategies and staff training for events – should not be afterthoughts but part of the launch plan. Treat your consumers well and establish guidelines and protocol for incidents and you’ll experience more positive growth too. I have yet to see evidence that the new fashioned conference policies I see appearing make any difference whatsoever. If people don’t know appropriate adult social protocol by the time they arrive at your event, your policy isn’t likely to impact their behavior. A good practice is to have a customer service table that serves as a place to take any concerns during the event. It should be manned at all times with an individual who knows event protocol and how to contact all key event and facility personnel and the authorities, and it should be pointed out to each attendee at registration.
  7. If you are uncomfortable about attending an event you fear you may be harassed at, ask the event organizers ahead of time what measures are in place to ensure it will be enjoyable to all who attend and who you should reach out to should a situation occur.If you don’t feel comfortable with the response make suggestions and ask for acommitment they willbe adopted. If you are not feeling valued and that there is collaboration – don’t attend. Let your friends know. Boycotts are strong motivators. Let me back up here and ask – Do you really want to go to a venue you won’t feel comfortable at? Make your needs known but don’t try to strong arm organizers, understand the power of consumerism and good proactive customer service. If events do not meet your needs, consider organizing one of your own with like minded collaborators.
  8. There are unwanted sexual advances and there is sexual harassment. One may unfortunately lead to the other but they are not the same thing. Both need to be dealt with appropriately. Misandry is not the answer and overuse of the word misogyny isn’t either.
  9. Individuals who have difficulty with interpersonal relationships should seek out help through a mentor or professional guidance. There is plenty of it out there. Causing someone else or yourself fear or humiliation should be the last thing you want. If it is what you want – that’s unacceptable and there’s help for that too. Accept that no means no and read this article.
  10. Finally, as parents there is a lot you can do to ensure your children have an easier time with these types of challenges in their teen and adult lives by educating them in the home about respect and the injustices of double standards, appropriate social protocol, healthy assertiveness and interpersonal relationships.

We aren’t going to fix poor and certainly not deviant behavior via social media – schools, mental health provider and corrections systems can’t fix it in real life. But we can help rational individuals in our communities who may be overstepping or a bit awkward to understand and practiceappropriatebehavior with good communication, instruction and leadership.

Have you experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at a conference? What kind of conference was it? Share as much as you are comfortable with in comments or the contact button up top that goes straight to my inbox.

P.S. If you have sustained sexual or other trauma and suffer from post traumatic stress and associated triggers, consider therapy to work through recovery. Find others who are kind and empathetic to your pain – there are many online and community based groups for self-help as well that may be beneficial.

Image viahttp://www.mookychick.co.uk/feminism-politics/feminism/top-10-feminist-quotes.php



22 comments
sapient_ape
sapient_ape

@karla_porter Will do :) @uberfeminist

ChanaMessinger
ChanaMessinger

Lots of good points! I have some concerns about a few though, that I'd like to hear your responses to:

 

In #2, you say, "don’t let others shove money down your tank top at an event and then talk about people not respecting your personal space." I have no idea what this is referring to, but it doesn't seem to follow. If someone is "letting" people shove money down their shirt, then that is a consensual activity. It may have even been agreed upon beforehand. People should respect your personal space no matter what, if they don't have your permission to do such things, and previous activity doesn't give permission.

 

#3 seems like a reasonable proposition, but it also seems unfair. Sometimes, no doubt, there is legitimate misunderstanding and it would have been better if the person feeling uncomfortable had been clearer. But sometimes there isn't a misunderstanding, since people are good at knowing when there's been an implicit refusal (http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/mythcommunication-its-not-that-they-dont-understand-they-just-dont-like-the-answer/), and it's really on the person making the other uncomfortable to stop. Furthermore, I think it should be acknowledged, that especially when one is uncomfortable, and especially when it's possible that the person you're talking to will get offended or annoyed or otherwise respond poorly, that speaking that bluntly is very difficult. In fact, it's almost never done in polite conversation (much of what we say is coded or obscured on purpose), and so doing that is above and beyond what is generally expected in conversation and can in fact lead to a bad/scary/harmful response. People sometimes don't take well to being told that bluntly that they're doing something wrong, and so you're asking people to take a risk. 

 

Thanks for writing! What do you think?

John
John

This is a well written, unbiased article. Finally!

brian_carnell
brian_carnell

"don’t let others shove money down your tank top at an event and then talk about people not respecting your personal space."

 

If the person is complaining that people did not respect their personal space at the tank top event, then this would be sensible.

However, simply participating in such an event does not give carte blanche for others to invade your personal space outside of that event.

 

If I participate in a boxing tournament, for example, that is not an invitation for people to challenge me to fight on the street or at a con.

Ondisplay
Ondisplay

I say that if people can report you for non-sexual harassment (bullying on the street) they can report you for sexual harassment. To make it clear, sexual harassment is when someone "hey baby"s you, you make it clear you want to walk on, or even say NoThnx.jpg and they continue. Personally I'd just find it annoying. I wouldn't even bother reporting.But yeah, there should already BE protection against street harassment (unless it varies from state to state? hmm).As for a bunch of women being harassed at these conventions? I'm going to need convention names and dates, detailed narratives from women who claimed to experience it, and then the word of what other women who were nearby say.  (I'm pretty sure it's going to reduce that "usually happens" to "sometimes" at least.)

Rocko2466
Rocko2466

@karla_porter awesome. You've earned a follower. Great post.

uberfeminist
uberfeminist

@karla_porter good article. re 'unqualified', at a skeptics conf nearly everyone should feel unqualified as audience ought to ask good q's

sinspired
sinspired

@karla_porter It should be "bursting at the seams", dear.

karlaporter
karlaporter

 @ChanaMessinger Thanks for the comments/questions! I'm happy to clarify.

#2 No, no one  has permission to touch you unless you give it. Personal space is social norm not legislated. The real key here though is to act like you want to be treated. You give the impression you're a free for all when you exhibit this type of behavior, regardless of how you feel inside.  Body language is a form of communication just like verbal language is. We use it all the time - and if your body is talking there will be eyes listening. We teach proper body language for interviews, public speaking, etc. It is a hugely important part of presentation and interpersonal skills. I agree that women should be able to walk down the street naked and no one should street harass them. Is that realistic though? I don't think so, I think that's Utopian.

 

#3 Usually, people start with "Would you please not touch me?" When that doesn't work it's your responsibility to protect yourself with something stronger. When I teach assertiveness training I absolutely teach that. It may be uncomfortable to say "I feel uncomfortable when you touch me, stop" - but what is more uncomfortable, being touched unwantedly? If an individual has difficulty clearly expressing their ideas this way they may be non-assertive and that isn't optimal. Many women are non-assertive. In that case assertiveness training is important so that they learn to not set themselves up for or allow themselves to be emotionally / physically abused. More men tend to be aggressive and the training works the same way. However, any gender can be non-assertive, assertive or aggressive. Assertive is optimal.

 

I hope that clarifies things!

karlaporter
karlaporter

 @brian_carnell Would you report someone who challenged you in the street or at a con or tell them you're not interested and to back off?

karlaporter
karlaporter

Reporting street harassment gets sticky - and it does vary state to state. All states have laws about harassment but they aren't all the same.. I feel a lot like you do - often things others do annoy me but I wouldn't report anyone for hey babying me any more than I would for singing out loud in the seat next to me on the bus. If you search you'll find specific individuals, conferences and situations - I had no interest in posting them here, my goal was a broad conversation on the subject not particular events. 

karla_porter
karla_porter

@Rocko2466 Thanks, I really appreciate your comment and follow =)

karla_porter
karla_porter

@uberfeminist by hard science I was referring to behavior not what is or isn't in the sky =)

karla_porter
karla_porter

@uberfeminist TY yes, a lot of self-subscribed experts when in reality it's not a hard science, it's all opinions that change with the ages.

Eshto
Eshto

@karla_porter @uberfeminist But social science isn't as cut and dry as physics or chemistry, but it is rational and evidence based.

karla_porter
karla_porter

@danielwaddell17 People can be jerks in a lot of ways - learning how to respond or defend is more important @Eshto @uberfeminist

karla_porter
karla_porter

@Eshto Indeed and attitudes on acceptable behavior & gender roles change with eras - though I don't think harassment has ever been right.

danielwaddell17
danielwaddell17

@Eshto @karla_porter @uberfeminist It would bring some clarity to the murky waters that have been muddied by ideology.

Eshto
Eshto

@danielwaddell17 @karla_porter @uberfeminist I would like to see more experts in gender (i.e. sociology, psychology) weigh in on... gender.

danielwaddell17
danielwaddell17

@Eshto @karla_porter @uberfeminist I agree it's getting better as it accumulates data just like the hard sciences


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