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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