As an organizer for my local Skeptic group, it was important to me to include an anti-harassment policy. My co-organizer and I very much wanted the gender ratio to be as close to 50/50 as it could be, for both speakers and attendees. To that end I wanted a good anti-harassment policy in place. I never imagined that it would be an issue. I guess at heart I’ve been far too much of an optimist.
Obviously it didn’t happen that way. The incidents are probably well known to you if you’re reading this and I don’t really have any desire to go into a detailed analysis of them. I do, however, want to address something that was brought up over and over again in the maelstrom that followed the incident and post on SkepChick. It was continuously brought up that our anti-harassment policy was “sex negative”. In essence – that we were trying to keep people from having sex. I found these comments rather perplexing. For one thing – why is having sex that important at a Skeptic conference? I’m in a long-term monogamous relationship, but even if I wasn’t I wouldn’t be looking at Skeptic conferences to have sex. Maybe I’m a bit naive about these things.
In any event, the problem with most of the comments I saw was simple: they put the burden of dealing with harassment on the shoulders of those being targeted. What utter bullshit. Nobody says “Well yeah, we let people in with loaded guns. You should just wear a bullet proof vest or bring your own gun.” You can do that at your conference, but at mine you’re going to have to check your weapons at the door. You can have them back when you leave – I promise. Let me state this as clearly as I can – this isn’t about you. Don’t like it? Feel free not to come to our event. Simple as that. See how easy that was? I don’t care if you don’t have sex after coming to our event. I don’t care if I’m making it harder for you to hook up because THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU. This is about everyone. Everybody deserves the right to feel reasonably comfortable and safe. When someone is at one of our events they are under our watch. I would say your orgasms are the lowest item on my priority list, but truthfully they’re not even on my goddamn list. The attendees and presenters should feel that they are in a safe environment for learning about science and skepticism. Constantly looking over their shoulder, fielding creepy comments or being approached for sex by strangers doesn’t fit into that philosophy. The fact that one particular person doesn’t have a problem with it is anecdotal evidence. In no way does that mean it applies to all attendees.
I’m not trying to make some bubble wrapped environment. We’re not trying to ensure that no one is ever upset by any statement ever said. We are not going to stamp out every case of casual flirting at SkeptiCamp. We are not going to censure someone for making a respectful but clumsy approach. I’m not kicking anyone out for asking someone to go out for coffee (again respectfully – context weighs heavily in all of these scenarios). Keep in mind that this policy does exactly what it was intended to do: It puts the burden of dealing with harassment on the organizers rather than the targets. I’m not going to claim that I or any of the other organizers are perfect because we’re not. Even if we were you can’t make everybody happy all the time. The goal is ensuring that the maximum number of people get to learn about Skepticism and meet awesome people. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from the women in the movement and that’s good enough for me.
I guess what perplexes me is that we as an organization are saying that we expect our attendees to respect other people’s boundaries. If you’re more sexually enlightened than everybody else then good for you, but please recognize the fact that those are your values and not everyone else shares them. I don’t have a problem with sex – I’m a huge fan myself, but respect is a key part of that. Saying that a broad anti-harassment policy discriminates against people who want to have sex strikes me as saying that one person’s preferences trump everyone else’s comfort and safety.