The subject of sexual harassment in the Atheist and Skeptic community has once again risen to prominence in the last couple of weeks. Being an emotionally charged subject, extremist positions on all sides are on display, but for the most part, I feel the community is sincerely invested in creating an environment that is safe, respectful, and welcoming for everyone.
As a woman who is marginally involved in the community, I've been asked what I think about a specific incident, article, or the subject in general on several occasions. Up until now, my answer has typically been some variation of "I think the whole thing annoys me," but I've finally reached a point where I feel that what I have to offer outweighs the fear of how my thoughts may be received. So... here's what I think:
1. I think it's reasonable to expect everyone to act their chronological age.
Shouting out sexually suggestive comments during a presentation or handing nude photos to a virtual stranger violates that expectation. So does crass generalization, gender baiting, and slut shaming.
2. I think there should be clear sexual harassment policies in place.
These policies should describe inappropriate behaviors in simple language, be readily available, and include specific instructions on how to report violations.
3. I think sexual harassment policies should be as non-restrictive as possible.
I firmly believe that each individual is the sole arbiter of their personal boundaries. Just as no one should have the right to violate someone else's boundaries, no one should have the right to determine where someone else's boundaries are drawn. Similarly, just as no one has the right to not be offended, I feel no one has the right to not be approached at a public event, as long as they are approached in a respectful manner.
4. I think I would rather see women empowered than coddled.
I recognize that some women have been socialized to be polite at all costs, even when that means allowing someone to continue behavior that makes them intensely uncomfortable. Taking that reality into account, I feel it is more beneficial to give women the tools to overcome that destructive programing than it is to create an environment in which all social interaction is constrained to the strictly professional.
5. I think we should provide non-confrontational ways for people to express their boundaries.
Providing a visual means for individuals to indicate their boundaries does two things: it removes reliance on easily misinterpreted social cues in determining another individual's boundaries, and it grants people the security of being able to non-verbally reinforce their own boundaries. The best example I've seen are the badge ribbons available free-of-charge to all attendees at Penguicon.
The simple black ribbon sticks to the attendee's convention badge, and features nine gold letters in three groups, each letter representing a social interest: Friendship, Sex, Cuddling, Kissing, Relationship - Ladies, Gentlemen - Monogamy, and Polyamory. Other categories, Hugging or Other (for those that reject or do not conform to strict gender labels), for example, could easily be added without creating confusion. The ribbons are customized by blacking out letters with a permanent marker, leaving visible only the types of social contact the individual is open to.
6. I think framing sexual harassment in terms of predatory men and victimized women is both sexist and heteronormative to a fault.
Yes, the vast majority of rational individuals, if not all, will concede that most sexual harassment is committed against women by men. I believe, however, that the significant under-reporting of domestic violence committed against men by women and among same-sex and gender variant couples, due in part to the male aggressor / female victim stereotype, should encourage the use of gender-neutral pronouns wherever practical.
7. I think the process for reporting a policy violation should be discrete, but not anonymous.
While I believe the danger of abuse is too high with "complaint box" and other anonymous reporting systems, I also believe that only accepting violation reports at a specific location leads to under-reporting. Training all event staff (including volunteers) to accept violation reports, clearly identifying all event staff, and making it known to all attendees that violations can be reported to any staff member, minimizes the risk of both.
8. I think the same rules should apply to all participants, regardless of position (with the exception of the very few individuals outlined in #9).
Prior to this year, I frequently participated as both a vendor and as a speaker at various conventions, and I intend to do so in the future. I resent the notion that my personal boundaries should be determined by my role rather than my will. Every individual, speaker, vendor, volunteer, or attendee, should be granted the right to define their own boundaries. Individuals who feel this suggestion grants them the right to proposition a speaker in the midst of a presentation, or a vendor who is engaging customers, should refer back to #1.
9. I think individuals with direct power over others should be held to a higher standard.
There are a few individuals that hold direct power over others in our communities. Anyone who directly influences which speakers appear at an event, for example, holds power over speakers; those determining which vendors will be granted table space hold power over vendors; individuals capable of denying or revoking admission hold power over attendees; etc... A separate policy should be put in place for those individuals that includes both clear behavioral guidelines and a list of the types of individuals and roles they are perceived to have direct power over. Acceptance of this policy should be required before an individual is allowed to assume the responsibilities of any position of power or influence.
10. I think a concerted effort should be made to include programming specifically tailored for "flirtatious socializing".
For many in the Atheist and Skeptic community, organized events represent their primary opportunity to socialize with like-minded individuals. Adding singles meet-ups, dinners, and/or parties to the scheduled programming of an event both recognizes and honors those social needs while helping to constrain flirtatious contact to appropriate venues.
It should be obvious, given that they're based on my personal opinions, that I believe these are all rational suggestions that would adequately address the issues at hand, but I'm certainly open to criticism. Are there situations or concerns I haven't addressed? Do these suggestions go too far? Not far enough? All comments are welcomed and appreciated!