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Sexual harassment and TAM

No weekend web readin’ post this weekend, I think, because the majority of my web reading lately has been all about sexual harassment at skeptical/atheist conferences. I’ve been to a total of one such conference, but would be up for attending more, especially The Amazing Meeting (TAM), which is produced by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and takes place in Las Vegas every July. That remains the case in light of the current shit storm going on. What shit storm, you ask? Well, I’ll do my best to provide an executive summary.

See, sexism in the skepticism/atheism movement (I’m going to just pretend they’re the same for now, even though I know all of the problems with that) has been a hot topic for quite a while now, especially since elevatorgate. Then in mid-May of this year there was the Women in Secularism conference, which sparked a discussion on women being under-represented, harassed, and generally treated poorly at other conferences devoted to secularism, and that has been an ongoing topic in a lot of places, including the blogs of several people at Freethought Blogs (FtB). I’ve been reading these posts and the conversations in the comments that result from them, which is how I learned that Rebecca Watson (of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, and founder of Skepchick) will not be going to TAM this year. Why is that? After all, Skepchick has established a fund to provide grants for women to attend TAM, officiated currently by Amy “Surly Amy” Davis Roth.

Well, Watson explains, it’s because she thinks JREF’s president, DJ Grothe, has said that she is the reason why women are being dissuaded from attending TAM. Or at least, a reason. Here’s what Grothe said:

Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on [sic] reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.) We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking, and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.

Here’s some relevant context:

1. Watson has endured a hard-to-imagine-if-you-haven’t-watched-it deluge of attacks since she described an unwelcome and slightly frightening come-on she received during a conference in a video she posted in June of last year. This stream of attacks was, I’m sure, aided by a sneering dismissal from Richard Dawkins that I thought was fake at first, and felt like a bizarre betrayal of the humanistic stance that people who decry religion in the name of morality should be obliged to take.

2. Grothe has been active in discussions on FtB regarding this whole matter. When asked to be more specific about examples of “prominent and well-meaning skeptics” contributing to an unsafe climate by using misinformation, Grothe threw out several examples. He began with a comment Watson made to USA Today last year:

Off the top of my head, your quote in USA Today might suggest that the freethought or skeptics movements are unsafe for women. This is from the article:
“I thought it was a safe space,” Watson said of the freethought community. “The biggest lesson I have learned over the years is that it is not a safe space. . . ”
If we tell people that our events or our movements are not safe for women, some women are bound to believe that. If I as a gay man had never attended a freethought or skeptic event and read in a national newspaper that that community wasn’t a safe space for gay people, I would certainly be reluctant to get involved.

3. Grothe is apparently mistaken about there having been no reports of harassment at TAM while he was president of JREF. Some say lying; I’m going to go with mistaken until it’s demonstrated otherwise. He says that JREF conducted a survey of TAM attendees last year to see how welcome they felt at the conference:

Of 800+ responses to this comprehensive survey, only two people reported feeling “unwelcome” at the event. Both of these respondents were men. One was a conservative who felt several speakers insulted his political beliefs. The other was a retiree who “hates” magic. 11 respondents to the survey did report a problem with an interaction with someone else that made them feel uncomfortable or unsafe (this was a difference [sic] question on the survey). 3 of them were men who did not elaborate on the interaction and 3 were from women who did not elaborate on the interaction. Another was a woman who reported a speaker was rude to her when she asked for a photo. Another was a woman who was made fun of for not being an atheist. Another was a woman was ridiculed for being a vegetarian. Another was a woman who reported no specific incident but claimed her enjoyment of the event was negatively affected by the “drama surrounding elevator gate” and “having to hear everyone talk about it.” Finally, one person did report feeling uncomfortable around an attendee, fearing future possible sexual harassment, and while we are concerned about such concerns, there was no complaint of any actual activity that had happened that the hotel or security or law enforcement or others could take action on. Importantly, every one of these 11 respondents nonetheless reported feeling welcome at TAM. It is inaccurate to say that “women do not feel welcome” at these sorts of events, judging by the 40% women attendance last year at TAM and these survey results. Similarly, I think it is an irresponsible message to tell people that women are “unsafe” at these events.

4. There is a greater context of accusations against Grothe, including demands that he resign as president of JREF.

5. Amy of Skepchick continues to promote grants for women who couldn’t otherwise afford it to attend TAM this year. She’s raising money by selling some of her ceramic jewelry, specially designed pendants for the cause.

6. There has been a lot of misinformation spread in the comments surrounding this issue. I have seen people claim that TAM never had a sexual harassment policy, when in fact it has had one for more than a year. I’ve seen people claiming that there is an organized effort by bloggers at FtB to remove women from skepticism conferences entirely. I’ve seen claims that they are forming a covert blacklist of speakers to pressure conference organizers into never inviting again, based on vague accusations of being “skeevy.” I’ve seen claim after claim after claim saying that Grothe was blaming people talking about harassment at conferences in general for the significant drop in women who have registered to attend TAM this year. That he’s blaming victims and trying to get them to shut up rather than authentically addressing a real problem.

Considering the fallout Rebecca Watson experienced from a really very benign and casual comment regarding a situation at a conference that made her uncomfortable, as well as several other unpleasant experiences she claims to have had at conferences, it’s entirely understandable why she would not choose to attend future such gatherings in the future. It is also understandable that other women who have experienced harassment at conferences would feel reluctant to report such, after witnessing the backlash against Watson that extended even to such a respected figurehead as Dawkins.

You know what’s also understandable? The fact that someone in DJ Grothe’s position would look at this outcry, and the fact that the female registration for TAM has dropped so significantly in the past year in spite of no official record that sexual harassment has occurred at the conference, let alone at a staggering rate, and conclude that a campaign of misinformation is responsible for at least some of that. In alleging such, he clarifies that he is talking about a “small number” of female skeptics who are “trying to correct real problems of sexism.”

Yes, declaring that the freethought movement in general is “not a safe space” for women is irresponsible. Vagueness might as well be misinformation, because a true statement that can just as easily be misinterpreted as a false one is of no help. This statement also suggests that the freethought movement is somehow less of a safe space, on the whole, than other movements or organizations, which is not true and definitely not a message anyone involved in it should want to send. I can entirely understand Watson concluding that the freethought movement is not a safe space for her, and it goes without saying that her grievance, and the attacks she has endured for her grievance, would not have happened were she not female. But that does not mean that any particular freethought conference isn’t a safe space for women.

I often disagree with PZ Myers, but in this case I found what he has to say very level-headed. From DJ, please fix this genuine problem:

It’s all well and good to have a piece of paper that you can wave around, saying that harassment will not be tolerated…but the next step is effective implementation, and that hasn’t occurred. Document everything: there should be a formal procedure for submitting a report in writing that gets filed away. There should also be an action taken — dismissing the offender from the conference, escorting someone out of the hall, giving a verbal warning, whatever — and that should be written down, too. Without all that, we get into these ugly situations where the victims experience these events, and then watch them get flushed down the memory hole — their concerns are simply dismissed. DJ needs to own up to the existence of a real problem, rather than closing his eyes to it and pretending it’s only a PR issue. He’s got to take TAM’s anti-harassment policy seriously, and give it some teeth and engage in some record-keeping. I do think he means well, but good intentions are not enough. There has to be some solid effort beyond drafting a list of dos and don’ts.


So what exactly would you "announce"? That some dork invited a woman to his room for coffee?

Being a recent graduate of our university's "Preventing Sexual Harassment Training Module" with a post training course exam score of 100%, I can say that since the guy was not in a "position of authority" and took no action after his unwanted invitation (for coffee) was rebuffed, and since it was not in a work environment, that our university would definitely not consider this to be a case of sexual harassment.

So, again, what exactly would you "announce"?

I must admit that had I heard Ms. Watson's comments in person I would have just felt sorry for the clueless dufus, that after being "shotdown", was now being called out in front of the entire conference.

What, if instead of completely misreading Ms. Watson's interest in coffee, our intrepid caffeinated beverage enthusiast's intentions had been reciprocated, and that Ms. Watson had eagerly accepted the offer?

Would his invitation still be worthy of an announcement?

I once attended a party with my then wife Amy. We mingled among the guests together for a while but after a few hours drifted to different groups of revelers. I ended up outside with a man and a woman. The man excused himself and I found myself alone with this young "Hippy Chick" (as my wife later described her).

After a few minutes, she took my hand and asked if I wanted to "take a walk in the woods". I gently pulled my hand from her's and said "It is a nice night. Perhaps if my wife wants to accompany us…"

Needless to say she excused herself and walked away.

My ex-wife referred to it as "the attack of the Earth shoes woman" for many years.

I still wonder what I did that lead to her proposition but mostly I feel bad that, in my surprise, I couldn't have found a way to save her the embarrassment she clearly felt.

Now I know I'm a big strong man and I wasn't in a scary elevator or a foreign land, but it seems to me that Ms. Watson was propositioned, awkwardly, and the lad retreated quickly once rebuffed. So I wonder why, the next day, she felt the need to call the guy out rather than just feel sorry for him.

Was there really something so sinister or out of line in his request?

I already told you what I'd "announce." Just acknowledge that during the conference people are mingling long into the night accompanied by a lot of drinking, and under such circumstances it's important to remember when it is and isn't appropriate to hit on people. E.g., in an elevator at 4am.

If Ms. Watson had accepted the offer, she almost certainly wouldn't have complained about it and there would be nothing to announce. That doesn't mean that the behavior was appropriate– some people are actually receptive to, or at least not put off by, creepy come-ons. It's still not okay to come onto a woman creepily on the off chance she is one of those people.

If you feel sorry for everyone who comes on to someone and fails, good for you I guess. It really has nothing to do with the appropriateness of his behavior or the most fitting response to it by a victim other than yourself or conference organizers.

I don't want to get into a protracted exchange on this topic, as I think it is pretty small potatoes and I can't believe the furor it has generated, but I still don't see how it is anyone's business, conference organizers or otherwise, to tell adults not to "hit on people".

These two were both of adult age and not working together or engaged in any type of professional association and no threats of violence or pressure was applied to the woman. It was after hours and these two were interacting socially away from official conference venues.

This was not sexual harassment. Was it "appropriate"? That isn't my business or that of the organizers.

Do you contend that woman (or men for that matter) have a right not to be propositioned when interacting socially?

Do we need conference organizers telling people how they should behave on their personal time? Do they have any authority to do so? Would you want to attend a conference where your private, after hours, social behavior was subject to scrutiny and retaliatory sanction?

This wasn't a scouting jamboree. Was the proposition unwelcome? Apparently. Was it "creepy"? As described I would say yes. Does that make it anyone but the two people involved's business?

Only if you think that the "Atheist Movement" should be in the business of regulating the private social behavior of adults.

I don't see that as appropriate or desirable.

Did I say conference organizers should tell adults not to hit on people? No. I said conference organizers who care about both men and women feeling comfortable at the event should have a sexual harassment policy. And they should, in the light of a complaint about someone feeling harassed, make a general announcement bringing attendees up to speed on the kind of actions that prompt such feelings. It's not about authority; it's not about rights; it's about making people comfortable. I'm sorry that you are apparently unable to wrap your mind around that.

First, I am a recent guest here at your blog, and have come here because I value your insights and opinions. I don't wish to anger or annoy you.

"And they should, in the light of a complaint about someone feeling harassed, make a general announcement bringing attendees up to speed on the kind of actions that prompt such feelings. It's not about authority; it's not about rights; it's about making people comfortable. I'm sorry that you are apparently unable to wrap your mind around that."

Second, feeling harassed and being harassed are two different things. I have stated the reasons that I don't think Ms. Watson was sexually harassed. Her feelings about the incident are not evidence that she was harassed. If you have such evidence of actual harassment please explain it to me.

I am all for making people "comfortable" but making official policies to take official action should be predicated on more than feelings.

As I said, I was forced to take instruction on what and what does not constitute sexual harassment and I have seen nothing that indicates that Ms. Watson was exposed to an incident of sexual harassment.

People are made to feel uncomfortable by all sorts of ethical and legal behaviors. Do you propose that organizers respond to any and all incidents of behavior that might make an attendee feel uncomfortable, with official policies and sanctions?

Or is it only the feelings of women about this particular issue that you think justify such actions?

"I am all for making people "comfortable" but making official policies to take official action should be predicated on more than feelings."

Umm, Lance…"harassed" is a feeling.

I didn't say that Watson was sexually harassed, but neither did I say that conference organizers should act as if she was. I said that they should make a public statement about appropriate behavior to attendees, which if she actually was harassed wouldn't be good enough. A general reminder on how not to be creepy would be helpful and harm no one even if nobody was actually made uncomfortable at all.

Your criteria for harassment are pretty suspect, I have to say. Sexual harassment can and done happen outside of the workplace. A person doesn't have to be in a position of authority to sexually harass someone. The fact that he (apparently) took no action after being rebuffed is useful, but if the initial statement had been something like "I'd really like to eat your pussy," then he could easily have accomplished sexually harassing someone in one sentence. I know of a guy who was fired for precisely that, and he wasn't talking to a subordinate.

It is entirely normal for a woman to feel uncomfortable when a strange man decides to come on to her at 4am in an elevator. Maybe if you put yourself in that situation and imagine that the strange man is much larger than you rather than comparing it to being hit on by a woman daylight while surrounded by people, it will be easier to understand. But if not, then you'll just have to trust me because I sure am not going to spend any more time arguing that point.

The situation then becomes– skeptical conferences want to encourage female attendance. They want to make women feel welcome. Something happened last night which, while it might not have been harassment per se, certainly made a female attendee uncomfortable enough to say something about it. What can we, as organizers, do to prevent similar things from happening again?

Say something about it.

Umm, Lance…"harassed" is a feeling.

Not when it comes with consequences and legal sanctions for the alleged harasser it isn't.

Allow me to elaborate.

A few semesters ago I was teaching a class and as an aide to the students, and me, the math department provided a "mentor" that would attend one class a week and then be available in the Math Assistance Center to help students with their homework and exam preparation.

I am male and the mentor was female. Let's call her "Stacy".

I met with Stacy after the first class and briefly discussed the class material and my approach to teaching it. The meeting was short and unremarkable from my recollection.

The next day I mentioned to the class that there was a mentor available, that I had met her, her name was Stacy and she seemed bright and affable.

And then I did it. I added "And she is cute as well." Having recently completed training for sexual harassment this statement seemed innocuousness enough but just to be sure I humorously added "Uh, oh! I hope I didn't just sexually harass Stacy."

The next day Stacy came up to get my signature on her time card proving she had attended class. I told her that I had told the previous class about her and said that she seemed capable and "I hope you don't feel harassed, but I mentioned you were cute as well."

You'd think that would have been enough to diffuse the "cute" remark and make my intentions clear but alas that wasn't the case.

A week later I received a phone call from my course coordinator (ostensibly my boss). She asked me how things were going and then after a little chit chat mentioned that Stacy had reported the "cute" remark and had added that I had been "leering" at her.

The incident was now in my file and if I continued to harass poor Stacy I would be subject to further disciplinary actions and ultimately dismissal.

When I protested that a mild compliment made to the class not even in Stacy's presence didn't rise to the level of harassment I was told that Stacy had perceived it as such and that made it documentable and appropriate for the actions taken.

My female coordinator then tried to lighten the situation by saying that I could call her "cute" anytime I wished and she wouldn't report me.

Now if I had said "She has nice tits." or "…a cute ass…" one brief comment would certainly have constituted sexual harassment.

But the "cute" remark wasn't the part that really pissed me off, it was the alleged "leering". How exactly does one defend oneself against such an accusation? I have been interacting with female students for almost fifteen years and with female humans for far longer and no one has ever accused me of "leering" at them. I consider myself to overly cautious in situations with female students and strive to make all of my students, both male and female, completely comfortable at all times.

I now have this blemish on my professional career because some self absorbed teenager decided that an innocuous compliment rose to the level of "harassment".

So you're mot going to convince me that sexual harassment is a "feeling".

Now I get the "make women comfortable" thing, I really do, but when you start making "policies" that have consequences for offending parties you have to meet a certain level of evidence and "feelings" aren't going to cut it.

Err, you missed my point. I didn't say "harassed" was just a feeling; I said that it is a feeling. As your own story conveys. Sexual harassment is behavior/speech that causes a person to feel sexually uncomfortable. When that behavior/speech is labeled harassment, it can have consequences for the harasser. Again, as you experienced. So yes, official policies to take official actions are predicated on feelings. You just apparently believe that speech must include explicit sexual reference for a person's feelings of discomfort to be legitimate. I don't agree, and "Stacy" didn't seem to either.

I'd call what you did more jackass behavior than harassment per se, but most workplaces don't have jackass policies.

And for the last time I will reiterate that we've been talking about a general announcement at a voluntary conference, not a response with any consequences whatsoever in terms of the law or employment.

So giving some one a compliment is being a "jackass"? I had listed two positive attributes of her intellect and personality. Was I a "jackass" for mentioning those as well or are only compliments of a woman's physical appearence jackass material?

I know several woman who work in the math department office. I have on occassion complimented them when I have noticed that they have changed hairstyles or worn particularly stylish clothing. Was that being a "jackass" as well?

What kind of society do you expect to live in? One where every comment and gesture must be measured and sanitized to insure that no possible interpretation might produce an offence of any kind?

You just apparently believe that speech must include explicit sexual reference for a person's feelings of discomfort to be legitimate. I don't agree, and "Stacy" didn't seem to either.

Silly me. Yes, I thought that sexual harassment had to have some connection to comments or behavior that were sexual in nature. Also the "Training Module" I completed specifically stated as much.

Maybe I should keep my eye out for a training module on not being a Jackass.

And perhaps you and Stacy might want to take a little training on not being overly sensitive prats.

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