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Posted by on Apr 17, 2013 in Culture, Personal | 20 comments

Convention conduct policies – a line in the sand

Over here, Justin Vacula has a useful post about conduct policies at conventions. There is one misconception in Justin’s post, and it’s worth focusing on this for a moment. The purpose of such a policy is not to help the police enforce the criminal law. Rather, it is to enhance the product that is being sold, i.e. the experience of the convention.

It does this by deterring behaviour that is sufficiently disruptive, abusive, or obnoxious to spoil the fun of other convention goers, and by providing a structured mechanism for complaint when that sort of behaviour nonetheless happens from time to time. In an ideal world, we’d assume that all convention goers are sufficiently adult not to engage in such conduct, but exuberance, alcohol, and in some cases just naivety or weird personalities can lead to some of this behaviour taking place. I’ve certainly observed it, and even been on the receiving end of it, during my 30-plus years of attending conventions.

Not all such disruptive/abusive/obnoxious behaviour is illegal. Conversely, not all behaviour that is technically illegal in the jurisdiction concerned is disruptive, abusive, or obnoxious so as to spoil the fun of other convention attendees. Illegality is not the point, though of course a convention might not be able to ignore flagrant displays of illegal behaviour, such as attendees flagrantly using illegal drugs.

So, as a convention organiser you want to say that disruptive, abusive, or obnoxious (e.g. scary, humiliating, unreasonably hostile, etc.) behaviour is not allowed, and something about how it will be dealt with and how a complaint can be made. If you spell out a policy in writing, it should give an indication of the possible consequences, e.g. a warning in cases that are not severe or fall in a grey area, rescission of convention membership with no refund in serious cases, and banning from future conventions put on by the same organisation in very serious or aggravated cases. I have nothing against conduct policies that essentially do this. They should be viewed as good-faith efforts by organisers that deserve support.

Such policies would capture, among other things, what is usually regarded as “sexual harassment”, i.e. conduct 1. with a sexual element, that is, 2. subjectively unwelcome to the recipient, and 3. objectively abusive or obnoxious in some way. However, the emphasis should be on disruptive, abusive, or obnoxious, etc., behaviour in general, not on special sensitivity about sex.

Conduct policies should not therefore attempt to restrict ordinary, reasonable behaviour, whether or not it has some kind of sexual element. They should not, for example, try to control who can have sex with whom (as was found in some proposals last year), what people can talk about in their various conversations around the venue, or how people dress (within ordinary standards of decency and legality). In particular, there is no good basis for a policy that forbids sexual images or imagery, and/or sexual language. Within wide limits, we should all be free to talk about sex, or even joke about it. Book stalls should be free to sell books whose covers have arguably sexual or erotic images, art displays or poster shops should be free to include art with erotic content, etc.

It does seem that in every generation new rationalisations are invented to try to restrict sexual expression and openness. And in every generation, we have to fight this.

For myself, I will not be supporting any convention that I observe promulgating policies against ordinary sexual expression that is not disruptive, harassing, or otherwise abusive or obnoxious. I do realise that a lot of these policies are not being enforced literally (as I always predicted), but they are open to manipulation, in the form of selective enforcement, and they send an entirely wrong anti-sex message. I will not knowingly be a party to this.

If you’ve been defending these policies, using some kind of contrived argument, please stop. Whatever your motives may be, you are on the wrong side of this issue. I am as much against actual sexual harassment as anyone, but I draw a line in the sand with policies that have “no sexual images” or “no sexual imagery and language” clauses. You should, too.

5 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • RussellBlackford

    Hopefully the lack of comments means that you’ve all gone over to Justin’s place to thrash this one out. Probably a good idea, actually, as he has quite a thread underway, including long comments by me.

  • I’ll comment. I appreciate your analysis and ability to put into words what has bothered me about these policies for so long while keeping a level head about it. Sadly, I’ve encountered too many people online who say that policies not specific enough about what behavior constitutes “obnoxious, disruptive or harassing” only allow men to get away with making women uncomfortable. I went to my first atheist event last year and felt very uncomfortable because of the over-done harassment policy, not in spite of it. I was constantly worried something I did would be interpreted as offensive and get me kicked out, so I took no pictures or video with the speakers and was even reluctant to shake hands.

  • Agreed that we don’t need a special sensitivity regarding sex. If conduct meets criteria 2 and 3, that should be enough. If someone is repeatedly annoying me at a con, insisting that I have a gander at their non-sexual tatoos of metazoans, and getting increasingly loud about it and following me around, why should it matter that they aren’t talking about sex?

    Where the sex part comes in is that sexual advances are usually subject to special scrutiny under the social standards which are applied in the third criterion. At a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim conference the relevant social standards require no sexual talk or advances whatsoever. Part of the ongoing argument within our community is what standards we will set for ourselves. When, for example, is it okay to invite someone up for “coffee” and when is such an invitation over the line?

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  • corpsepants

    I maintain that the purpose of these stated policies is not to improve/protect the conference experience, nor to enforce extant laws (nor, in fact, to be generally enforced at all). I believe the purpose is to have something in writing to point to if/when conference organizers/staff get to the point of wanting someone to be removed. It may seem like a minor difference, but I don’t think it is. I believe these policies are fully CYA — not that that’s a bad thing.

    If nothing is in place — or, alternatively, if the policies are either too strict or too loose — a con-goer could conceivably claim “no one TOLD me I couldn’t ______.”* And, in fact, if whatever that behavior was is a: legal or b: subtle, what’s the staff going to say? “Yeah, I know we never said you couldn’t, but we don’t like it, so you forfeit your hundreds of dollars in admission fees cuz we said so.”

    I’m neither arguing for nor against policies. I’m a grown-up and frankly I don’t worry about this shit. The only things that concern me are “am I allowed to take pictures?” and…actually no, that’s the only one. I wouldn’t mind if unquestionably sexual topics were asterisked in the conbook, for the sake of some people’s comfort. COMFORT, not “safety.” Hearing someone talk about sex is not an attack against your person.

    I DO worry about speakers needlessly dumbing their presentations down, making them baby-friendly (“because a baby can’t chew, you can’t have a steak”). I mean, where am I going to hear about penis-stealing demons if not at a skeptics conference? On the other hand, if the presenter is crass enough to add needlessly sexist/sexualized language to an otherwise-unrelated topic, well, it’s probably going to be a pretty crappy talk/presentation, and I would expect that to sort itself out.

    As for trying to control the language of the con-goers, fuck that.

    *”There’s nothing in the rule book that says an elephant can’t pitch!”

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    Why is it that these policies never address the one self-centered, obnoxious, and annoying behavior that many conference attendees find the most frustrating…the person who hogs the mike during the Q&A and prattles on doing one of the following:

    1) Giving the speaker’s speech again but less coherently before asking a question which was already addressed during the speaker’s talk.

    2) Rambling on about something that is completely unrelated to the speaker’s talk, and then asking a question about a topic not related to the talk.

    3) Treating the speaker like a nitwit who needs a lengthy explanation to understand a simple question.

    4) Giving a speech without actually having a question for which they seek an answer.

    5) Making an assertion about the speaker’s position which is in direct conflict with what the speaker has said, and then proceeding to debunk this straw man.

    This behavior is often coupled with a polite intervention by the speaker in an attempt to prod the questioner to get to the point, which the questioner responds to with annoyance for having been interrupted.

    IMO, this is the obnoxious behavior which bothers the greatest number of attendees most often. If conference organizers wish to make the conference going experience a far more pleasurable experience for attendees, policies will state that there is a 30 second time limit on questions during the Q&A. 😉

    On a more serious note, if conference policies really are necessary, they should be written by people like you or Ron Lindsay, Russell. You both have the philosophical and legal understanding necessary to write policies which are most likely to achieve the goals of such policies while not being overreaching.

    I do question whether the specific goal of deterring unacceptable behavior can actually be achieved by having a policy against it. My experience has been that those who engage in obnoxious behavior often lack the introspection necessary to realize their behavior is annoying to others – like the questioners who do one of the 5 things listed above. I don’t think it occurs to them that audience members are thinking, “STFU!” A lack of introspection also seems to be a factor in sexually harassing behavior. The harassers I have had to deal with have egos the size of Texas, and seem to think that the unwanted sexual attention they pay to others is actually a great honor they are bestowing on the recipients.

  • RussellBlackford

    Good thoughts – but on your first point, why would the conference organisers want to remove someone in the first place? Surely it’s because they are acting in a way that is disrupting the convention, upsetting people (by acting obnoxiously in some way), etc. So that’s the sort of behaviour they should be aiming at, not at erotic paintings in the art show, or people having conversations about sex somewhere in the convention venue, or any of the other things that are prohibited if you read some of these policies at face value.

  • RussellBlackford

    Yeah, I know the sorts of questioners you’re talking about. Often when I’m convening a panel I’ll remember to make a point that questioners are to ask questions, not make their own observations, and especially not lengthy or multiple-part ones (Bruce Sterling once offered me a way of putting this well, something about a ban on people who begin: “Not so much a question, more an observation – and it’s in three parts.”). But you’re right that some don’t seem to get it even if something like that is said from the chair. Ego or a lack of self-awareness can come to the fore.

    One of my worst experiences as a speaker was at a small forum in which a Christian audience member would not stop berating me in very nasty, personal terms in what was supposed to be question time. The person who was fielding the questions for me made no attempt to control her. As this kept happening, I got pretty angry with her… which is never a good look: speakers should try to remain calm in these situations. This was one of only two occasions when I went away from a talk feeling it had gone very badly (the other involved an equipment failure). While I’d be calmer next time, having had the experience once, speakers should be given some protection from these situations arising.

    FWIW, I think the CFI policy is partly motivated by a wish to deal with the worst of these situations.

  • corpsepants

    “Because someone complained” is not necessarily the same as “because they were disruptive.” See: Pycon

  • corpsepants

    Seconded. Having a good strong person handling the mic/questioners is WAY more realistically important.

  • corpsepants

    Let me ask a serious question. Would you guess — acknowledging this is speculation — that Jo(Anna) Con-Goer’s “he’s making crude jokes in a semi-private conversation with his buddy” complaint would be treated the same by, let’s say, American Atheists con management, as the same complaint made by a non-speaking, oh…damn, I was going to select from a few specific names, but I know they all have search bots for their names and I don’t want to pollute the conversation. Let me just say, would it be given the same consideration as the same unwitnessed “report” from a non-con-speaking but “known” blogger? Real question.

  • RussellBlackford

    I agree. One problem is that we still don’t know what exactly happened at Pycon. Perhaps they were being slightly disruptive and inconsiderate if they were speaking loudly in the audience of a session. But that is not how it keeps getting discussed.

    But my point is that conferences should not have policies that forbid sexual language, as such, in the venue. They should be aiming their policies at dealing disruptive, nasty, hostile, etc., behaviour, not at language and/or images to do with sex, as if there is something especially problematic about sex. Apart from anything else, that is sending out an anti-sex message. And it goes against the entire struggle that we had to go through not that many decades ago for a society that is more open and relaxed about sexual desire, the human body, etc.

  • RussellBlackford

    Are you asking me whether someone who is well-known and highly regarded by the convention organisers would be given leniency if breaching the letter of a policy (e.g. by having a semi-private conversation about some topic to do with sex)? We can’t be sure, but I suspect they probably would be if there is going to be so much discretion about how policies are applied as we’ve seen so far. These overbroad policies that are then largely ignored in practice provide a recipe for unfairness and abuse.

  • corpsepants


  • corpsepants

    Not quite. I’m talking about complaints lodged. Would my “nobody” complaint against another attendee be held in the same “seriousness” as a known blogger’s complaint against a fellow attendee, all else being equal? I don’t usually like to be cynical, but…I’m going to say that a lot of organizers are, henceforth, going to flip over backward to avoid all the blog-ganging.

  • RussellBlackford

    Okay, gotcha. My bad. Well, that might be even harder to know, given the discretion that organisers seem to want to exercise to ignore the rules when it suits them.

    My own approach would be to avoid going to conferences with anything like a “no sexual images or language” policy altogether (though being rigorous about this might be too difficult in some cases). I think I’d also avoid interacting certain individuals who have a reputation for creating drama with dubious complaints or with posts about their private interactions. I think it’s come to this.

  • RussellBlackford

    I agree.

    Historically, however, there actually was a reason for special sensitivity about sex back in the 1970s and 1980s. As women entered workforces in large numbers, and the idea became one of opening careers to women and no longer having gendered workforces, a lot of men responded very badly. Some were hostile to women in the workplace except in narrowly-defined and rather subservient positions. Often they expressed their hostility via various kinds of sexualised abusive behaviour. And then there were men who responded to the greater presence of women in the workplace by abusive attempts to get sex from them – various kinds of blackmail like “Have sex with me or you’re fired/I’ll destroy your career/whatever”, or more-or-less coercive quid pro quo offers (“Have sex with me and I see that you get promoted”). Or just plain boorish, obnoxious sexual behaviour.

    So there was a strong public policy reason for restrictions on sexual conduct, in particular, in workplaces, in particular. It was needed as part of the effort to open up the workforce to women on terms more equal with men. And this reasoning could be extended to other areas of society such as educational settings.

    Furthermore, despite all the training men have been through since, I don’t think we could now just set aside these laws and see what happens. And there may even be an argument as to why it does not matter if employers end up banning basically all but the most clearly innocuous sexual language, imagery, and conduct in standard workplaces such as offices and factories. After all, we all expect to have to suppress our personalities to some extent in the workplace, and there’s a public interest in making workplaces reasonably psychologically comfortable even for the most sensitive, such as people with religious objections to blatant sexuality (everyone has to earn a living). But if colleagues choose to go out for drinks after work, it’s a totally different thing, and they generally get to let their hair down, flirt, etc., etc.

    In the upshot, workplaces often have quite draconian sexual harassment codes (while often doing little about bullying behaviour in general!). When I was a lawyer working in this area, I gave employers the advice to be very stringent about this, mainly because it could help them avoid legal exposure.

    But you can’t just translate the public policy considerations relating to workplace sexual harassment policies over to the setting of a convention, where, unless the convention is very closely tied to your work, the policy issues are, in fact, quite different. (You can’t even apply the same reasoning to all workplaces – e.g. a shop that sells erotic art is not the same as an insurance office.)

  • corpsepants

    Yes. And unfortunately, it’s come to bypassing entire conferences because -speakers- are those with reputations for drama/dishonesty/etc. I don’t understand how they keep getting hired. (That’s not true, I do know. The Good Ol’Boy Network isn’t just boys.)

  • That’s a very important point, I think. If the objective is to allow conference goers to feel comfortable, then a policy requiring people to walk on eggshells (or at least perceive such a need) for fear of offending someone else’s very different and not reasonably foreseeable standards would hardly be conducive.

  • RussellBlackford

    Also, once you get these policies that forbid, say, sexual language, they are not literally enforced… with the excuse that “well, we really only meant obnoxious, etc., sexual language”. If that is really what is meant, it should be in the policy itself. You don’t make a policy more specific and less vague by wording it in a way that is positively misleading, and by applying the real policy that is not written down.

    Of course, it misses the point if people draft these policies with a list of specific behaviours that are forbidden. The idea is to deter, and deal with complaints about, all the sorts of behaviours that ordinary, reasonable, not especially prudish or sensitive people would consider obnoxious. You can’t specify all those in advance, and nor can you specify in advance what circumstances will make conduct not obnoxious after all (e.g. the kinds of relationships that might exist between the people involved). As so often in the law and even in workplace rules, much of it comes down to vague standards of what ordinary people consider reasonable, what they consider to be kind of testing the envelope of reasonable social conduct (where a warning might be appropriate), and what is behaviour that we can all see goes outside the envelope.

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  • SexyIsntSexist

    “However, the emphasis should be on disruptive, abusive, or obnoxious, etc., behaviour in general, not on special sensitivity about sex.” A useful definition.

    I wonder the utility of the debate with radical feminists however who are clearly of a separatist ilk. Is it that they are not happy in creating their own separate space with their own rules, but want their rules to apply across the board. The internet is the perfect void for these people to vent their spleen. The true judge will be history. In evolutionary terms, the people who are anti-sex will always be the losers. Progress needs sex and especially people who like sex and want to procreate.

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