Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted on Mar 18, 2013 in gender, Uncategorized | 36 comments

Skeptech’s failure of a harassment policy

SkepTech — an upcoming Minnesota conference “all about the relationship between critical thinking and innovation” led by two campus student skeptic groups — has announced a harassment policy. I cannot fathom why conferences appealing to communities of humanists, skeptics, rationalists, etc. would need exhaustive guidelines for conduct to be spelled out and presented not only to conference staff, but also to conference attendees and the general public. It as if people at atheist/skeptic conferences — despite a very clean track record of successful conferences and major events without any incidents — do not know how to behave properly and that there is a problem with conduct which needs to be addressed.

This post will contest parts of SkepTech’s conference policy, raise some questions which show the ridiculousness of the policy, and argue against unnecessary lengthy conference policies.

Paragraph one of SkepTech’s harassment policy states,

SkepTech is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion.  We do not tolerate harassment of conference participants in any form. Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks. Conference participants violating these rules may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference without a refund at the discretion of the conference organizers.

Should this Theatre of Tragedy album — one with themes critical of religion — be banned from SkepTech because of its sexual imagery?

It seems most odd that conference organizers need to state that SkepTech is dedicated to providing a “harassment-free conference experience for everyone…” Is there reason to believe otherwise? Would not conference organizers, in all cases, be interested in providing a great conference experience for everyone? Why would harassment be tolerated? Laws — irrespective of any conference policies — exist which show that harassment is not tolerated and is associated with legal consequences. Law enforcement, rather than conference policies or staff, establishes a system of laws which allows for a redress of grievances.

Shall Dr. Darrel Ray’s book “Sex & God” be banned from SkepTech?

Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any venue or talk? What place does language policing have in a skeptical conference which will be attended by adults who likely use and are exposed to sexual imagery and language on a daily basis? What about presenters who, when talking about sex or sex in technology/the media, utilize sexual imagery in their PowerPoint slides to demonstrate a point?

Shall books by Dr. Darrel Ray be banned from conferences? Shall PZ Myers, one of the speakers at the conference, be banned from making jokes at the podium like those in this video? Should Greta Christina, one of the speakers at the conference, be banned from talking about erotica or sharing her writing about erotica?

The second paragraph of the policy states,

Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.

It seems odd that, after noting harassment will be be tolerated in any form, that the policy would include examples not only of harassment, but what harassment can include. Note that, alone, “offensive verbal comments” “related to sex…” do not necessarily constitute harassment. Who decides what is offensive, anyway? Apparently, the organizers have a monopoly on a subjective concept and the intentions, one might think, of the person who uttered a comment which was construed as offensive mean nothing.

Would this t-shirt be banned from SkepTech?

It is quite strange that “offensive verbal comments related to […] religion” would be included in a category of harassment at a conference marketed toward skeptics and atheists. Shall speakers be barred from uttering “offensive verbal comments” about religion? Who decides? If a group of sensitive Christians or Muslims, for instance, attended the conference and complained to staff, should conference attendees be ejected? Shall potentially offensive music like Tim Minchin’s “The Pope Song” be banned from the conference?

The next paragraphs read,


If a participant engages in harassing behavior, the conference organizers may take any action they deem appropriate, including warning the offender or expulsion from the conference with no refund. If you are being harassed, notice that someone else is being harassed, or have any other concerns, please contact a member of conference staff immediately.  Conference staff can be identified by badges with the word “STAFF” and a blue stripe on them. Conference staff will be happy to help participants contact hotel/venue security or local law enforcement, provide escorts, or otherwise assist those experiencing harassment to feel safe for the duration of the conference. We value your attendance.


Fair enough, but it seems most strange to tell people to report to members of conference staff with concerns…as if people did not already know to do this if they had any concerns.

The conference policy then goes on to include a phone number for 911, the Minneapolis police department, a sexual assault hotline/center, a medical center, and a local taxi service. Why is this information needed and part of a harassment policy? It may indeed be helpful for attendees to have the phone number for a taxi service in order to have transportation around the conference, but why is this part of a harassment policy and not simply an addition to a conference tabloid?

Should this “Jesus is a Cunt” t-shirt, with a blank front and this message on the back inspired by the group Cradle of Filth, be banned from SkepTech?

Why is there information for a sexual assault hotline/center within the conference policy? Is there a problem of sexual assault at skeptic/atheist conferences which warrants such an inclusion in addition to information for a medical center and 911? Perusing the website for the sexual assault hotline/center reveals absolutely bogus statistics (95% of domestic violence is perpetrated by men, 90-95% of domestic violence victims are women, and 98-99% of rape is committed by men) which should not, by any means, be included with a website for a skeptic conference.

In addition, the information provided by the sexual assault hotline/center contains various statements and anti-male/misandric attitudes (“violent masculinity” is discussed and “male privilege” is partially to blame for domestic violence”) which could be construed as offensive…a direct violation when considering the conference’s policy.

It is a shame that many skeptic and atheist conferences, including SkepTech, have felt a need to include lengthy and unreasonable conduct policies for their conferences which, if absolutely necessary perhaps for legal reasons, can be limited to the following two sentences:  “Appropriate behavior in compliance with the law is expected of all conference attendees. Improper behavior may constitute ejection from the conference at the discretion of conference staff.”

The skeptic and atheist communities are blighted by such lengthy harassment policies and recurring false narratives asserting that atheist/skeptic conferences are unsafe places which are particularly hostile to women make the situation even worse. Those outside the atheist/skeptic communities — including theists and persons new to the communities — are undeniably sent a message which reflects poorly on the atheist/skeptic communities – that harassment policies are needed and that, without them, people will feel unsafe or not know to behave at conferences.

Skeptech organizers should discard their current harassment policy and, if absolutely necessary, replace it with a simple statement such that I included above. Atheist/skeptic conferences are not dangerous places in which exhaustive codes of conduct are needed for people to feel safe and/or behave in compliance with law.

Share your thoughts below.

Updates: This policy seems to be lifted from ‘Geek Feminism Wiki.’ It’s also quite curious that SkepTech would speak about sexual imagery and language being inappropriate considering that they link a BDSM club on their website (“This dance club is centered around people who like to explore their kinky side, with BDSM & burlesque shows and a dance floor.”).

One Pingback/Trackback

  • Daisy

    Harassment policies for a conference being attended by adults? How odd.

  • Femtheists and drama-queens hijacked this conference – simple as that!

    • Sadly it’s easy to imagine that if PZ did joke about fucking a woman next to him on stage again, or Greta talked about her porn writing, they probably would not be reprimanded; and furthermore they would have all kinds of b.s. justifications for why it’s not inappropriate when THEY do it. Their hypocrisy is boundless, as we have already seen.

      • Ohh, sure!! It’s not bad when they do it! Isn’t that the definition of privilege?

        • blondein_tokyo

          If someone jokes to a good friend, whom they know will know it’s a joke, then how can it be considered harassment?

          • Because it’d have something to do with sex… and -as we know [wink, wink]- everything that has to do with sex is automatically harassment, obviously!

            • blondein_tokyo

              Everything to do with sex is automatically harassment? But you must be joking! Two adults, who know each other and are clear about each others boundaries, surely can trade sexual jests with one another without outsiders looking on calling it harassment. Even if one of the friends gets upset, it’s still not “harassment” because “harassment” is defined as being both hostile and repeated attacks, no? It’s all very confusing. How is “harassment” being defined here, then?

              • Ohh, I am joking… but they’re not! What’s a reductio ad absurdum for you and me, is dead-serious to femtheists!

                • blondein_tokyo

                  Sorry, I’m new to this blog. What is a “femtheist”? A female theist? But it seems absurd even for a theist who might have a problem with sexualized language, to say that anything to do with sex is automatically harassment. What exactly are they saying “sexual harassment” is, because this isn’t making sense to me.

                  • No worries. Femtheist: someone who has adopted the third-wave feminism as an unquestionable dogma.

                    They’re against sex, facts and scientific disciplines such as evolutionary psychology.

                    • blondein_tokyo

                      Are you including Greta Christina in that? I wonder because she’s mentioned in the above post that this in in reply to. I ask, because I don’t think you can say she’s “against sex”. The woman is a sex positive feminist, pornographer, is a former sex worker and now is an activist for sex worker’s rights. I think it’s pretty clear she likes sex quite a bit. :) In fact, I don’t think you can say any of these people are “against sex”. I think you could re-word that because it is it’s pretty exaggerated.

                    • Well, that’s one of the things that puzzled me more when all this so called infighting within the Skeptic community exploded.

                      Greta Christina certainly writes a lot about sex and porn and the likes, yet she manages to oppose and criticize and verbally abuse people who think an invitation to coffee shouldn’t be considered harassment.

                    • blondein_tokyo

                      Yes, I have seen people criticizing each other and disagreeing rather vehemently. What’s new? LOL. :) But as far as I know, Greta Christina herself hasn’t verbally abused anyone. Unless we have differing views of what constitutes verbal abuse, that is. As for my stance, I don’t think asking someone for coffee in an elevator at 2am (or whatever time it was) is harassment. I think it can be categorized as “unwanted sexual attention”, and a case can be made for that being intimidating, but no, it doesn’t fit the definition of “harassment”. The dude made a mistake, that is for sure, but his aim wasn’t to harm anyone.

                    • I wouldn’t say he made a mistake – we can’t read others’ minds [yet?], so how was he supposed to know how she would react?

                      About Greta Christina, you’re right – I haven’t seen her verbally abuse anyone, wich makes me wonder why is she sided with people who bully others on a daily basis? This, I don’t get it.

  • Hahahaha! It seems that PZ’s move there would really count as just the first layer of what they would ban as skepchicks, to be fair… Bad form, PZ… fucking ew. And Greta Christina’s erotica? Sick, although I wouldnt ban it xD.

    • blondein_tokyo

      Erotica is sick? How so? Or are you saying that *Greta’s* erotica is sick? Again, how so? This seems very sex negative to me.

  • Someone landing on that page would think you need combat gear to attend. Of course the truth is that no conference permits, less tolerates, harassment and anyone intelligent enough to get through the registration process knows that.

  • OK, I just managed to post it to my FB page. Didn’t manage to log into Disqus, though.

  • I’m not comfortable attending inasmuch as they haven’t felt it necessary to put up an anti-slave taking policy, anti-murder policy, and anti-rape policy. Moreover, I’m not sure how I feel about such an open-ended punishment policy; viz, “the conference organizers may take any action they deem appropriate”. Let’s hope no one staff thinks beheading is an appropriate punishment because, after all, they’ve restricted themselves to no limitation on what it is they, in their sole prerogative, deem to do. Thus, it makes my first objections all the more salient; they’ve not come out against murder, rape or selling people into slavery and so it’s not unreasonable to wonder if these might be seen as ‘appropriate’ punishments for singing Tom Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag”.

    Those immoral bastards.

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    Conference organizers have caved to the FemiNazis. Perhaps it’s time for men to boycott these conferences.

  • In my talk today I mentioned how sex and my libido helped me on my path to atheism. Also, at Reasonfest, we’re having a Godless Perverts’ Hour.. so.. I wouldn’t fit in at the event in the post.

    • blondein_tokyo

      It is really necessary to mention that they are talking about *non-consenual* sexual commentary? For example, do you let people know what sort of material is covered in “Godless Perverts”, or do you just surprise them? It seems to me anyone who reads a program guide, attends a talk called “Godless Perverts” and then complains that they were harassed by being forced to listen to sexualized language without their consent isn’t being very honest. I’m pretty sure that would be clear to any organizers who received such a complaint.

      • Yes – it is necessary! With femtheists one can never be too sure.

        • blondein_tokyo

          This sounds like sarcasm to me, but since I don’t know you well, I’m not sure. Maybe you could explain?

          • There was no sarcasm intended. From what I’ve seen, the drama-queens pushing for this anti-sex and social conservatism wave within the Skeptic community will take the most un-offensive, innocent comment and turn it into something they will label “rape culture apology” or something like that.

            So yes – with these people, whatever word you leave outside is because you did so intentionally. I’m holding them to their own standards.

  • Freeze Peach Inspector

    Yo, I just wanted to point out that unless you’re calling the CDC “absolutely bogus”, you should drop some actual citations or stfu about rape:

  • Edward Gemmer

    I’m amazed at how much people want rules to tell them how to act

  • MosesZD

    I think it’s kind of funny in a sad way. Here we are, some 70+ years from Animal Farm and, as always people fail to see (or protect from) the power-mad work their way to the top of the movement and destroying it from within as they secure their own privilege at the expense of the rights and dignity of others.
    It’s like nobody actually learned any of the lessons of Orwell’s Animal Farm, despite it’s being widely taught in HS and college, which is not only an accurate allegorical portrayal of the evolution of the Soviet Union, but speaks well to the evolving dynamics of most social movements.

  • blondein_tokyo

    Who decides what is “offensive”? Well, I get to decide what offends me. And if I tell someone, “That offends me” and they continue doing it regardless of my clearly asking them to stop, then it’s harassment. I don’t see how this is problematic?

    • jjramsey

      What if what offends you is someone wearing a T-shirt that says “Religion is a scam”? Ok, that wouldn’t offend *you* in particular, but it would offend quite a few people, including some atheists who think religion is by and large mistaken belief rather than the sort of intentional deception implied by the word “scam.” If someone complains about being offended, should the wearer of the T-shirt take it off? You might suggest that the wearer go to his/her room and change shirts, but that may not be practical at a particular time.

      What if what offends someone is the color of someone else’s skin? What are you going to do about *that*?

      There are some things that can reasonably be considered offensive, and some things that can’t. Your proposed standard fails to differentiate between them.

  • blondein_tokyo

    Hmm…I don’t think anyone is saying that if we don’t have a policy people will not know how to behave. Generally speaking of course, most people are socialized well enough to know how to behave around the opposite sex. I think the point of these policies is to provide guidelines for the staff so they will know how to react if anything happens, and to make it clear to participants that the conference takes sexual harassment seriously. I think you can make a case for wording it better, making the definition of “sexual harassment” more specific, for example, but I don’t see the case for simply dropping the policy entirely. Sexual harassment is a very real concern. I think every conference, every office, every bar, every club ought to have them.

    • RussellBlackford

      I don’t think they need to be more specific. I think they need to less specific, if anything. Rather than demonising a whole lot of individual behaviours, such as “sexual language and imagery”, they should rely on ordinary good sense. If you are behaving in a way that ordinary broad-minded people are likely to regard as disruptive, intimidating, obnoxious to others, etc., you are potentially in trouble. If it falls within a grey area, as it often will, you might just be warned. If it’s obviously serious, you might have your convention membership rescinded without a refund, and you might even be banned from any future conventions organised by the same people. I have no sympathy for individuals who really do behave disruptively or obnoxiously and spoil others’ fun. And I’ve certainly seen this happen.

      All of this more or less goes without saying, but that’s the point. The policy should enforce what is usually understood by reasonable, not especially sensitive people, rather than demanding some artificial standard of prim and proper behaviour.

      It does no harm, and may do some good, to state the more-or-less obvious in some concise way, together with information as to who you can complain to, how a complaint will be dealt with, and that it’s regarded seriously and will be enforced. All this might deter some of the nasty behaviour that actually does happen at conventions from time to time (usually fuelled by alcohol, but sometimes it’s just that there are weird, clueless people around). It could make up a brief policy on hostile or harassing behaviour, and I’m fine with it being displayed on a convention website and/or in a convention handbook.

      It’s when such policies become overbroad or overly detailed that I worry. I certainly don’t think that, for example, speakers should be prevented from using sexual language or imagery that’s appropriate to their topics, or even from telling sexually charged jokes up to a certain point – we’re all supposed to be broadminded grown-ups. I don’t see why erotic art should be banned if there’s an art display or a poster shop, or the like, or why books with erotic artwork on the cover should be banned. Nor do I see why friends should be prevented from engaging in banter or double entendres, etc.

      The trouble with many of these policies is that they are poorly drafted and/or drafted in a way that is overly broad in what they cover, and very defensive about any conduct that has even the possibility of offending people who are uncomfortable about sexual matters. It imposes a kind of tyranny of the sensitive. That might or might not be appropriate in conventional workplaces (such as an ordinary business office) where a certain degree of conformity and decorum is expected, and people are often expected to suppress their personalities to an extent. But it is very ill-adapted to a convention, where attendees have an expectation of being able to have fun, let their hair down, and be themselves, as long as they are not disruptive, obnoxious, intimidating, etc.

  • Pingback: Adria Richards did everything exactly wrong | Justin Vacula's Blog()

  • Someday organizers are going to realize these conferences are unnecessary in that most of the exchange of ideas is being handled on the internet, and the conferences are really just social gatherings. And if you have enough hypersensitive people attending, the rest won’t. It doesn’t matter what the hypersensitivity is about.

  • You need to find more synonyms for ‘odd’ and ‘strange’! ;)

  • Kevin Solway

    “Sexual imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue”

    So attractive women will be banned from the conference then?

    And the use of lipstick, etc, likewise banned.