Guest Post by the Ada Initiative, a not-for-profit organisation supporting women in open technology and culture (originally published at the Ada Initiative blog)
[Content Note: sexual harassment and assault]
Why a history of anti-harassment campaigns?
We decided to chronicle the history of conference anti-harassment policies in three communities: science fiction and fantasy, skepticism and atheism, and free and open source software. The goal is to create a standard reference model of how conference anti-harassment campaigns usually work so that we can refer to it when the going gets tough. If you know what other communities went through – e.g., a phase of concerted online harassment of women leaders – then you are less likely to give up. We hope this history will help people working to end harassment in other geek communities: Wikipedia, computer security, anime and comics, computer gaming, and perhaps even academic philosophy.
This history only covers the high-profile, publicly-documented events of conference anti-harassment campaigns, but like any social justice movement, much of the credit should go to the many people quietly working behind the scenes to organize and implement the change. We’re trying to make that work more visible, so if you were part of this fight and your part isn’t mentioned in this history, or we made a mistake, please leave a comment and we will make the correction as soon as possible!
Thank you to everyone who actually did the work we write about here. You have changed your community for the better!
Table of contents
- About the authors
- Stages of conference anti-harassment campaigns
- History of the science fiction and fantasy campaign
- History of the skepticism and atheism campaign
- History of the free and open source software campaign
- Current status of anti-harassment campaigns
- How you can help
- Sources and resources
About the authors
As a non-profit supporting women in open technology and culture, the Ada Initiative cares deeply about ending harassment in geek communities. Our co-founders, Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, co-authored the most widely used example anti-harassment policy, hosted on the Geek Feminism Wiki. The Ada Initiative’s first project was working as full-time advocates for the adoption of policies in the open source community, often working directly with conference organizers and community leaders as advisors and coaches.
Stages of conference anti-harassment campaigns
Conference anti-harassment campaigns work, but it is hard to stay positive when you’re in the middle of one. Here’s the big picture of how they usually work, broken down into different stages (note that stages can overlap and have fuzzy boundaries – they are just useful reference points). See if any of this sounds familiar to you:
- Stage 0: Harassment, assault, pornographic presentations, and sexist jokes are rampant at conferences, mainly targeting women. An informal network develops to warn likely victims individually about who to avoid. Victims are afraid to report non-public harassment. Many people quietly stop attending conferences, or only attend the safest ones. Some leave the community entirely.
- Stage 1: A few very brave people say, “Hey, I was harassed at con X, and I didn’t like it!” As a reward, they become the target of even more harassment, usually along the lines of “You are too fat/ugly to be harassed,” “You deserve to be raped,” and “If you don’t like being harassed, leave.” If they name their attacker, the harassment is even worse: specific rape and death threats, nasty packages sent to their house, or denial of service attacks on their web sites.
- Stage 2: A long period of discussion about whether harassment is even a bad thing ensues. Typical arguments in favor of condoning harassment involve women’s known love of compliments on their body parts from strangers, concerns about the extinction of the human species through banning “flirting,” comparisons to the Taliban, “freedom of speech,” and predictions that the quality of code/novels/articles/etc. will take a nose dive if harassment is banned. During this period, some people publicly announce they will stop attending conferences with the worst reputation for harassment and assault.
- Stage 3: A few community leaders take a public stand against harassment, often prominent men who are horrified and embarrassed to discover this behavior goes on in their community. They are criticized heavily, but rarely the target of rape and death threats. Usually this has a net positive effect for the careers and reputations of the people who take a stand. Opponents of harassment are accused of “dividing the community.”
- Stage 4: Someone suggests adopting a conference anti-harassment policy, usually one already in use by another conference. The organizers of one of the most progressive conferences immediately pledge to adopt a policy, followed quickly by two or three more. Each conference either adopts an existing policy, slightly rewrites it, or develops their own from scratch. A few months pass without new conferences adopting policies.
- Stage 5: A few high profile harassment incidents occur at conferences with policies. They are usually handled well; when they aren’t they cause a huge outcry and more pressure to adopt (and enforce) policies. A dozen or so more conferences adopt policies. Victims of harassment begin to publicly name their harassers, often coordinating with other victims and influential allies.
- Stage 6: Most conferences have anti-harassment policies, and most enforce them. Emboldened, victims talk more freely about their experiences and begin to notice patterns. At this point, even very powerful harassers begin to be publicly named. Some harassers lose their jobs, are banned from conferences, or lose their influence in the community. But harassers also fight back, with take-down notices, threats of legal action, or direct intimidation and threats.
- Stage 7: Conferences become more awesome: more fun, more creative, and more productive. They are a safer and more welcoming space for women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, and many others. New people of all sorts begin joining the community. Serial harassers leave on their own or don’t join in the first place. The bizarre concept of treating all humans with respect and dignity spreads to other areas in the community, such as online discussion, local meetups, and publications.
When you understand the inevitable progression that begins when people start reporting harassment and assault – and other people publicly back them up – you can see why the backlash against simply reporting harassment is so strong. If the fight against harassment at conferences is successful, some people in the community will end up exposed as abusers, driven out of the community, fired from their jobs, not invited to speak any more, or ostracized. They will also lose what they value most of all: the opportunity to harass, assault, and abuse others.
Now, don’t you want to be part of making that happen?
History of the science fiction and fantasy campaign
The big picture: In 2010, Sexual harassment, stalking, and groping were common. Serial sexual harassers operated with impunity. The feminist science fiction convention, WisCon, was one of the only SF&F cons with an anti-harassment policy. Today, over 1000 people have pledged to attend only SF&F cons with anti-harassment policies, many cons have policies, and several serial harassers have been publicly identified, banned from conferences, and/or fired from their SF&F jobs. In terms of stages of anti-harassment campaigns, SF&F is somewhere around Stage 6.
August 2006: At the WorldCon science fiction and fantasy convention, Harlan Ellison gropes Connie Willis’ breast on stage during the Hugo awards ceremony (both are Hugo-award winning authors), kicking off extensive online discussion about sexual harassment in the SF&F community.
April 2008: At Penguicon, a hybrid science fiction and Linux convention, attendees create The Open Source Boob Project, in which some attendees wore buttons to signal whether they are open to requests to touch them sexually. The creator later had a change of heart and publicly stated that he thought the project did more harm than good by causing women to feel unsafe.
Vito Excalibur suggests the idea that becomes the Open Source Back Each Other Up Project, focusing on anime and comic conventions. This is a pledge by individuals to intervene if they see harassment occurring.
May 2008: The Geek Feminism Wiki is founded by Alex “Skud” Bayley (formerly Kirrily Robert), becoming a go-to resource for feminists in a variety of geeky areas, including science fiction, computing, fandom, anime, computer gaming, cosplay, and more. Mary Gardiner becomes a major contributor to the Geek Feminism Wiki.
July 2008: Genevieve Valentine reports on harassment of several women at ReaderCon. The offender was quickly ejected from the conference.
August 2008: Girl-Wonder.org launches the Con Anti-harassment Project, focusing on comic, anime, and fandom conventions. Girl-Wonder.org members include Karen Healey and Hannah Dame, who were listed on the press release for the CAHP launch. Several conventions adopt a policy shortly thereafter.
May 2009: WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention, adopts a clear and specific anti-harassment policy after having a more generic one for many years earlier, in response to an incident of harassing photography.
The Geek Feminism Wiki page “Timeline of Incidents” is started. This page records the sexist incidents in geek communities and currently goes back as far as 1973. The Timeline of Incidents, along with the rest of the Geek Feminism Wiki, eventually become vital resources in the fight for anti-harassment policies.
August 2009: The Geek Feminism Blog is founded by Alex “Skud” Bayley, with frequent contributions from Mary Gardiner, Terri Oda, K. Tempest Bradford, and many others. With a firm moderation policy, this blog becomes a safe space to discuss geeky and/or feminist topics, including fandom, technology, and activism.
The Backup Ribbon Project is created by thatwordgrrl. The idea is to wear a ribbon indicating that you are willing to help victims of harassment, either by intervening or by assisting them after the fact.
November 2010: Jim C. Hines creates a set of resources for reporting sexual harassment in SF&F, updated yearly. The 2013 version is here.
July 2012: Genevieve Valentine reports harassment at ReaderCon from René Walling, a well-known fan. ReaderCon bans him from the con for 2 years, in contravention to their stated policy of a lifetime ban. Hundreds of blog posts and petitions protesting this decision followed, as well as more reports of harassment by René Walling as well as other Readercon attendees, from Kate Kligman, Veronica Schanoes, and others.
August 2012: The ReaderCon board issues an apology, bans René Walling for life, and resigns en masse. Led by Rose Fox and Cristal Huff, the Readercon convention committee commits to many improvements on its anti-harassment policy and its enforcement.
Dragon*Con bans Backup Ribbons from the Backup Ribbon Project, citing concerns that harassers might wear them.
September 2012: Scott Henry writes an article for Atlanta Magazine documenting that Dragon*Con co-founder Ed Kramer has evaded trial for child molestation for years. Kramer continues to receive part of the Dragon*Con profits each year.
November 2012: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) issue a a statement defining their sexual harassment policy and specifying that it applies to all SFWA events.
July 2013: Science fiction editor James Frenkel leaves Tor shortly after being reported for sexual harassment at WisCon 2013 by Elise Matthesen. More revelations about sexual harassment in SF&F, both by Frenkel and others, follow. Key people involved in reporting the harassment and providing support include John Scalzi, Jim Hines, Adam Lipkin, Sigrid Ellis, K. Tempest Bradford, and Mary Robinette Kowal.
Science fiction author John Scalzi pledges not to attend conferences without strong, specific anti-harassment policies. N. K. Jemisin makes an important clarification that harassment is not limited to sexual harassment. Over 1000 people co-sign the pledge.
The PC Monsters of SFWA Twitter list is created, to mock members of the SFWA, described as “screeching feminists.” Instead, people use it as a “Who to follow” list (DL Thurston made a copy here), and at least some members of the list suddenly gain dozens of new followers. Jim C. Hines creates collectable playing cards to commemorate the honor. The list includes Laura Resnick (@LaResnick), William Alexander (@williealex), Jess Haines (@Jess_Haines), Myke Cole (@MykeCole), Michael Swirsky (@mbswirsky), Josh Vogt (@JRVogt), Jim C. Hines (@jimchines), Amal El-Mohtar (@tithenai), Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed), Sean Wallace (@oldcharliebrown), Alex D MacFarlane (@foxvertebrae), N. K. Jemisin (@nkjemisin), Steven Gould (@StevenGould), Jason Sanford (@jasonsanford), and John Scalzi (@scalzi).Dragon*Con finally gets rid of child molester and cofounder Ed Kramer by buying out his share of Dragon*Con.
History of the skepticism and atheism campaign
The big picture: In 2010, few or no conferences have policies. Serial sexual assaulters and outright rapists are common enough that women speakers have an informal network to warn each other about them. Victims are too afraid to name or report their attackers. In 2013, most conventions have anti-harassment policies, many leaders vocally oppose harassment, and at least three high-profile serial harassers and assaulters have been publicly identified. However, many victims and advocates are still stalked, harassed, and threatened, and need continuing support from the community. Several accused harassers and assaulters have threatened legal action against those reporting them. In terms of stages of anti-harassment campaigns, skepticism/atheism is somewhere around Stage 6, despite the on-going efforts of abusers to hang on to their positions and privileges in the community.
June 2011: Rebecca Watson video blogs about being sexually harassed at the World Atheist Convention and suggests: “Guys, don’t do that.” In response, she is viciously harassed by members of the skeptic/atheist community for at least 2 years (the harassment is still on-going as of August 2013).
May 2012: Jen McCreight says on stage at the Women in Secularism conference that women speakers share the names of speakers who are likely to harass or assault them with other women speakers.
Stephanie Zvan blogs about Jen’s comment and about harassment at skeptic/atheist conferences and suggests adopting anti-harassment policies at atheist/skeptic cons, linking to the policy on Geek Feminism Wiki as a good example.Sarah Moglia and David Silverman commit to (and follow through on) adopting an anti-harassment policy for the Secular Students Association and AACON respectively. Many more conferences follow, led by Jen McCreight, Chris Calvey, Stephanie Zvan, and many more.
Ashley Miller publicly reports her experiences with harassment at TAM 9, countering earlier claims that no harassment was reported at TAM 9. In a positive turn of events, Elyse reports favorably on SkeptiCamp Ohio’s handling of harassment complaints according to their anti-harassment policy. Sasha Pixlee of More than Men begins maintaining a list of skeptic/atheist conferences with anti-harassment policies and advocates for more policies.
June 2012: Rebecca Watson and Jen McCreight announce they will not attend TAM due to DJ Grothe’s recent statements. Among many other things, DJ blamed Watson and many others for discouraging women from attending TAM by telling the truth about their experiences of harassment in the community. (Ironically, Watson raised money for travel scholarships for women to attend TAM for several years.)
PZ Myers explains why he’s in favor of conference anti-harassment policies in response to a claim that they are unnecessary because hotel security exists.
WylloNyx explains why anti-harassment policies are not sex-negative and would not prevent consensual sexual activity at conferences. “A lack of statement about non-harmful sexual expression is neutral on the sex positivity scale. That harassment policies make it clear that they offer protection against non-consensual sexual expression makes the harassment policies sex positive. It means that not only the ‘yay, sex is awesome’ part isn’t shamed but also the ‘sex isn’t always awesome’ aspect is addressed to the protection of attendees and speakers. To address both aspects of sex positivity clearly without shame makes sexual harassment policies sex positive.”
Greta Christina points out that the OpenSF 2012 conference for people in open, polyamorous, or ethically nonmonogamous relationships has a detailed code of conduct, including things like: “We know this is California and everyone hugs, but please do that awkward ‘wanna hug?’ gesture before actually hugging.”
Ashley Paramore reports being repeatedly groped in front of several people at TAM in 2012, without naming her attacker. The conference anti-harassment team banned the assaulter from future TAMs. Several other people back up her story. Paramore is still harassed and threatened for publicly reporting her attack.
August 2013: Ian Murphy, Dr. Karen Stollznow, Carry Poppy, PZ Myers, Jason Thibeault, and many more begin naming names of specific serial sexual assaulters and harassers in the atheist/skeptic community. Jason Thibeault creates a timeline of the sexual harassment accusations. Several of the named abusers threaten legal action, causing accusers to switch to using obvious pseudonyms instead.
An Indiegogo campaign is launched to raise a legal defense fund for one of the accused rapists. Ashley F. Miller points out that a quote from the campaign page makes it clear that the goal is to silence victims: “A show of support will send the message that we as a community will no longer tolerate illogical attacks on people who do not condone nor support sexual harassment, sexual predation, or rape any more than we support defamation of our community members from anonymous allegations.”
A skeptic comedian mocks the rape allegations by claiming that it is the victims’ responsibility to turn down alcoholic drinks if they don’t want to get raped and comparing the reports to religious texts. Jason Thibeault provides a transcript of the video with these remarks and explains what is wrong with the idea that getting drunk should be punished with rape or comparing the reports made directly to PZ Myers and others with religious gospels.
History of the free and open source software campaign
The big picture: In 2010, groping, pornographic presentations, and sexist jokes are common at free and open source conferences. Upskirt and other non-consensual photography is a known problem. A few conferences have anti-harassment policies. In 2013, the vast majority of open source conferences have specific, strong, enforced anti-harassment policies. Some conferences even have photography policies. The focus is shifting to codes of conduct that apply to online behavior as well. In terms of stages of anti-harassment campaigns, free and open source software is somewhere around Stage 7, though with occasional relapses back as far as Stage 3.
July 2001 – July 2009: At OSCON over several years, open source consulting company Stonehenge repeatedly throws parties featuring women providing entertainment in a sexualized manner. Complaints to OSCON management have no visible effect.
January 2007: At linux.conf.au, several people tell women attendees if they don’t switch to the Reiserfs file system, Hans Reiser will continue killing women (a reference to an open source developer, Hans Reiser, who was on trial for murdering Nina Reiser). At least one person is expelled from the conference.
July 2008: At the Linux Symposium closing session, organizers joke about providing “ambassadors” for the next conference, understood to be female sex workers by the audience.
February 2009: At the PHP UK conference, a presenter uses a pornographic application featuring a “Page 3 girl” extensively during his presentation.
April 2009: At the Golden Gate Ruby Conference, a talk entitled “CouchDB: Perform like a pr0n star” features extensive pornographic pictures and sexual innuendo. The reaction to the talk is mostly critical, with one conferenc organizer saying, “I haven’t yet figured out the best way to prevent this from happening again, but I’m determined to find a way to do better next time. [...] And to be clear, I don’t think Matt’s talk was appropriate for a professional conference.”
July 2009: Free software founder and leader Richard Stallman gives a keynote in which he calls “women who have never used EMACS” “EMACS virgins” and exorts listeners to “relieve them of their virginity.” This is part of a “joke” skit about the “Church of EMACS.” Stallman refused to apologize. Due to his leadership position and fame, an extensive round of discussion ensued, hitting the usual high points of “He’s just like that,” political correctness, “Sex is beautiful,” and the rest.
At OSCON, Alex “Skud” Bayley gives a keynote speech on diversity in open source. During the same conference, Stonehenge throws another party with women providing sexualized entertainment. This time, Robert Kaye blogs about the party, calling it “a sad state of affairs.” A several-hundred comment-long debate follows, with the majority against Stonehenge.
November 2009: At DojoCon, a presenter begins his talk with a slide of two women wearing only t-shirts and thong underwear. When asked why he included the slide, the response filled out most of a Porny Presentation Bingo Card.
Sometime in 2009: In response to the avalanche of porny presentations in open source, Esther “Moose” Filderman informs speakers at Ohio LinuxFest, an open source conference, that no sexualized presentations will be allowed at OLF. Ohio LinuxFest subsequently adopts both a speaker policy and a general code of conduct.
January 2010: Open source software conference linux.conf.au 2010 adopts a discrimination policy that specifically bans several kinds of harassment.
June 2010: At Southeast LinuxFest, an attendee sexually harasses, assaults, and follows several women around the conference. The incidents aren’t connected until the last day of the conference, when the organizers finally eject the harasser from the conference.
November 2010: Nóirín Plunkett (formerly Shirley) is groped at open source conference ApacheCon by another attendee. She names her attacker on her blog after explaining that this is far from the first time she has been assaulted at a tech conference. She is attacked online by hundreds of people with rape and death threats, victim-blaming, and sexual comments.
Valerie Aurora announces an example anti-harassment policy on the Geek Feminism blog. The policy and its supporting materials were written by Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner, with assistance from Esther Filderman, Beth Lynn Eicher, Sarah Smith, Donna Benjamin, and many members of LinuxChix and Geek Feminism, and based in part on the Con Anti-Harassment Project policy.
December 2010: Valerie Aurora publishes an article on a Linux web site about nine women’s experiences being harassed at open source conferences, including her own. Comments are mostly positive. The article links to the example anti-harassment policy hosted on the Geek Feminism Wiki.
Mary Gardiner explains why “Just hit him!” is not a useful response to the problem of harassment at conferences.
OSDC becomes the first conference to use the Geek Feminism anti-harassment policy template as the basis of their policy.
January 2011: At the second open source conference using the Geek Feminism policy, a keynote speaker gives a talk filled with violent and sexual imagery and language. The conference organizers apologize to attendees immediately and the speaker apologizes via Twitter shortly thereafter. The incident provokes a long discussion on the conference mailing list including several instances of rape apology by leading community members.
February 2011: Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora publicly launch the Ada Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to supporting women in open technology and culture, after several months of behind the scenes work. The Ada Initiative’s first project is promoting the adoption of conference anti-harassment policies in open technology and culture.July 2011: Nóirín Shirley blogs about her reluctance to speak at OSCON and the related Community Leadership Summit due to being harassed at both events the previous year. Neither has an anti-harassment policy. Many other OSCON speakers pledge not to speak at OSCON if it does not adopt a policy. After working with the Ada Initiative and reading the Geek Feminism Timeline of Incidents, O’Reilly adopts a code of conduct for all their conferences.
June 2012: Michelle Smith proposes that Django community members take a pledge not to attend conferences without a code of conduct. Julia Elman and Paul Smith create the Let’s Get Louder web site to collect signatures from the Django and Python community members who “pledge only to attend, speak at, assist, sponsor, or otherwise participate in conferences that publicly promote an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination code of conduct policy.” As of August 2013, it has 300 signatures. Mark Lavin also assisted.
November 2012: Remy Sharp creates http://confcodeofconduct.com/, a web site collecting translations of a conference code of conduct based on the Ada Initiative template.
December 2012: The Python Software Foundation resolves to only fund conferences with a code of conduct in addition to requiring all PSF events to have codes of conduct. This is the first formal announcement of such a standard; many conference organizers report that sponsors have an informal requirement for a code of conduct.
January 2013: The Django Software Foundation follows suit and requires a code of conduct for DSF funded events.
March 2013: A record-setting 20% of attendees and speakers are women at PyCon 2013. While the conference responded quickly to several incidents of harassment, these stories are overwhelmed by the racist, misogynist, and anti-Semitic backlash against Adria Richards after she tweets a photo of two PyCon attendees who were making sexual jokes behind her. Richards’ employer fires her after their web site comes under a DDoS attack from people calling for her termination. However, one of the people she reported for harassment is also fired, with hints that this incident was not the only factor in the decision.
July 2013: Linux kernel developer Sarah Sharp confronts verbal abuse from a powerful Linux community member. Sharp receives widespread support and several major media outlets report on the story.
Current status of anti-harassment campaigns
As you can see, the SF&F, atheist/skeptic, and free and open source software communities have made great progress in fighting sexual harassment and assault at conferences. So what’s the big picture for conference anti-harassment campaigns in other communities as of August 2013?
- Wikipedia and related projects: All Wikimedia Foundation events, including the world-wide Wikimania conference, have anti-harassment policies in place and enforced. Discussion of online behavior standards is in progress (Stage 6-7).
- Computer security: A few conferences have anti-harassment policies. Raising awareness of the problem of sexual harassment and assault at conferences continues (Stage 3-4).
- Computer gaming: Some computer game conferences have anti-harassment policies, but booth babes, sexualization of women, and groping remain rampant at most (Stage 3-4).
- Anime and comics: Some cons have anti-harassment policies, but consent for photography and sexual harassment remain problems at many of cons, especially the larger and more commercial ones (Stage 3-4)
We’re not all the way there yet in any of the geek communities we’ve looked at, but we’ve come a long way from where we started. If we continue working together to change our communities to be more welcoming to women, we will eventually overcome.
How you can help
Whether you are the leading novelist in your field, or a lurker on a mailing list, you can take action to stop conference harassment. You can use your words, your influence, your money, and your participation to change the culture in your community.
- Only attend conferences with (enforced) anti-harassment policies
- If a conference doesn’t have a policy, ask them if they plan to have one
- Start a pledge to not attend conferences without policies (a la John Scalzi’s pledge)
- Start new conferences if existing ones won’t adopt policies
- If you sponsor events, only sponsor events with policies
- Publicly support victims of harassment, especially if you are exceptionally influential
- Publicly support anti-harassment campaigns, especially if you are exceptionally influential
- Learn more about bystander intervention
- Buy books from the PC Monsters of Genre
- Buy Skepchick merchandise
- Don’t buy the works of people who harass or support harassment
You can also donate to support the Ada Initiative, which has been working full-time on ending harassment in open technology and culture communities since January 2011. Our 2013 fundraising campaign ends August 31st. Learn more about our progress so far and our plans for future work in 2013 and 2014.
Sources and resources
List of geek conferences that have adopted anti-harassment policies
Resources for reporting sexual harassment in science fiction and fantasy
The Geek Feminism Wiki Timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities
Ada Initiative anti-harassment policy page
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States.