Harassment and sex-positivity June 19, 2012Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: harassment, sex, sex positivity
So, Wes put this post up about how honesty is hard a couple of days ago. And, as usual, people seem to get pissed off about what Wes says. No news there. It’s one of the things I like about Wes; while I don’t always agree with him, he does not sugar coat his opinions. He has strong and often unpopular opinions and he does not veil them, and I find this attribute respectable.
Speaking of which, a commenter of that post embedded this video, which I shall put here because it is quite good, and creates a language to talk about communication in this context:
Speaking of comments; since Wes linked to a post by Jadehawk in his post, Jadehawk has subsequently posted a response to Wes. I read it today, and my impression is that emotions are getting in the way of clear communication and understanding (it happens), and I posted this comment (currently awaiting moderation):
I think that there is a bit of misunderstanding occurring here. I know Wes fairly well, and I think you may be misunderstanding the message intended in his post. I cannot speak for him, but being around him frequently and sharing more than a few opinions with him, I can say that your representation of him here is at least partially in error. Libertarian? lol….
In my view, lack of clear communication is indeed a form of dishonesty. What seems clear to a communicator is not necessarily clear to the listener. And while I personally try to be generous with interpretation, sometimes a follow-up direct question is relevant to make sure I am getting the intended message. I didn’t see you asking for clarification above where ambiguities in language could have led to you understanding Wes’ intentions better. I saw you running with less-than-ideal interpretations. I don’t think you did so intentionally.
It is not a lack of impulse control that is at issue here, as I see it. What is at issue here is that we need to be honest with ourselves with what we actually want, and if we are going to seek a desire that involves another person, we need to be unambiguous about it. That is, once we have decided that this is not a time to reign in an impulse we have (assuming, indeed, that we have free will), we need to be direct about it because veiling our intentions is a form of lying, even if it a common and socially accepted form of lying. The question is whether this socially accepted form of lying is something we, as rational, skeptical, people, should perpetuate or not. I think the answer is no, and you may or may not agree with me. That is a discussion worth having.
So, I think we all need to be direct and honest, to not veil our interest, and to learn (as a society) to get used to hearing and answering that honesty (Have you sen The Invention of Lying?). And while this does not have to include cold hitting on, it may include that. And I agree that a conference about atheism/skepticism is not be the best place for such cold approaches, if that is indeed what a person wants there is nothing disrespectful about doing it. It just is unlikely to succeed, so a smart person may put off, temporally, that expressed desire That is, they do not pretend to have another goal, they just might put off communicating it until introductions and other conversational things are established. I personally would not coldly approach someone for sex, as my desires do include to get to know someone a bit better before asking for such a thing, but I certainly would not think less of a person for doing otherwise than what I personally want. I find such directness refreshing, mature, and very respectable.
Some people’s boundaries exist elsewhere. Some people WANT or even DEMAND direct and blunt questions, and others want some issues to be rarely if ever addressed. The issue of whose boundaries we accept as the default is not so easy as you seem to argue above. Why defer to a lower threshold of boundaries, which infringe on those with higher thresholds? A case needs to be made for that (And I accept that such an argument may exist. I just have not seen one I find convincing).
The issue is this. There is a real tension between the important issue of harassment by disrespectful people and sex positivity. The reason this tension exists is that there is a continuum that stretched from assault on one extreme and enthusiastic consent on the other. In the middle are things like harassment, being extremely annoying, being amusingly annoying, finding the proposition interesting but not compelling, considering the proposition seriously, accepting it, etc. The line between unwanted attention and wanted attention will differ, greatly, for different people.
For example, a person coming up to me and putting their arm around me, telling me they think I’m cute, and inviting me to their room for sex crosses no line for me. It does not matter their gender (I’m heterosexual and male), attractiveness, etc. I will either say no, perhaps (and discuss what we’re into to see if we’re compatible), perhaps some other time, or “yes! let me get my stuff and I’ll be right with you.” (Yes, yes, I have privilege which makes this situation non-threatening to me, but I know many women who feel the same way). For other people, this situation would be harassment. That’s a problem.
Because leaving out extreme examples, there will be cases where what I find acceptable is considered unacceptable by others. Clear, unambiguous, blunt questions and answers are the only way to be sure. And because of our social values of politeness, this is, indeed, hard.
But I am not Wes, so I cannot speak for him.
And, indeed, I am not Wes. I imagine that he would have a different answer than I would, and we may ultimately disagree about this issue. Disagreement is not bad, however.
My major concern here is that in this larger discussion about how to implement harassment policies (and I think that the OpenSF policies Greta linked to there are quite good), we may possibly run into a real tension between harassment and healthy sexuality. For example, in the G+ hangout video from a few days ago, the question was raised about whether speakers at conferences should be encouraged or even barred from having sexual relationships with attendees:
You don’t have to watch he whole video, but you should if you are interested in this topic. The relevant bit starts around 53:10 of the video, where Dan Finke raises the issue about Jen McCreight’s suggestion about having speakers be “out of bounds” (Dan’s wording) for sexual activity at conferences. Watch the conversation for yourself, and you will see that some people agree with this suggestion. I agree with Rebecca Watson’s view, that there should be no barrier between any adults at conferences about sexual activity, while others (namely PZ himself), seem to agree with Jen.
This demonstrates, for me, that there is a real tension in this conversation about where the practical and possibly ideal line between harassment and appropriate sexuality in the skeptical/atheist community exists. This conversation is not just about dealing with harassment–although that issue is the primary and essential issue which needs to be addressed. But this conversation is also about the line between appropriate and inappropriate sexual activity even where harassment does not exist, and we need to admit that this is part of the issue.
Do I have any certain answers? No. Do I think that this discussion will lead towards a de-sexualization of conferences? No. Do I think there will be continued issues about where the line between inappropriate/appropriate sexual activity is? Yes. Do I think sex negativity and sex positivity are relevant issues to discuss in relation to the larger issues? Yes.
Harassment needs to be dealt with unambiguously, swiftly, and as openly as possible without unnecessarily naming specific people. If and when we successfully deal with implementing harassment policies, there should be more conversation about the problem of sexual activity, appropriate times and places for it, and the issue of differing boundaries and how to deal with them.
I think that the skeptic.atheist community is full of smart and capable people, but I also think that our culture is rife with ideas about communication which are compatible with conservative (or at least out-dated) modes of sexuality. We need to think about how the relationship between how we communicate and how we think about relationships affects us. The conservative hetero-monogamous model of sex is steeped in polite, veiled communication which is quickly becoming obsolete, and I don’t think the atheist/skeptic community is fully aware of this.
One of the first things I learned about how to be polyamorous (which is true even if you are not), is that you need to communicate your needs and desires directly, and that you need to be able to say yes or no clearly, according to your desires. We need to practice saying no, saying yes, and asking for and hearing what is wanted.
Saying “no” can be hard for some people. Saying “yes” can be hard for others. Asking for a clear yes or no is hard for most people. We need to get over this value of ambiguity as a society if we are to grow up, whether we are privileged or not.
As I keep saying, the atheist/skeptic community has a lot to learn from the polyamory community.