The purpose of harassment policies

There’s a guest post at Friendly Atheist by Todd Stiefel, criticizing the wording of some proposed harassment policies. It’s clear that Stiefel isn’t seeking to minimize the problem of harassment, or argue against the adoption of harassment policies, but only to make specific criticisms of points where he feels they need tweaking.

Overall I agree with his points: he mentions one thing in particular that I had noted, which is that some policies prohibit “unwanted sexual attention,” without specifying what that means: is asking someone for a date if they’re not interested unwanted sexual attention? Technically, I’d say it is, and yet I think asking someone for a date shouldn’t necessarily be prohibited. The addendum he suggests makes the boundary much clearer.

His criticisms seemed so reasonable to me that I was surprised that the first several comment responses I read were negative. The objections were all along the lines of, “Well obviously no one’s going to go running to the conference organizers if someone just asks them on a date or pats them innocently on a shoulder… and to say otherwise implies that women are irrational.” They seemed to be in agreement that the purpose of a harassment policy was to serve as a safety net, so that if something does happen that makes someone uncomfortable, they have someone to turn.

I disagree, and I said so in a comment, but wanted to make a wider response. Harassment policies are there as a safety net, yes, but I don’t think that is, or should be, their only purpose. The other purpose should be to set clear norms and boundaries for what is considered appropriate behavior. I think this is important for three reasons.

– First, as JT Eberhard illustrated a while back, some people have a hard time grasping social rules that aren’t explicitly laid out. I have a mild version of this impairment myself, and a lot of sympathy for those with the more difficult versions. Some people really do work better, and with much less anxiety, when it’s spelled out: This is what you can do, this is what you can’t do.

– Second, some people claim to have this impairment as an excuse to not give a shit how their behavior affects other people. Having accurate guidelines, that we actually expect people to follow, takes away the excuse from these people, while it helps the sincere and well-meaning folks above.

– Third, I really really hate rules that everybody knows aren’t meant to be followed literally most of the time. Please tell me I’m not alone on this. They can function as a nasty kind of trap, wherein somebody who’s behaving perfectly according to the accepted norms can get tagged for breaking a rule — one of those rules that nobody follows. Maybe that’s because they’ve, wittingly or unwittingly, crossed an unspoken boundary. Or maybe it’s because somebody in the group doesn’t like them and sees an opportunity to get them on a technicality. It’s just not to anybody’s benefit to create an elaborate list of rules, then expect everybody to function by a different, more relaxed set of rules under most circumstances. As Wes (who’s sitting right behind me) says, “When you make rules that you don’t expect people to follow, you breed contempt for the system.”

3 thoughts on “The purpose of harassment policies

  1. Agreed on everything with this post. As for your third point, though, you are most certainly not alone. My workplace could be the poster child for “These are the rules but we don’t uphold them.” Source of all of my drama.

  2. Some people have a hard time grasping social rules that aren’t explicitly laid out.

    I don’t have this exact problem, but I do have some social anxiety, and one of the things that helps me is having a sense of the overall parameters of a social situation before entering into it. I found OpenSF’s policy, which was widely disseminated in the weeks before the con, enormously helpful in assuaging my anticipatory anxiety.

    While I can certainly see the pitfalls in fairly enforcing a policy like the ones suggested here, I think their potential value should cause us to want them to exist.

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