Harassment and Intent: Once More Unto the Breach

I wanted to piggyback a bit off of Shaun’s recent post about shame and shaming. In the comments section, Shaun wrote:

My point was that the emotional shame we feel is often caused by actions which do not seek to cause shaming. I didn’t see the OP making the distinction between the two, so wanted to make sure that this was not another call for people to stop criticizing other people because it might hurt their feelings.

The potential disparity between the intent of a statement or act and its effect on the statement/act’s recipient is, I think, a key factor in most breakdowns in communication. I also think that several of the conversations on this blog and others in the past couple of months have not fully acknowledged the elephant in the room. Charlie Glickman recently wrote his response to the skeptical con sexual “harassment” kerfuffle, and (as I pretty much think of all of Glickman’s writing) he’s spot on.

What this situation brings up for me is the fact that there’s a big difference between doing something to deliberately and maliciously harass someone and offering an unwanted invitation or attention.

Of course, one of the big problems here is that we can’t always know what someone’s intention is in a given social interaction. They might not even fully understand their intention themselves. In addition, when someone says he/she felt “harassed,” we have to take their word for it. I’m not sure we can devise a set of rules that would objectively determine what constitutes harassment in all circumstances, and possibly not even in most. And even if we had such a set of rules, and saw people acting according to them, that still wouldn’t solve the problems because, as we’re all fond of saying around here, context matters. A lot.

While these folks’ actions weren’t appropriate in this setting, I can think of quite a few situations in which it would have been perfectly acceptable to do what they did. Swingers conventions and kink conferences both come to mind. Non-conference events like sex parties or clubs are also places where one might offer a card like theirs and walk away. For that matter, so is Folsom St. Fair. And those are also places where it very well might be “appropriate to hand someone an invitation to group sex if you haven’t already had or discussed having sex.”

I do worry about the possible sex-negativity of Elysa Anders’ characterization of her encounter at Skepticamp Ohio. Anders clearly finds the sexual nature of the invitation upsetting, not necessarily its social nature. She has subsequently said that she became friends with the “sex card” couple of Facebook prior to the encounter, which does not mean she wanted any more than a casual social relationship with them but does mean that she was not opposed to interacting with them in non-sexual ways, despite their status as relative strangers. The fact that adding the possibility of sex into a social situation is always seen as problematic (or its not being problematic is the very rare exception to the rule) suggests a cultural discomfort with the notion of sex as a relatively harmless social activity. I find that assumption to be sex negative.

I want to be clear about what I’m saying here. It seems fairly clear that the couple’s behavior violated the conference’s harassment policy, and I think it was an inappropriate thing for them to do in that context. However, I also think it’s possible that they’re simply the kind of people who see no harm in propositioning relative strangers for sex (i.e. their intent was not to harass). I’m not saying that their intention trumps (or invalidates) Anders’ reaction, but I think it’s also problematic for the reverse to be true. A person’s perception of being harassed is, of course, real to that person, regardless of the “harassing” person’s intent. But I also think that Glickman is right to say that it’s important to work “with people to distinguish between ‘this person did this thing’ and ‘I feel this way about it.'” Sometimes the gap between what a person did and how we felt about it is minute; sometimes it’s wider. Assuming it’s always one or the other gets us into unnecessary trouble. And though we should probably err on the side of caution, that doesn’t mean we’re inerrant.

Finally, Glickman suggests a four-part sequence of events between what happens and how we react:

  • Some event happens, whether by a person’s actions or chance.
  • We filter it through our experience and decide what we think it means.
  • We have an emotional response based on our interpretation of that meaning.
  • Our feelings shape how we respond to the event.

When a social encounter results in one party feeling uncomfortable, harassed, etc., I think it’s important for both parties to consider this chain of events. What in each person’s experience made them believe the interaction had a certain emotional tenor? Is it possible that they’ve both “read” the situation incorrectly? Have they both read it correctly and one person really is being an asshole? Under what circumstances would the same behavior in a different context be (or not be) offensive/harassing? In all cases, I’d argue that assuming both parties are operating in good faith is a better default position than being preemptively distrustful/cynical/defensive.

Glickman also suggests that if we hurt someone, regardless of our intent, we should be willing to “apologize and make amends,” and I think this is good advice as well. One of the reasons I think this discussion has taken some ugly turns in the blogosphere is that several writers (mostly men) have essentially said that the “offending” parties in these examples ought not to apologize for their actions. I don’t really understand this position. If you’ve hurt someone, it doesn’t really matter if you meant to hurt them. They’ve been hurt. That hurt exists, even if you believe they’re being irrational. You can, of course, choose not to apologize. You can say, “it’s your fault for misinterpreting my intent; I didn’t do anything wrong, so I won’t apologize for your reaction,” but that’s childish and staggeringly arrogant (it implies that you couldn’t possibly be wrong, for starters). I don’t think childishness and arrogance are good methods of having productive social encounters/relationships.

Opening Up About OpenSF

Annalisa and I spent the last week in San Francisco. In part, we wanted to have a nice vacation: I had never been west of Chicago and we had not traveled together for any real length of time for a while. But one of the major reasons for going was also to attend OpenSF, a conference on nonmonogamy, open relationships, and polyamory organized by Pepper Mint. The conference (and related events) lasted from Friday until Sunday, and I’d like to take a bit of time to talk about some of the interesting panels I attended and some of the people I met in and around the conference itself.


Friday was essentially a welcome/orientation day. Pepper gave an opening address and initiated an interesting icebreaker activity, for which I am thankful because it forced me to meet some new people right off the bat. One of my goals for the conference was to socialize, but walking into a room of strangers, almost all of whom live in the San Francisco Bay area, was daunting for me. I learned an important lesson this weekend: I am extremely bad at approaching people I don’t know, even for casual, “low stakes” chat/interactions. Once I’ve been introduced to people, or compelled to interact with them, I think I’m actually a fairly gregarious person. But the initial awkwardness of “how do I approach that person, and what do I say?” is a huge anxiety trigger for me.

Luckily, the icebreaker required us to move from table to table, each time beginning with a new group of people and a “prompt” question that we were all asked to answer in front of the group (if we chose to answer: enthusiastic consent was a theme of the con, so anyone could opt out of any activity without judgment). Pepper provided excellent questions (“What do you hope to get out of the con,” “What is one of your wildest or most unusual poly moments,” etc.), and I felt mostly at ease meeting 20-30 new people in 15 minutes or so. It was a fun activity, and I might adapt it for use in the classroom.

After the welcome address, many con guests left to attend an off-site lecture/dance/play party. Sadly, I was unable to register in time for the sold-out event, but a group of other event castaways organized a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity, to which I was graciously invited. There I met Dylan of the Life on the Swingset podcast–who had brought a large contingent to the con–and several other people I would see throughout the weekend.


Saturday was a day of panels, beginning with Charlie Glickman’s talk, “Sex, Shame, and Love.” For me, this was a highlight of the convention. Glickman discusses shame as a “tent” or “cloud” of emotions, any of which can disconnect us from people with whom we have relationships. One of his most important points, though, and one on which he disagrees with many writers on the subject (and some of his own psychologist colleagues), is that shame is not always detrimental. For Glickman, feeling shame is an important indicator that we’ve broken a communication/relationship “bridge”–yes, he used a lot of analogies–and need to mend it. Awareness of our feelings of shame is the first step in repairing the relationship (I should probably note here that one of the key relationships we can damage with shame is our relationship with ourself). Glickman elaborates on these concepts herehere, and here (among other places).

Most people in romantic/sexual minorities face shame at some point in their lives, often daily. I found it refreshing to hear someone talk about shame’s adaptive value and about avoiding a shame “spiral” (i.e. being ashamed of feeling shame, which only leads to more shame). As an anxiety disorder sufferer, I found in Glickman’s philosophy some useful coping mechanisms.

One other session of note on Saturday (they weren’t all gems, though I can’t say I thought any one was particularly terrible) was on “Poly Theory.” Joy Brooke Fairfield, a Stanford graduate student, gave a staggeringly expansive and eloquent talk about establishing a branch of cultural studies called poly theory (in the vein of feminist theory, queer theory, etc.). She also expanded on Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphor of a rhizome to describe polyamorous relationships. Contrasting her conception with the traditional linear (or arboreal) relationship model–we can see the arboreal model in family trees, corporate organizational flow charts, etc.–Joy argued that our relationships more resembled the root system of rhizomes. Rhizomes lack a central or ultimate root but rather expand from node to node in many directions. If we imagine ourselves each as nodes, we can see how we connect to other nodes, and those nodes to still others, in a complex but interconnected system. It is an elegant, non-hierarchical way to look at groups of linked relationships, polyamorous or otherwise.

After Saturday’s sessions, I got to try Poly Speed Dating. It was a lot of fun, if chaotic. I wonder if something like this would work in our area?

After speed dating was a dance party at Love Triangle dance club, a poly-friendly club in San Francisco’s Mission District. I was heartened to learn that the Mission has not one but several clubs that cater to nonmonogamous folks. Again, I wish our city/region did a better job of providing safe spaces for nonmogamous people to gather to socialize. My overriding feeling all weekend long was that this was one of the first times in my life that I’d found a group of people with whom I fit in totally. Even though I met theists, omnivores, and even (gasp!) political moderates, I felt a deep, almost instant common bond. We’d all wrested loose the shackles of monogamy, and that’s a remarkable thing.


The fatigue of late Friday and Saturday parties began to show for most con guests (and even some of the presenters) Sunday, but the day did bring a few highlights.

Tristan Taormino‘s keynote speech was an enthusiastic call to arms. She made several important points, one or two of which I will write about in more depth another time. Briefly, though, she called on the LBGT community not to throw polys under the proverbial bus in their fight for marriage equality. Conceding our opponents’ post hoc and slippery slope arguments hurts both our causes.

In addition, Taormino called on those of us who have the privilege to be “out” as nonmonogamous to live our lives as openly as possible. One of the things that prompted me to start writing for this blog was that I realized that I am fortunate enough to have a job for which I will not be fired for being polyamorous, a supportive and loving family, economic and emotional security, etc. I really must live my life openly, if only to show other people that people like us not only exist but are happy, healthy, and thriving.

I liked a few of the early Sunday panels, but I was really impressed with Cunning Minx‘s afternoon session on creating a non-threatening, attractive online dating profile (i.e. how not to be creepy guy). While her advice was useful, even for those of us who already consider ourselves non-threatening/non-creepy, I was particularly struck by her polished, stimulating, and well-organized presentation. You would be amazed at how many presenters were not particularly well-organized. We’re lucky to have Minx as an advocate/representative/colleague/peer, and I was glad to have met her.

I was also able to meet Dossie Easton, whose inscription in my copy of “The Ethical Slut” left me smiling with fanboy glee.

Monday and Beyond

I’m still processing the experience of OpenSF–and I expect I’ll share some of the fruits of that processing with you in the weeks and months to come–but right now I feel overjoyed to have spent three days among fabulous, non-judgmental, like-minded people. I increased my polyamory vocabulary, something I wasn’t sure was possible nearly four years into my own poly life. And I left San Francisco, and return home, eager to be more of an activist and particularly to advocate for more sex-positive events and safe spaces in our own city. I think we can do it, but I’ll probably need a bit of help. Who’s with me?