Sex and the Keynote
This past weekend, I flew out to Columbus, Oh, to attend Skepticamp Ohio as the keynote speaker. I was honored to be invited and I want to thank Carl Tracy, Ashley Paramore and everyone involved for putting together a great event and a fun weekend. One thing that I really want to commend them for was their harassment policy, which only had to be enforced one time, and was done so swiftly and respectfully. I applaud them.
Well, technically, it needed to be enforced twice. But the second time, no one was given the opportunity to act. And it’s a big deal. And days later, I’m still really angry about what happened.
After lunch, I gave my talk about vaccines. I talked about my experiences as a mother, how I came up with the concept of Hug Me, showed photos of my kids, did a fake Q&A, and utterly shamed the audience for not being vaccinated, which I only half apologize for. And I did this talk while on Vicodin… which I also only half apologize for.
The rest of the conference went beautifully. No inappropriate comments. No more Vicodin-infused talks. Or at least no more talks that started with “So… I’m on Vicodin.”
Then, at the very end, when everyone was preparing to leave, and I was packing up the Hug Me table, answering questions, and generally socializing with other speakers and attendees, thinking about how fat my check is going to be from Big Pharma when one man and his wife, whom I’ve become vaguely acquainted with on Facebook in the last week, approached my table. He said, “Here’s a little something to remember us by” and handed me an upside-down card. I turned it halfway over, glanced at it peripherally, then thanked them.
A minute or so later, I had a “wait… what?” moment, then flipped the card over and looked at it not peripherally to discover I had not been handed a business card, but a card with a naked photo of the two of them, with their information on how to contact them should I want to fuck. The card is obviously NSFW, so here’s a SFW card, click on it for the NSFW real version… that’s a warning and an FYI.
By the time I realized what happened, they were gone.
People, the harassment policies put into place by conference organizers are not there as a challenge to overcome. They’re there to create a comfortable and safe environment for speakers and attendees alike. Propositioning your keynote speaker via your sex calling card then bolting is not a loophole, it’s being an asshole.
I don’t know where someone would get the idea from any part of my presence or from my talk that I was available for sex now or in the future.
I am not. But it’s more than that.
It’s not okay to assume that any woman (or non-woman) is at a conference to be your plaything. But to reduce your keynote speaker to a thing you want to fuck, and not respect that she’s there as a professional is so much more than offensive to her personally. It’s disrespectful to the conference and its organizers.
It’s not okay to assume a stranger welcomes your nakedness. I was never asked if I was interested in this couple. Not explicitly. Not implicitly. This couple obviously knows that it’s not acceptable to just go around flashing your sexy nudie pics at people since they’re adults functioning in society, but they also waited until the conference was over to give it to me and they handed to me upside down. A clear indication that there’s an understanding that sex cards are not handed out the same way as business cards are.
It’s not okay to remove another person’s ability to have a say in the situation you’ve put them in. Handing someone your naked photo with an implicit invitation to come fuck them then running away is something awful people do. You think this is how you get people to have sex with you? By making it clear that you have no respect for their feelings and that you refuse to give them agency in your interactions? I was never given an opportunity to respond to them. I could not tell them that this was something that offended me as an individual, as a woman and as a professional. I wasn’t able to politely decline the card. I wasn’t able to say anything. Not yes. Not no. Not anything.
It’s not okay to proposition someone while they are at work. Your conference speakers are at work. Your conference vendors are at work. They may be there to entertain and provide services, but unless that entertainment and those services are explicitly for your sexual pleasure, then they’re not for your sexual pleasure.
Your speaker’s looks are irrelevant to everything else she brings to your conference. And so is your boner. So put it away, thank your speaker for coming out. Thank her for the presentation. Or don’t. But don’t thank her by offering your dick… or your tongue. Or whatever it is. If your offer involves touching her in places that are typically protected by clothing, keep your thanks to yourself.
If there is a conference policy on not propositioning people at your conference, don’t approach people for sex. Don’t give people your sex card. Don’t be inappropriate. If you can’t bring yourself go a full day without being inappropriate, don’t go places where appropriate and respectful behavior is expected.
I cannot think of a single situation where it’s ever appropriate to hand someone an invitation to group sex if you haven’t already had or discussed having sex. I think a nice rule of thumb on handing out such things is: Have you discussed or engaged in sexual activity with this person? If yes, hand them the card. If not, do not hand them the card. If you’re sad because you never had the opportunity to discuss such an opportunity with them, the thing to do is not to shove your card in their face. The thing to do is accept that sometimes, it just doesn’t happen. There isn’t a shortage of humans in the world. You can find another one to have sex with.
Outnumbering a stranger while putting them in an uncomfortable situation is a dick thing to do. Two inappropriate strangers approaching you at the same time is more intimidating and threatening than one. Because there’s two of them. And there’s one of you. That’s why.
I don’t understand why it’s so hard for people to simply treat women speakers with respect and not assume that their existence is for your sexual pleasure. Or to believe that how attracted you are to us doesn’t matter to us. That maybe our passion projects are not a front to lure your loins to ours. That maybe our work is just as valid as men’s work.
Shit like this makes me second guess whether my work in this community is worth doing. And I do good work. I do important work. The work I do saves lives. And yet I still have to worry about whether I’m worthy or if I’ll ever be respected beyond my fuckability. And that’s bullshit. I deserve better than that.
So shame on you, couple who handed me that card. And shame on a community that’s given some impression that this is okay by not standing up and making it more clear that it is not.
The night before Skepticamp, my friends and I were talking about how feminism in skepticism is reaching critical mass, and that things are about to start changing, fast. Then this happened and reminded me how much changing we have to do.
After this incident, co-keynote Hemant Mehta jokingly asked, “Why doen’t this ever happen to me?”
Exactly, Hemant. Exactly.
Carl Tracy, co-organizer of the event, has contacted the couple in question, and I have received an apology after an explanation that this was “just a joke”. A joke that I really don’t get and an excuse that I think is incredibly unfair. I definitely feel like this was a case of it being easier to apologize later than to consider my feelings ahead of time… because best case scenario, they get to fuck me. Worst case scenario, they get to say “It’s a joke! Boobs in your professional face! Get it?”
While I accept their apology, I still want to address the issue. I was denied a voice in the situation. Additionally, I believe this incident illustrates how women in skepticism are still not being treated with the respect they deserve.
Edit: having re-read the apology, I’ve decided that maybe it was less sincere than I first thought, having read it upon waking this morning. I will leave the text here. You can decide if it was hilarious and whether he should be sorry I misinterpreted him:
Carl, I’m sorry to have caused all the commotion. We had no idea that there would be an objection to sharing what we call our “pleasure card” with Elyse. The intention was not sexual, it was comical, and i truly apologize that there was a misinterpretation of what I did on a whim.
We didn’t give cards to anyone else (except our business card to stay in contact with other participants), and had no intention of harassment. It was an act of boorish behavior on my part, but it won’t be repeated. I certainly have learned from this experience.
Please pass on our apologies to anyone who may have been offended. We now consider ourselves part of the Skepticamp community, not just observers and supporters.
I want to thank Carl and Sarah Moglia for putting together a harassment policy to ensure a respectful enviornment and Carl for diligently enforcing it. I am proud to have taken part in an event that was so dedicated to the safety and comfort of all its attendees.