This is a guest post by Jacinta Richardson. Jacinta runs Perl Training Australia and is a strong supporter of making IT more friendly to everyone.
This is an edited version of a mailing list post.
The apology from the organisers about Mark Pesce’s linux.conf.au keynote caused much discussion on the linux.conf.au attendees’ chat list. The vast number of responders felt the right thing had been done with the apology and were happy, however there were a small number (5 or less) squeaky wheels that insisted that the talk was fine and that no apology was necessary.
This post is an edited response to my reply in a thread discussing whether the anti-harassment policy was too broadly scoped as well as possibly unnecessary.
Warning: this entry discusses sexual assault, rape and real statistics.
The anti-harassment policy that linux.conf.au adopted didn’t set an impossibly high bar for attendees or speakers, despite the complaints of a select few. As far as I know, all of the 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 speakers, and all but one of the 2011 speakers managed to adhere to professional standards in their talks
and not use images that did or would have caused the ruckus Mark’s talk did. At about 90 (official) speakers per conference and maybe another 90 mini-conf speakers per conference that’s about 899 talks which all managed this feat, and quite a few of those talks were challenging, hard hitting, world shattering and all the things that Mark’s talk was too.
However Mark’s talk relentlessly employed the language and imagery of sexual assault as a metaphor for the loss of personal freedoms, and this is inappropriate. For all that Mark’s theme was timely and valuable, the talk would have been so much better had it been delivered with respect for those members of our community who have actually been assaulted.
We can consider some numbers. The Australia Bureau of Statistics reports that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15 years, where sexual violence includes sexual assault and sexual threat. This gives us minimum numbers because it doesn’t take into account women and men who have experienced sexual violence before the age of 15 years and not since. The US Department of Justice reports that 1 in 6 women will be the victim of a completed or attempted rape at some time in their life.
Most sexual assaults and rapes are not reported to the police; and the Office of Women’s Policy reports that rape offenders were charged in only 15% of reported rapes. They also found that only 2.1% of reports were designated by the police as false which corroborates other studies demonstrating that the rate of false accusations is very low.
Obviously any person can be sexually assaulted more than once.
The Australian Institute of Criminology reports that 98% of sexual assault offenders are male.
As I don’t know the exact figures for linux.conf.au I’m going to assume there were 700 attendees, and 10% of those were women (I’m confident that these numbers are reasonable). That’s 70 women, 20% of whom have been sexually assaulted, or 14 women. Of the remaining 630 men, 5% have been sexually assaulted. So statistically that’s another 31 assault victims. So at linux.conf.au alone 45 sexual assault survivors were part of the audience of that talk which used imagery of sexual assault as a metaphor for the loss of personal freedoms . Just think about that for a moment.
45 sexual assault survivors were part of the audience of that talk. A talk which uses imagery of sexual assault as a metaphor for the loss of personal freedoms.
Not 1 or 2, but 45. In fact, more men than women.
Now realise that increasing the number of women attending linux.conf.au increases the number of sexual assault survivors attending the conference. Those who don’t want to be considered jerks, are going to have to realise that rape jokes aren’t cool. Homo-erotic jokes aren’t cool. Bondage is not only not to everyone’s taste, but is downright threatening to some people. Having a PG-13 warning slide is not enough.
I have been sexually assaulted. I didn’t find the specific images in Mark’s talk triggering but I still felt unease. Why? Because the slides brought sexuality into what should have been a non-sexual presentation. Suddenly the audience is being invited to think about sex and laugh at sexual assault, and while it is unimaginable that anyone would take this as a cue to reach over and assault me right then and there, or even afterwards during morning tea; I was reminded that I could still be a target (again).
That’s the problem with sexualised presentations. Not only do I suddenly feel like an other, but I feel like an other in a crowd of men – some of whom may have no respect for women except as sexual objects, some of whom may have committed sexual assaults in the past.
After sexualised presentations, the conference doesn’t only seem more dangerous but it has actually become more dangerous because—to some men (and neither you nor I can tell by looking at them which ones they are)—laughing about rape or sexual assault is a signal that such things are okay and that they won’t get ostracised for “being too pushy”.
Perhaps you’re thinking: “Not at linux.conf.au!”. Why not? Lisak & Miller’s study [links to a blog about the study, not direct to the report itself] shows that about 6% of men are willing to self-report to rape so long as the word “rape” isn’t used. Potentially 37 attendees at linux.conf.au are sexual predators who don’t view themselves as such. Maybe our population is special and it’s only 3% or 1%, but that’s still too many, and I can’t support any talk which suggests to them that such behaviour might be legitimate.
If any conference wants to be more welcoming to women and other minorities in open source, then an anti-harassment policy that gets enforced is a great start, and the correct thing for the organisers. However the attendees have to be on board too. It was awesome at linux.conf.au to see that the majority of people applauded the apology and that we then moved on from there. It was much less awesome to see the whining from a very small number of people about the apology on twitter and the chat mailing list. There will always be some resistance to challenging the status quo, but overall I am glad that I am part of such a great conference that is making an effort to make me and members of other minorities feel safe and welcome as an attendee (and speaker).