For the last few years I have been watching people go back and forth about Codes of Conduct at conferences. I never really paid that much attention to them because I honestly didn’t care about them one way or another. I figured this would eventually go away, but it hasn’t.
There are a number of reasons I hate Codes of Conduct that I hoped I would never have to write about. I hoped that this would just go away or some other brave soul would address these issues and they would spoken about, but since it doesn’t look like that is the case, I am going to address the various elephants in the room no one wants to talk about.
Codes of Conduct are a Distraction
We are in the month of October, which, among other things, is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I also think Breast Cancer Awareness is bullshit.
All those little pink yogurt tops that people collect at work and all the braless days don’t do a fucking thing to actually help cure breast cancer or help survivors of breast cancer.
Everyone is pretty aware of breast cancer and the dangers associated with it. I have the nice breast cancer pink Kitchenaid mixer and had my first mammogram when I found a cyst in my breast the week after I filed for divorce.
People are acting like CoC are some magical talisman that will suddenly make people behave. It’s like they picture Douchebag McBro sitting at his computer looking at a conference without a Code of Conduct saying, “All right! I can go rape at this conference!” You might as well hand out a rabbit’s foot to every conference goer.
All of this talk about making sure the wording is exactly right on your CoC is talking that we are not doing about addressing the underlying issues that make conferences unsafe.
Doesn’t Address the Way Assault Actually Happens
We have a collective fairy tale we tell ourselves about how rape and assault work. Pure virginal girl gets attacked in the bushes on her way home from Bible study by a stranger who attacks her. If something does not fit neatly within that narrative, it tends to get called into question.
Fact: Most assaults happen from people that you know well.
Let’s explore this scenario.
You are a woman have been going to conferences for five years. There is a cute, funny guy that you are friends with that you have seen a couple of times a year for the last three years. You’re both married, but you’re always happy to see him because he is your friend.
Suddenly, one day, after all these years, your friend starts touching you. You look around and you realize that you are alone with this person.
Your first thought is, “Fuck, why is this happening now?”
Your second thought is, “Fuck, how do I short circuit this situation to avoid losing my friend?”
Fact: Women are trained not to give a firm no.
Story time: When I was in fifth grade one of my male classmates would go around at lunch and ask people if they were done with their food because he was always hungry. After he asked all of us, he would ask everyone else in the lunch room, including first and second graders. After he did this for a week, the principal sat him down and said that he was terrorizing the little kids who were afraid to say no to this big fifth grade boy asking for their food, so they gave it to him because they were afraid he would beat them up. He genuinely didn’t think about it that way. He didn’t think about how his age and size would intimidate little kids and he felt bad because it wasn’t his intention to be a bully.
This is why some men who assault women don’t understand that what they did was assault.
Let’s go back to our scenario. I am 5’4. Most of the men at my conferences are over six feet tall. If you’re alone with a man who is a foot taller than you are, you are in danger.
Over the years, most women are socially trained to give a soft no. We grow up inundated with stories about nice guys asking out girls who laugh at them and treat them cruelly. We don’t want to be a bitch. More recently, we see stories posted to Facebook about ten-year-old boys shooting girls who won’t give them their toys. If you were born a woman, there is a constant cloud of potential violence that follows you everywhere you go.
When I go to conferences I have to sit at the end of the table or near a door because I am constantly figuring out exit strategies. I have trouble being on planes because of the number of people I am trapped with. I started paying extra to sit near the front of the plane and get off first because being surrounded by people with no ability to escape triggers panic attacks.
The person doing this is your friend and you think that you can find a way to shut this down where you don’t get assaulted either physically or sexually. So you try to put them off by saying it’s late and you’re tired or you have a headache.
The guy does not hear no. He hears, “Oh, she’s tired, that means that we can go back up to her room. She has a headache. I have some aspirin in my room. I can fix this.”
When the guy does not hear the soft no, or they start pressuring you into going with them, bad things start to happen.
I have PTSD. I was raped in college by a guy who talked his way into my dorm room. When we get to this point in the scenario, I shut down. My brain cannot deal with defending itself from an assault, so I basically withdraw into myself. Sometimes I black out because my brain will not allow me to record what has happened.
When I get assaulted, I don’t scream or kick. I shut down. I lose control of my body and go into shock. I don’t report my assaults because I know that the person assaulting me probably does not understand that they are assaulting me. They are waiting for a firm no. They don’t listen for a soft no or an enthusiastic yes. They start touching me, I shut down, they don’t hear no, so they assume that what they are doing is okay. Sometimes I don’t remember things after a certain point and that I can’t be used as a reliable witness about what happened.
I know within our narrative I am not doing my part. I am supposed to say no before the guy rapes me in order for it to “count.” But that isn’t how most women behave when they are being assaulted. We are afraid, we are disappointed that someone we trusted is doing this to us, and we are paralyzed because we do not know what to do.
It makes me angry when someone puts me in this situation. It is not fair. It rips out a piece of my soul every time this happens.
Which brings me to my next problem with Codes of Conduct.
No Talk of Personal Responsibility
I feel like the people in charge of the current tech feminist bullhorn are adopting the “Pedestrians and Bicyclist” form of personal safety and responsibility.
I live in Madison, WI. We have a university here where the students who walk and ride bike will walk into oncoming traffic without looking. Sometimes they will purposely look away from oncoming traffic and trust that the cars coming will respect their right of way and not run them over.
You cannot put your personal safety in the hands of other people.
In the case of the students, they don’t think about a driver that is distracted by their phone or their toddler in the back seat. They don’t take into consideration the crazy cab driver I had once who saw a student pull this and floored it and aimed the car at him.
Codes of Conduct talk about expected behavior. If you don’t behave the way you’re supposed to, you get kicked out. Seems fair, except it doesn’t address the damage done to the person being assaulted.
My understanding is that this recent push for Codes of Conduct are because of this incident.
In this incident, the person was assaulted in public. A bystander stepped in to break it up. The man lost his job. This is the best possible outcome that you can get from an assault.
Justine still is damaged by what happened.
It’s like the pedestrians and the car. Yes, you might have the right of way, but if someone is distracted and hits you, it doesn’t matter if they go to jail and feel guilty for the rest of their life, you are still damaged by their action.
Any conversation about safety at conferences must talk about what we can do to keep ourselves safe. No one fucking talks about this. Everyone wants to yell at men and tell them that everything they do could possibly be considered assault instead of talking to women about how to create our own safety net.
I want to see conversations where women exchange phone numbers to keep one another safe. I want to see women making their own network of people where you can all look out for one another. Girls do this in college when they go out, why aren’t we talking about doing this as adults?
The reason is that members of our community think we shouldn’t have to. They are not concerned about keeping women safe, they’re concerned with controlling the conversation and having this as a weapon to wield against anyone who isn’t completely on board with their cause.
Which brings my last point.
Shuts Down Open Communication
I recently read an article that says that boys going to college don’t know what rape is. I can believe this.
It is very difficult to give black and white, clear definitions about what assault looks like. I have tried to by explaining things from my own perspective and to give men an idea what to look out for. The fact that we aren’t having open conversations about this shit is one reason that it keeps happening.
Most men that I know are good guys who want to do the right thing. They don’t know how to do that. They are basically being told that everything they do could be seen as assault, so don’t do anything.
This leads to an environment where genuine predators can get sympathy for being rapists because everyone is secretly terrified that they will be falsely accused of rape.
There are very clear things people can do to make sure they are not assaulting someone. It’s not romantic, but ask if you can someone. If you’re a guy that I like and you ask if it’s okay to touch me, I will respect you for it. Quit following the “ask forgiveness rather than seek permission” shit. Also, if you are married and you’re trying to have an affair with me, I am judging you.
Alternatives to Code of Conduct
I was asked by Gem Barrett yesterday what I would suggest as an alternative to Code of Conduct. At that point I really didn’t know how to answer. I don’t think we should offload the responsibility of keeping ourselves safe to another person. I do not think there is much a conference organizer can do in the middle of the night if one of their attendees is being a dick. I can guarantee you that no conference organizer wants an assault to happen at their conference.
This is what I am going to do.
At every conference I go to, I am going to find all the women and any men that I trust and I will give them my number. I want to organize a support structure for the women attending the conference where they have at least one person they can reach out to if they don’t feel safe. If you go out, go with a buddy. Stick to your buddy. Both of you leave or neither of you leave. Call someone to make sure they got back to their room okay.
If you’re at a conference and you find someone who doesn’t have a support structure yet, be their friend. Introduce them to other people. Look out for them. I have yet to attend any conference where there was not at least one other woman. Stick together. Support one another. This should not be the responsibility of the conference organizer. It’s our skin in the game. We have the most to lose. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we are safe.
I am also saying on here that I will answer any questions that anyone might have about anything I have written here. I think people are too afraid to get information that they need and I would rather be asked than have someone live in perpetual fear that everything they are doing is wrong.
I love this community. One reason I joined this community was because people were tolerant of beginners. If I didn’t understand something, I could ask without anyone making me feel bad for not knowing something. This has been a friendly, supportive community and I want to see it continue to be so.
I am fucking sick and tired of seeing people argue about semantics on a form rather than having meaningful discussions about keeping our community safe for everyone. If this is going to devolve into a community where everyone is afraid of voicing their own opinion if it doesn’t correlate to whatever the loudest person in the room is, then I don’t want to be a member of this community anymore.