Kerry Skemp

Thinking Harder

Adria Richards, Tech Conferences, and Steubenville

This week, the internet has been exploding with talk about Adria Richards’ experience reporting a sexual joke at PyCon. While I personally wish she had confronted the individuals directly, rather than posting their photos to Twitter, I think the point remains: if people make sexual jokes in a professional context, they should suffer professional consequences.

At my first “professional” industry conference, an older, married man told me he had a mistress–several mistresses, in fact; one in each city he frequently visited for work. He massaged the feet of an industry journalist (she was female, of course). I consider myself fortunate to have had the bullshit that is industry conferences exposed to me so clearly and so early on. I learned that being highly paid doesn’t make you a good person, and getting good coverage doesn’t mean you have a good product. (Who gets the most coverage depends on who gives the best massages or buys the most drinks, basically.)

Since then, I’ve been to other industry conferences. I’ve been repeatedly asked whether I’m married. I’ve had older women at conferences take me under their wing to “protect” me (why should such protection even be necessary, you might ask?). I’ve seen “professionals” nearly start fights in bars by making a pass at another man’s girlfriend (the problematic notion of “ownership” of women can be explored separately). I’ve seen a lot of stupid shit at “professional” events, much of it connected to some men having really sexist and sexualized notions of how to interact with women (and women sometimes being complicit in those notions). And I’m not alone.

This week, the internet has also been exploding with commentary about rape apologists. News outlets lamented the sentencing of two teenage rapists rather than lamenting the fact that two teenagers raped a girl (and that many others were complicit in enabling the rape and viciously mocking the girl afterward).

I have only seen one person connect Adria Richard’s experience with the reaction to the Steubenville verdict thus far. This is appropriate, because these events are very, very connected. The ability and willingness to make sexual jokes makes you part of a sexualized culture. A sexualized culture that also facilitates rape culture. It doesn’t make you a rapist. It does make you complicit in a culture where we have to actively teach children not to rape, because the default assumption is that women are asking for it. That women should stop drinking alcohol and dressing provocatively. Women should just calm down and take a joke, should grow thicker skin. Women should stop overreacting.

Not so! People should stop raping people. People should stop making sexualized, sexist (or racist, or other damaging) jokes. Or at least stop making them without realizing what they’re doing. We have two big problems here: first, that many people are complicit in rape culture. The second, more concerning, problem is that these people don’t even know they are complicit in rape culture. Heck, they don’t understand what rape culture is, much less understand their role in it.

So sure, you can make sexual jokes. Make them all day long. Make them in a box. Make them with a fox. Make them in a house. Make them with a mouse. Make them at a tech conference. Make them at a bar. But realize what you are doing with those words. Realize what you are saying about women. About men. About yourself. Realize the type of culture you are creating. And question whether that’s the type of person you want to be, or the type of culture you want to live in.

A culture where women get raped, and people cry for their rapists. A culture where women point out an inappropriately sexualized environment, and get fired for it. A culture where we defend our actions by crying free speech, and blaming victims for being offended (or even for being raped). A culture where we cannot take the time and make the effort to understand what might be wrong with what we are doing. A culture where people are afraid to speak up. This is not the type of culture we need.

One of the men who made dongle jokes summed it up well: “Let this serve as a message to everyone, our actions and words, big or small, can have a serious impact.” Also, this, from another person involved in a previous similar incident: “It isn’t up to me to decide whether my behavior is appropriate, but those with whom I interact.” And then, finally, this: “I just need to talk it out… and understand why people are so venomous, so scary, so willing to attack others when really they should be looking in the mirror.”

Words matter. Choose yours thoughtfully.

Update 3-27-13: I think this post does the best job of any I’ve seen so far in responding to the situation.