No sexual images, please – we’re atheists

In an earlier post at Talking Philosophy, which I linked to from my personal blog (Metamagician and the Hellfire Club), I asked readers the blunt question, “What is a sexual image?” Considerable discussion ensued on both sites, but no consensus emerged as to just what “a sexual image” actually is.

Accordingly, I am now struggling to understand what an ordinary person would understand by the expression “sexual images” in a provision that attempts to prohibit their display in a certain context. Perhaps it might convey something definite to a censorship board with an established body of decisions, and it might be possible to review what such boards and the like have decided, but its meaning is very unclear to an ordinary person. We don’t seem to be able to agree on what is a “sexual image” and what is not. So how about “Psyche and Pan” by Edward Burne-Jones? It appears to me to convey plenty of erotic charge, so if it’s not a “sexual image” I’d like to know why not. What does the expression convey to you, such that this Burne-Jones painting (and many others by the great pre-Raphaelite artists) is not a “sexual image”?

As some readers will know, Atheists America has recently promulgated a code of conduct for its conventions, setting down, among other things, the following definition of “harassment”:

Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

This is dreadful drafting. It seems to say that harassment includes “offensive verbal comments relating to … sexual images in public places”. In that case, it is fine to have sexual images in public places, but no one must make offensive verbal (what other sort are there?) comments about them. Likewise it is fine to indulge in sustained disruption of talks or other events, but not to make offensive verbal comments about it if it happens. But I assume that any sensible tribunal would interpret the provision to mean something like this:

Harassment includes:

(1) offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion; and

(2) sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

That being the case, “sexual images in public spaces” constitute “harassment” under the code … and harassment is prohibited. Forget anything else in this strange code (e.g. it seems that “following” someone, perhaps a friend when you ask for directions and she cheerfully says, “Follow me!”, is defined as harassment). Today, let’s just focus on the prohibition of sexual images.

Why on earth would the mere public display of a low-impact sexual image such as “Psyche and Pan” be considered harassment (of whom, exactly – of anyone who sees it?). Is selling such an image at a convention, and displaying it for sale to likely purchasers, really a form of harassment? Who says so? How does this even remotely relate to the ordinary meaning of the word “harassment”, or even to expansive ideas of “sexual harassment” in employment law (where it is true that the pervasive display of relatively high-impact pornographic images, perhaps combined with other conduct, might make a workplace a hostile zone for some people)? The provision is so sweeping and unnuanced that I have to wonder what could be behind it. Perhaps it’s just a matter of people not thinking things through and realising how overbroad their drafting is, compared with whatever mischief they actually had in mind.

Now, it may be that American Atheists would have other reasons for not approving vendors that would display and sell, say, posters of pre-Raphaelite paintings. Perhaps it’s remote from their mission. But that seems like a reason why they don’t actually need such a provision. In any event, I can imagine circumstances where it might be completely appropriate to display such an image. What if it, or some other image with a similar erotic charge, is used on the cover of a book about the religious suppression of erotic art, or just about the philosophy of sex? And what if this book is on sale at the convention, perhaps with many others? These scenarios are not especially bizarre or unlikely. Books are sold at conventions all the time, and the cover art often has at least a low-grade sexual frisson.

I would have thought that an avowedly atheist organisation would lean strongly against the problematisation of erotic images, given that this is precisely one of the things that atheists object to from the religious and from religious moralities. I don’t know how often the issue would come up at an atheist convention, but it must surely happen from time to time. Even if it never happens in practice, it would be nice to know that an organisation such as American Atheists stands in favour of eros and against sexual prudery.

Thus, this provision is exactly the wrong one to include in a code of conduct, and I do hope that we don’t see other organisations with supposedly atheist or secular agendas going down such a path.

Leave a comment ?


  1. ColinGavaghan

    I can’t read the term ‘offensive’ without immediately asking ‘to whom?’

    Even assuming that this to be defined by the standards some presumed ‘reasonable observer’ – a wholly subjective ‘eye of the beholder’ reading would be pretty absurd – we are still in highly contested terrain. As the other debates around these (and similar) guidelines have shown, there seems to be little or no consensus among other the atheist/skeptic community as to what constitutes offensive conduct, especially when matters ‘sexual’ are under discussion.

    When a space is to be occupied by people with widely contrasting views as to acceptable behaviour, a process of compromise and negotiation is required, but a term like ‘offensive’ doesn’t really help in this regard, at least without further elaboration.

  2. “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

  3. It’s poorly drafted, but here I can at least understand what they may have been getting at. At a skeptics conference that’s conducive to equal female participation, it’s not good for people to put up powerpoint slides with gratuitous imagery of half-clad women–as male scientists used to do, pre-feminism. It’s also questionable whether you’d want a booth specializing in girlie calendars. The reason these things are problematic has nothing to do with prudery. They’re problematic because the images are of women, not men, and this sends a message to everyone about the role of women (not men). It puts the women under stereotype threat. You could fix the situation by creating a society in which men and women are equally used as eye-candy, but that’s a long-term solution. In the short-term, I can see that you’d want to avoid this sort of disparity.

  4. I guess that feminists would say that they are in favor of eros and against prudery, but not in favor of eros channeled in the form of traditional gender stereotypes about sexuality, so often found in our culture.

  5. Is this a cultural thing? Are differences between American attitudes and those in Europe and Australia enough to account for this?

  6. Re:-Russell Blackford 24th July.
    Harassment for one person may not be considered harassment by another. Similarly sexual imagery for one person may not be sexual imagery for another. For me sexual imagery would be such that in viewing it, I am minded to engage in sexual activity myself. Common decency, and/or the social mores in which I function fortunately, or unfortunately, may prevent my, natural inclination being on that occasion, satisfied. I can imagine that sexual imagery for others may be defined somewhat differently. The picture of Pan and Psyche is not for me a sexual image, although I can understand it may be for others.
    Concerning Harassment again this seems to be subject to similar restrictions. As a child and up to the age of about eighteen years I was bedevilled with a stammer which made my life at times embarrassing and unpleasant. I found a method of my own to defeat it and eventually became stammer free. To this day however, I cannot stand to hear people stammer I know the agony they are going through. So my point is here if you want to harass me invite me to a party where all the other guests are stammerers, or perhaps if you are my boss, insist I have secretary who stammers.

    You say “Accordingly, I am now struggling to understand what an ordinary person would understand by the expression “sexual images” in a provision that attempts to prohibit their display in a certain context.” and “We don’t seem to be able to agree on what is a “sexual image” and what is not”
    Personally I do not think this (agreement on a sexual image), is possible. People throughout the World, vary considerably. Additionally with respect, I think the term ‘ordinary person’ lacks exactitude. For instance the so called ordinary person in say Arizona is surely in many respects different from the so called ordinary person in say Wales in UK. The same is the case with the country dweller and the town dweller.
    There is always someone, somewhere who is going to be offended by something people differ considerably in what they like, dislike, tolerate, and will not tolerate. Additionally the wretched political correctness which bedevils society these days has made the situation even more complex.
    It appears to me that there is a time and a place for everything and the civilised person will be aware of this and able to act in accordance thereto. For instance the risqué joke told in the men’s changing room at the gym may cause hoots of laughter. The same joke told as a prelude to giving a paper at a philosophical conference will have a number of responses, most of which will be disapproving.
    The inveterate human trick of turning names into things seems to be involved here. We know what we mean but pointing out, denoting in the world, is far from easy, if not impossible.

  7. Greg Camp proposed at Metamagician that “a sexual image is an image that excites sexually.” When you countered with the example of the picture of non-attractive persons coupling, he amended his proposal to include depictions of sex itself.

    Greg’s proposal strikes me as largely in keeping with general meaning, except that it is open to idiosyncratic fetishes. e.g., if Bob Smith is sexually excited by the sight of squares, then cubism will be a sexual image for Bob Smith. But this is not informative, and does not let us come to any general normative conclusions, which means it’s probably not going to be a charitable interpretation of the folks you’re criticizing. So amend the definition: “A sexual image is an image that depicts sex, or can be reasonably expected to excite sexually.”

    Anyway, on the actual issue of what makes for good policy, I’m inclined to agree with Jean Kazez, above. She phrased it in terms of ‘what is gratuitous’, which is key. So, e.g., if we’re talking about giving advice to speakers, you might cash that out as follows: do not use sexual imagery unless it is necessary for the presentation. If you can do without it while still conveying your point, then go ahead and do without it.

  8. I’m sure that Jean is on the right track here. They are trying to create an environment that won’t be hostile or demeaning to women. Perhaps the policy should say that explicitly – it would have some meaning in that it could govern how the rest of the policy is interpreted. Instead, they’ve prohibited all sorts of categories of behaviour that are described in sufficiently sweeping terms to (one hopes inadvertently) catch up all kinds of innocuous or beneficial behaviour, such as selling posters of pre-Raphaelite art.

    Of course, what is hostile or demeaning to women is also contestable, and there are large grey areas. We’ve discussed some of them on my own blog, where I’ve often complained about demeaning representations of women in comics. But there are clear-cut cases, and if you also say somewhere simply that no harassment will be tolerated you go a long way to addressing the real mischiefs.

    The phrase “unwelcome sexual attention” is another problem. Presumably they mean insulting, humiliating, unreasonably persistent, or otherwise socially unacceptable forms of unwelcome sexual attention.

    Even lovers and spouses are sometimes on different wavelengths and inadvertently give each other sexual attention that is not welcome at the time – person A comes home feeling carefree and frisky after a good day at work, while her lover comes home feeling anxious after a bad day at work. That’s a recipe for some interesting interaction to take place – we’ve all experienced this, and sometimes been retrospectively glad of the attention.

    It’s fine for a policy on harassment to say that harassment can take the form of unwelcome sexual attention (it can, if the attention is, say, severe or unreasonably persistent) but not to define sexual harassment so that any sexual attention that is literally unwelcome at the time, no matter how polite or well-intentioned or ultimately beneficial, is deemed to be as harassment.

    I think the main thing with a policy like this is that it simply make clear that, as Richard Carrier said in a post I was reading, the convention will have your back if you’re harassed. It needn’t define harassment in some way that captures all sorts of normal behaviour, and looks as if the drafting ultimately came from someone who is very suspicious about ordinary sexuality.

    But surely all of us would be happy if we simply knew that the convention and/or the venue would back us up if we were subjected to really hostile or distressing behaviours. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of those behaviours, and seen women on the receiving end of them, as I’m sure we all have at some stage in our lives, but they are quite remote from some of the harmless or beneficial behaviours that would get caught up in this policy if you just read the words literally.

  9. Perhaps jean the hope is that people could move beyond making people into objects. UnFortunately that isn’t going to happen anytime soon, as you well know we are only part rational, therefore i do not think the answer is to balance the books and have men equally objectified as some “push back” people feel, but to elominate All objectification as far as possible. I don’t think this is being sex negative, it’s just moving towards removing our obsession with finding sex in everything….. And here is where we possibly cross the line of freedom of expression, just where do we stop at moralising on what is acceptable displays of sexuality? Telling people how much skin should be covered?

    Until or unless their is a radical shift in our western society and we evolve past our obsession with image power and status, we are swapping evils. The buddha is supposed to have said of his teachings, that they are like a boat, once you have used it to cross the river, you can leave it behind you, for you have no further need of it.

    Or another teaching i find pertinent: two monks come to a river, a beautiful girl stands at the bank and complains she cannot cross for fear of getting wet, the first monk sweeps her up and carrys her over, setting her down on the otherside, the monks continue on their journey miles later the second monk says to the first “you shoulnt have carried that girl we arent allowed to touch females” the second monk replied “i might habe carried her over the river, but you’re still carrying her”

  10. I think we need to be careful about this “making into objects” language, though. Merely appreciating someone’s physical beauty is not making them into an object – you can, at the very same time, be considerate of that person’s welfare if you are in any situation where that is relevant. Images that simply celebrate the beauty of beautiful people are fine. It’s when you portray someone in a callous or demeaning way that you can be said to objectify them. Many pornographic images can be criticised for doing this, while many erotic images that most people today would not regard as pornographic do no such thing – they celebrate sexual beauty.

    This can get subtle and complicated, but I think that’s unavoidable when it comes to interpreting images and their cultural meanings.

  11. Re: “booths specializing in girlie calendars”

    Well, the problem is that many atheist meetups are combined with SciFi cons (such as Skepchick meeting at Convergence), and a lot of these have long included a certain amount of erotic content, either from sellers, or from scantily-costumed attendees. DragonCon, as I’ve pointed out, has vendors who’s content goes way beyond girlie calendars.

    There is an audience for this kind of thing within SciFi fandom, and I’m definitely not OK with changing the rules for such cons in a more prudish direction based on the fact that these are now suddenly considered to be serious “geek” or secularist spaces. This is the big reason I’ve been advocating anti-harassment policies avoid language against sexualized imagery unless we’re talking about professional settings – scientific, technical, or business conventions, for example.

  12. “Images that simply celebrate the beauty of beautiful people are fine. It’s when you portray someone in a callous or demeaning way that you can be said to objectify them. Many pornographic images can be criticised for doing this, while many erotic images that most people today would not regard as pornographic do no such thing – they celebrate sexual beauty.”

    The pornography/erotica distinction is an utterly tired one. It’s an argument that people have been making since the 70s, and I have yet to see anybody provide a definition that’s not utterly subjective and not merely a projection of their own triggers and turn-ons. I don’t think anybody who’s seriously working in the area of erotic art even bothers with the “porn/erotica” distinction anymore, and it’s about time those who are working in public policy caught up with that reality.

    Apologies for being gruff about this, but it’s an argument that gets my back up.

  13. Hi, Iamcuriousblue. By all means get your back up, and by all means disagree with me about stuff. We don’t try to bully ideas and interlocutors off the table here.

    That said … people will go on interpreting various images and people will go on researching the psychological impact of various images. As I said somewhere on either this thread or the related thread on my own blog, there are no objectively binding truths about what is or is not, say, “pornographic” or “demeaning”. We form those judgments through the filter of certain codes of interpretation and evaluation that we’ve internalised.

    But that does not entail that it’s “utterly subjective” – any more than the lack of an objectively binding meaning for a literary work entails that it’s all utterly subjective. That’s a false dichotomy. We interpret literary works in accordance with certain complex codes – codes that are in some ways open to being defended, though they also have a degree of fuzziness about them. We contest the details of the codes at the same time as we contest the meanings or significances of works.

    Similarly, people working in metaethics can argue very strongly that there are no objectively binding moral standards … but it doesn’t follow that it’s all utterly subjective. E.g. some moral standards may conduce to peace and cooperation among beings like us (if that’s what we want) better than others. In that sense, some moral standards might be “better”, or more justifiable to our fellows, than others.

    I’m not an art critic (although I’m a literary critic with an interest in related issues in narrative … e.g. I wrote the essay on “nudity” for the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy), and I’m not going to argue if credentialed critics of erotic art wish to avoid the simplistic distinction between erotica and porn. That’s fine. I don’t work with that distinction myself in any serious way. Still, it does gesture, in a rough and ready way that ordinary people who are not professional critics can understand, to a complex of differences between, say, a Penthouse centerfold (or some image that is much more high-impact than that) and a Burne-Jones painting.

    Of course it’s going to be multi-dimensional, so I’d actually be astonished if someone could provide a simple definition that will work in all or even most cases. Film classification boards and the like have to use a range of factors when they hand out ratings, and so do courts if they review a particular case that comes before them.

    Still, perhaps we can at least agree that not all images are the same, and whatever images someone might want to restrict from public display (because of some emotional impact or whatever) will be only a small sub-set of, or quite atypical of, the sorts of images that might actually be displayed by vendors. And something like this applies to people engaging in cosplay at a convention where that’s encouraged.

    Even Dragon*Con (which I’ve attended and enjoyed) has rules (whether written or unwritten) about the limits of cosplay. E.g. I predict now that a man who attends Dragon*Con, or indeed any convention, as Dr. Manhattan, with his body shaved and painted blue and his penis on full display, will be (at least) asked to cover up.

    Those limits may not seem rationally defensible in any ultimate sense – what, in an ultimate sense, is so bad about seeing a man’s penis or a woman’s mons veneris,or whatever it might be? – but certain kinds of imagery have certain significances in our actual society. And of course it’s all contextual. What might not be acceptable for cosplay at Dragon*Con might be completely acceptable for a poster that’s displayed for sale there. Thus, I don’t think there should be any problem with a vendor selling a Dr Manhattan poster.

    Unfortunately, these things are a matter of give and take, social compromise, etc., in modern pluralist societies. But the “no sexual images on public display” rule shows no spirit of liberality and compromise at all. It’s about as draconian and unnuanced (and as demonising of sexuality and erotic beauty) as is possible in this debate.

  14. I would have hoped we could have left this fear of the nude form, or human sexuality to the christians.
    As soon as someone can provide an objective standard, with good reasoning behind it, maybe then we can have a real conversation about “banning” this sort of thing (images).
    Until then all you have is what looks to me like kneejerk emotional reactions to something religous culture has told us to fear and hate.

  15. Oh and *iamcuriousblue* I am an erotic photographer who works with *porn stars* and we do bother to make a distinction.

  16. Sorry for the piles of posts, but I forgot to ask…does this mean Darrel Ray’s “sex and secularism” book cant be sold?×300.jpg

    This is a book I have seen sold at cons, and I hope to continue to see…but it certainly (deliberately) is sexual.
    Further this sort of absurd policy makes me question its conclusions.

  17. It would be interesting to know whether that cover is considered a sexual image (and if not why not).

  18. I once had a fairly lengthy conversation with Roger Scruton about the difference between erotic art & pornography (which ended up in a book of interviews). His view is that erotic images genuinely engage the imagination whereas pornographic images are simply objects of fantasy. Here’s a quote:

    You have to think in terms of the language of literary critics. Leavis talks about works of art that invite a certain response. We know what that means, although it is difficult to specify it precisely. We know this because we know it in life. We know that there are people who invite a sentimental response to themselves, and others who remain distant, as if there is something still to be got from them. In the same way, we recognise this in art. Kitsch is a form of cheap invitation, and pornography is an invitation to fantasy sex. The erotic, in contrast, puts the sexual object at a distance – so that it becomes an object of contemplation. And the passion that erotic art arouses is an imaginative passion, not a real one. You can see this, for example, in Titian’s nudes, which are very good examples of erotic art. A Titian Venus is not masturbation material at all. The whole image is veiled by contemplation and idealised. It is not a woman for the taking, but rather a woman who is thinking of her own lover. To grasp the atmosphere of the picture, you have to set it at a distance from yourself.

  19. I think there’s at least something in what Scruton is saying here. I.e. one of the things that might make us tend to categorise an image as pornographic is that the subject is somehow coded as there “for the taking” of the viewer. Beatrice Faust says something similar in her book on the subject, if I recall/understand her analysis correctly.

    I can’t believe, though, that it’s quite that simple, or that the codes that operate to achieve this effect are going to work straightfowardly and consistently. And I bet that in the old days plenty of people were sexually aroused by Titian nudes and the like.

  20. I Actually quite like the lines drawn in the Meese Report. It was an absurd government waste, but at least the definitions seem fair.
    If I recall correctly they made three classes of sexual images
    1. Artistic: its primary focus is not titillation.
    2. Erotic: having both artistic value, and titillation as a secondary goal.
    3. Pornographic: no artistic value with a primary focus of titillation.

    Not perfect, and of course its hard to “prove” something has *no* artistic value. But I think the three classes cover the important concepts.
    For a good laugh read the actual report where they explain what a pain in the ass it was to learn about the culture of erotic art, and how it was an unexpected trouble for them.

  21. @Russell, @Mallorie

    I think these sorts of schema run into lots of difficulties.

    So, for example, if you want to focus on artistic intent, then it’s not clear how you respond to the photographer from “Big & Bouncy” who claims that his open-legs shots are an attempt to involve the imagination of the audience in a discourse about submission. But equally if you want to focus on the form/content of the art object, then you run into the problem of knowing how to deal with the person who claims that it’s clear that Titian nudes are titillating – that this is their demonstrable effect.

    I’m not saying there is no way out of these difficulties, but it certainly isn’t easy.

    Scruton was deeply distressed when I suggested to him that in his terms this image should be classed as erotic (not pornographic):

  22. While I mostly agree with you Jeremy, about the difficulties in actually classing something so subjective, I do think some demonstrable technique is a necessity of art. And I think a lot of subjective assertions can be deal with simply by taking technique in to account.
    IE: Ihere is demonstrable artistic technique used in the creation of Titian nudes.
    Where as proving the same of gonzo porn would be extremely difficult.

  23. @Mallorie – I think the reason why somebody such as Scruton would have to resist that argument is because even if it excludes the right sort of stuff – gonzo porn, for example (has that got something to do with the Muppets!?) – it still let’s too much in.

    So, for example, I suspect that Scruton wouldn’t be too keen on the “Last Tango in Paris”, but I think it would pass the technique test.

    (I should say I don’t share Scruton’s view, but he’s relevant here because he’s written extensively on aesthetics, etc., and his view is representative of a certain sort of defense of “high culture” as against “popular culture”).

  24. There is a world of difference between treating a person like a sexual object, and treating a sexual object like a sexual object. It just seems to me that the latter concern is out of place in a harassment policy.

  25. ColinGavaghan

    So if we accept that such gatherings contain a fairly wide range of sensibilities and sensitivities, maybe what would be useful is not so much – or not just – a harassment code, but a reminder to that effect. That what X may regard as innocuous could be experienced as uncomfortable, offensive, demeaning, marginalising or even (occasionally) threatening by a reasonable number of others; so, while we wouldn’t want everyone tip-toeing around on eggshells, a little thought would be appreciated.

    At the same time, though, a word to the more sensitive may be in order; a reminder that, when X acts in a manner/uses language that causes Y to feel uncomfortable, it’s not necessarily the case that X wants to cause that discomfort, or is callous to it, or even that he is transgressing against genuinely universal norms of conduct.

    Reasonable attempts at sensitivity should be a minimum expectation, but so too should reasonable attempts at robustness. A convention space isn’t a singles’ nightclub, but neither is it a church, and no-one should treat it like it is either.

    ‘Unwanted sexual attention’ is as ridiculous a phrase as ‘offensive.’ What we are – or ought to be – concerned with is conduct that is foreseeably likely to cause distress or discomfort. The rightness of an advance cannot be determined retrospectively, according to how the recipient responds to it.

  26. I just have to say again, because I got distracted:
    Why should we? Not an emotional answer, not made up social “maybe”s, logically how is sexual imagry actually harmful?
    Even the reports comissioned with the clear bias intent to prove out and out *porn* harmful, have returned time and time again finding no demonstrable harm from such things.
    If we are going to be a group that values science, we should start acting like it.

  27. Let me just take time out for a moment to say that I’m proud of my commenters on this thread (and the related thread over at the Hellfire Club). It’s good to have a civil, thoughtful, nuanced discussion with sophisticated people. So unlike a lot of what we see on the internet.

    As you were. 😎

  28. @Mallorie – There are some very smart feminist arguments against pornography that, ostensibly at least, don’t rely on an argument about harm.

    Rae Langton (who is extremely smart) is responsible for what I think is the best of them. See, for example:

    Again, I should say I don’t think Langton’s argument works (mainly because I think if you press the argument hard enough, it turns out it does rest on the idea that “pornography” is harmful, and, as you say, there isn’t any good evidence that this is the case), and, as it happens, I’m extremely liberal about these sorts of things, but it is undeniably a sophisticated and elegant argument.

  29. I don’t think we should neglect the significance of intent. Not to say that intent is the end all to be all, but it does have some weight. In regards to harassment, intent is everything. Without the intent to harass, you simply cannot call it marassment. For Don, a room full of stammering folks may be incredibly uncomfortable, or horrifying, to him, but if someone accidentally sends him to this room, it would be ridiculous to say that that person harassed him.

    Being offended by something, and being harassed by someone are two very different sorts of things. I may be offended when someone makes a negative comment about a strongly held belief of mine, but I wouldn’t think that the person was harassing me.

    The difficulty arises when having to determine someone’s intent. Did they intend to harass? To offend? Were they aware of your aversion to something but chose to subject you to it anyway? I find it a bit surprising that the AA Code didn’t account for this. A “sexual image” may offend someone, or even a lot of someones, but its a stretch to call that harassment.

  30. “The difficulty arises when having to determine someone’s intent. Did they intend to harass?”

    I don’t think this actually works. Harassment is basically just attempting to elicit a positive response, via repeated propositioning or coercion, in conflict with the wants of the target of your attention. I don’t really see how you can harass without implicitly intending to do so.

  31. Yes, that is my point exactly. That without intent, we are simply offending. Therefore, it is meaningless to talk about codes of conduct regarding harassment, without involving, or discussing, intent.

    However, I don’t think that positive responses are the only ones we’re attempting to elicit if we are harassing. Bullies, for example. When a child, or adult for that matter, is getting bullied repeatedly, the bully is attempting to make that person feel very negatively.

  32. Lee:

    I can harass without intending to harass and it happens all the time.

    For example, I repeatedly proposition a woman against her wishes, but I do not see it as harassing her, but as liberating her from her sexual repression or giving her the chance to have a really great sexual experience, that is, from my point of view, doing her a favor.

  33. Swallerstein,

    that sounds more like Lee’s definition of harassment; as you are “attempting to elicit a positive response, via repeated propositioning or coercion, in conflict with the wants of the target of your attention.”

    Being aware that some thing, or advance, is unwelcomed, but pressing it anyway is almost textbook.

  34. @swallerstein – If you repeatedly proposition against her expressed wishes, that is harassment. Whether you have a good reason is irrelevant; her wishes, once realized, should be considered just as valid as yours.

    @Ben – Two things:
    1. As soon as you recognize that your attentions are unwanted, persisting in pressing your desires constitutes harassment. There is nothing wrong with asking, but you need to respect her answer even if you think she is mistaken.

    2. By “positive” I meant positive for you, the bully, the harasser, etc.. Bullies want an expression of weakness, which is their way of validating their fragile self-image. To receive that expression from their victim is a “positive” result.

  35. Lee,

    1. Agreed
    2. My mistake, I misread. But I do feel that that is too broad a characterization. Most things that we do, we do to elicit a positive feeling. Unless we are ill. So I don’t feel like that is specific to harassment in general. We play chess, play sports, read books, do philosophy, murder people because, for some reason, ill-founded or not, it makes us happy.

  36. Lee:

    I agree completely that her reasons should be considered as valid as mine, rather more so in this situation.

    My point is that my “intention” is not to harass.

  37. @swallerstein – On the contrary, your intent(in your example) *was* to engage in behavior that falls under the definition of harassment. Just as unintentional homicide is still homicide, unintentional harassment is still harassment.

  38. If you intend to engage in certain behaviours that a reasonable person would know others find intimidating, humiliating, severely offensive, just plain hassled having to deal with it, etc., then you’re harassing them.

    It doesn’t matter whether you subjectively intended to make them feel intimidated, humiliated, etc.

    OTOH, if you engage in behaviour that a reasonable person would not expect to have that effect, perhaps because it falls within usual social standards of interaction, then you haven’t harassed them, even if the person does (perhaps because of some hypersensitivity) feel intimidated, or humiliated, or severely offended, or some such thing.

    Part of the problem with all this is that we live in a society where different people will feel severe offence (or perhaps severe alienation or severe discomfort) over different things. It can sometimes be difficult to know just what is likely to cause offence, even severe offence to another inividual. At least at the margins, reasonable people are going to foresee different things.

    Still, I don’t think it’s the role of convention organisers to initiate a tyranny of the hypersensitive or to intervene in minor cases. I think it was Colin who said that we ought to demand a degree of robustness. E.g. if you are so lacking in robustness that you’ll be severely offended by someone touching you on the shoulder to attract your attention, or by someone asking you (once, politely) on a date, or by someone selling posters of pre-Raphaelite paintings … well, I don’t think the rest of us have to set down a rule that forbids doing those things. On the contrary, we need a bit of room to move.

    But it’s clear enough to most people in most cases. E.g. if you persist in making romantic overtures when they’re clearly not wanted, or if you make them in a very crude way, you can’t plead that you didn’t mean to make the person feel harassed. And if you jeer at people for their appearance (perhaps because you think that woman deserves it for wearing a sexy dress, or that man deserves it for looking, in your view, effeminate), you can’t plead that you weren’t trying to be nasty.

    When it comes to what images vendors can display, sell, etc., e.g. on books and posters, I think we should be leaning in the most liberal direction we can. And a provision that insinuates that any display of erotic imagery in public spaces is deemed to be harassing sounds to me like a crazy rule. It excludes a whole lot of behaviour that most of us consider innocuous or beneficial. We shouldn’t be accommodating the hypersensitive with something like this.

    Likewise with people’s dress (or with cosplay at a convention like Dragon*Con). Within very broad limits people should be able to wear what they like. But there are extremes – and ordinary good sense should tell us when we’re getting into extreme territory.

    Also, it’s contextual. And this goes beyond issues of harassment to other issues of decorum, atmosphere, etc. What might be acceptable at the beach (total nudity, perhaps) might not be acceptable elsewhere, even on the summer lawns at a university campus, or in cosplay at Dragon*Con. And what’s acceptable for the latter might not be acceptable at a different convention – like the World Fantasy Convention, which is much more a convention for literary professionals, and there’s some degree of decorum. And even that might be much too casual for an office that’s trying to maintain a very “corporate” vibe.

    In any event a rule about harassment isn’t the best way to handle issues that arise in the previous para. For example, the World Fantasy Convention does not need a rule (and I certainly hope it doesn’t hsve one!) deeming cosplay to be harassment. It relies on its traditions and on people’s good sense. A corporate employer might have a dress code rule requiring men to wear suits and ties – but a rule deeming anything else to be harassment would be completely the wrong way to go about this.

  39. I think that in this context people are typically using the term “sexual image” in a judgemental way, to label and condemn whatever images they object to for sex-related reasons. So, when the code of conduct rules out “sexual images” I would say it means sex-related images of an objectionable kind. If the writers would have no objection to the Burne-Jones painting, then almost by definition it is (for them) not a “sexual image”.

    Russell wrote in a comment:

    I think the main thing with a policy like this is that it simply make clear that, as Richard Carrier said in a post I was reading, the convention will have your back if you’re harassed.

    I would think that is the purpose of the rule. It’s not trying to give a precise definition. (That’s probably impossible.) It’s just giving a rough outline of the sorts of things that could be considered harrassment. But clearer wording would have helped. I suppose someone reading it might feel unnecessarily constrained from using a harmless image like the Burne-Jones painting. I doubt that was the drafter’s intention.

  40. Re:-Swallerstein 27th July.

    I think the salient point here is what the Lady really feels about the situation herself. I do not think we are going to find out here; she may share it with her closest intimates. We all have private opinions especially about others, and we mostly keep them to ourselves for fear of causing hurt. Would it really be a favour if in a moment of weakness she agreed, and afterwards regretted it? Are you sure you are not first and foremost after self satisfaction? How do other ladies respond to similar approaches? The way you tell it, smacks to me as Harassment, but I am not sure you are being serious. Is it no more than a private joke between you and the lady?

  41. Hello Don:

    I myself am very shy and respectful with women.

    I think of myself, perhaps mistakenly, as a gentleman. and besides, at age 66, my sex energy is not up to harassing.

    In my comments above, I was merely trying to put myself into the mindset of an harasser, to see the affair from his point of view, playing the devil’s advocate, so to speak.

  42. The problem with trying to call that a “favor” and not harassment is that you are doing it with full knowledge that you are going against the clear decline of the woman.
    You can’t claim you didn’t know you were bothering her.
    You are also assuming your life style choice is better for her than her own, and in doing so attemoting to subvert her will.
    You can claim your intentions were “good” but with the obvious knowledge you have, that claim will fall apart.

  43. Mallorie:

    I suppose that my hypothetical harasser would see it as a problem of false consciousness, that the woman in question does not understand what is in her interests (according to him, to have sex with him), that she is not aware of what her true good is (to have sex with him), all of which just shows you some of the problems with the idea of false consciousness.

  44. The fact remains that he would be aware that he was causing at the very least discomfort.
    Attempting to use ends to justify means does not deny the means. The act of harassment still exists, even if he claims the ends are good ones.

  45. Richard – it would be interesting to know what they thought they were doing. Apparently they had some legal advice (well, I’ve seen vague suggestions to that effect), but if so it was very poor advice, because the drafting is deplorable.

    It looks as if the drafting has been pasted from other documents, but those documents may have been written by people with very different concerns and agendas of their own. It’s not that hard to find people on the internet who think that anything to do with sex is so problematic that you even need to obtain consent before you talk about sex (in a way that you wouldn’t with other topics). And of course that viewpoint has a deep history. It is, I suggest, precisely one of the viewpoints that we should all be opposing. We should be trying to deproblematise sexuality and eroticism. Well, so I’d argue.

    Perhaps the people who pasted in this drafting were thinking of specific situations rather than reading the words literally and imagining the full of range of conduct that they prohibit on their face. Conducting that exercise is not undue suspicion or being “hyperbolic”, as one person has accused me of in another forum (it is actually the provision that is hyperbolic).

    It may be that some people will defend the provision, but I hope it’s clear by now that the entire policy is, at best, poorly, and perhaps hastily, drafted. One lesson may be that it’s good to get advice from people who are prepared to do a bit of imaginative work to test what policies really mean, as written, and whether they go beyond what was really in people’s minds. It’s all too easy to draft prohibitions that are overbroad and, on balance, harmful.

    There’s also a question as to whether the whole approach to drafting that’s been adopted is appropriate. Presumably what has to be conveyed is that no form of harassment (i.e. sexual or otherwise) will be tolerated (i.e. considered acceptable), that the convention organisers will have your back (and take strong action) if you’re harassed, but that they will also adopt a procedure that is fair to people who are retrospectively accused of harassment. Those seem like the reassurances and warnings that we all need to see.

    A simple statement along those lines, expressed in plain English drafting, would be preferable.

  46. The act of harassment exists from your (and my) point of view, but he (the harasser) would not see it as an act of harassment, but as education or even therapy.

    Maybe he sees himself as one of those therapists who wear down the patient’s resistences in order to get them to “see the truth”, obviously, the truth according to the therapist’s well-intentioned mindset.

  47. swallerstein, people who think that way are pretty scary. I think this is precisely one of the sorts of people – someone who is that arrogant and paternalistic towards others – whom we (and in this case women) want to be protected from. But I guess you’re not denying that point.

  48. I remember a rather terrifying conversation I had with a guy on CompuServe (in the early 1990s), who insisted that if a woman ended up enjoying non-consensual sex (i.e., rape), then it wasn’t rape and wasn’t wrong. (It came up in conversation because of one of the rape fantasies documented by Nancy Friday in “My Secret Garden”).

    I tried all sorts of arguments to get him to shift his position – for example, if you were terrified of heights, and somebody kidnapped you, and chucked you out of a plane with a parachute, then clearly this would still be wrong, even if by some miracle you happened to enjoy floating down to earth – but it was hopeless.

    He genuinely seemed to think that non-consensual sex could be justified if it turned out to be “educational”. Scary stuff indeed.

  49. It’s the idea of forcing people to be free, applied in an area as sensitive as sexuality.

    Forcing people to be free tends to be scary in general.

  50. @Russell,

    Yes, I do find it quite surprising that this policy slipped through the cracks for whatever reason.

  51. I think the character that Swallerstein has drawn here, and the one mentioned by Jeremy Stangroom 28th July are near the brink of abnormality, perhaps psychopathy. The symptoms here are an inner feeling that they are somehow in the right. They are consumed with getting what they want at any expense and will lie to achieve this.. They would only understand harassment were they a victim of it. The fact that they are inflicting it on another person would be incomprehensible to them. In this connection the attitude of the perpetual stalker seems a suitable example. We seem to be in the context of abnormal psychology here, and I accordingly wonder how justified we are in condemning certain actions which emanate from such people, and thinking they should act more in accordance with what we consider to be right and proper. The fact is they just cannot act as we would wish, and for that reason are possibly, best avoided.

  52. @Don – To be fair to the guy on CompuServe, the conversation we had was in the context of a discussion about a very specific sexual fantasy from Nancy Friday’s book (“Johanna”‘s, IIRC), which was based on an incident she claimed was real, where she was raped but nevertheless had an orgasm, etc.

    I was arguing that it was rape nonetheless, he was arguing it wasn’t. I don’t think there is any reason to suppose that he was consumed with getting what he wanted, or anything else like that (though he might have been).

  53. After all this, I think I am starting to understand The AA’s wanting to make the policy so overbroad. With such ambiguity on the topic and a lack of consensus on the qualifications for harassment, perhaps an overbearing policy was necessary. I could see the board looking at the wording and deciding that, even though other innocuous acts fall under scrutiny as well, it almost certainly will curtail harassment in general. Perhaps they’d rather take criticism and play it overly cautious, than have people getting harassed.

  54. I can see why someone might react in that way, Ben, throwing their hands up in horror at the subtlties, etc.,of human social behaviour. But once you make rules overbroad you prohibit a lot of innocuous or positively benign behaviour. As I’ve said elsewhere, I would not attend an AA conference with those rules.

    Even if they are not enforced they send totally the wrong message – that sex and eroticism are problematic, that ordinary friendly conduct is problematic, etc. We should be trying to send the opposite message – deproblematising the whole domain of the erotic (which is still so often demonised or problematised in our society), welcoming ordinary friendliness, etc. I would not give my support to a conference that sends dramatically the wrong message, even if I thought the policy would not be enforced literally.

    The only place I see for a rule about “Ask explicitly every time you propose to touch someone in any way” would be at some kind of sado-masochistic orgy among strangers (a conference devoted to that sort of thing might need to put in place some unusual rules, I suppose).

    Since this issue of conference rules came up, I’ve been watching ordinary people interacting normally, and they just don’t behave like that – i.e. asking for all sorts of explicit permissions – at all. Many small touches are given for a vast range of reasons, as are hugs, on the basis of non-verbal cues, or no cues at all if, for example, it’s just touching someone on the shoulder to attract attention. And this is all fine. We’d be behaving like robots if we adopted a policy of always seeking explicit consent for all of this, and the world would become a much less friendly and practical place.

    Also, ordinary people’s houses and many other, more public spaces have, images that could be described as “sexual” albeit not high level pornographic ones. I’d hate to see Chloe removed from Young and Jacksons, for example.

    And really, the sorts of people being talked about by Jeremy and others are not defending behaviour that falls in some kind of grey area. These are seriously weird and scary individuals being talked about. If they acted on these views, no one would have any trouble denouncing what they are doing (and it would usually be against the law).

    Where, perhaps I might be inclined to change my views a bit out of all this, though, is to take a rather ruthless attitude to such a person if they were identified – i.e. to be prepared to ban anyone like that from ever attending my convention again.

    There’s been a recent case at a convention called Readercon involving a scary person. He apparently just follows women around staring at them – and evidently not in a way that anyone could doubt is truly abnormal and frightening (but if I understand correctly, it’s not necessarily overtly sexually coded – e.g. it’s not, as far as I know, their breasts that he stares at).

    Apparently he has a bizarre theory that if he does this to a woman long enough she’ll eventually decide to have sex with him. Or some damn thing.

    Now, he hasn’t touched these women, or apparently spoken to them. But with a bizarre theory like that in his head, a theory that he acts on in a bizarre and frightening way, he is a menace. He’s been banned from the next two Readercons, but a lot of people are saying he should have been banned forever.

    Apparently he’s expressed contrition, which was why he was not banned forever. Unlike some, I’m a bit inclined to cut the investigators who imposed the penalty a bit of slack. I do think that expressions of contrition can be relevant to what penalties are imposed. In some cases, they may be enough that someone should get no more than counselling or a warning. And after all, the investigators have all the evidence, whereas I don’t. I may even have some of the facts wrong – which is easy to do, and I’m open to correction about them.

    BUT another part of me is saying that, really, a guy this abnormal and scary is not going to change, and besides the damage is done abd people are now frightened around him, and he should never be allowed back to that convention again.

    Note though that this is about someone who is clearly beyond the pale, even though there was (on the facts as I understand them) no overtly sexual element to his behavior (if we didn’t know his weird theory, all we’d see would be someone staring in a strange, but not overtly sexual way). It would be wrong for Readercon to now impose policies that prohibit all the normal, friendly interaction that goes on there, such as hugs without explicit expressions of permission, or that prohibit all the images of nudity or eroticism that would normally be displayed for sale there. I don’t think the existence of weird people who don’t get ordinary, decent behaviour should lead us to penalising ourselves by drawing overbroad rules that spoil things for everyone else, but I do think this is a case of having clear policies that are applied vigorously.

    By the way, there is nothing wrong, in my opinion, with Readercon’s existing policy on harassment. It’s a short policy of the “no harassment will be tolerated” kind. I hope they won’t change the policy in some way that takes it down the AA track. What is needed is a short, easy-to-read policy that clearly expresses a lack of tolerance for behaviour that actually is harassing.

    But perhaps the existence of even a tiny number of guys like this means that such policies need to be more prominently displayed, and they do need to be enforced with strong action when a clear-cut cases arises.

    But yet again, this was (apparently) a clear-cut case of someone behaving abnormally. It did not require any officious guidance about the etiquette of ordinary interactions among normal, decent people. I think doing that is addressing the wrong problem and creating a new one.

  55. Russell,

    Agreed, the fact that they decided to actually publish this new policy is absurd. But I can understand the initial thought process. I almost wonder if the route to take would have been to, instead of creating a new policy entirely, reiterate the existing policy and perhaps providing folks with a list of actions which constitute harassment.

    Since he expressed such remorse at reader con, perhaps the gentleman wouldn’t have acted in such a way if he had realized that it would be considered harassment.

  56. His behaviour – at least as I understand it (I think we should always include that caveat, as we are all susceptible to getting things wrong)- would surely fall under “stalking”. So perhaps that’s a reason to include a specific mention of “stalking” in a policy. The CFI policy does this, and as I’ve been saying I have no objections to it, especially when it is read in conjunction with the explanation that Ron Lindsay issued, which particularly made clear that the phrase “unwelcome sexual attention” would not be applied to cover innocuous, socially accepted conduct that literally falls within the words. I’ve been saying throughout the current debates that I think CFI handled the “code of conduct” issue well.

    So by all means let’s have an explicit mention of stalking in our short, plain English, not overbroad policies. But if someone really doesn’t understand that his (it will usually be a “he”) behaviour meets that description, I don’t think we can help him further. We can’t write an entire etiquette manual for weird or socially clueless men. What an explicit mention of stalking does accomplish, all the same, is empower someone who is being stalked to do something about it. I’m not sure if the Readercon policy explicitly mentions stalking, but if it doesn’t that’s one change that could sensibly be made.

  57. I do find it hard to imagine that a person would routinely ‘research’ whether or not their actions would constitute some form of harassment or stalking (although clearly, enough perhaps should). So I could see how an attempt to provide such a resource would be lost on some folks.

    All the same, some folks do need to be hit over the head with such information. If they could find a way to both educate the clueless men, and do it in a way that’s not akin to punishing the entire class for one students disruption, then that would be ideal.

    I think if at all possible, the aim should be to prevent harassment or stalking from occurring at all, in addition to providing empowerment to victims of such behavior.

    Although, perhaps that is a bit above and beyond what a policy writer for AA needs to be concerned with.

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