Sexual Harassment at DefCon (and Other Hacker Cons)
Excellent blog post by Valerie Aurora about sexual harassment at the DefCon hackers conference. Aside from the fact that this is utterly reprehensible behavior by the perpetrators involved, this is a real problem for our community.
The response of “this is just what hacker culture is, and changing it will destroy hackerdom” is just plain wrong. When swaths of the population don’t attend DefCon because they’re not comfortable there or fear being assaulted, we all suffer. A lot.
Finally, everyone at DEFCON benefits from more women attending. Women “hackers”—in the creative technologist sense—are everywhere, and many of them are brilliant, interesting, and just plain good company (think Limor Fried, Jeri Ellsworth, and Angela Byron). Companies recruiting for talent get access to the full range of qualified applicants, not just the ones who can put up with a brogrammer atmosphere. We get more and better talks on a wider range of subjects. Conversations are more fun. Conferences and everyone at them loses when amazing women don’t attend.
When you say, “Women shouldn’t go to DEFCON if they don’t like it,” you are saying that women shouldn’t have all of the opportunities that come with attending DEFCON: jobs, education, networking, book contracts, speaking opportunities—or else should be willing to undergo sexual harassment and assault to get access to them. Is that really what you believe?
And in case you’re thinking this is just a bunch of awkward geeks trying to flirt, here are one person’s DefCon stories:
Like the man who drunkenly tried to lick my shoulder tattoo. Like the man who grabbed my hips while I was waiting for a drink at the EFF party. Like the man who tried to get me to show him my tits so he could punch a hole in a card that, when filled, would net him a favor from one of the official security staff (I do not have words for how slimy it is that the official security staff were in charge of what was essentially a competition to get women to show their boobs). Or lastly, the man who, without prompting, interrupted my conversation and asked me if I’d like to come back to his room for a “private pillowfight party.” “You know,” he said. “Just a bunch of girls having a pillowfight….fun!” When I asked him how many men would be standing around in a circle recording this event, he quickly assured me that “no one would be taking video! I swear!”
Aurora writes that DefCon is no different from other hacker cons. I had some conversations with people at DefCon this year to the contrary, saying that DefCon is worse than other hacker cons. We speculated about possible reasons: it’s so large (13,000 people were at DefCon 20), it’s in Las Vegas (with all the sexual context that implies), and it’s nobody’s home turf. I don’t know. Certainly the problem is rampant in geek culture.
Aurora also mentions the “Red/Yellow Card project” by KC, another hacker: warning cards that can be handed out in response to harassing behavior. The cards are great, and a very hackerish sort of solution to the problem. She gave me a complete set—there’s also a green card for good behavior—and I have been showing them to people since I returned. I haven’t heard any stories about them being given out to harassers, but I suspect they would be more effective if they were given out by observers rather than by the harassed. (Bystanders play a large role in normalizing harassing behavior, and similarly play a large role preventing it.)
Of course, the countermove by harassers would be to collect the cards as kind of a game. Yes, that would reduce the sting of the cards. No, that doesn’t make them a bad idea. Still, a better idea is a strong anti-harassment policy from the cons themselves. Here’s a good model.