Creeper cards at Defcon 2012, via Flickr / vissago
A few days ago, just moments before she was to give a talk on sex and drugs at Security Bside SF, a technical conference in San Francisco, Violet Blue was told she couldn't go on. Her talk, organizers worried, could possibly trigger survivors of sexual assault in the audience.
Blue, a respected sexual educator and journalist whose work is primarily focuses on the intersection of sexuality and technology, frequently speaks on television and at tech conferences on matters of sex, porn, and the tech world. She often focuses on women's representation and sexual consent. So to hear that her talk on sex and drugs was canceled due to concern about her subject material was extremely surprising. In the hours that followed, she discovered that it was a feminist organization, Ada Initiative, that had become concerned about the subject matter of her talk and had spoken to conference organizers.
Both Violet and Ada Initiative have published their own accounts of the situation on their respective websites. From Violet Blue's response:
What Ada Initiative has done here is the opposite of harm reduction. In addition, I want to state for the record that the so-called “creeper cards” are also the opposite of harm reduction. Both things, while seemingly not directly related, create damage to the community and offer no solutions to the very issues they trade on in order to advance the narrow agendas of the people behind them.
Ms. Blue’s talk would've explored sex on various types of drugs, but from a harm reduction perspective. “Creeper cards” are cards that women informally pass at some technical conferences to men who are behaving sexually inappropriately. They are a symbolic response against the prevalence of sexual harassment at past conferences. At a recent hacker convention in Germany, someone immediately plastered the wall with some creeper cards in the outline of a nude woman’s body.
Ada Initiative's statement focuses mostly on the fact that the talk would've been “off-topic” and that not enough warning was given--Ms. Blue only finalized her remarks a couple hours before she was set to appear--for women to avoid the talk if they found it triggering. "Moreover, unlike some highly charged other topics in the technical world," their statement goes on, "it is very unlikely that your audience has a uniformly, or even widely-held, negative opinion of harassment and assault.”
The Ada Initiative is stating, in other words, that the attendees of Security Bsides San Francisco do not have a widely-held negative opinion of sexual harassment and assault.
To this point Valerie, founder of the Ada Initiative, said that while she is not aware of any specific survey or research that has delved into the views of hacker conference attendees that anecdotally, at least, her organization has come into contact with innumerable examples of sexual harassment and assault being an accepted part of hacker culture. She says that she has spoken with several women who claim that it is in fact “fundamental” to the culture.
It was based on Violent Blue’s conference talk title, “sex +/- drugs known vulns and exploits” that the Ada Initiative felt the talk would be detrimental to the dynamics of the conference. Ms. Aurora explained, “An exploit is when you break into a computer against somebody’s will, so [this title] it could be interpreted as a discussion of rape using drug.” To her it was possible to interpret this language as a talk about how to use GHB or similar drugs to coerce and assault women; of course this wasn’t the case, but the presence of this wording, to Ms. Aurora, would have possibly appealed to individuals interested in the darker connotations of the title.
Now, being familiar with Violet Blue’s work, I don’t believe her talk was going to be a primer on how to slip someone intoxicants so that you can sexually assault them. The abstract does suggest that it was a bit “off-topic,” though all conferences generally host a few of these, tangentially-related but non-essential talks to break up the monotony. Also, she’s primarily a sex writer, so the conference organizers may have known she was going to talk about sex.
Ms. Aurora also noted that she believes off-topic, sexual content produces a sexualized environment. "My feelings as someone who has been raped at a hacker conference, I really didn't want to be at that conference after knowing that a bunch of people had attended a talk with that title," she told me.
"That was a very unsafe and unpleasant feeling...I also didn't want to be at the conference with a bunch of men thinking, Hey we just talked about having sex on drugs and now I'm going to propose to you, 'Hey Valerie, would you like to have sex with me on this drug?'"
Aurora seems to have an issue with the discussion of sex at technical conferences in general; her point is that a sexual atmosphere itself can be inherently threatening to women, that an off-topic sex talk may encourage men who are already more likely to accept and minimize sexual harassment and assault. This is, I think, the larger claim. It's a serious accusation, and not being a member of the hacker community myself I can't speak to its accuracy.
I do think that situations where women, as a whole, have very little sexual power are threatening. Yet sometimes the best way to combat this power imbalance is for women to project a strong vision of their own sexuality, to lead the the talks and discussions on sex, not eliminaate them.
The tech world, and the hacker community specifically, can be incredibly inhospitable to women. I believe the stories I’ve read about women being groped, licked, cornered, and sexually propositioned at tech and hacker conferences. I do think conventions and conferences can make women feel uncomfortable with the use of needlessly sexualized images and rhetoric.
Yet perhaps there are bigger battles to fight than protesting a pro-sex, pro-woman, pro-consent talk on drug harm reduction that was perhaps needlessly provocatively titled. Perhaps a talk about reducing the impact of drugs or drug combinations would actually have been helpful to some women in attendance. I do agree with Ada's suggestion that conference talks of a sexual nature should be advertised as such, giving women and men who want to avoid that type of content the information they need to decide.
We need to thoughtfully consider what the Ada Initiative's essential aims are, but also allow for the ability for people to respectfully discuss sexual topics.
Since the incident, Ms. Aurora notes she’s received plenty of death threat and even more rape threats. “That,” she says, “is what happens when you piss off the hacker community.”