The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sex Positive Harassment Policies?

So, there has been alot of talk in the organized skepticism and organized atheism communities as of late regarding the need for policies at conferences and conventions to prevent sexual harassment.  This is, I'm inclined to think, a good thing.  I, myself, have not attended, and frankly have little interest in attending, most, if any, of these conferences (given my opinions about pseudoscience and religion, this may surprise some readers, but there you have it).  But they are important events for many of those who do attend them, and the adoption of codes of conduct or other policies that allow people to attend them in comfort and safety is a move in the right direction. 

One thing that puzzles me, however, is the insistence by many advocates of the policies that the policies need to be "sex positive." 


Okay, so perhaps some definitions are in order.

When I see the term "sex positive" used, it has, to date, almost always been used to encapsulate the idea that sex is a normal, healthy, and good part of human behavior, and not something that should be shamed or hidden.  I agree with this, and see no problem with having a generally sex positive attitude.

The term "sexual harassment" is a bit slippery, but in most places with a policy, it refers to the creation of an unwelcome or hostile environment by way of unwanted sexual attention or advances, or by actions or speech that denigrates groups or individuals based on gender, sexual orientation, or related aspects. It is usually held to be "in the eye of the harassed" with the caveat that in order to be harassment, it must be something that an impartial observer would be likely to consider harassment*, which means that for something where you are being hit on, you have to have made it clear that you are not interested or the person making advances has to be doing so in a manner so out-of-bounds that it would be absurd to think that their behavior was reasonable.

But there's still more to it.  It's not enough to say "yes means yes, no means no, and maybe means no" (as people are currently summarizing the American Atheist's policy).  Effective sexual harassment policies create an environment in which sex is simply not an issue. Yes, good policies prohibit poor behavior by allowing an avenue for those who feel harassed to have their grievances addressed, and to have their harassers confronted by someone in authority. But they also lead to a significantly less sexualized atmosphere by curtailing many types of behaviors and talk that might provide cover for those wishing to engage in harassment. Case in point - some years back, I had an employee who talked often and openly about her sex life at work, often in detail.  Nobody minded her doing it - in fact, most of the other employees found her stories enjoyable.  I still had to put a stop to it, because regardless of how her stories were viewed by other employees, had she been allowed to continue, it would have provided a rationale for others to start doing the same, and I knew enough about the other employees in that setting to know that this would not have been okay with everyone else.  The employee who I made stop later complained to me that I had a bad effect on her sex life, as talking about these things was one of the ways that she found new partners, and as we were frequently away from home for work, that limited her options.  I didn't care, I had to make sure that we maintained a safe and professionals space.

So, the thing of it is that if someone is making advances, they have to accept that they might be shut down.  If someone is inclined to crack crude or sexist jokes, they may be asked to stop.  If someone is sharing details of their sex life or their desires, they may be asked to stop talking.  And many people will be unwilling to make advances if they are unsure how they will be taken.  This means that, contrary to what most people claiming the need for sex positive harassment policies claim, some people will not make even welcome advances.  An effective policy will have the effect of reducing the amount of sex at a conference.  No matter how much you try to be sex positive, a well-written and properly enforced policy is likely to make finding sex more difficult (especially for those who are socially awkward and don't know how to be more discreet and polite at times), but this is part of the price that you pay for preventing harassment, and if your goal is to bring more women into the fold (as is often said to be the goal in these discussions) it is very much a price worth paying.

Look, I have been a manager at various levels for several years.  Knowing and implementing anti-harassment policies is a part of my job, and I have had to enforce sexual harassment policies on more than one occasion.  Never once has my own view of sex, positive, negative, indifferent, or otherwise, come into play.  Moreover, in reading the written policies, it's pretty clear that with the better ones that the views of the author(s) regarding sex weren't relevant.  What was relevant was creating a safe and productive environment for achieving the goals of work (or, in the case of conferences, for providing a space and forum for exchanges of information and ideas).

In my personal life, I am an admittedly boring monogamous heterosexual man.  However, I associate freely with people who are polyamorous, swingers, and of indefinable preferences and lifestyles.  I have no problem with any of them, and have even been known to try to help those who I think would enjoy each other meet each other.  Similarly, I associate freely with people who are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, polysexual, asexual, etc., and again see nothing wrong with them or their desires and orientations.  I simply want people to have the right and ability to have a fulfilling sex life (or, for some people, lack of one) without being bullied, harassed, or put down.  In this sense, I am certainly a sex positive person.

However, when I enter a professional environment - be it my workplace, the field, a conference, or even socializing with colleagues - my views regarding sex become absolutely and utterly irrelevant.  Whatever my personal views, I cannot act effectively as a supervisor and as a professional unless I am neutral - and sometimes even a bit negative - regarding sex when in such a setting.  To do otherwise would result in me being unable to deal with the situations that can and do arise whenever you have several people together, especially when we are in the field (or at a conference) and far from home.  I have to assume that their sex lives are of no concern to me unless they begin to create problems in the professional environment. I do not allow my subordinates or colleagues to cast aspersions on the sex lives of others, but I also don't allow them to pursue their own interests at the cost of a safe and professional environment.  Should my employees decide to engage in sex outside of my supervision, so be it, but if one employee decides to pursue another against the other's wishes, or if two consenting people wish to carry on in a manner that makes matters difficult for the other people present, then I have to be a killjoy or cock-block in order to preserve the professional space, I have no room nor ability to be anything else. 

My purpose is not, and never is, to facilitate nor denigrate my colleague's or subordinates sex lives, it is to produce a healthy work environment, which means making sure that some things are not done or said.  And so, when I hear people talk about the need for "sex positive anti-harassment policies" I immediately want to call bullshit.  You don't need sex positive policies.  You need effective policies.  And you know what, effective policies will likely lead to a reduction in sexual activity at events, and that is fine.  Again, the purpose of conferences and conventions is to provide a forum for presentations and discussions of their organization's topics, not an avenue for sex.  If willing individuals wish to have sex, that is absolutely fine.  But effective policies will have to assume that the attendees are not present for the purpose of sex, and so long as anyone is concerned with being sex positive as much or more than they are concerned with preventing harassment, the harassment is going to continue.  In order to stop bad behavior, sometimes you have to be willing to be the authority that those who wish to engage in bad behavior don't like.

Of course, a conference is less formal than an office, and the policies are going to reflect that.  there will be behaviors that are acceptable at the conference that are not acceptable at the workplace.  However, the overall principles remain the same: provide a method for grievance airing and resolution, make codes of behavior clear, and reduce sexualization of the atmosphere of the venue in order to make the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior clear.  That last point is the one that most will deem prudish or "sex-negative."  It is also a vital point.

If you are going to push for a harassment policy, forget whether it is sex positive or negative, look only at whether it is effective.  You don't have time to worry about whether or not you are being viewed as a prude or a buzzkill, you have to focus on making the environment safe.  And sometimes you are going to prevent people from having sex - as much as pro-policy people on the atheist/skeptic blogs may claim otherwise, this is a very simple truth.  Policies that prevent harassment do have a price, and to claim otherwise is to be either naive or disingenuous.  But if you are serious about having a safe and welcoming environment, then it is a price very much worth paying. 

To take your eyes off the goal (making a safe environment) in order to be able to give yourself some sort of happy or positive label is to make a very fundamental error.

*For example - in a case that came up a few years ago, a woman tried to push a sexual harassment case because she was of a religious order that held that men and women, even married ones, should have limited interaction when in public.  She attempted to push a sexual harassment claim against a co-worker whose husband dropped her off every morning and kissed her when she left the car.  It was decided that this was most definitely not sexual harassment as the first woman's views regarding male/female interactions were so far outside the social norm that it would place an unnecessary and bizarre hardship on everyone else if they were enforced.  In other words, while she felt harassed, her claim failed to meet a common-sense, impartial observer standard of harassment.

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