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Sex, Drugs, and the Ada Initiative

Happy Women's History Month! To go straight to the crux of the article, skip to the page break.

A few weeks ago, sex-positive writer/speaker/entrepreneur Violet Blue wrote an enraged Tumblr post, which so happened to pop up on my dashboard. In it, she fumed about the Ada Initiative's (which I will call AI) successful ploy to get her talk removed from the BSides SF tech conference, because co-founder Valerie Aurora insisted that any discussion of rape or sex would trigger "rape survivors" in a negative manner. Both the Ada Initiative and the BSides SF conference organizer responded.

I do not side with either Violet Blue or the Ada Initiative in light of their full agendas, but for this specific case, Ada lost big time. You see, I find Violet Blue's conference work (which is quite admirable) overshadowed by random things like suing a porn star/company for using her name (which is also the name of a flower), putting a restraining order on a Wikipedia editor, or presenting herself as an oversexualized (though not necessarily off-putting) character. I also find the Ada Intiative's premise to be totally rad and awesome. More women/transsexuals/transgenders in tech? YES! Awareness of how sex is presented in hacker culture in relation to these marginalized populations? YES! Their game plan for fixing it? Not so much.

While I completely understand and wholeheartedly support AI's work and stance on harrassment and sexism in tech culture, and understand that the title of Violet Blue's talk could have been misleading, I'm under the impression that they went about it just a tiny bit haphazardly. This entire fiasco is surprising to me, for one major reason: the severe lack of professionalism and communication through and by parties that are supposed to embody the age of digital information is rather unsettling; unfortunately, the fact that both ends of the conflict involved women is actually quite detrimental to the cause of women in tech, and makes both the open-discussion sex-positive approach and the sensitivity and awareness approach lose some credibility.


Reading all sides of the story, it occurred to me that I didn't really care what happened that day, and I didn't care whose side of the story was right. I did, however, mull over how we can most effectively change the way women are perceived in today's society. 

The Ada Initiative brings up very good points, in that women are portrayed as sex symbols in today's society, and it's very difficult for most media to separate the message of women being free with their sexuality from other parties (stereotypically men) feeling entitled to it. It's the main issue surrounding slut shaming, and school dress codes. Women are taught that in order to succeed in life, they must be aware of their sensuality, but must not flaunt it except "when appropriate". Many girls are raised not knowing when it is appropriate to turn off the sexy switch. Many girls are raised being told that their D cup boobs need to be kept under sacks in school, so that they don't distract otherwise good, hardworking boys. They are taught that they are responsible not only for their own success, but for that of those around them. A "successful woman" is not sexy in public, but instead exhibits manly qualities, such as stern heavy handedness and stern criticism. 

I am perfectly aware that we have made significant progress in the past few decades, but when it comes to sex, why are women being singled out? Men and women rape and get raped. Telling conferences that they should only allow "on-topic" sex discussions because unnecessary pornographic images of women are offensive, while admirable, leaves out the boys. Well, what if men are sick of seeing shirtless Abercrombie models everywhere? We sexualize and, effectively demonize men the same way they sexualize and demonize women. The only difference is that women are already seen as inept and incapable. In the case of AI vs Violet Blue, the fact that they read the title of her talk, but didn't bother to look up her work before emailing the conference organizer makes the argument for the furthering of women seem impulsive and unreasonable (which is already a huge stereotype of women). 

I understand this argument of true feminism and equality is merely old news, but instead of training men on how to deal with women in conferences, let's train people on how to deal with other people. Attacking what we have been taught is the visual representation of female oppression (men) doesn't actually help the situation, but rather fuels the male vs female dichotomy and feeds into traditional media. Demeaning anyone at all is a mindset that pervades our society, regardless of what gender you are or identify with. Whether or not you're sexy does not impact whether or not a job can get done. I admit, I don't have all my thoughts together on this topic, but I suggest that we identify the mindset, what's causing it, what's allowing it, and then stop it at its roots. And I believe that men and their supposed inability to handle women are not the cause of the problem. Drawing in women with welcoming atmospheres is very important, but identifying why the atmosphere was created seemingly by and for men in the first place is a good place to start. Boys are taught that girls are difficult. Plain and simple. Some realize that girls are simply people, and that individuals express a wide range of emotions differently, and go about life differently. Others have negative experiences with women, and wall themselves off. The latter group of people, bond, not over being men, but over mutual understanding that women can be difficult. And then women perceive that not as a red flag to evaluate their collective behavior in response to media, but to cry foul. There's a lot of thinking, collaborating and open discussions that need to happen over long periods of time in order to rectify this issue, and not all of them will be women-friendly, and not all will be men-friendly, and not all will be people-friendly in general. But we need to start somewhere, and when it comes to sex, being aware of what is said and asking questions from those who we disagree with is a much better solution than sticking a foot down a speaker's throat because rape might be mentioned. As Dr. John Grohol writes in this article on the topic (from a psychological POV),

"Conferences should not be planned around sensitivities to legitimate topics of discussion. We cannot create a trigger-free world or environment for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or others who are sensitive to topics that they find difficult. It’s silly to try and do so. It stigmatizes the very topics that need to be discussed openly and without reserve."

I simply encourage everyone to be highly critical of everything that is being fed to them through media or otherwise, evaluate how beneficial or detrimental it is to the individual and society at large, then act with acute awareness of one's impact on the global community. Regardless of gender and sexual orientation, we all offer something different to our communities that cannot be explained by stereotypes. 


PS: This post was meant to be published on the 8th of March in honor of International Women's Day, but due to the immense difficulty that writing it presented me with, temporary loss of internet connection, and the commencement of Spring Break 2013/my attempt to learn to make my own clothes, it's late. Good thing it's Women's History Month. 

PPS: I'm super psyched that this year's IWM theme is Women in STEM fields. This controversial event corresponds nicely.