After my post last month asking for a date the following week, many very positive and some slightly negative things transpired in result. The date went well. I chose a very lovely person who replied to my advertisement awesomely. We hit it off very well and are now in a relationship (mutually open). Others asked me out on future dates that have happened or will. Still others were inspired by my post to strike up an exploratory correspondence from afar, and some of those encounters might become future relationships. The hostility that was generated came mostly from sexists or anti-feminists with weird hangups. Some feminists had problems with it but weren’t hostile. I also received a lot of wonderful support.
This post won’t be about that.
Today I’m going to bring up one particular issue that has come up many times before in my discussions with movement insiders across the spectrum. The meta-question is, how do we draw the line, or even tell the difference, between honest, open, consensual, sex-positive behavior, and behavior that should be criticized and disapproved. But within that umbrella is one particular aspect: everyone screws up from time to time; and we can’t pillory the whole world. So what is a positive and constructive way to deal with correctable error, and what distinguishes that from behavior beyond the pale?
Of course, the Slymepit won’t care about that distinction. Even though they insist they do, they just horribly attack and harass anyone and everyone who ever defends any standard or policy whatever. And regardless of what those of the Slymepit profess, in actual practice they are the scary, amoral nihilists of this movement. They are also beyond facts, reality, or reason. So this post is not intended to educate them. They are uneducable.
Who I’m writing for now, is everyone else.
From many conversations I’ve had over the years, including recently over my date post, a major issue that concerns a lot of people in the atheist movement is the risk of giving such offense as to get annihilated in public opinion. In some cases the solution to that, of course, is just not being evil. But often it’s not a question of being evil, but slipping up, gaffing, saying something in ignorance, overlooking a thing, or just being correctably wrong. And with all the focus on worst cases and fallouts therefrom, less focus has been made on how to handle merely medium and minor failures well, without having to nuke the world.
For years I’ve encountered this from a lot of different angles as people of all ranks have spoken to me, on various occasions, about their fears and concerns. I have also heard from women who report they’ve sometimes had a harder time finding dates because men in the social groups they attend are afraid of offending them by asking, or even communicating interest, or even admitting to being receptive to interest, due to these same fears (and it isn’t necessarily fair to say the women should do all the asking). I’ve also heard concerns from people who want to file complaints about real transgressions but who worry about being attacked for that. These are actually all linked.
On the one side, there are people who think having moral standards and conduct policies entails destroying anyone who transgresses them even slightly, therefore standards and policies are evil, and therefore we shouldn’t have them. On the more reasonable side, there are people who completely agree we need standards and policies, but who are so scared of accidentally or thoughtlessly transgressing them that they either live under constant stress whenever speaking or behaving in public, or avoid doing so altogether. Of course, the harassers who try to drive people out of the public arena also cause this problem, and there the problem is them. Although this still concerns people who want to file complaints of misbehavior not doing so for fear of such harassment. Apart from that concern, here I mean not fear of harassers, but fallout from legitimate critics and opinion drivers.
In short, I have met a great many people who have told me they want there to be some room to err, and to apologize and make up for it, so people won’t get pilloried for every slight. Ironically the Slymepit claims to be against pillorying people for every supposed slight, so they pillory people for every supposed slight. Yes, that’s illogical. Welcome to the Slymepit. Hence I’m disregarding them. The issue here is rather that even the well-meaning opinion-sphere can sometimes pitchfork someone before they have a chance to mea culpa and make amends. Or that this is at least a widespread perception.
But it does not have to always go down as “so-and-so fucked up, outrage is publicly articulated, battle-lines are drawn-up, nothing productive results.” As one organization head dealing with these complaints said to me, a better narrative would be, “I did this, it was a mistake, people addressed it in a proactive and positive way, and we need to both forgive mistakes and laud the people handling things like this in the right way.”
But getting from one to the other is often blocked by this fear, since to illustrate how it really can go down well (using a real case and not a speculative hypothetical) requires admitting someone did something wrong (before laying out in public how it was positively dealt with and resolved), and understandably no one wants to embarrass themselves by talking about that.
So to talk about how to make this situation better, I’m going to put my self out there, yet again, by telling you some very embarrassing things I’ve done, mistakes I’ve made and how they were resolved and what I learned from them.
These examples will involve my interactions with women, but of course the same principles apply when gender roles are reversed. I know several very sexually active women in the movement (although their concerns tend to differ). There are also many gay and bisexual men in this movement, who have also spoken to me of the same fears and conundrums, and who can also make the same mistakes. But my personal experience has been as a straight man, so that’s what my accounts will relate.
What Exactly Is Creepy and Wrong?
One thing I have heard from several other insiders, including people of some significance: they are afraid that being single or in open relationships (as many are) that they will be victimized by people generating vague reputations of their being “creepy” for things that actually aren’t. These are predominately men. And some women, although what I hear most from women in the same situation, rather, is terror at being ruthlessly slut-shamed (the female analog to men being pegged “creepy”). But the feared effects, on their reputation, and even losing jobs or donors or other substantive things, are the same (or potentially so, hence their fear).
Slut-shaming is easier to identify and more readily pegged as unjust. But vague accusations of “being creepy” are not, because unlike being “slutty,” being “creepy” really is a bad thing. Real creepiness makes people uncomfortable and thus makes social environments uncomfortable, the exact opposite of what any social organizer wants, and certainly of what most event attendees want. I intend to describe my own slips near creep territory to illustrate what I mean.
Thus the problem with calling someone “creepy” is that it is unclear whether actual creepy behavior is being meant (e.g. hitting on someone out of the blue without earning any rapport or signal of possible interest first; or worse, doing this with a lot of different women, even after being told to stop; or constantly staring at a woman’s breasts when you talk to her; or constantly making over-sexualized jokes even when the temperature of the room gets colder after every one of them; or pawing your crotch continually when talking to a girl; all things that have actually been reported, by the way) or whether it’s something that isn’t even of the kind (e.g. someone overhears you consensually discussing sexual subjects with someone else, and reports you as “having been creepy”).
The only solution I can recommend here is that we have to disregard general accusations of creepiness. Without a specific description of a specific behavior, we can’t know whether the designation derives from legitimately creepy behavior or someone being improperly creeped out by healthy positive sexuality. And this solution has a significant bonus benefit: it forces people to talk more about just what they mean by creepiness and why, and we thus learn that people do have varied tolerances for different kinds of behaviors and we have to account for that in our policy-making and policy enforcement as well as in the way we opinionize about people.
Sexual harassment generally means persisting after a no or a desist, or egregiously transgressing someone’s boundaries, physically or conversationally, or belittling them in a sexualized way. At the extreme, this becomes stalking or actual assault.
But egregious boundary crossing can occur without touching someone. It can be in a truly outrageous instant, like asking someone you’ve hardly spoken to before if “they want to fuck!” (outside the context of an actual sex party); or a man having a female event staffer come to his hotel room to deliver a package and answering the door naked and winkingly joking about having sex with them (which actually happened to someone I know). Or it can be an accumulative offense of small slights, like constantly talking to someone about sex when they’ve indicated that subject is no longer welcome; or continually asking over-personal questions when the object of them clearly is not keen on answering them; or, as someone did to me once, repeatedly engaging in sexually suggestive banter and behavior with someone they haven’t even spoken to significantly, much less queried as to their interest in such behavior.
In my case, this escalated into actual sexual assault. A woman I didn’t know and had hardly spoken to became very sexually suggestive around me and over a few hours repeatedly grabbed my ass and touched other parts of my body, not only without permission, but without any reason to think she had any approval at all. I didn’t want to cause trouble or start a scene, so I just tried to avoid her, and very kind conference goers helped cockblock for me (my back to walls, attendees all around me in conversation, so she couldn’t get near me). But that didn’t really work. The behavior continued, because I couldn’t be safely corralled constantly.
Eventually, someone (I don’t know who) filed a complaint about her to the conference organizers, and they took her aside and explained she was in violation of policy, what she was doing that was wrong, and that if she didn’t stop she’d be expelled. She laid off. But later in the night, drunk, she yelled at me for five minutes for the crime of filing a complaint against her, because I “should have just spoken to her myself.”
Of course, I didn’t file a complaint against her. And I didn’t want to tell her off myself, precisely because it would have caused this kind of extremely uncomfortable scene. But I wasn’t going to argue this with her, I just went diplomatic, and apologized to her until she calmed down and went away. Yes, I was apologizing to my sexual assaulter for reporting her assault. That I didn’t even report. Simply because that was the fastest, easiest way to end the stress of it all and get back to enjoying the conference.
Many of my friends and girlfriends have been sexually assaulted at conferences in just the last three years. Some of those incidents far worse than mine. So it’s well worth considering my case, and reflecting on how common this can be and how it isn’t as easy to deal with as many people think. But there is a positive and effective way to manage it.
The conference in question had a policy in place, the staff were prepared by that policy to know what to do when this happened, and they behaved in exemplary fashion. And because of the policy, and the staff’s observed seriousness in applying it, I felt comfortable that I could have had that woman expelled for confronting me like she did if I wanted to. And had she persisted, I am confident she would have been.
I won’t here go into the ridiculous question of why I didn’t report her to the police for what was, in fact, a crime. If you think that’s what I should have done, your head is not living in the real world. The lesson I want to draw out here is that my assaulter’s behavior was censurable. But the conference did what they were supposed to do. And she complied with the rules once confronted about her transgression. And I would happily accept an apology from her, and even without that, I feel no need to mention her name, unless I discovered she was still doing such things to people, in which case I probably would.
Conversely, if I learned she had cleaned up her act and knew her behavior was awful and was mortified to realize it, and was thus committed to behaving better, I would see no reason she would need to be ostracized or vilified for her transgressions. They were bad (worse than anything I’ve done), but correctable. If she persisted in the bad, however, then that would not be my assessment of the matter.
So we do need to allow people to admit transgressions, acknowledging why they were wrong, and an opportunity to prove they are thenceforth committed to doing better. As long as they do those things, that is the right way to do wrong.
(This does not mean I think all victims should forgive their transgressors, even when following a good redemption formula. They can have perfectly good reasons not to. And we should accept that as reasonable.)
Positive Models for Preemptive Solutions
Before my ex-wife and I opened our marriage, I only responded to explicit advances. That made things a great deal easier, since if you never attempt a behavior, you can’t ever do it wrong (thus, I never had uncertainties about consent at that stage, and never transgressed a policy or a boundary). But this isn’t really a workable recommendation. If we can’t ever initiate flirtation or inquiry (if we can never ask anyone out) that is not a fair restriction on human behavior. And this has been said to me by numerous people in the movement who are single or in open relationships, as part of those fear discussions I mentioned before.
Hence when we did open our marriage, now I was faced with the problem of how to re-enter the world allowed to flirt with and ask people out. And as someone very new to that, that can be a bit scary and daunting. You don’t want to make people uncomfortable or cross anyone’s boundaries. So how do you do it? One of the most common complaints about “conduct policies” and the “blogosphere” is that some think they don’t allow any flirtation or propositioning. That they both attack and denounce all of it. This has been refuted by everyone, repeatedly, and clearly. So it’s not really a legitimate worry. But what is a legitimate worry, for many, is uncertainty where the boundaries are: when does flirting or a romantic inquiry cross a line?
A model example of addressing that problem positively is Miri Mogilevsky’s course on ethically hooking up at conferences. Early on in my open marriage I had the opportunity to attend that, and benefitted from it tremendously, at that very conference getting a good, ethically achieved hookup with a wonderful person who is now a friend of mine and possible future date because of it, using the very things I learned from Mogilevsky’s workshop about how to avoid crossing boundaries, how to properly show respect and ascertain interest, and basically not be an insensitive, entitled douche about it.
Several people who have taken Mogilevsky’s workshop (which she has given at more than one conference by now) have said it should be taught at every major conference if possible. I concur. Often there is so much focus on censuring bad behavior that, inadvertently, the positive model of teaching good behavior gets under-discussed, or under-noticed even when discussed. Because Mogilevsky’s class is not an abstinence course: it does not teach “don’t flirt; don’t hit on people.” Rather, it teaches that it’s entirely acceptable to flirt and hit on people, even at conferences and events, but that it has to be done ethically, and with a respectful etiquette.
It would be better if people talked to each other about that, and worked out how to draw those lines and respect them, rather than flaming out against any attempt to suggest that there are right and wrong ways to go about it. And recognizing that not everyone is an expert at this right out of the gate does require allowing them to screw up. Provided they handle that correctly. And for that, we can learn from examples. Here are mine.
Between being a total ask-everyone-out, boundary-ignoring douchebag, and being a never-even-flirt-much-less-ask monk, is an area of uncertainty, where one can cross a line into douche without realizing it, or one might not be sure where that line is. Mistakes are therefore going to happen. People will fuck up.
What makes the difference we should care about is not whether someone never makes a mistake, but how we and they react to that mistake. I allow people to fuck up. They just have to acknowledge what they did, apologize for it, make it clear they understand why it was wrong, and show real commitment to not making that same error again, a commitment to being better.
And it is generally only the failure to do that that earns enduring censure in our community. What is sad is that it’s so rare for someone to admit an error and correct it. We need to see more of that. And we should encourage it with some measure of positive reinforcement, to alleviate the fear so many in this movement feel of not being given a chance to.
Again, what several movement insiders have told me, is that they fear a reason why so few people admit to an error and make amends, the thing they should be doing (and thus doing wrong the right way), is that they get vilified and pilloried and condemned even when they do. That’s not necessarily true (it’s hard to find examples of that actually happening), but it’s perceived to be true. And some have suggested to me that a reason that is, is that there is so much focus on the worst cases, and on the negative and the bad, and too little on positive cases, models we can examine and emulate of how to handle error correctly and well, so that people have the opportunity to do wrong rightly, and therefore will feel safer admitting an error and fixing it.
So I’m going to break this impasse by simply discussing the times I fucked up. And I don’t mean relationship gaffes (we all have those of course). But things that matter to event conduct policy and professional judgment.
Of course, this isn’t the best test of the concept I want to convey, because I’ve never done anything so egregious as sexually assaulting someone, or continually ogling or lunging for their breasts, or just point blank hitting on someone I’ve barely spoken to. Although I think many of those things are correctable, too, in the same way. Rape, maybe not so much. But I won’t be answering that question here. I’m talking now about lower level fuckups.
In my own case, I strive to do things right, following a good etiquette, with consideration of others. But like I expect anyone does, I do stumble at that occasionally, and those failures always haunt me. Importantly, all those experiences were educational. I learned from them. I cared about them. And I improved my behavior in result.
So can you.
My worst flirtation mistakes, by far, were two.
One happened at an unofficial afterparty to an event I spoke at. A woman and I comfortably discussed many subjects and occasionally, at her interest, open relationships and sexual interests, for a couple of hours. Her level of flirtation with me was unclear, and I didn’t know how to query that well, so I asked her if I could make an inappropriate remark, she said yes, and I commented on the sexiness of her legs. I got the distinct impression this embarrassed her and made her uncomfortable, and I felt immediately awful about it. I apologized, and she insisted it was fine, but as that’s often what someone in her position would say (remember, I even apologized to my sexual assaulter!), I still count it a transgression, something I shouldn’t have done.
Match someone’s level of flirtation and make only slight elevations, don’t take larger steps like that without a clear signal that it’s welcome. Small moves, ensure small errors; small errors are easier to apologize for and dial back from. So you can bump into someone’s boundary without pushing uncomfortably past it, and thus learn where it is and stay away from it. And this is not always about policies. My remark was wrong, even though it didn’t transgress any policy (I technically had her permission, and we’d been discussing sexual subjects happily and getting on well). So it’s not always about skirting the borders of an existing policy. You can care about how you make people feel regardless.
My second bad flirtation mistake affords all the same lessons. It occurred when a woman agreed to come back to my room to continue a long and exciting conversation (yes, long and exciting conversations with women happens a lot!), and we had explicitly discussed our mutual sexual interest and what might happen, but she expressed considerable nervousness and uncertainty about her own interest or desires, which I took as a good signal not to assume anything would happen.
But later, in the course of our talking, I briefly touched her hair and shoulder without asking, and it was clear that that made her very uncomfortable. And then I felt awful. It is commonly the case that flirtation moves by small degrees of innocent touching, but in this case, the circumstances considered, I am now certain I should have asked first. I immediately backed off and told her I wouldn’t do anything like that again. We continued enjoyably talking for yet a long time more and we ended the night platonically and on good terms, she even told me why she was conflicted about any possible sexual pursuit. But still. I was in the wrong. And I still feel awful about it.
Consider the context. Adjust to who you’re with. Apologize and back off if you misread them.
I think we can be okay with you doing wrong like that when you respond in the right way like that. Just endeavor to have learned from it and do better afterward.
Bad Come Ons
Of by far my three worst “hit ons” in my life, two involved longtime friends in complicated situations not at any event or conference, and thus belong more in the realm of private relations than event and conference policy. I asked too bluntly and provocatively and insufficiently sensitive to context. But still in those two cases I think I behaved awfully, and apologized, and made sure I understood what I did wrong (it was different in each case), and have since striven never to do that again. I think this falls well into the category of mistakes nearly everyone has made in their relationships throughout their life. So you can probably think of your own examples to draw lessons from, too.
But one of those three worst was a professional error. And it’s instructive both as to why it’s bad, and how such fuckups can be handled positively and constructively.
At an afterparty at a pub after a sponsored event that had an event policy against making sexual advances, after having engaged in fascinating and intense conversation with a woman for hours, I badly misread her fascination with the subject as flirtatious interest in me, and I told her that I’d like to make a pass at her. She was confused and taken aback by that, was definitely not interested, and I immediately realized I’d crossed a line with her. I was worried I had made her uncomfortable. I immediately apologized. She continued on her own interest to engage me in excellent conversation for several hours more and everything turned out well, but still. I should not have said that to her.
Once again I felt really awful about it because I got the definite impression I had made her uncomfortable, and that’s not how I should be making people feel who come to events. The more so if she gets that all the time (since I’m not the only man she’s going to meet at these things). But in this case in particular, I shouldn’t have allowed the ambiguity of where we were to imply the event policy didn’t apply. The sponsors had an obligation to make sure they weren’t complicit in causing this kind of discomfort. And responsibility for helping them with that starts with men like me. (And women like me.)
A Positive Model for Resolution
Event-wise, I think that’s the worst thing I’ve done. Yet what ensued presents a good model of what can result, which no one who makes a mistake like that should fear.
First, someone who oversaw my pass reported it as a complaint to the sponsor (as right they should have). The sponsor then privately contacted me to tell me this and why it was wrong and that if I didn’t comply with policy in future I shouldn’t accept engagements with them (as right they should say). To which I replied:
Thank you. I did express interest in [redacted] at an after event. And I recognized she did not appreciate that, and I apologized to her at the time. If she does want any further apology, I will definitely provide her one, so do relay that if that’s the case. But I don’t want to bother her by contacting her any further without her consent. I definitely felt bad about it. I thought the interest was mutual and I was very wrong. I won’t be doing that in future.
And that was considered an adequate resolution. Obviously contingent on my making good on my promises, which I have. Which doesn’t mean I now don’t ever make passes at women, but that I do so only within policy wherever I am, and even when allowed I’m aiming for a better read of their receptiveness first.
The lessons others can take from this are:
- You don’t have to be terrified of a policy violation of yours being reported, provided it is of a nature that you can apologize for and commit to not repeating.
- You can admit to a mistake, make the necessary corrections and commitments, and be forgiven. The sky doesn’t have to fall.
- You can also report a conduct violation without being attacked for it or victim-blamed or gaslighted, and you can see it resolved well rather than become a stressful disaster in your life.
The most professional sponsors and organizations will deal with these matters privately (if you don’t force them to do otherwise). I am choosing to discuss this incident publicly, of my own volition (and with the permission of all involved, provided I protect their privacy, which I think is reasonable of them to ask). Had I not discussed it publicly just now, it would have stayed a private matter. And as I am privy to a lot of weird things in this movement, I know for a fact this has happened many times before, with many other persons of note, under several major national and local organizations. You just never hear about it, precisely because it’s dealt with in exactly this way. As it should be.
The end result was a positive improvement in my behavior, a positive improvement in the sponsor’s management of events, and a positive model for everyone of how to do wrong right.
Everyone assumes errors result in name-and-shame and an exploding blogosphere. What they don’t realize is that most groups and organizations are not doing that, but handling matters discretely, professionally, and with an aim to a positive resolution. All the time. That you don’t see it is precisely because of that. So I think people should know that this is what goes on, and how these things are handled positively and productively, so that you don’t think the only course of events is the awful public one that everyone is afraid of.
Of course, sometimes offenses are beyond the pale. Within the past year a friend of mine was recently subjected to a violent attempted rape at a conference. She chose not to say anything, for very sound reasons that are her own (sadly, because she would be far too easy to slut-shame in a manner that would greatly harm her and people she loved; and she already escaped the situation capably enough). So no organization was ever involved. But an organization that did try to keep that quiet while also continuing to support the perp would probably not be commendable. Likewise cads who never remedy their misbehavior.
But most transgressions are not that severe. They are relatively small and correctable. Even my sexual assault, the worst case I discussed here. I am fine with that being handled privately and staying that way, provided my assaulter doesn’t keep repeating the behavior with others. And apart from one, albeit less assaulty, error, she heeded the desist request when her policy violation was pointed out to her. Overall it was handled well and ended well. Although one “don’t do” to take away from that case is, don’t complain to someone who complains about something you did. Leave them alone. Especially if what they reported is that you were harassing them. And organizations, if that happens and the complainant tells you they want that person gone, for re-violating the policy, get them gone.
If you want to challenge the facts, do so to the relevant authority as your middleman (in this case, the conference organizers), not to the complainant. Because yes, false complaints happen. At one conference recently (not one I was at), a false rape accusation was made against a man, which was repudiated by the alleged victim herself coming forward to say she never made any such accusation, her jealous ex had, and that no such incident ever occurred. That’s unusual. But when what was reported is what you actually did, regardless of whether you think it was right or wrong, own up to it. As to whether it violates a policy, that’s entirely at the discretion of the policy enforcer (the event, conference, or sponsoring organization).
Once you’ve conceded you violated a policy or some moral or etiquette, apologize for doing so, express your knowledge of what was wrong about it, and commit to not repeating it. Good organizations (and there are many in this movement) will respect that, and handle the matter privately, and work toward a good resolution. And as long as everyone follows protocol toward a good resolution, these organizations also protect the identity and privacy of both parties.
The handling of such cases, which in my case was invisible until now, is a good example of doing the right thing that people worried about slip-ups don’t have to fear. As a leader in the sponsoring group I later discussed this incident with said, “It’s an example of a pro-the-right-thing discussion to counter so many negative-you’re-doing-it-wrong conversations” that organizations often find themselves targeted by, which is demoralizing when their good handling of things gets overlooked, which is easy to do, when doing it right means doing it privately.
If we laud this procedure of positive resolution for mistakes, several good things can result:
People can be less stressed out and fearful of making a mistake. Just remember my first point: keep your moves in small stages, so that if any one move you make crosses a line, it’s not so far across that line as to be difficult to apologize for and come back from. Otherwise, don’t be afraid of being privately called out for a fuckup, just admit it, apologize for it, and make any relevant amends, including committing to not repeating it.
People can be less stressed out and fearful of complaining about something done to them (or someone they know). Anyone who finds themselves in an uncomfortable situation should realize they can take action and get support, that a horrible backlash against them isn’t the only alternative to silence. Because victims of transgressions also worry about how they will be treated if they file a complaint. Organizations that handle these cases like in my case, help alleviate that worry. You will be safe. Your identity will be protected. And you can get the right thing to happen.
And finally, people can also start to see the difference between what really is the wrong way to do wrong, and what is the right way, the correctable and amendable way. To sum that up, the right way to do wrong, vs. the wrong way to do wrong:
- Small moves vs. large (which is, among other things, keeping your sense of entitlement in check).
- Respond to feedback and adjust your behavior, if it’s unjustly making people uncomfortable.
- Own up to to a mistake, apologize, and do what’s necessary to remedy it, including taking seriously the need of not doing it again.
- Support and cooperate with organizations and policies that handle these cases with sensible discretion and that seek a positive resolution for everyone concerned.
This then allows a conversation about what is okay and what’s not, and why, and what’s the best way to deal with either. It allows people to flirt and hook up. But also allows room to make mistakes and fix them, without giving anyone a free pass, but also without blowing up the world. And it makes every event more comfortable to be at or organization to work for. Even for someone harmed or made uncomfortable by a policy violation, because they can also feel they can get it resolved positively without being vilified either. We can all participate in realizing that.
And that all makes for a better world.