XX in Tech

Censorship at a Hacker Conference? Violet Blue’s Sex Ed Talk at B-Sides Cancelled

Okay, Violet Blue probably isn’t going to be advocating lacing your date’s drink with Rophenol.
Ms. Blue. (Photo:  Wikipedia)

Ms. Blue. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The amount of furor that can erupt from a single technical conference never ceases to amaze. The latest installment: Sex educator and CNET columnist Violet Blue was supposed to give a talk earlier this week at the security conference B-Sides San Francisco. But it was cancelled at the last minute, after objections from the Ada Initiative, an organization dedicated to supporting women in tech.

That’s all anyone can agree on, besides the fact that everyone is very, very mad.

Ms. Blue was scheduled to deliver “sex +/- drugs: known vulns and exploits,” a talk focused on harm reduction in the hacker community that’s she’s given before. The idea is that there’ll always be people who party under the influence, so it’s best to educate them on what’ll happen.

In Ms. Blue’s version of events, shortly before she was supposed to speak she was approached by a conference organizer with a pretty blunt request: “So, I need to ask you: is there any rape in your talk?” He said there’d been a complaint about the talk, explaining, “It’s from someone who is a rape survivor and they said they will be triggered by your talk if there’s any rape in it.” He proceeded to ask her whether she described how to use date-rape drugs, and she admitted she planned to discuss their physiological affects. After some hurried back-and-forth she offered not to give the talk.

The title’s a little questionable, sure. But it doesn’t take much googling to learn that famously sex-positive Violet Blue probably isn’t going to be advocating lacing your date’s drink with Rophenol.

But it doesn’t end there: “I found out a few hours later that I had been targeted by a feminist organization, The Ada Initiative,” Ms. Blue added. And the whole episode has her worried:

I fear that hacker culture risks becoming disconnected from high-risk or controversial information sharing. I fear that hacker culture risks losing the fight to prove wrong the harmful idea that information equals advocacy. I fear that hacker culture risks harm to itself when people are allowed to label things as wrong or bad but not be held accountable to also explain why.

The Ada Initiative, meanwhile, has released its own series of statements. They takes great pains to point out they’re not unilaterally against talking about sex at technical conferences, as long as it’s relevant and done in a respectful way. But they say organizers asked for their input (there’s some dispute over that) and the title was all they had to go on. The argument is it might’ve been upsetting, alienating and potentially triggering to anyone who wasn’t familiar with Ms. Blue’s work:

Translated from security jargon, this title can be interpreted as suggesting that the talk will cover having sex while on drugs, including sex without consent (i.e., rape). “Exploits” in security jargon is used almost exclusively in the sense of “to take advantage of (a person, situation, etc.), esp[ecially] unethically or unjustly for one’s own ends.” For a conference-goer unaware of Violet Blue’s work, it would be understandable to wonder if the talk would handle consent issues well.

A lot of this drama is due to the simple fact there was no abstract available for the talk, which can be chalked up to simple poor planning. But the Ada Initiative overreacted, plain and simple.

What’s unfortunate is that instead of anyone having a substantive discussion about the atmosphere at tech conferences and in the tech world as a whole, we’re stuck dithering over who said what. Meanwhile, comment threads are filling up with “this is why feminists R the wurst.” This conversation is about as productive as that bullshit argument we’ve been having all week about whether Sheryl Sandberg can be relevant as a feminist when she’s got approximately a bajillion dollars and can hire a nanny.

This coda to the Ada Initiative’s post pretty much says it all:

We apologize for not enabling comments on this post. We have received enough rape and death threats over the past few days that we don’t have the energy to moderate any more of them in comments.

If only there were some way we could talk about sex, gender and technology without the whole business collapsing into a smoldering pile of angry Hacker News comments.

(h/t Daily Dot)

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com