Sexual Harassment and Assault in the Tech and Entertainment Industries
This topic has been in the news since the revelations and accusations about Harvey Weinstein went public a few weeks back. At the time, I had a number of thoughts, but didn’t really put many of them out for public consumption because the entertainment industry isn’t really anything I know first hand. I know enough to not be surprised that this went on, but not enough to really add much more to the conversation. This week, however, the tech industry is having a similar falling out over allegations of years of sexual assault by well-known blogger and tech evangelist Robert Scoble. This, is something I know a bit more about, on a number of fronts. One, I have worked in this industry, and again, am not surprised that this sort of thing went on. Two, I’ve met and interacted with Robert in the past, and three, Robert’s past as a victim of childhood sexual assault is something that needs to be addressed, because I’ve seen more than one person tie that to his more recent behavior.
So, let’s talk about these things.
First, I actually met Robert at the very first tech conference I ever attended, the inaugural Gnomedex conference in Des Moines, Iowa, created by Chris Pirillo and the gang from Lockergnome. This was in 2001. Robert was actually the guy who first introduced me to blogging at that conference. It was also my first introduction into the world of the tech conferences. There wasn’t any inappropriate behavior that I saw at this event, but I had also just gotten married a month earlier, and did not partake in much of the post-official event gatherings that I know went well into the late night-early mornings. Would it surprise me that some of that went on during those late nights? No, not really. It was also the first time for me to come face to face with something that I hadn’t really considered before. You see, I came into the geeky stuff a little later than most. I was not an uber-geek as a kid. I was being abused and already such a misfit that I did everything I could to fit in and not be noticed. I was not one of those kids taking things apart to see how they worked and wanting to build things, I was too busy just trying to survive. Maybe it’s because of that different kind of childhood, but I had not realized how much of what was now the tech industry, was run by guys who were so very socially awkward, and very clumsy when it came to dealing with women in general, let alone in the workplace. I also saw for the first time, how eager some businesses were to take advantage of that, thus the reason the industry became famous for the “booth babe”, the very attractive women hired to work at display booths, who are just there to lure in the “geeks”. That wasn’t as prevalent at Gnomedex as it would be at later, larger, events, but it was there, and I recall even then thinking, is this really necessary? I even kind of felt sorry for some of the guys who were obviously falling for it, all the while seeing that some of the more well-known guys seemed to almost expect the attention of any females in the area, since they weren’t one of those awkward geeks.
Again though, as the years went by, I saw more of this sub-culture, but not a whole lot of really aggressive behavior directed at women at these events. (Though in some cases there were so few women at those early events, it wouldn’t have been possible to notice it.) Oh there were a handful of times I would have normally skipped an after-hours event, or left earlier than I did, but I stayed because a woman I knew was there, and there were some guys I didn’t feel 100% right about leaving them alone with, because they had been drinking too much most of the time, but nothing that I ever considered illegal or overtly dangerous. Just stupid levels of drinking.
But, I heard stories, though they were usually light on details and hard to believe.
Looking back now though, I can’t help but wonder if maybe I didn’t “see” that behavior because I wasn’t paying attention? Let’s face it, when you’re in a room full of people at an event, are you paying attention to everyone in the room, or are you solely focused on yourself? For most of us, the goal of being in that room is to meet and connect with people we either look up to, want to learn from, or want to hire us. Our focus isn’t on the women who are attempting to do the same thing, and whatever may be happening to make them feel uncomfortable, or to even think about the ones that left because it had already gotten there. So, as a man not really thinking about the sexual undertones of what’s going on in the room, it’d be easy to miss. Heck, I know I’ve had women openly flirt with me and not noticed it, there’s no way I can look back at those situations and claim that I would have noticed if that was going on. It’s even possible that by not noticing what was going on, I inadvertently made the situation worse. I don’t really know. It was a tech event, not a singles bar, I simply wasn’t thinking in those terms.
If nothing else, I think that is one lesson all people in the tech and entertainment industries should take away from this, to take more time to notice what is going on around you, to other people. To realize that just because you are not thinking of this event as a place to have sex doesn’t mean that there aren’t people, men and women, who are, and are being overly aggressive about it. In truth, that’s something that doesn’t occur to me as often as it should in any social situation. We need to pay attention, and we need to help people tell their stories. I cannot advocate for child abuse survivors being able to tell their stories, if I do not also advocate for adult assault victims to do the same, especially in my own circles, which cross the tech and legal industries, neither of which has a great reputation here.
Unfortunately, in the tech industry, it’s been too easy to write off poor behavior as a result of socially awkward guys who just don’t know any better, but that’s missing the point. The point is that a professional environment should be the place for any of this. Technology is not an industry full of geeky guys, it’s a huge, trillion dollar industry with people from all sorts of backgrounds. There’s no reason to continue to use this false narrative.
That brings me to the other thing I wanted to talk about, childhood sexual abuse survivors. I’ve seen a few comments that seem to indicate a pattern of male CSA survivors being likely to sexually offend, and I just don’t buy it in this situation. As one myself, I find it insulting to go down that path, but I also want to take this apart a little bit as well, because the numbers are what they are, even if they only tell part of the story.
Again, the story though, goes back to sexual abuse survivors being much more likely to not be very socially adept. As I’ve said over and over, when you spend your childhood simply trying to survive, you have a tendency to not learn some of the social skills, and about where you fit in relation to others, that you are supposed to learn growing up. So, you tend to make mistakes as an adult when it comes to social interactions. You react too emotionally, you deflect compliments, you say things in ways that are sometimes rude or off-putting, you share too much or too little, you get involved in bad relationships, etc. In Robert’s case, again I don’t know him well, but I interacted with him online for some time until I was on the receiving end of what I considered to be a rude blog comment in response to something I said, and I simply stopped reading his blog or following much of what he was doing. It wasn’t important enough for me to deal with arguments that gave me stress, so I stopped it. Years later, when he disclosed his past abuse, and alcoholism, I began to see some familiar patterns and some of what happened made sense to me, but I hoped he would get some help and some healing and learn from it. Now that I’ve seen some of the details of things he did to women at events, I again see some patterns, but not in the way many people think.
To understand what I’m saying, I want to take you back to my own childhood. As a CSA survivor, one of the biggest things I took away from my childhood was that there was no such thing as non-sexual touch. Literally, anyone who touched me, was trying to molest me. Now, in my case, and many other survivors, that meant an early adulthood of mostly being afraid of anyone who touched me, hugged me, or even paid any special attention to me. I actively tried to avoid anyone’s attention. For other survivors, the opposite is true. If anyone who pays attention to me wants to have sex with me, well, then how can I be expected to resist that much temptation? Throw a little alcohol or drugs on that fire and you can see where it might lead, especially if you are “known” and people want to talk to you about their work. Now, that may be the backdrop that some of these guys are dealing with, but it’s still no excuse. Because, here’s the thing, you may not have learned that as a kid, but as an adult, it should become incredibly obvious that everyone who pays attention to you is not, in fact, inviting you to have sex. If you’re so smart in other areas of life, there’s simply no excuse for not learning this. I have to believe that anyone who acts like this over the course of years, simply doesn’t want to learn it.
I’m sure that every single adult in the world has had to learn how to interact appropriately in one way or another, and I’m sure that for abuse survivors, sometimes that learning curve is longer. I know it was for me, for the reasons I’ve talked about. Dating was difficult, it was extremely awkward. Sexual relationships were awkward. Flirting was awkward, and even interacting in professional environments was awkward, because I was dealing with sexual undertones in my head that were not really there. Over the years, I’ve probably said and done some incredibly awkward things, but I like to think that all of that was a learning process to get me to the point where I know the appropriate way to act, and I know what not to do. Getting stoned and/or drunk at a professional event is not something I would do to start with, let alone then sexually assaulting women at the event. When I was training fulltime, finding appropriate ways to interact with students of all genders, races, religions, etc. was something that was important for not just doing my job, but making sure they could learn in a comfortable environment and not creating a problem for my employer. So sure, I’d flirt a little during class if it helped keep someone involved and enjoying the class, but I didn’t offer up any drinks at the hotel bar either, unless the whole class was going out for drinks. Part of that is just being professional, part of it is being a husband, (Robert is also), and part of it is just being a grown up. My childhood sexual abuse maybe didn’t help me much in that regard, but I’ve interacted with enough adults to have learned that the lessons my childhood taught me were not accurate. Again, when we talk about inappropriate behavior, it’s not because some of us are perfect, and others not, it’s because some of us are willing to see we made a joke in poor taste, or did something a little too over the line, and correct ourselves going forward.
So, if we want to talk about why so many sexual abuse survivors go on to become sexual offenders, we need to address this lack of learning. We need to make sure that learning to interact socially is part of the healing, we need to be willing to notice when survivors, or anyone for that matter, is acting in a way that is not right, and correct them. Not saying anything or not bothering to notice in the first place is not going to help someone who is struggling with appropriate behavior learn the right way. And for god’s sake, we need to stop making excuses for it. Survivors deserve our support, our empathy, and everything we can do to assist them in healing, but we do not need to turn a blind eye to behavior that creates more victims.
People who have an unhealthy relationship with sex, and understand me clearly, that is what we have when we talk about the Harvey Weinsteins the Robert Scobles, and the many, many others who seek to take what is not freely given, will offer up many excuses for their behavior when caught. In the end though, it almost always comes down to what I call not growing up. These are people who do not understand appropriate, consensual, sexual encounters, They’re still the kid who expects to get everything they want, because they haven’t yet learned that their desire is not the most important thing in the world, regardless of how it affects other people. Survivors, and non-survivors, do not have an excuse for not growing up, and those who have refused to grow up, need to be treated like children, and corrected as such.
That’s the way we change the culture in our industries, and in all of our circles, by learning. Learning does not come in silence.