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Reframing Discourse on Sexual Harassment in Conferences

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New rules of discourse?

This a reflection on a complaint expressed in the newsletter of an international professional society concerning sexual harassment at a previous international conference. It needs to be acknowledged in a manner relevant to the preoccupations of futurists. One approach is to accept the charge as made, to regret the phenomenon, and to explore ways to counter it at future gatherings. The concern here is whether, as futurists, it is not more creative to discover new "rules of discourse" through which such charges can be explored in order to avoid simplistic analyses which have not yet resulted in sustainable solutions. This is a contribution to that process.

Viable alternative approaches

An initial concern is whether the phenomenon has been appropriately framed to permit the emergence of viable alternative approaches. A starting point is the old observation that the organization of conferences should be consistent with the issues raised at such events. This suggests that there should not be one set of rules for articulation of substantive issues and another for articulation of the issues of structure and process in conferences -- including inter-personal relations. But of course physicians do continue to smoke at many medical conferences. WFSF has made some attempts to respond to such inconsistencies but there are many that lie below the threshold of collective awareness, however sensitive individuals may be to them.

How might such issues be viewed in the future in a multi-cultural setting such as particular international conference events? It is good to be challenged by an analogous phenomenon which is not subject to the prevailing rules of discourse concerning sexual harassment -- through which some men, if not all men, are necessarily completely to blame. Consider "disrespect for elders". This is of fundamental importance in some cultures although increasingly quaint in those cultures which subscribe to a form of equality which endows the young with infinite wisdom and encourages them to challenge their elders as irrelevant and obsolete. At one international conference a young student charged a panel of elders with: "I have travelled a long way. You have not yet said anything not already detailed in your own books which I have carefully read. Please justify my travel expenses." How should provocation and blame be attributed in such an interaction?

Variant attitudes to sexual harassment

The issue of sexual harassment is not perceived in the same way in different cultures. Those righteously seeking to impose a universal code of values assume that the guidelines emerging in the USA, for example, will eventually be seen as the only "reasonable" code for the world as a whole. This neglects many important dimensions in cultures such as Islam where the issue is dealt with quite differently. Is it not remotely possible that the future will see the current framing of sexual harassment as remarkably simplistic and mechanistic?

Dynamic considerations

Venturing where angels fear to tread, is there not some possibility that a number of inter-personal issues need to be seen in dynamic rather than static, mechanistic terms? Participants at international gatherings are far from being "equals" in anything other than as a purely administrative simplification (which is perhaps at the root of many of the challenges of democracy). People differ in experience, qualifications, competence, prestige, creativity, rigour, productivity, self-esteem, as well as culture, language, sex, colour, size, age, and dietary and other preferences. Like it or not, these differences all affect interactions at conferences and our respect for each other. Many have emerged bruised from some interaction believing that they have been inappropriately treated. This does not excuse sexual harassment, any more than any other form of discriminatory treatment (such as some extreme rudeness to support personnel that I noted at previous events in the series). But it does suggest that differences cannot be effectively handled by pretending that we are all equal. Predatory, parasitical, symbiotic and other interactions are all characteristic of such conferences.

In dynamic terms such differences can be seen in terms of mutual "attraction" or "repulsion". Without any effort on our own part, we are all attractive or repulsive on many dimensions -- of which sex is only one clustering. For some of us, interactions at a conference may be determined by a scale running from alienation, through incompatibility, sterility and indifference, to fruitful intercourse. It is only at the latter level that the much acclaimed "cross-fertilization" occurs at conferences. At a professional conference there is a tendency to pretend that we are all "talking heads" and that the only relevant cross-fertilization is that of ideas. For many, other interactions are also important -- or else conferences could all be held through correspondence, e-mail or other technologies. There are actually other portions of our anatomy present at conferences, and in some events there may be more "hearts" than "heads" (provoking the classic battle between "heartless heads" and "headless hearts").

Conferences "of the head" can be endlessly tedious. Fruitful intercourse is rare for many. As participants we relieve our boredom by sight-seeing, various forms of substance abuse, interaction with non-participants (including support personnel and "accompanying persons") and "playing" with our differences. We play games with each other. Some of them, including games of dominance and humiliation, are not nice games. But they may be the only interactions that our limitations permit within a particular conference context. This is still not an excuse for sexual harassment, but the future may judge us much more severely for some of these other games.

Catastrophe theory?

Perhaps one way forward is to explore the nature of such complex dynamics through catastrophe theory. This could have the merit of showing different kinds of relationship between "attractiveness" and "non-attractiveness" (not to say repulsion) between participants. It could show how attractiveness can be built up without consequence, but leads to catastrophic repulsion beyond certain boundary conditions. They types of harassment are then described by the types of catastrophe. Catastrophe theory could indicate where any relative enhancement of one's attractiveness makes one increasingly vulnerable to being treated as a "tasty morsel" in somebody's gameplan. It could indicate conditions where insights from surfing or dancing are more appropriate response than simplistic rules. Maybe we need to take account of Eastern four-valued logics in labelling conditions (attraction, repulsion, attraction-and-repulsion, neither-attraction-nor-repulsion).

Challenge of engagement

My plea would be to recognize that to be innocent of some form of discriminatory gameplaying at a conference can only be achieved by complete stasis. We all play devious games with thresholds of awareness based on deniable culpability. I say this having just returned from a beach holiday within a French culture where the extent of body coverage was totally optional and of little concern. But one game for women was clearly to make themselves as "attractive" as possible, by exposing the maximum number of biological triggers to members of the opposite sex, under conditions where any overt response was considered inappropriate. To what extent is "sexual harassment of women" in the West defined by the game in which men break the rules when they respond with touch or voice to purportedly neutral messages conveyed through sight and smell? The corresponding game of "sexual harassment of men" might then be defined as that in which women break the rules when they respond with visible or olfactory attractors to purportedly neutral messages conveyed by men through voice or touch. Presumably other variants are played out in other cultures. Maybe the future will invent more interesting games based on even more contradictory or even paradoxical messages.

Game park solution?

If we do not favour the Islamic solution of concealing all attractors, or various approaches to pretending that we are all equally attractive, then we must reframe the discussion or recognize the limitations of the futurist discipline. The next conference will offer many the questionable opportunity to visit a "game park" as the prime tourist attraction. This suggests that careful thought needs to be given to whether we want to turn international conferences into environments where "predators" and "prey" are separated (or where predators are "removed" and the prey need to be "culled"), as is the case in some managed "natural" environments -- or whether there is still a basic need for genuine wilderness areas where survival is a matter of vigilance and avoiding the provocation of the local fauna. Can we design a conference social system free of predator-prey interactions, without having to make institutional arrangements for the predators to be fed "on the side" as in a zoo?


Anthony Judge. Beyond Harassment of Reality and Grasping Future Possibilities: learnings from sexual harassment as a metaphor, 1994 [text]

Sexual Harassment: information and guidance for Quaker meetings on dealing with sexual harassment. Quaker Life, Friends House, 2008 [text]

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