Powerful people: Mark Pesce’s linux.conf.au keynote

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Warning: this entry discusses a sexualised presentation, and links to slides from that presentation. Images linked include stylised sexual violence.

Note to LCA2011 attendees and other members of the technical community: discussion at Geek Feminism is restricted by our comments policy. If you want to make commentary that does not adhere to that policy, you need to do it somewhere else. Discussion of Pesce’s technical content or the importance of his main subject matter is also off-topic for this post and will not be published.

On Friday at linux.conf.au 2011, Mark Pesce gave a morning keynote that resulted in complaints citing their harassment policy. I made one such complaint, here is an excerpt:

Dear lca2011 organisers,

Your anti-harassment policy at http://lca2011.linux.org.au/about/harassment
states that:

Harassment includes sexual images in public space.

This morning’s keynote by Mark Pesce included slides with the following
illustrations among others:

1. a pig and a duck apparently having sex
2. a black and white sexualised strangulation
3. a fetish scene with a woman in a mask spanking a man in a mask

Several of these were accompanied by a verbal metaphor to “being fucked” in
case the visuals weren’t explicit enough.

Content warning: Pesce’s slides are available. [Link is via the Coral Content Distribution Network, the slides are a 25MB OpenOffice file.] The slides I referred to in my complaint were numbers 36, 38 and 63. Video of the talk will be available at linuxconfau.blip.tv relatively soon I believe, I will update the post when it is published. (Update May 12 2011: it was published at blip.tv.)

The presentation was preceded by a verbal warning from Pesce. The exact nature of the warning seems unclear: I didn’t hear it. Everyone agrees that he used the phrase “PG-13”, reports vary on whether he warned for just language or also visuals, and whether or not he suggested that under-13s leave the room.

Following complaints, the LCA organisers apologised at the beginning of the closing plenary session that same Friday afternoon and indicated that they’d told Pesce of the complaints. Pesce posted an apology to Twitter before the conclusion of the weekend:

An apology to the #lca2011 community to those offended by my choice of images – http://j.mp/eYjdcj

The short link is to a PDF with a short apology text.

Warning: some unsympathetic commentary linked. The conference community’s response can be found on the publicly archived chat list at the threads beginning with I am upset about the ‘Sexual Images’ censure. and The Friday keynote and its imagery: another take. As one would anticipate, support for the policy in general and for that particular action on the part of the organisers is not universal, but it isn’t absent either.

There are a couple of notes I’d like to make about the whole experience:

The first is that the policy applies to powerful people, as it should. Possibly people who are coming second-hand to the conference harassment discussion imagine that harassment and related incidents are perpetrated by fringe members of the community. This is not so universally. Harassment incidents have involved conference organisers, conference sponsors, and invited speakers. This is perhaps a caution to conferences who would adopt the policy and have not imagined themselves enforcing it: how would you enforce it when an incident of harassment appears or is confirmed to have been perpetrated by the key representative of a sponsor? Or by a key conference volunteer?

The other point is that last minute verbal content warnings do not work. The problem the no-sexual imagery policies are trying to solve has several parts (this list is not intended to be exhaustive):

  1. sexual imagery is highly charged psychologically and physiologically for many people. Unwanted viewing of it ranges from unpleasant to stressful to extremely upsetting for some of them.
  2. women attendees (in particular) are the subject of unwanted sexual attention at many technical conferences, and use of sexual imagery (especially gratuitously, that is, for making a non-sexual argument) contributes to an environment where any conversation or interaction is open to becoming sexual based on only one party’s desires. After all, the speaker did it.

Verbal content warnings would need to be moderately specific and explicit which could cause a triggering problem in and of itself. They cannot be heard by people who arrive late. They require that those who anticipate that they do not want to see or hear the content stand up and leave a crowded room, thus subjecting themselves to potential embarrassment and perhaps to harassment from members of the audience as they leave, not to mention inviting certain inferences about things that upset them that they might not have wanted to share with an entire room.

Written content warnings would solve some of these problems, particularly that of needing to leave in response to the warning. However, conferences accepting talks that require written content warnings need to balance that against making the content of that talk inaccessible to some members of the audience (disproportionately although not solely women, children and teens), which is why technical conferences, which generally don’t need to show sex in order to make their key points, are beginning to ask that they not happen at all. There are obviously group environments where one wants to discuss or show sex or have sexual discussion: sex community conferences, sociological conferences, biology conferences, feminist discussions among others and in these cases clear, prominent, timely, and written warnings may be more appropriate.