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In defense of Adria Richards and call-out culture

What happened at PyCon is a clash of two different sets of cultures: con culture and call-out culture.


Aja Romano

Internet Culture

Posted on Mar 22, 2013   Updated on Jun 1, 2021, 8:43 pm CDT

As the dust settles from #donglegate, Adria Richards’ tweeting of two men who made inappropriate jokes while sitting behind her at PyCon, the heated debate about her behavior and the subsequent firings of both Richards and one of the programmers has cemented as well. In the past 12 hours, numerous pundits and bloggers have seemingly decided that Richards’ response was an “overreaction.”

This angle has been played up again and again, in posts like Amanda Blum‘s about how Richards was “not an easy person” and statements like Adrian Chen’s that the “context showed it wasn’t a matter of a woman fighting against sexism but an overreaction that was part of a [pattern].”

Here is some much-needed context that’s getting left out of the discussion:

  • The incident was not the first time that day that Richards had encountered sexual “jokes.”
  • PyCon representatives had escorted the programmer out of the room after hearing Richards’ complaint.
  • PyCon has a harassment policy that states, “PyCon is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone.”
  • Because of the efforts it made to encourage women to feel safe while attending, PyCon reportedly had an attendance rating of 20 percent, a rate that according to the Ada Initiative’s Valerie Aurora, is “unheard of.”

What happened at PyCon is a clash of two different sets of cultures: con culture and call-out culture.

Geek convention culture is predominantly male, overwhelmingly gendered, and steeped in serious, ongoing problems with misogyny, sexual harassment, physical assaults, and rape.

Conventions are not evolving sexual harassment policies because women are overreacting to jokes. Conventions are evolving sexual harassment policies at conventions because jokes about sexual harassment can lead to actual harassment.  Women know that sexual jokes can lead to real harassment. That is why sexual jokes make women uncomfortable. That’s why women in these environments are often edgy, wary, and on their guard, and why they are increasingly forming groups like the Ada Initiative and the Con Anti-Harassment to protect themselves and strengthen the safety of their environments.

If you’re a woman at a geek, gamer, fandom, or tech con, regardless of whether you’re wearing cosplay, there’s a very good chance you’ve endured a moment, or moments, that made you feel unsafe. If you’ve ever been in that position, the absolute last thing you want to do is to continue talking to the people who have put you in it. At DragonCon last year a vendor leveled a leering sexual innuendo at me that made me feel demeaned, mortified, embarrassed, ashamed, and horrified at once. Was it a joke? Yes. Am I a humorless bitch for not laughing? No. I am a woman who, in that moment, was made to feel objectified and afraid for her safety.

What happens when you can’t or won’t engage directly with the people who are threatening you but you still want to be heard, to take action?

Call-out culture. It’s a growing group of women who are taking their complaints to the Internet. On websites like ihollaback and Tumblr, women complain publicly about public harassment. It’s a form of offensive defense. When men do this kind of thing, it can take the form of “creepshots”—objectifying women, being voyeuristic, invading their privacy. But when women do this kind of thing, it’s most often in an attempt to protect themselves by sounding an alarm, attempting to alert other women to the presence of potential predators in their midst.

The culture is often criticized, but it’s also helped to make women increasingly safe in public spaces. And regardless of what Richards’ critics are saying, PyCon was a public space, full of a large and diverse number of attendee, and when she snapped and tweeted that photo, she knew that she was acting as part of that empowering call-out culture.

Here’s how an anonymous female developer known as Himawari put it in an email to the Daily Dot:

“When someone is banned from an online game or a conference or any other community for harassment, we need to know about it. We don’t necessarily need to know the person’s real name, but we need to see it prominently featured that a harasser was banned and that the people in charge don’t support that type of behavior. This not only makes non-harassers feel safer, but it also helps to send a message to harassers that they are not welcome and there are actually going to be real world consequences…  An atmosphere of secrecy intimidates women into keeping quiet and thinking that their courage in speaking up is not only not appreciated, but something that everyone is ashamed of and wants to see hidden away quickly.”

I once took, and tweeted, a photograph of a man who sat down in my row and began masturbating during the rape scenes in The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. I did it because I was repulsed, horrified, and angry, and most of all because I wanted him to stop. And, on some level, because I was afraid he would hurt me. Call-out culture, I believe, helped me make it impossible for him to do so.

The bottom line in all of this is that call-out culture exists because women can be raped or violently killed if they directly confront the people making the jokes. That is the bottom line, and it is why no woman should be required to confront someone who makes her uncomfortable, for any reason.

Nothing in the backlash we’ve seen over Richards’ callout makes me believe that geek culture is getting safer. If anything, the backlash leveled at people like Anita Sarkeesian and Richards makes me feel more unsafe, because more and more men are egging each other on to destroy these women in ways that could so easily spill over into real life.

Today it’s Steubenville; tomorrow maybe it’s Comic-Con. The real “pattern of behavior” is the sexism that makes women in conventions frequently uncomfortable and unsafe, not Richards’ behavior in reacting, repeatedly, to instances where she was made uncomfortable.

Over and over again, people are asking, “Why didn’t she confront the people she had a problem with?”

Worst case scenario? Because those men could have found her later, and hurt her with impunity. By taking their picture and making it public, Richards was attempting to safeguard herself not only against their future retribution, but against the culture that allowed them to sit there making childish jokes without any accountability or sense of where they were.

And still that culture continues to protect them and demand that she be shamed and vilified for her behavior.  It’s telling, isn’t it, that while Richards was quickly doxxed, we still don’t know the name or identity of the man who was fired from Playhaven over his comments.

According to Playhaven, he was fired because of “all the factors that contributed to our parting ways.”

In other words, a pattern of behavior.

The kind that can make women feel unsafe.

The kind that can make them want to overreact.

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*First Published: Mar 22, 2013, 6:59 pm CDT