TL;DR: I feel that recently the EA forum became pretty judgmental and unwelcoming. I also feel that the current discourse about sex misses two important points and, in a huge part of it, lacks maturity and is harmful. Let me attempt to address it.
Trigger warning, point 2 involves a long description of personal stories connected to sex, some of them were difficult and may be triggering. The post also may not be very well structured, but I preferred to write one long post instead of three short ones (but I've edited just a structure today, to make it a bit more readable).
This is obviously a burner account, but when you see those stories you’ll be able to see why. For the record, they don’t involve people from the community. I'm a woman (it's going to matter later on).
Acceptable dating and sexual behaviors vary between classes and cultures.
The devil is in the detail, and rules you live by and perceive as “obvious” may be so clear for anybody else. Also, the map of the US is not in a shape of geode.
People vary in gender and sexual orientation. They vary in a level of sexual desire. They have different kinks, ways of expressing sexuality and levels of self-awareness. Different needs. Various physiological reactions to sexually tense situations. Various ways of presenting themselves when it comes to all of the above.
People come from different cultures – regions, countries, social classes and religions. As a result, dating cultures vary around the world. Sexual behaviors also. Acceptable level of flirt, jokes, touch and the way consent is asked for and expressed sometimes just vary. Problems and how i.e. sexism looks like also has various shapes and forms. There are some common characteristics, but details matter, to a huge extent.
Many people in the recent discussions stated that various nuances are obvious and should be intuitively followed by everyone. I think it’s problematic and leads to abuse.
Believing that your values and behavior associated with your culture and class are the only right ones and everybody should know, understand and follow them, is fundamentally different from assertively vocalizing your boundaries and needs. The second is a great, mature behavior. The first feels a bit elitist, ignorant and has nothing to do with safety, equality and being inclusive.
Additionally, I want to draw your attention to one thing. I have a strong belief (correct me if I’m wrong) that the vast majority (if not all) of sexual misconduct causes which were described over the last couple of days in the articles or here, on the forum, come from either US or the UK. EA crowd is definitely not limited to those.
So my honest question would be – is it EA who has a problem with sexual misconduct? Or is it an Anglo-Saxon culture which has a problem with sexual misconduct? Or maybe – EA with a mix of Anglo-Saxon culture has this issue? Shouldn’t we zoom in on that a bit?
Human sexuality is complex. Consent is also sometimes complex.
People often talk a lot of “what consent norms should be”. But such disputes do not give a full picture of what people’s actual behaviors around consent actually are – and it’s a bit crucial to this whole conversation.
If you start having more intimate talks, however, you end up seeing a much more complex and broad picture. And often consent is easier said than done.
I encourage you all, regardless what’s your gender, to have those talks with friends, who are open and empathetic. I’ve learned a lot and they made my life easier.
Yet, some people may have no opportunity to hear such stories. So let me share, why do I think that consent is not all that easy. I'm going to talk about myself here, because maybe somebody needs to hear somebody being open and vulnerable about stuff like that. It sums up 12 years of my experience, from which the vast majority was super great, but focuses on the parts where this sex and consent was difficult.
My message is - it's ok to sometimes struggle, feel insecure and have doubts, doesn't matter what your gender is, and especially if you are young.
(To be clear and open here - it happened to me a couple of times that I had to physically hit people in the face, as they plainly broke my consent and didn’t react to open, direct “no” repeated loudly three times. I felt pretty shitty after. I’m not going to get into those situations here. They don’t add anything to my “consent is complex” point. In those cases, it was plain and simple, and they simply tried to break it. )
I really like sex, I think human body is beautiful and overall, the whole context can be a form of art. Still, I believe consent is complicated. During my life, for me it was sometimes hard to figure out what do I want, and where are my boundaries - and it was hard to figure out what do others want, and what are their boundaries.
It’s all not that simple, but I also think that the whole life is not that simple and all I can do is just actively work to understand myself better and be better in listening to others. I know I'm not alone, and many people have similar doubts and situations.
Let me start gently, from slight doubts I have or used to have.
- Flirting is sometimes hard to understand for me. Dancing is also hard.
I can do it now, sure, but I don’t really get the culture around it and when I was younger, I felt super scared. Some very monogamous, married people dance with other folks in a very sensual way – and don’t see anything bad about it, even though they regard “flirting” as cheating. I’m just a bit confused by what I perceive lack of consistency there.
To be frank, some parts of flirting seem to be overall heavily based on ambiguity and uncertainty, and mixed signals. To me, people seem to be in the same time scared and attracted by it. Which often was confusing.
- It happened to me to clearly flirt with a guy, then say that we won’t have sex just in order to increase tension, and well, it worked wonders.
Later on I was the one who initiated sex. But, I’ve heard from some girl friends of mine that they like to flirt and not being asked for consent directly at all. One even said that there are two different types of “no” – one is just flirting, one is a lack of consent, and which one is which depends on context. I don’t really get it, I even felt angry at them for some time for not wanting to be precise about it (now I'm not).
- What I also discovered, is that I prefer being asked for consent, than ask myself. I sometimes do that and it’s super scary and make me feel vulnerable.
- Also, one more fun fact, recently it happened to me that I got attracted to a man in a position of power and had to stop myself from initiating flirting, not to put in a stupid situation.
Despite I think the rules for instructors and students not to flirt are right and should be in place, in this particular situation I felt sad about it (still followed the rules though).
Now, some heavier stuff.
- So, it happened to me enthusiastically consent to something, even partially initiate it, and then regret it (a day after the event).
My partner behaved absolutely ok, he was not in any position of power and did not make me feel intimidated, checked if I’m fine and respected my consent. I felt bad, it was hard ,but I had to deal with my emotions and have absolutely no hard feelings to anybody. Now I know my boundaries better. Live and learn.
- It happened to me to experience a pretty serious miscommunication when it comes to sex.
Basically a guy thought I gave him consent by coming to his house to sleep over. For me, in turn, it was just coming to his flat for a movie night and I didn't even think about sex. Thankfully, we realized something is off soon enough, nothing happened, we talked, we laughed and even slept in one bed - he respected my consent perfectly and wasn't even slightly creepy. We were close friends for a long time after, then I moved to another country.
- A couple of years later, at some point I ended up being pushy towards my partner, as I basically wasn’t taught that woman can be pushy at all.
I misjudged how big of a difference there is between the level of our sexual desire. Also the whole situation was super new and unexpected to me. To be frank I literally didn't notice what I'm doing until he told me to stop. Thankfully, he assertively gave me his feedback and we talked. We are still a couple.
- On other occasion, I heavily overreacted to one guy’s attempt to sleep with me.
He basically raised his voice, was very judgemental and talked without what I perceive to be empathy to other person (not me and not in a sexual context, I also was free to leave a situation, it wasn't about me at all). Ironically he did it in a context of “protecting people who are more vulnerable than him from unwanted behavior, i.e. people who are younger or women”.
The point is, which I learned about much later on, aggression is my trauma trigger. And I perceived him as aggressive.
So when he asked for my consent I was very uncomfortable, ended up being afraid of saying “no”(despite the fact that I’m usually very outspoken) and didn’t know how to deal with the situation. He wasn’t aggressive while asking and did it in a considerate, “good” way, gave me space to say, "no", we also knew each other quite well at that point. It didn't help. I pretended everything is ok in front of him, because it is my defense mechanism.
Finally, I ghosted the guy and bitched quite a bit about him to my friends. I didn't say he committed a misconduct. But I said he is dangerous, mentioned that I did not like his attention and have trouble being assertive to him, I was also very emotional and had trouble communicating clearly without even realizing that.
It thankfully did not end up being a “he is a sexual abuser” gossip. My friends did not escalate situation without my clear request and did not twist my words because of their fears or emotions. I’m more than grateful for that.
Sometime later I calmed down, I understood what happened and I felt, to be frank, shitty about it. I've talked to my friends again. Still didn’t have a courage to talk to the guy yet - but again, thanks to other people being mature, he did not got a backlash for something he didn't do.
The situations above, especially the last ones, were usually hard to me, and sometimes not only me. They also required a lot of clear and assertive communication from both sides, and I'm lucky I have friends and partners with whom I can talk this way.
I try to do my best to avoid similar situations in the future, I work on myself, learn about my triggers, educate myself and as I'm older, any problems are less frequent.
Consent is not easy, especially when you are young. Emotional maturity, clear communication, self-awareness and understanding others, being socially not awkward and finally sex and consent themselves are skills to be learned.
It all becomes easier with time - the majority of those stories happened a good couple of years ago.
Yet, many people, and me also, would not trade if off this (to be frank, still pretty rare) hardships for less sexual experiences.
Some of the most beautiful and empowering events in my life are connected to sex, and I will remember some of them till the end of my life. I had sexual situations, significantly more than one, which was emotionally so purifying and intense, that I cried during them. In my case, it often creates a special kind of intimacy between people, and a feeling of safety and belonging. Some of my insecurities and even traumas went away due to positive sexual experiences, and I’m not exaggerating here.
And to those, who think that those positive experiences can be achieved only in marriages or similar, exclusive and long-lasting relationships - it's not my experience.
EA openness in talking about things makes it more susceptible to seem weird
Yeah, so is all of I’ve written above weird? Am I now weird to you? Are those experiences normal? Do you judge them as healthy?
Again, it may be my echo chamber, but those experiences are not very special. I’ve heard many people saying similar things. My psychologist did not find any pathology there.
But, in my culture, they are not very much talked about, or if they are mentioned, it is for sensation, with judgement, without gentleness. I don’t think I’m weird here. I think I’m open and vulnerable. And people are not used to it.
My theory is that EA is open to discussion about pretty much everything much more than an average crowd, and therefore seems “odd” to those who are not used to it.
In my culture, there are things people don’t really talk about and ideas which are “just thought, not said”. EA people like to break this taboo and share stuff which is more intimate than average. They also state opinions which people usually keep to themselves (maybe share with closest friends). Of course, in some ways EA is not a “perfect population average”. Yet, it’s not as weird as it likes to think. I’ve seen many weirder communities, to be frank.
Anyway, it’s less important part of this point. More important is as follows:
it's ok to be different.
If you are non-neurotypical, I want you to feel safe and heard. I’m happy to adjust my communication on behavior so it works between us, even if it requires stepping out of my comfort zone or active effort (as long as it doesn’t break my boundaries, needles to say).
I feel deeply disturbed by amount of ableism which was recently exhibited at this forum (even if it wasn’t direct).
I feel that in the recent month, some people put zero effort into understanding what others mean, rather attempted to strawman every single argument which made them feel emotionally insecure. It may have been very heavy for those, who have not-neurotypical communication style, as it may be harder to understand for some and steelmaning would be particularly helpful.
I believe in a healthy, inclusive society both not-neurotypical and neurotypical people should work together towards better communication, understanding and integration, respecting each other’s boundaries and fulfilling needs.
Ok, let me finish this super long text with saying – hope you are all safe. Be gentle, first of all to yourselves. Be gentle to others. Love and kisses.
Thank you so much for bringing in a non-neurotypical perspective.
What is particularly important for me – and perhaps others who are similarly insecure about their social skills – is some sort of reassurance that I will not traumatize someone, get banned from conferences, and be asked to leave the community so long as I stick to some known rules.
I don’t even care much what the rules are. You’re all smart and considerate and will come up with good rules. I’m in a privileged position here with my particular preference ordering (e.g., little interest in casual sex), so I can see that that’s different for others. My primary need is for “legal clarity” as they say. Hopefully I’m at least not the only one with that preference ordering.
All the rules that have been discussed – not initiating flirt at conferences, not initiating flirt if organizing some event, not talking about sex in the context of any EA functions, not offering couchsurfing if there is a risk that the other will perceive the power differential as greater than in the average couchsurfing situation (opinions seem to vary here), etc. – all seem fine to me and I can just adopt them all preemptively in case they catch on. I have so much shame around sex anyway that it’ll take weeks or months of getting to know me before I’ll feel safe enough to touch on the topic. None of this will even have any counterfactual effect on my behavior. I already don’t do those things.
But I’m worried that these rules are incomplete, i.e. that there are plenty of rules that remain unspecified. For all of the above rules there was a time when I had never heard of them. By extension, there are probably all sorts of unwritten rules that I’m still oblivious of. E.g., I had filed my couchsurfing experience under “elite lifehacks to make a guest feel safe,” not under “patently obvious basic decency.” For neurotypicals it seems to fall into the second category, and there are many things that I have less experience with than with couchsurfing.
Metaphorically speaking it’s a big minefield where I can see and recognize some of the mines, but where I have to assume that there are more that I cannot see because I can’t tell them from stones or because they’re too well hidden.
This is all about things that I don’t know, so it’s impossible for me to give the actual examples, and the examples I can come up with will maybe sound lame. That said, some lame examples:
These particular examples are probably silly and maybe not egregious enough to warrant a ban, but as I said, the ones that I’m afraid of are exactly the ones I can’t predict.
Maybe the reasons for past bans from conferences can serve as a guide for writing such rules. It could also become a collaborative effort with people submitting individual rules in comments and other voting on them.
I still feel “legally” safe enough to go to EA conferences, but then again I’ve also been to plenty of EA conferences already and have never run into trouble (for all I know). Someone who is new to EA and insecure about how to navigate all of this might not have those precedents to lean on and so will choose to rather stay away. I’ve certainly stayed away from countless other social things because I didn’t know whether I might get into situations there that I wouldn’t know how to navigate.
I wonder if it might help you to talk to someone from Community Health and ask them to tell you (anonymized) stories about the sort of things that led them to ban people from conferences, or enact other penalties. Maybe this would reassure you that you're not likely to be "close to the line" in your default behaviour - or, flag to you that some common things you do could make people very uncomfortable. (fwiw tho, please don't mask your excitedness - I really don't think people will interpret that as flirtatious by itself)
Maybe you'll say 'that won't help me, because even if I can avoid those specific actions, I won't know the rules that they violated'. Maybe CH can tell you what rule or heuristic was violated too! But partly... like I sympathise with you - I am also an enjoyer of explicit social norms - but I'm not sure if it's possible to come up with a set of rules for social behaviour that are perfectly comprehensive like this. (This is a big part of the AI alignment problem, right - turns out trying to very-precisely specify what you want an entity to do and not do, with no misunderstandings or rules-lawyering, is really hard).
If it would help, I'm happy for you to message me and ask me questions about stuff like this, no question too silly. This goes for readers of this comment too. Caveat: I'm pretty high-openness and probably at least a bit neurodivergent, so you shouldn't necessarily trust my answers.
To be frank, if the rules were very detailed and very different from my usual behavior patterns I would have trouble following them. My brain, you see, simply works on autopilot a huge proportion of time. If there are just a couple of rules which would require me to alter my behavior, sure, I will remember about them and do my best to follow. If there are too many - it will be just super hard for me to memorize it and could make me super anxious that I'll break some rule because I forgot it!
My interest is more in writing down rules that already exist. So that shouldn’t change anything about the rules except that there’s a place where one can check what they are.
This ties in with:
It’s basically a third alternative. Not assuming that all rules are universally known, not figuring out what the boundaries are on a case-by-case, person-by-person basis, but collaboratively writing down some set of rules that has already emerged. I imagine (hope) almost all of them will be super obvious so that we don’t need to memorize them.
Yes, that’d be great! Or better yet a public summary of all the clusters of bad behavior so that it’s useful for others too, and I don’t need to deanonymize myself.
Thanks for the encouragement! :-D
Depends! Your reply to a previous comment of mine was useful in that regard, and I’ve also asked other people. Once I notice that I don’t understand some particular thing, it’s much easier to ask questions about it than it is now when the question basically is, “Is there something I don’t know yet?” I’m sort of like a Stuart Russell kind of AI that may not know things about the world but is eager to get and update on feedback on seemingly great plans, ideally before it implements them.
Oooh! Thank you!
Thank you for your perspective! Could you please tell if being able to ask somebody designated what actual social rules are in case you have any doubts would help?
Also, from what I understand you believe that the current reactions systems during EA conferences are very harsh when it comes to punishing somebody who did not behave according to social rules. For example, they would ban the rule breaker from any events without giving space for them to explain the reason for their behavior. Could you please let me know why would you perceive them as that harsh?
I have an opinion that such systems are usually not that strict, and give space for some mistakes - but I may be mistaken, or right only about reaction systems I've heard about.
That’d be amazing! That could also be a public forum that allows for anonymous questions, so there isn’t so much of a burden on one person to answer everything objectively. A single person will probably sometimes have trouble telling how widely shared their personal preferences are.
Hmm, I don’t have any experience with their process, so I think I made wrong assumptions about it. When I went to my first EAG conference (as opposed to EAGx), I thought that a different blacklist applied and so was afraid that I might already be banned without knowing it, maybe in analogy with the US no-flight list. Turns out I wasn’t. I’m probably just unusually anxious about such things.
From some of the posts in the last couple of weeks I’ve rather gotten the impression that the community health team always or usually (?) talks to the perpetrator before banning them, so that it would’ve been unlikely for me to be banned without knowing about it. (Plus, the same list probably applies to both EAGs and EAGxs.)
Then again, even when I’m given a chance to explain and apologize, there are still the related problems that (1) some of the harm has been done, i.e. I scared someone, (2) I can’t really prove my intentions, and (3) even if I’m believed that my intentions were harmless, it’s complicated to understand what that really changes. For me it usually makes a big difference whether someone does something intentionally or not, but that varies a lot even among my friends. They might forgive me on a cerebral level but still retain the same new fear response on an intuitive level.
I think in my comment I didn’t mean to put so much focus on the community health team and their standards… They’re in a good position to describe the ways in which they make their decisions because they have a lot of records to draw on at this point. So maybe it would be easier for them to observe social rules in EA than for any other individual. Then again a public forum could work too.
That makes me wonder, maybe I can infer from the absence (?) of public complaints about people’s appearance on the EA Forum that it’s very hard to do something wrong in that area in the EA context. Or maybe it just so happens that it’s not acceptable to complain about someone’s appearance because that’s an outgroup thing to do, but deep down it still disturbs people, and so they’re more likely to seemingly overreact to something else the visually-weird person does because they’ve long formed a comprehensive model of them being weird and have just been waiting for signals of weirdness that it’s okay to verbalize? Or social norms around what it’s okay to complain about might change, and then a long record of weird appearance might surface all at once?
Perhaps such a forum for social norms should be wholly anonymous so that people are encouraged to also report on negative gut reactions that they have when it’s not, at the time, acceptable to voice them?
I think that Community Health Team has some type of contact form on their website, which also can be anonymous? It may be worth drawing their attention to what you say here and your comments above - and it may also help to clarify your questions!
I really appreciated this post. I think that there are some things here that are very difficult to have an honest conversation about and so I appreciated you sharing your perspective.
I think this is actually understating the problem. A huge percentage of recent forum posts explicitly relate to a relatively small group of people living the Bay Area. It is really weird how common it is to generalize the idiosyncrasies of that particular social group to "EA culture".
Wasn't one of the main triggers for the spate of discussion of sexual misconduct bad behaviour by Owen Cotton-Barrett in Oxford?
Yup, it was. And the situation definitely should be investigated in depth, and the culture changed, such as similar things don't happen in the future.
I just want to draw attention to the fact, that dating culture is very different in the UK/US and, for example Italy or India. And I think the culture you are born into, not EA membership is a primary factor shaping human romantic and sexual behavior, so the EA dating culture varies heavily between the countries. I think that "finding a way of preventing sexual misconduct" is overall a god damn responsibility of every community builder, but, seriously it is because it was always important to prevent such things, not because of recent events.
Now, what happened can be probably a good feedback or wake up call. But:
I'm not convinced I blame any sort of "culture" for at least some of the high profile events. Putting too much attention on culture really shifts blame away from individual responsibility. Shouldn't we place the blame squarely on perpetrators and not on those who had nothing to do with the incident but supposedly "failed to think of prevention measures"? I'm not even clear what those measures could be.
Yes but I still think the vast majority have been in the bay area.
How much of this is explained by the proportion of in-person EA activity that is in the Bay Area?
Hm, I think that maybe it explains this tendency. However, I don't think that a big proportion of people in the community being located in one country should be an excuse for forgetting about cultural diversity here, and treating everybody as if they came from the same background.
I don't know exact numbers, but I think that this "majority" is rather 70%, not close to 98%. Also, if we want to expand EA it's super important for it to be welcoming, and I think the tendency to ignore cultural diversity (i.e. by requesting everybody to adopt US-adjusted norms and shaming people who don't/are confused/behave not according to those norms as their culture has different way of expression) makes expansion unnecessarily difficult.
Probably has something to do with it, but lots of cities have very active in person EA activity and I have not heard anywhere near as many complaints about anywhere else as I have about the bay area.
Thanks so much for writing this. Yes I agree that there is a lot of emotional and norm-based complexity we aren't seeing so far, but I'm optimistic.
In particular I guess the forum seems judgy because many people are scared and tired. But I think we can build trust and a language to discuss this. It seems to me that the last few posts have been getting better and better.