Monday, August 20, 2012

Harassment at DEF CON?

There has been several discussions about sexism and sexual harassment  lately centered around "Hacker Cons" and DEF CON specifically ( The Infamous Red/Yellow Cards ) (Tottenkoph) ( cnet  rehash) (Schneier..I don't know what this is) (Nous..counter argument)..or just google everyone is doing it these days...   
I wish some of those people checked their facts before reporting...

What I am about to tell you is not endorsed by my employer, DEF CON or Jeff Moss. I don't speak for anyone but my self, and I DESPISE being referred to as "the voice" of anyone but myself. Consider this your disclaimer.

  • Is there "sexism and harassment" at DEF CON? 
Yes, but it's no different than ANY other environment you could throw a stone at. In fact, it's probably less so. In the self regulated community we have, I've been told we have had very few incidents reported or heard of in 20 years. It's been said that most of the incidents that have been mentioned have been from the casino guests or on the strip somewhere, not from DEF CON attendees. I'm not saying it's never happened, I'm not saying there hasn't been a random creeper from time to time, but I know many women who work at and attend the conference and they all say they feel perfectly safe. 

Also, I've seen it reported that a bunch of jerks made a game out of the creeper cards. As far as I could tell, there was no "game" to see how insulting you could be to get a creeper card, overall they went over really well, it was explained well in tottenkophs blog.  As for raising awareness to an actual creeper, I can't speak for that because I never encountered a situation that needed it, and I never heard of one either. I would not have resolved it with the card if I had. I did notice that they made it a good way to bring up awareness of the things we say amongst friends that could be considered offensive in mixed company. I found myself saying and doing many things that were suffixed with a verbal "Yellow Card", and the same can be said for my friends. It seemed to be done very jokingly and fun, not at all confrontational. I will say that the one slightly creeper situation that happened at the bar during DEF CON, I very calmly extended my hand to create distance between us and as I loudly said RED CARD STRANGER DANGER, my nearest friend was quick to provide distraction from the drunken individual so that I could get away. It's since become one of the funniest stories I have from DEF CON. If the same situation had happened at a bar at home, I don't think anyone would have considered offering reprieve and assuring I had the space I needed for my personal boundaries.

There is also a big difference between sexism and sexual harassment. Sexism is a fucked up part of life, but you can not call an ENTIRE group of people or organization sexist based on the actions of the few. That is, in itself exactly the same thing you are purporting to oppose. There are in my opinion worse cons out there for sexism. Sexism is a social problem, one that DEF CON or it's Goons can't do much about nor should they have to take the responsibility to police peoples attitudes or thoughts. Sexism is being seen as the "inferior" sex, or not worthy of equal respect, to me it's simple: anti-sexism is that the genders are equal, not campaigning for who needs rights advocated more. To do so only furthers the propaganda that there are gender inequalities in so far as needing to invoke a "handicap" or special privileges to the "fairer sex". That said, harassment is not a social construct, it's an isolated act by one individual (sometimes a group of individuals) and that one individual is responsible for it and it should be dealt with seriously and quickly. I do not tolerate harassment.
Sexism: Girls can't do math and Boys don't cook.
Harassment:  It rubs the lotion on its skin.

I will say this, on a personal level as someone who has been assaulted, raped, stalked and harassed, I feel safer at DEF CON than I do at my local bar or walking at night. I do not see people being harassed at DEF CON. I see people being stupid and occasionally sexist from time to time, but if I or any of the people I know see someone getting harassed I can with much certainty know that someone will be there to help me by saying something or redirecting the individual until help arrived. If I was to go to the club, people there "mind their own buisness", yet at DEF CON we are not that culture, we have an eye for the fucked up, the broken, and the about to be broken. There are no Kitty Genoveses' at DEF CON. It would just never happen, There are too many caring people as attendees and staff.

When you point out that a person is being a pain in your ass and making you uncomfortable, you will most likely mortify them as they would have had no clue. It's my experience that people are clueless, especially when booze, bright shiny lights, sleep deprivation, and the many ails of Las Vegas kick in. There are a bunch of really dumb people in Las Vegas at any given time, this is not inclusive of DEF CON. If someone is being a douche freighter and will not take the hint, then very loudly tell them to back off or request help of your nearest peers to diffuse the situation, and if it happens AT DEF CON, then report it to a Goons ASAP.  Every Goon I know would have little tolerance for an attendee that is acting like pedobears creepy uncle.

  • Why don't you (Nikita) have a "Policy" (For DEF CON)? Why don't you (Nikita) make one?

Why do I have to take personal responsibility for it? Why do you need one? Do you think that will stop people from being dicks?  You don't need a policy to be told not to take a dump on a city bus to know that will get you kicked off and possibly arrested. I didn't always think that way, I wanted to include some mention of harassment, etc, in our official faq, but every time I presented the idea the logistics of it kept getting worse and worse. I naively thought that saying something would make people feel warm and fuzzy, but the more I think about it, that's not the case. The people who need to hear it are not going to give a damn there is an "anti-harassment policy" what people need to hear is that the VICTIMS can feel safe reporting it.

I have no idea if DEF CON will officially say something in regards to these accusations, if they will revise their rules list to include "Harassment" or not. I'd be a fan of a simple short and sweet "Don't be a dick." but it's important to note, not only do I not make the rules of DEF CON, I don't speak for the trees in that sense either. My suggestion would be instead of a policy, to let people know they can go to Goons if they have a problem. (All of the Goons I have spoken to have said that it might not be in the written rules, but it's their unwritten policy anyway, don't be a dick or you can leave, and if anyone assaults anyone they are happy to make sure that the police know who they are. )... Actually that's a lot kinder than what some said, I'm afraid I don't know the liability regarding loss to life and limb of creepers, but I imagine it's steep. it's well know that harassment is not tolerated at DEF CON, it might not be officially written anywhere, but it's always been the case. 

Priest recently had this to say: 

"Def Con has a zero tolerance policy regarding harassment of ANY kind. If an attendee of either gender (last I checked it was two but if there is more my apologies) feels in any way harassed, sexually or otherwise, every staff member of Def Con and specifically the Security Goons stand ready to address the issue quickly, professionally, and courteously. To be clear ANY harassment of ANY kind is treated as a very serious matter and will be addressed immediately and with the appropriate level of response to the action(s) on the part of the person(s) committing the harassment."

  • What will the Goons think, Who will listen to my complaints?

Goons are there to help you, and to help you seek the appropriate actions. In my experience I have seen them behave in the following manner, but I'm not giving you their mission statement or speaking for them. I've found that if you are in need they will help you call emergency services and stay with you. I've seen first hand that they will provide you with a space and safe company while you collect yourself and report your incident to security & authorities. They can't do anything about anything if you don't tell them.

They won't think you are lame, whining, humorless, etc for reporting harassment, they will be happy you did so they can get that person removed because that's not the type of person we want at our con.  If you are afraid to talk to a Goon of the opposite sex, ask for one with your particular equipment match. We have Male, Female, and Transgender Goons. We have Gay, Straight, Bi-Sexual, all shapes, ethnicity, religions, etc. I'm not saying that if you go up and say you'd like to talk to a Black Female Goon who believes in the flying spaghetti monster and is possibly bi-sexual, that we have one around, but I'd be willing to bet it's probably more likely than you think. That's why saying DEF CON and Goons are sexist or homophobic, is so damn insulting to many, if you knew us you'd realize that's the furthest thing from the truth.
If a person is following you, touching you, stalking you, harassing you, you should report it. If you feel your safety is at risk, please consider calling the Las Vegas Metro and stay in a populated and lighted area until they arrive. This is good advice for no matter where you are, who you are, or when it is. I'm not telling you this as an agent of DEF CON, I'm telling it because it may seem obvious but when you are recently harassed your brain kinda turns a little fucked up. I speak from personal experience, as a person who did not report when "it" happened to me. So saying that overly obvious advice is equal to "stop drop and roll" or "never keep your finger on the trigger". You might need to hear it more than once. The statistics out there are staggering when it comes to unreported crimes especially sexual assault, people are not thinking clearly, they don't have it ingrained in the heads what they should do, there is a level of  shock, degradation, shame and fear there, but REPORT IT and REMAIN SAFE until help arrives. This goes for Las Vegas or middle of nowhere, Kansas.

  • What do you (Nikita) propose we do to change things?
If you are asking me how to change sexism and harassment my answer is simple, don't be a dick and that is the strongest foundation to build a positive impact on, so go with that.

1. DEF CON needs to have better PR for the Goons

I think honestly, that if you don't know you can talk to a Goon and report an attendee for acting badly then we are obviously not doing a good enough job of letting you know we are here to help. Part of that is the fact that we are no longer a tight knit group. We are 15k strong, many many first time attendees, "noobs". The other issue is reporting it, if you don't call the police when you are assaulted, or seek some form of help, I'm not sure what else we can do. I understand why many of us are dumbfounded with this topic because we have been around for SO MANY years. I know the Goons are there to help and that they do an excellent job and deserve more appreciation, but the new attendees have no clue who they are, what they do, and might fear approaching them.

I have heard that one fear in particular is that a Goon won't take their complaint seriously, as a survivor of sexual assault I can tell you I understand that fear but would like you to make the effort to try and communicate with us regardless. I would go ahead and presume that those afraid of reporting, don't know any Goons, they've never interacted with one aside from an occasional "the line is over here", "stay to the right", "make a hole", barrage in the halls. I don't think we need to change anything within DEF CON, or make any new policies, or regulate any differently, I think the problem is simply lack of awareness and the mystique of these super leet authority figures in red shirts. I've met some of the nicest men and women in Goon shirts (and a few I can't stand as well), but they ALL take this conference seriously and would not want to see anyone get hurt.

2. Be the change you want to see in the community.

Do you want people to take you seriously? Be serious.

There is no reason you can't wear vinyl spike shoulder pads and tripp pants, but when you open your mouth you shouldn't be unironicly asking where the pool on the roof is. If you want to gain a reputation for being knowledgeable, first thing you should do is be a honey badger. Don't give a fuck about that. The second, is open your mouth when you have something to contribute, don't sulk off like a kicked kitten because everyone didn't stop to ask you what you thought. We don't raise our hands to talk, you have to just jump in and do it. Also, I'm not trying to come off as a bitch here but no one is going to to listen to you if you are butt ass naked. Most people won't think that you can deliver a stand up technical talk once seeing you in 6 inch platform heels, pasties and candy necklaces on your junk. HOWEVER, that's not to say that you can't because I've seen several men do it and it's an image I can't get back. You just need to be prepared to earn the right to be respected by proving you are not bat shit crazy, once you do that, you can pretty much do whatever you want. I can't have a legitimate conversation with a naked man, because in my social boundaries, that I am accustomed to, nekid time doesn't spark the desire to discuss PCI or the intricacies of a good 401k.  That and you just don't know where your eyes should go.

3. Never Assume. 

Go to DEF CON and try to act like a good Hacker.  Ask Questions. Obey the 3,2,1 rule. Never make eye contact while eating a banana and don't fall asleep with your shoes on.

That's it. I hope that this blog post found you well, that you didn't leave hating me or thinking I don't give a damn about you, but this is the internet and it's a soap box on every corner here. I should have the right to speak my mind, to say how I feel, to say what I FEEL just as much as anyone else. I may work for DEF CON, but I am not a paid public figure, I am not a politician, or a celebrity of any sorts, I am myself and I speak for myself. I won't censor you, you don't censor me. I am not the voice of DEF CON, I hate when people assume that to be the case about me, I'm a person just like you. I bust my ass to see this con turn into the best con for everyone, no matter who you are, because I love this community. When the time comes where I can't be myself and welcomed to do so with open arms, (even if you disagree), that's the time I leave because it's not the group I fell in love with. Discussion should be encouraged, not looked down upon. I love a constructive debate because it's how I have been able to grow as a person, to see different perspectives and to change my viewpoints. I am not always right and I know this, which is why I am willing to give my opinion so often to so many because I want to know ALL the information, ALL the perspectives and see what is out there that I have not considered before. I've significantly changed my viewpoint on many things in life because I later discovered to have misinformation or a faulty hypothesis, I don't give a fuck about admitting that, It's not a bad thing to be wrong if you learn something and are willing to re-design now and then. Anyone who claims to say otherwise about me does not know me at all, anyone who asks me to remain silent justbecause they don't like what I have to say is not my friend either.

Love, Nikita

Please remember a few things, don't blame DEF CON for something that happens to you outside of the conference. Please don't go to a party and expect DEF CON to be responsible for it, or to learn about ruby on rails, because..... You don't go to Dennys looking for a whopper.  I don't hit up the library looking for booze and dubstep. Please think about the environment you are in and what you should reasonably expect of it. Sometimes i think of it as a he got chocolate in my peanut butter, she got peanut butter in my chocolate scenario except it's a bit more separated than you'd think. I don't go to the con during con hours and expect to see half naked people on stage, if I did I would be a little more than what the hell?!?! Now on the otherhand, if I see half naked freaks and geeks making a spectacle out of themselves at some after hours contest or private party, then I'm not obligated to stay, or to give a damn, and I leave. If I geniunely feel creeped out, objectified, or that the host was a sexist pig i open my rather loud mouth tell them so and opt to never go back. The same thing I would do if I was invited to uncle larry's for Ramadan and he was wearing pasties and drinking to his recent union with the family pet.


  1. Massive approval. Thank you for this.

  2. I posted some similar thoughts on the original post so here here.. could not agree more with what you have said here... As a female in tech I support your views here... Thank you! @schachin

  3. Thank you for a well-thought-out post on this issue. I can agree that the people I know who attend DefCon regularly feel exactly the same as you.

    As someone who's been assaulted at the event (yes, I assaulted back in an unambiguous way, but it spoiled my evening) I struggled to find a way to contextualize it with everyone I know who attends. My experience was that not even the men around me who were trying to impress me had the wherewithal to affect that person's behavior.

    The best I could come up with is at an event where questioning authority is the norm there might be a certain faction that thinks it makes them more of a leet hacker to do things to flaunt authority. These people are at the fringes and not condoned by the main body of attendees. In short, what happened to me was a "hack" of the "female protection system" that is admittedly quite robust at Defcon.

    In the air of Las Vegas where cheap sex is in around and people still put skimmers on the ATMs, defying the "authority" of the goons could be seen as a challenge. How impressive is it to grope a pretty girl and run away without getting caught, after all?

  4. Valkyrie, I'm sorry to hear that and I do get what you mean. I hope that guy saw Karma in the end. That shit's not funny in the least. :-(

  5. I agree that the goons need better PR on this issue, whether or not its a perceived or a real problem. But I think a simple, clear and unambiguous policy on harassment and assault would be an easy and obvious first step towards giving the goons a better image on this issue.

  6. Good post. Many things seemed very familiar. ;) glad to hear you modified your opinion! -eris

  7. So glad you said something, this aligns so very close with my feelings on the topic.

    As I have said before, even at a party that is after-hours and away from Con-responsibility... there are people that will help if someone is feeling harassed... but we don't know the problem if you (person uncomfortable) do not tell us!

    The Goons work their assess off, and I hate seeing them being put in front of the firing squad. Good job Goons (And DefCon Staffers), some of us really do <3 and appreciate!


    1. Someone on the Schneier blog discussion linked to this page. I'm glad you wrote it. It's the most no-nonsense stance and best advice on the topic I've seen. And: "it puts the lotion on its skin" +1 for Joe Dirt reference. LMAO!