Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Breasts, Geeks, Sci-Fi Cons, Creeps, Open Source, and Livejournal: The Perfect Storm

This past week, at the noted science-fiction convention Penguincon, Star City Games employee and erstwhile livejournal blogger theferrett spontaneously launched something that he demurely called the "Open Source Boobs Project". What was that all about? Here, I'll let theferrett explain himself. Take it away, mr. mustelid!
"This should be a better world," a friend of mine said. "A more honest one, where sex isn't shameful or degrading. I wish this was the kind of world where say, 'Wow, I'd like to touch your breasts,' and people would understand that it's not a way of reducing you to a set of nipples and ignoring the rest of you, but rather a way of saying that I may not yet know your mind, but your body is beautiful."

We were standing in the hallway of ConFusion, about nine of us, and we all nodded. Then another friend spoke up.

"You can touch my boobs," she said to all of us in the hallway. "It's no big deal."
At Penguicon, we had buttons to give away. There were two small buttons, one for each camp: A green button that said, "YES, you may" and a red button that said "NO, you may not." And anyone who had those buttons on, whether you knew them or not, was someone you could approach and ask:

"Excuse me, but may I touch your breasts?"
It was a raging success at Penguicon.... And there haven't been any hookups that I know of thanks to the Open-Source Boob Project. It is, as I said, a very special thing. (Though I wouldn't rule it out if two single people exchanged a moment.) And we'll probably do it at other cons, because it's strangely wholesome and sexual at the same time.
And then, his livejournal comment section EXPLODED, with over 1,300 comments on the original entry before he froze any comments, and then first issued clarifications, followed later by a complete denuncation and several retractions (perhaps with a soupçon of martyrdom and not before both himself and his wife engaged in vigorous defense of the idea).

Award winning and best-selling science fiction author John Scalzi was at Penguincon, and while he didn't witness the Open Source Boob Project, he did have something to say about the matter:

...if I had known about the Open Source Boob project while I was still at the convention, I still wouldn’t have partaken, because in general I’m not a huge fan of touching people I don’t particularly know very well, even if they have a button on that tells me I’m free to do so (or at least ask to do so). This is less about breasts than it is about more prosaic physical comfort zones. I’m not neurotic about it — I understand some people are huggers, and you have to go with that, and a couple of years ago at the ConFusion science fiction convention, when one of the Guests of Honor told everyone to kiss the top of my head by the end of the con, my response was to be amused, not to Purell the top of my scalp every five minutes...In short, Open Source Boobs: an interesting idea, deeply context specific, and generally not for me.

Many people had critical reactions to theferret proposeal. Some of them, like livejournal user misia (the nome de electronique of dutch author Hanna Blank) were outright visceral parody, in her counter-proposal of an Open Source Swift Kick To The Balls Project.

Kate Nepveu talked about how the Open Source Boobs Project could never, ever work in the real world.

springheel_jack thinks the fact that such a tin-ear for personal decency or ignorance of male privelidge or being genuinely shocked that someone might have seen the situatiuon in a manner that was completely different from his own shows that there are just some fundamental problems with the insular nature of geek culture and sexuality:
Maybe the comparison is... with little kids playing Cowboys and Indians. Because the little kids are not trying to root out a culture of which they are cognizant; they're simply insensible of the extent to which the culture - often the very evil culture - they've already imbibed is controlling every aspect of their "game", which they think is sui generis. [...]

Too many geek guys never got the message. The game is one of gender politics and they stayed home with their computers - those shadow-boxes of projective fantasizing - rather than go out and have experiences of, well, gender, with people unlike themselves. They kept with their in-clique at school, which was either homosocial, fumblingly chaste, or already a version of the sexual Walden Two they would be re-enacting in their college dorm rooms and in the hot tubs in the hotels at cons; they never got schooled. They never had relationships with many (especially non-geek) adult women, in other words, and got to know them as humans, as subjects in their own right. They never had their fantasies reality-checked. Instead they masturbated and imagined how things could be different - a world without all the preliminaries and subtexts and baggage of the adult world. A world in which, sexually, it would be perfectly okay to go up to any desirable woman and say, "me cowboy, you indian, bang bang you're dead."

There is this awful immaturity in the condition of geekdom. The singleminded obsessions; the valorization of social inexperience and awkwardness; the love of blinking lights. Look, I know what it felt like to grow up like that, smart, shy, and stigmatized, and I can understand wanting to feel good about being a geek and to believe that we rule the world now. [...] But when it's an excuse to refuse to be an adult and to deal with adult complexity, to avoid the sometimes bitter lessons of adulthood, to dodge the recognition of how weak we are in the face of the accumulated mass of history, to deny the genuine difficulty of navigating this world, with all the iron constraints and fragile supports that make up our prospects...well, okay, it's understandable, nobody wants to live in a tragedy, but that's where we live[...]the alternative is to stay a child. Blind inside an unbroken egg.
What do I think?

Well, from a purely married man's perspective, I admit that I like breasts. I'm alright with a group of other adults deciding that they're okay with touching each other and being touched by each other. I honestly don't really know whether I personally would have participated, though I do know that it is somethng I would have first talked about with my wife.

theferrett's "experiment" in groping shouldn't ever, EVER be repeated at a convention. Why? My pokemonreasons, let me show them:

1) Sci-fi cons (or anime cons, or RPG cons) do NOT exist in a vacuum. Open boob-graabing in a public shared space is a bad idea because of everything from the fact that it can be a trigger for those who were assaulted or abused, to the fact that if you're not at an adults-only convention you could make someone (say a parent with kids in tow) and their family uncomfortable, to the fact that conventions taking place at hotels also have a fairly large percentage of "mundanes" to the fact that you may be giving Mr. Off-Duty Cop With No Sense of Humor A Reason To Bust You.

2) You can't wear a "no you may not button" without knowing what the damned buttons are about in the first place. In other words, to know that you can put on a button and state 'I do not want to be asked,' you must first be introduced to the subject. Now, this can happen because you ask what people are doing, or ask about the buttons, but it's more likely to happen when someone asks you, and suggests you go and get a button. THis also means someone who declines to participate has no means of being identified, which in turn means they might be solicited by several different well meaning people.

So, you pick a "no you may not" button, right? But now by buying in to the whole button label, you have engaged in implicit condoning of the behavior, and itself becomes an invitation to discuss their decision. If someone is publicly wearing a red 'No' button, after all,somoene might go and ask you why? So, what, to be on the safe side, would you then make more buttons covering the range of "I don't want to talk about iT. LEAVE ME BE"?

3) Mix this button system with underage convention attendees, and you might end up in prison. For real. Can you 100% identify people under the age of consent on sight? Of both sexes? What happens when a 13, 14, 15 who "looks 18" gets a "yes, you may" button and her dad or mom comes across her being felt up by a bunch of 20 or thirty year old guys? In some states, this will get you placed on a sexual offender list for the rest of your life, plus mandatory jail time.

4)Your right to swing your first ends where my nose begins. What happens if a dude or lady says "Hey, this is sorta awkward, but... well, I'm a parent, and my kids are at this convention, and while I sure don't want to tell you how to live your lives, would you mind keeping the touching behind closed doors?"

Seriously, what could you say without sounding like a self-entitled, self-absorbed tollbox?? "Durr, nuh-uhn the point of the experiment is to get you to get over all of your hangups, and restricting it to private rooms breaks that?"

5) The potential for hurt feelings on all sides is off the charts.
Hell, what about the people at the convention will put on a green button... and no one will want to grope them? They'll be the kid at the junior high prom standing near the wall. "I feel like a total loser on a suck sandwich; I can't even give it away."

6) The cpn can be held liable for what happens, even if they don't officially condone it. If someone finds it offensive, believes they've been harassed as a result, feels their children have been subjected to inappropriate activity or lots of other potential (bad) situations, the convention can be held accountable and liable for it, and the legal defense "hey, it's at a convention, man" is not bloody likely to stand in court for more than three seconds. Since the project becomes something very very different if it only takes place at closed room parties, there isn't a good way to ensure that only the participants are liable.

As if this whole idea (Uptopia is where I can be a cad and get rewarded) wasn't base or riducolous enough, then let me conclude with boobs, tits, breasts, funbags, melons, hooters, tomatoes, knockers, rack, honkers, lady pillows, breasticles.



Anonymous said...

I hear a lot about 'yes you may' and 'no you may not' buttons. Did no one think to run down to the local copy shop and have a bunch of 'try it and lose a hand' teeshirts run off?

Anonymous said...

For those who continue to defend this idea despite repeated attempts to show them the folly of their ways, I do believe the ignorance is willful.

It's about wanting something with few restrictions and cooking up the convenient pretense that lets you face yourself in the mirror. Better yet, convince yourself your bullshit is revolutionary.

Anonymous said...

Just a couple of points, since you weren't, like, actually there. Penguicon sold out the hotel. I ran into a couple of people who might have been mundanes, but then, oddly, many Linux geeks do look rather mundane.

Number of kids at the con: dunno, maybe ten. There was no kid programming, unless you count the singing Tesla coils, and untethered kids were specifically excluded from the gaming rooms. Number of teens: dunno, probably a few dozen.

My guess, having seen Michigan teen fandom in action, is that OSBP would provoke a big squick factor in the teens, not a "let's try it" reaction. And neither the fannish teens I've met nor the adults who know them are particularly shy about extracting said teens from squicky situations.

The Ferret really screwed up on this one, trumpeting his inner fifteen-year-old to the world and not being very good at descriptive writing. Please, please, please though, how about reacting to the reality, not the if - if - if that didn't happen.

Shawn_Struck said...

Anonymous Number Three:

Of course, I wasn't there, and this whole post is about why the "Open Source Boobs Project" should stay dead and buried, so I was talking about why it shouldn't spread any further.

But...while I understand that the project was started by women and seemed fairly body positive, it did not stay that way. It was posted about by a guy, with the idea that it should be made into a "Project" and expanded beyond the original group. Whether or not he was the originator, the "public face" of this was theferrett and his posts, and the public perception was that the intent was to spread this far and wide.

I link to a discussion at the DragonCon community where people are trying to bring this porject about. NO "if" about it, but "how".

Look at it this way.

1) Randomly asking someone you don’t know a question like, “May I touch your breasts” is a form of sexual harassment.

2) If you don’t want to end up committing harassment, then you don’t ask that question.

3) A woman may wish to be asked “May I touch your breasts”, but encouraging the asking of that question will create a hostile environment for other women.

In a workplace, this is something that in and of itself is a form of sexual harassment that is covered by law (Hotels and convention centers are workplaces, and it is their responsibility to not allow their guests to create a hostile work environment for their employee).

4) People harassed at least one woman in a public place. Doing thisd created a hostile environment and made the convention venue vulnerable to litigation if they had known this was happening at all.

I can't find the exact comment, but one women said in response to this project that "Women are already basically born wearing a green button, and live their lives trying to take it off."

What this project does is take a public space-- a large public space into spaces where women have to repeatedly and loudly say no in order to be heard.

If there were private, clearly-marked, consensually entered spaces where people were allowed to ask about touching other people, there would have been FAR less dramasplosion. The "project" started off in a public hallway and he argued for a movement and he wanted it to spread to public spaces and he repeatedly put women in the passive position.
I think it's completely legitimate to say, "This was your intent. Here are some of the unintentional ways the intent of the project might implicate privilege in a way that makes some women feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe."

Here's apost from someone who was there, and how she felt:

I have no trouble, Anonymous #3, believing that you were there, since the passive-aggressive condescension sound like lots of Linux enthusiaists I've had to deal with online and off.

Kimba said...

anonymous three said "Number of kids at the con: dunno, maybe ten. "

There were more than that.If you consider kids anyone 12 or under, there were more than 2 dozen that I personally was aware of. (You forgot the Chaos Toy/Machine as a kid friendly item.)

You also said "Number of teens: dunno, probably a few dozen. "

Way off there! As a result of Tamora Pierce being one of the GoHs, there were a record number of young girls at this con. And the LAN Party brought in more teens too. They actually numbered over 100.

Kimba said...


Thank you for posting this. I had a very large problem with the fact that the pins said "Yes you may" or "No you may not" They were missing the very vital last word of ASK. Worded the way they were, given where they were placed (on the breast) and given that there were no other explanations anywhere else, it was just too easy to be read as "Yes you may touch" instead.

I was also extremely bothered by the fact that one woman admitted to having lost several buttons. Which means they could easily have ended up on someone who was too young for even the question to be appropriate, never mind the action.

I am an extremely large breasted woman. I have spent too much of my life dealing with jerks who think that because they are so large, I must want them to be handled. Somehow, they feel duty bound to brush or grab them to confirm they are real. My consent or lack of it is inconsequential. (One jerk had the nerve to tell me that God made them that large so it would be easier for him to grab them!) I would have been offended and furious if someone had approached me and asked me if I wanted those buttons.

If I want someone to touch my breast, I'll let them know. If I don't ask you to, assume they are off limits and move on! I shouldn't need a "No" button to make that clear.

Brian K. White said...

*sigh* meanwhile it's perfectly ok for girls to rub up on guys and even grope them without warning or fear of any worse reprecussion than the guy not being interested enough to turn to jelly.

There is a huge double standard here. Not all girls take liberties that they would never allow taken on them, but MANY do and hardly any guys mind in the slightest.

And frankly, I'm ok with girls taking liberties. I don't care how unattractive they might be either. It's all about the attitude and their personality. If it's all in fun, and they respect any unambiguous requests to stop, then as far as I'm concerned anyone is at least allowed to present their case or make their offer at least until told not to.

I just wish I were likewise allowed the same freedom of expression women enjoy.

I think this OSBP thing was also just an obvious characature overreaction to this double standard, not a serious wish to make actual boob-groping of strangers in public into a real everyday socially acceptable behavior.

It IS exactly as someone already pointed out, context sensative.
When I go to any sort of geek con (I attend a lot of generic sci-fi cons every year, as well as ren-faire & SCA type stuff) I understand that the population there is a mix of the socially less-than-perceptive and deliberately liberal, both of which result in behavior that isn't generally acceptable outside the context of the con or other event. I actually enjoy this aspect of cons. I always saw it as an obvious side effect of smart people in general being less concerned with appearances or propriety or taboos and being more concerned with doing whatever they want and judging the right & wrong of things primarily by whether it actually harms anyone, including themselves.

Similarly, I know that furry cons and other events go even further in the direction of "socially liberal population & context", further than I happen to find enjoyable, and so I don't go to furry cons. I see no problem.

At the risk of repeating myself, I think this is just an obvious joke reaction to perceiving the double-standard of expected and allowed behavior and their consequences, for men vs women. Merely no one has pointed it out. Perhaps the originators didn't even realise it that way consciously.

In other words chill out.

In the interest of simple fair disclosure to place my position in context, I am male and have had my own genitals groped at various times by women, including ones I was not remotely sexually attracted to, and never did I feel threatened or feel the slightest animosity towards them. It's a compliment damnit.

If women have a hard life having to rebuff over-agressive men all their lives, perhaps that is at least partly due to the fact that men are told all their lives that their normal reactions and feelings are dispicable and perverted. What would that do to _you_ do you think?

Iron Chef Kosher! said...

Brian K. White: you can have all the liberties you want when you change the entire fabric of society, & give women the bulk of the sexual power & men the constant victims of it. Go to it - have fun!

kimc said...

Brian -- the reason there is a double standard is that men and women aren't equivalent. We aren't starting with an even playing field. Men have more power. Men are more aggressive. Men are less sensitive. Men have more testosterone. the vast majority of rapes are a man raping a woman, not the other way around. the vast majority of killings are by men, not women.
Sure, those are all generalizations, and you could probably find exceptions. but they hold as generalizations, and it makes it impossible to just turn the situation around. It will never be the same for a man to grope a woman as for a woman to grope a man. The power statement is completely different.

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