The open source movement has long been about sharing information and code freely and openly. So it’s a little odd when a “grassroots, open security conference” decides to censor a speaker it had invited to talk at one of its conferences.
The security conference, BSides SF, made the decision after a complaint was lodged against the talk by the Ada Initiative’s Valeria Aurora. The Ada Initiative is a group that works “to increase the participation of women in open technology and culture by educating both women and people of all genders who want to support women in open tech/culture” and was co-founded by Mary Gardiner and Valerie.
Valeria Aurora’s complaint was lodged against Violet Blue’s talk entitled, “sex +/- drugs: known vulns and exploits.” But rather than talking directly to the presenter to learn more about what the talk was going to be about, they brought their complaint to BSides SF’s organizer, Ian Fung.
In seeking to censor Violet Blue’s talk and add to the stigma of having open and frank discussions of sexuality, all that happened is that it amplified the controversy — and left a lot of unanswered questions.
First, let’s clear up the premise that talk about sex and technology are two topics that can never occur together. Technology is shaping sexuality and changing the way people interact — yes, even sexually — with one another. With the advent of new generations of sex toys, virtual reality environments and worlds, and more, technology is impacting sexuality in ways we couldn’t imagine even just 20 years ago. The Internet has been used since its inception to exchange sexual imagery, open and frank discussion of sexuality and gender identity issues, and erotic stories (all the way back into the 1980s).
One component of sexuality in society — pornography — has driven some of the innovation in technology as well. Whether you agree with it or not, the porn industry has arguably been pushing the envelope of technology for secure and private payment systems, minor identification online (to prevent access), streaming video (long before YouTube), and more. To suggest that sexuality or discussion of sexual topics at a technology conference is inappropriate is equivalent to putting one’s head in the sand and ignoring the history of how these two subjects have long been intertwined.
The challenge becomes when a complaint about a conference topic turns into a specific action — censorship — based upon seemingly incomplete and/or faulty information, or one organization’s own agenda.
And after reading through the accounts of what happened (linked below), I’m amazed at the sheer lack of communication among a group of people who (at least partially) communicate for a living. Apparently Valeria Aurora never thought to speak directly to Violet Blue about her concerns. Ian Fung apparently never thought to have the two people who’s lives he was impacting sit across a table and simply talk to one another, like two human beings. At one point before the decision was made, they were all in the same room together, and could have simply talked it out like three reasonable adults.
Perhaps it was because the Ada Initiative didn’t appear to be interested in a compromise or an actual give-and-take discussion about the topic, as this email from Valerie appears to make clear:
This is total bullshit even if it somehow ends up giving an anti-rape, pro-consent message. Framing a talk about sex in the vocabulary of computer security does not magically make it on-topic, and it definitely doesn’t stop it from being a giant ‘You are not welcome or even safe’ sign for women.
In other words, even if Violet Blue’s topic was about harm reduction, the Ada Initiative seemed to believe that it was off-topic and inappropriate for the BSides conference (even though they had nothing to do with organizing the conference).
Now, most organizers would take such an opinion into consideration. But unless they had third-party data or some sort of consensus from attendees,1 I suspect most organizers wouldn’t simply cancel an invited speaker because of one person’s (or one organization’s) opinion.
Here’s the proposed talk that was censored from the BSides SF conference:
sex +/- drugs: known vulns and exploits
What drugs do to sexual performance, physiological reaction and pleasure is rarely discussed in – or out of – clinical or academic settings. Yet most people have sex under the influence of something (or many somethings) at some point in their lives.
In this underground talk, Violet Blue shares what sex-positive doctors, nurses, MFT’s, clinic workers and crisis counselors have learned and compiled about the interactions of drugs and sex from over three decades of unofficial curriculum for use in peer-to-peer (and emergency) counseling. Whether you’re curious about the effects of caffeine or street drugs on sex, or are the kind of person that keeps your fuzzy handcuffs next to a copy of The Pocket Pharmacopeia, this overview will help you engineer your sex life in our chemical soaked world. Or, it’ll at least give you great party conversation fodder.
I can understand why some people may read that description and be scratching their heads, “What does this have to do with a security conference?” That’s something only the conference organizers can answer. But here are Violet Blue’s thoughts:
I have presented talks about sexuality at tech conferences all over the world, and I make it clear each time that my talks are not technical and that they are about issues that affect the culture to which I am presenting.
Indeed, it’s sort of a meta-discussion aimed at the people who are in the room. These kinds of meta-discussions about culture and people are not uncommon at technology conference. SXSWi is littered with them; other technology conferences are the same.
There’s a Time and Place to Talk About Sex… And This Isn’t It?
From reading the Ada Initiative’s perspective, it appears their argument is simple — presentations like this can have an unintended chilling effect on women wanting to attend technology conferences such as BSides SF. Women who have experienced sexual trauma or rape can be triggered by such discussions. All of which may be true (at least from their perspective), to an extent.
The challenge, though, is that we don’t really know how much of an issue this really is for women attendees. We have heard anecdotal reports over the years of X, Y and Z, but no systematic research has been conducted. You can’t argue that something is harmful without having actual data to show it is true (well, you can, but it’s a pretty empty argument if you ask me).
Conferences should not be planned around sensitivities to legitimate topics of discussion. We cannot create a trigger-free world or environment for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or others who are sensitive to topics that they find difficult. It’s silly to try and do so. It stigmatizes the very topics that need to be discussed openly and without reserve.
I perk up my ears anytime someone or some organization claims that censorship is the answer to a self-proclaimed problem. Censoring talks like this one drives sexuality — and inappropriate sexual behavior — back into the dark. We have to talk openly about sexual issues — even about sensitive topics like rape or sexual assault — because it keeps these topics in the light.
Education is the key to understanding and change — not censorship.2
For Further Reading
Read Violet Blue’s account: What happened with my Security BSides talk
Read the Ada Initiative’s account: Clarification on the Ada Initiative’s role in the cancellation of Violet Blue’s BSides SF talk and their original description and explanation of what happened
Read BSides SF’s account: Clearing up a few points from Valerie and Violet’s account of the situation