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This year’s PyCon conference stirred up some serious drama.

Adria Richards, a noted technology evangelist, was in attendance at PyCon. To give a little perspective, here is a photo Adria provided that shows what the conference room looked like on the day in question:

PyCon, Adria Richards, Sexism, Dongle, Forking

A view inside the PyCon 2013 conference room.

It looks like your typical big, crowded conference room.

By Adria’s own account, two men sitting directly behind her made some crude, immature jokes about the tech terms “forking” and “dongle.” Adria took offense at their comments and posted the following message (complete with a surreptitious picture of the offending guys) on her Twitter account:

Adria Ricahards PyCon Sexism

Of course, all hell broke loose. As Russell Brandom at The Verge reported, in the aftermath of Adria’s tweet, both Adria and one of the men in the picture were fired. What’s more, Adria was subjected to rape threats, death threats, and hacking attempts from various seedy corners of the internet.

In the past few days, several feminist websites like Jezebel and Feministe have come out to defend Adria against the sexist attacks. That’s completely understandable. But Jezebel, Feministe, and others go astray when,  in their zeal to defend Adria, they unfairly smear the two men as sexists.

“Forking” and “dongle” are giggle-inducing tech terms. It’s juvenile, but most people make stupid jokes about sexual-sounding words from time to time. There’s nothing particularly insidious or sexist about what the men said. There is no indication that the crude jokes were directed at Adria. Nor were the jokes directed towards any other woman or towards women in general. And as the picture above shows, PyCon was not a threatening, uncomfortable environment. The two men appear to be guilty of nothing more than making tasteless jokes at a tech conference.

In other words, it’s unreasonable to read sexism into what actually happened at PyCon. So why then do feminist commentators characterize the initial incident as sexist?

For instance, here is how Jill Filipovic at Feministe characterized what Adria did when she tweeted the photo:

[Adria’s] intent was to stand up for women who always have to tolerate sexist crap at tech conferences…. Crude, sexist jokes are part of tech culture, and a lot of companies are run by young white guys who don’t seem to understand appropriate workplace behavior.

Sexist jokes might be a part of tech culture, but that has little bearing on what actually happened here. Two men making ostensibly private dick jokes is not sexist.

Jezebel didn’t get past the title of its initial story about the Adria Richards incident before labeling the two men as sexist. Its piece was titled ‘Woman in Tech Tweets About Sexist Dudes in Tech. Dude Gets Fired. Internet Meltdown Ensues.

Later in the story, Jezebel unleashed this bit of analysis:

Regardless of what you think of the joke itself, it is sexist to contribute (willfully or cluelessly! Ignorance is not an excuse!) to a hostile work environment for women. Full stop. If you didn’t realize you were doing it, that means you haven’t bothered to think critically about women’s comfort and needs.

So we women are such delicate flowers that the mere utterance of a male-oriented sexual pun like “dongle” will cause us to clutch our pearls and faint? Isn’t that itself a sexist assumption? Anything that makes a woman uncomfortable is now contributing to a hostile work environment for all women?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: rape threats, death threats, hacking attempts, and other abusive, illegal, or criminal actions are never justified. The feminist commentariat is absolutely correct in rallying against the hate-filled misogyny leveled against Adria Richards. No woman should be made to fear for her well-being (physical or otherwise) because of something she says on the internet—even if what she says is wrong and gets another person fired.

My issue isn’t with the rightful criticism of sexist attacks against Adria. I only challenge the characterization of what the men said at PyCon as sexist. It was immature and stupid, not sexist.

Another aspect of the Adria Richards scandal is that her response to the situation—tweeting the guys’ pictures to the whole world—was overblown and uncalled for. Jill at Feministe says that pointing this out amounts to “victim blaming:”

[T]he focus on what Richards could have done differently is the wrong question. It’s a question routinely lobbed at women who are sexually victimized: Why did you go home with him if you didn’t want to have sex? Why did you drink so much? Why did you wear that? Why did you stay at that party? Why were you walking down that street? Why didn’t you yell louder or fight back harder? Why did you fight back, knowing it would only make him angry?

This is a ridiculous comparison, if only because it assumes that the two men at the conference harmed Adria in the first place, making her a “victim.” Adria was victimized by the people threatening her online; she was not victimized by the guys whose photos she tweeted. The criticism leveled against Adria has to do with how she responded to the two men, not to how she responded to the criminals threatening her online. They are two separate issues, and being a victim in one respect does not give you immunity from criticism regarding another issue.

The fact that some extreme elements have attacked Adria Richards should not foreclose discussion about how she initially responded to the situation. There is a conversation to be had about whether we want employers firing employees because of dumb, immature things they say while only nominally “on the job.” We should be able to rightfully denounce misogynist attacks against Adria Richards while simultaneously questioning the ethics of her tweet.

Employers are able to use technology in increasingly intrusive ways to control employees outside the traditional workplace. Yes, PyCon is technically “on the job” for many of the people in attendance, including the two men in question. But these men were out of the office, having what they thought was a personal conversation in a crowded conference room. Before smartphones and Twitter, this incident would have stayed at PyCon.

Instead, the two men have their faces plastered all over the internet, and one of them lost his job. It would have been much better if Adria had privately contacted the PyCon staff, or simply told the men to knock off their immature antics.

Hopefully this incident will make people handle situations like this more intelligently in the future. As unfair as it is, employees should be very careful about what they say when they are even nominally on the job. And eavesdropping, taking surreptitious photos, and posting private complaints on Twitter is probably not the best response to a minor offense like a “dongle” joke.

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Lizzie loves cats, food trucks, and writing. She covers technology for Now So.

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  1. Marx on 03/27/2013

    “So why then do feminist commentators characterize the initial incident as sexist?” – As you will see from Jezebel’s references & also Miss Richards’ twitter account, feminists are sexist racists. They consistently blame everything on men, specifically white men. And they continually get away with their bigoted, hateful, sexist & racist campaign against men.

  2. Franz-Dominik Imho on 03/27/2013

    a) They were no private jokes. If you tell a joke at a work conference in a room with 2500 people in it and loud enough that people in the row before you still can hear it, you can hardly say thats private.

    b) The problem is not if or if not the jokes were sexist. The problem is, that sexual talk at the workplace creates an environment hostile to people, especially women. They did that, its against the policy of the conference and the company of that guy (and actually the law). Doing something against the policy of your company while wearing their logo on a badge can sometimes get you fired. Thats just how things work at work.

    • Mark on 04/10/2013

      A) Why is this relevant? Since when are jokes banned from professional discourse? A casual atmosphere is not a new thing in the business world.
      B) How is a penis joke hostile? Why is sex hostile? The joke was not an attack on anyone so you cannot call it hostile. As for policy, there are procedures and channels to be followed when policy is violated. Following policy is a two-way street. Richards did not follow policy. She instead launched an internet witch hunt that horribly backfired on her.

  3. Joe Bill on 03/27/2013

    Richards is not a feminist. She said so herself, and has done nothing to convince us otherwise. Why do you consistently blame feminists ?

    As for other commentators, who claim to be feminists, ithe problem is not a campaign against men. It’s a kneejerk reaction when a woman gets harassed with rape threats for being too noticeable.

    • Marx on 03/28/2013

      Joe, Actions speak louder than words – if she’s using feminist tactics, arguments, (look at her twitter, she repeatedly talks about ‘teh patriarchy’ a feminist theory devised to blame men and absolve women of any accountability, constantly whines about white-men which is the same target group as feminists, and so on & so on. If it talks like a duck, walks & swims like a duck, it’s probably a duck). Note how you instinctively blame men for hypothetical women victims – that’s the feminist mentality I’m talking about. You imply she’s a victim of a man somehow when she wasn’t… hating men is not cool.

  4. Kerry on 03/27/2013

    I wrote about this own my own website, and I’d say that the jokes themselves were only sexual (not specifically sexist) in nature, but they (and the ability of two men to feel comfortable making such jokes in a professional setting) represent the often-sexist culture of the tech industry. Rampant attempts to deny that sexism exists at all, rather than understand, acknowledge, and improve it where it surfaces, are the real problem–not just the jokes themselves.

  5. Samantha on 03/27/2013

    Adria Rirchards @adriarichards is a hypocrite. While at the same convention, she posts a joke at least as offensive in the public view. (involving socks and nut fondling at the TSA). The picture is in the link. Look at what she wrote, see a double standard??? I’m glad she got fired!

    • Marx on 03/28/2013

      Absolutely.. But therein lies half the problem. Sexism is a two-way street, but feminists only acknowledge the wrongs of men while ignoring OR justifying women’s wrongs. So people like Miss Adria Richards can get away with sexism (and apparently racism) precisely because of the selective approach feminists hold towards sexism.

  6. Julia on 03/27/2013

    A legal definition of a threat constitutes an intention to inflict physical harm (source – legal definition of a verbal threat for California). But the only threats (screenshots) I’ve seen were to attack her company, not to use their services, and a petition to fire her (petitions like that are in numbers on petition web sites – fire somebody for doing something unfair to other people). So, was it THE COMPANY being threatened? Everybody talks about threats of murder and rape to Adria, but so far, I didn’t see any links, screenshots and such, only internet rumors passed from site to site. I don’t contest if those threats took place or not. But should it be a common sense for everybody writing about them with no proof to add “alleged” and indicate that the source was “internet rumors”? Otherwise, it looks like yet another overreaction.

  7. Natsuru on 03/29/2013

    This whole situation has gotten quite out of hand.

    The firing of her was most likely justified; she was some sort of PR-type person, and she’s running around getting potential customers fired from their jobs, that’s not exactly the image a company wants to be promoting.

    Of course the threats she’s receiving aren’t exactly called for, but if we want to weigh out who has done more harm through this internet strong-arming, it’s Adria herself. The dude she got fired had a family and kids, and she just knocked out the dude’s livelihood. What kind of a psycho just does something like that?

    I don’t care who it is, man or woman, but anybody who just nonchalantly does something like that to another human deserves to get knocked in the freaking jaw once or twice.

    Also, I swear to god, if it turns out that those two guys weren’t even making sexual jokes and Adria is just a tech-illiterate man hater who didn’t understand what they were talking about, i’m going to actually burst into flames.

  8. Will on 03/29/2013

    Eliza I could not agree more and reading this gave me some comfort that there are still some reasonable, sensible and truly intelligent people left in the world.

    What is really sad though (and maybe even a bit scary) is that you have almost certainly made Jezebel’s, Feministe’s and their respective communities ‘black lists’ for writing this, they will now view/label you as anti-feminist, a victim blamer etc. etc. You are very brave!

  9. Stock on 03/29/2013

    Finally a common sense article that separates the actual incident from the hyperbole.

    One thing I want to add her. Since the incident, the fired dev apologized for offending her (even though he didn’t know it because of the way it was handled) while she, in turn, has turned this into a sexism and racial thing. To make matters worse about overhearing something, she herself, just a week before, made a dick joke on twitter that 10,000 followers could see. Did she think that it might offend anyone when it was directed at just one friend?

    This is about double standards and expecting other people to behave differently than she does because they are white males. It is hypocrisy at it’s finest in her case. Her actions were one of harassment (taking a picture without consent) committed with an intent of malice (publicly shaming them) that had negative damaging effects (a developer lost his job). Perhaps someone will finally talk about how her actions were actually in violation of law and discrimination works both ways – towards females as well as males.

  10. Jorj on 03/29/2013

    The worst part about what Adria did is that the guy will have this event marked on his CV, making his future uncertain.
    He also can’t risk a lawsuit against neither Richards or PlayHaven since this will eliminate all the anonymity that he still has, and with the tags of sexist and harasser that she so easily branded him with he might end up unable to sustain his family.
    He can’t afford wars on the internet because he has a responsability to his kids.

  11. Tamer on 03/29/2013

    And there is no indication that the guys were heterosexual. They could be talking about guys.