It had been decided months ago that I would give a talk at Security BSides San Francisco. The subject of my talk was up in the air until just before the conference started, and the organizers were okay with that, but to not inconvenience or surprise the organizers, I decided to present the same talk I had given at Security BSides Las Vegas in 2012. I submitted the talk description just before the conference began, and it went on the website immediately.
This is the talk name and description:
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 put this talk together for BSides LV knowing it would be seen at the same time as Defcon, which is reputed to be a con with lots of parties and wild behavior. The talk is structured with harm reduction methodology, the act of giving the talk is an act of harm reduction for the community, and also gives me another opportunity to tell the hacking/security communities about what harm reduction is.
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.
This is the third slide in my sex +/- drugs talk:
I arrived at the Security BSides venue half an hour before my talk was set to begin, and I tracked down the main organizer to get connected with the speaker wrangler. I found him next door at DNA Pizza, where he was talking with this person. I apologized for the interruption, the organizer told me where to wait, and the woman he was talking to smiled at me. I smiled back.
The organizer came into the LockSport Lounge around 10 minutes later and asked if he could speak with me. I asked Eric Michaud to join me.
The organizer said, “So, I need to ask you: is there any rape in your talk?”
I said, “Is there any WHAT in my talk?” I was shocked.
“Well, there’s been a complaint about your talk.” He continued, “It’s from someone who is a rape survivor and they said they will be triggered by your talk if there’s any rape in it.”
“No, no, there’s no rape in my talk. I talk about human sexual systems and the effects drugs, including caffeine and alcohol, affect the performance of these systems and the dangers of mixing different things. What’s going on here?”
He replied, “Someone has said they will be triggered by your talk, and they’re a rape survivor.”
“Okay. In the talk I do cover ‘date rape’ drugs, and I explain their actions and how they’re dangerous.”
Then he said, “Do you describe how to use date rape drugs? They said that if you are going to tell people how to use date rape drugs then it’s the same as rape, and there’s going to be a problem.”
I told the organizer, “Wow, this really sucks - I know it’s not your fault. Well, how about if I shift the talk to a different room? We could put it on the smaller stage where the room has doors that close, or I could do it in the LockSport Lounge. Hell, I can even present it at the afterparty, it’s no problem. What is going to be easiest for you? It looks like you’re in a shitty position.”
“No, they’re here and they’re not leaving. They told me they’ll make it into a bigger problem if you do your talk.”
I paused for a minute. I said, “Okay. I guess I won’t give my talk, then. I don’t want this to be a problem for you, you’re in a shit position. It sounds like this person is going to make it into a bigger problem no matter what you do. It’s no big deal, don’t worry about it. Maybe I can do a video of the talk and BSides can have it as an after-con talk.”
The way the organizer looked at me, I knew that wouldn’t happen, either.
I said, “Anyway, I’m just going to hang out here and drink beer with friends.”
And that was that.
I found out a few hours later that I had been targeted by a feminist organization, The Ada Initiative. I learned that the woman who smiled at me while talking to the BSides SF organizer was Valerie Aurora, from the Ada Initiative.
I also learned that what happened with my talk wasn’t a case where someone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time as a survivor of sexual trauma or abuse, which is how it was presented to me. Instead, it was an organization that had planned to get my talk removed. I wonder, if I had offered to omit the section about GHB from my talk, which they did not know about, would the talk have been permitted by these people and the threat of problems for the organization lifted?
I want to be absolutely clear about a few things.
This could have been solved in a positive way if the people making the complaints had simply talked to me.
What Ada Initiative has done here is the opposite of harm reduction. In addition, I want to state for the record that the so-called “creeper cards” are also the opposite of harm reduction. Both things, while seemingly not directly related, create damage to the community and offer no solutions to the very issues they trade on in order to advance the narrow agendas of the people behind them.
These women have effectively used the subjects of rape and sexual harassment to make anyone who would question them feel uncomfortable. There is an expectation that anything done under these banners will go unchallenged. And I’m not saying that’s the explicit intention – I’m sure nobody thought this part through, because people with privilege generally don’t need to.
These women are not furthering the case for women in tech, and they are not making the community a better place by finding solutions for the entire community, and they are not challenging harmful behaviors by shutting down any conversation that they do not like. What happened with my talk is especially malfeasant on their part because it takes gender out of the mix. This comes from a type of feminist thinking where if I disagree with you, then I am your enemy. Hackers, doesn’t this raise an alarm for you?
I believe what was allowed to happen here, and with people handing out ‘creeper cards’ to blame and shame individuals (when it is a behavior that is broken, not the person), is damage to hacker culture. I fear that hacker culture risks becoming disconnected from high-risk or controversial information sharing. I fear that hacker culture risks losing the fight to prove wrong the harmful idea that information equals advocacy. I fear that hacker culture risks harm to itself when people are allowed to label things as wrong or bad but not be held accountable to also explain why.
For what it’s worth, if you watch any of my talks, almost all of which can be found online, you will see that before I begin I explain in clear, specific and clinical terms that I will be talking about subjects and using language that some people may find offensive, and I indicate if and when there will be topics that trauma survivors may be triggered by. This is a video my most recent talk at 29c3 in December, which covered harm reduction, depression and suicide in hacking communities, and ways hackers can create personal systems to protect themselves and the people they care about.
It’s now apparent that Security BSides SF feels my talk was inappropriate for its conference and community. That’s disappointing, but that’s not my call to make. It would have been good to know long before all this that they agree with the Ada Initiative’s belief that the discussion of sex at tech conferences is harmful to women. I believe the opposite to be true, but now I know.
Most hackers champion the principle of sharing information openly and freely. The Ada Initiative intends to change hacker culture in a way that is in direct, even hostile, opposition to that principle.
And now everyone knows.
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