Feminist license plates, by Liz Henry CC BY-SA 2.0

When you are faced with the disgusting and contemptible

Trigger warning for rape culture rhetoric, and use of rape language as a joke.

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

What would a geek feminist do about this sign, which was posted all over the walls at a conference I went to this spring?

[From Mary: trigger warning for linked image, a description follows at the bottom of the post.] http://imgur.com/krkwG

I wasn’t sure what to do, and I’d like to hear what other feminists would suggest. I have no idea who posted the sign, or why. The conference did not have a sexual harassment policy. I felt that the sign was inappropriate but I wasn’t confident that I could convince other people of that — since the sign technically wasn’t about raping humans, and since one of the core values of this community was freedom of speech. Yet I still felt that the sign could hurt people — not just people at the conference but also the conference center staff.

Description of image:

The image is a photograph of a poster or flyer, which appears to be a black-and-white photocopy. The poster is in the style of a standard “police warning” or “missing person” poster, with a photograph of an apparent young pale-skinned man looking straight at the camera. The man’s face has been pixellated and his features are not distinguishable.

Text around the image reads:



Name: [text is obscured by pixellation]
Age: 28
Height: 5’10”
Sex: Male

Last seen: Violating a vending machine in Virginia

Status: extremely dangerous! Do not let this man near your electronics or machinery!

If spotted petting a parking meter, licking a laptop, fondling a fan, seducing a snowplow, coming onto a coffeemaker, or making passes at a payphone… Do not approach or attempt to intervene!

Call [visible phone number] or tweet w/ hashtag #robotrapist immediately.

25 thoughts on “When you are faced with the disgusting and contemptible

  1. Dorothea

    Ugh, how awful. I extend sympathies to the anonymous querent.

    My question: as I read the current event guidelines on the wiki, rape jokes are not explicitly addressed. Should they be? (This feels to me as though it should be completely obvious such that the guidelines wouldn’t need to call it out specifically… but obviously it isn’t.)

  2. Christina

    I don’t think that rape is something that should be joked about in any context, however, I have to admit, “If spotted petting a parking meter, licking a laptop, fondling a fan, seducing a snowplow, coming onto a coffeemaker, or making passes at a payphone…” did make me chuckle, if only a little.
    I think that by making a joke about something as disturbing as rape, you create a certain degree of desensitization to the matter. I’m guessing that any attempt to justify the logic behind this argument to whomever made this poster would result in him/her telling you not to be so sensitive. Vicious, ugly circle, isn’t it?

  3. Matari

    Sometimes it feels as if you are making a ‘silly’ fuss; but in this case I would have made a quiet complaint to the conference organisers and perhaps the host venue. This may not have resulted in the poster being taken down, but at least I would have made my feelings know. I also would have requested a written response. However I am now 50 and have the requisite confidence (and lack of worry about what people think) so I know that complaining is not an easy thing to do. My advice would be if this happens again, take a moment to think what you can do – what you feel comfortable doing – and then do that.

  4. Teaspoon

    Assuming you are in a place where you feel up to dealing with any fallout (and there is always fallout), some options would be:

    Speaking with conference organizers and asking them to remove the posters, which could be upsetting to survivors of sexual violence.

    Speaking with the building manager, asking the same thing for the same reason. The conference center should be motivated to make all attendees feel safe and respected in order to ensure repeat or referral business, but not all of them will realize that they should be so motivated.

    Asking that the conference adopt a sexual harassment policy going forward.

    I might personally be motivated to just take them down myself, but that has much more potential to backfire, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a course of action to others.

  5. Steve Holden

    A large part of the problem appears to be simple ignorance of (and privileged disbelief about) the shit that women have to put up with. This ensures that even those who are theoretically well-disposed to the feminist point of view can’t understand why certain images would trigger frightening recall of situations of powerlessness. If they tried being powerless for a while they might be more sympathetic, but few people will sign up for that.

    The second of Teaspoon’s suggestions (talk to the building manager) would be the most likely to succeed, as building managers often have policies that forbid fly-posting. If the conference organizers aren’t responsive to these issues I wouldn’t bother going to the conference again.

  6. Carol stabile

    Rip them down! Tell conference organizers too, but people often just post without permission.

    1. John

      If you can think of something catchy to write over offensive posters (with a big marker pen), defacing them would be an alternative to ripping them down, and (depending on the poster) might be a good way of making a point.

  7. nick

    I think it’s a broader question than that. It’s common to joke about earthquakes and war and death and starving children. I have trouble accepting that I can joke about those things, but I should never joke about rape. So either it shouldn’t be entirely off-limits, or I shouldn’t joke about any sort of hurt or tragedy. Given my view of humor as an important coping mechanism against the weight of the world, I have to take the former stance.

    Of course, one could disagree with my opinion that any of those things is an appropriate target of humor, and that is certainly a reasonable view to have. I’m just not sure I can accept special-cases without good reason.

    Now, if we allow that maybe it’s okay sometimes to joke about sensitive, painful issues (including rape), we get to the more crucial issue of when. The answer to that is much simpler: only when you can be absolutely certain you’re not going to hurt anyone. A conference is absolutely not an appropriate venue for that sort of humor, because there is no way you can know you won’t hurt someone.

    But with rape as the topic, something that is often kept very secret, can you ever be so sure you won’t hurt anyone? Maybe not. So maybe it’s acceptable under the theory that nothing is totally off-limits, but never acceptable in practice because there is no appropriate audience.

    1. Jen

      Would you joke death in the presence someone who had recently lost a close family member? Would you joke about war if you were in Srebrenica, or about starving children if you were visiting a poor village in Sudan?

      The difference with rape is that it is extremely common in the West – up to 6% of women are raped in their adult lifetimes, and of course some men are raped as well, although the percentage is lower. We think it’s OK to joke about war or starvation because we’re pretty sure none of the people around us have experienced those things first-hand, but if you tell a rape joke to a group of people, there is a reasonable chance one of those people has actually been raped.

      1. nick

        That is exactly my point.

        I wouldn’t joke about those things in the presence of someone affected by them. And since it’s unfortunately quite likely that in most groups of people there is someone who has been affected by rape, an occasion you can joke about it without possibly hurting someone is rare.

        I’m trying to highlight the important difference between things you can’t say ever, and things you can’t say in certain company (even if “certain” may actually turn out to be “any”).

  8. CosmoVanPelt

    Hmm. I’m sure I’m missing something. What on earth on those supposed to be for? A practical joke on someone’s roommate? Stealth marketing? Frat prank?
    I think I would have come up with some excuse to rip one or two down, but if they were really all over the place, I guess lodging a complaint is reasonable. And then maybe rip some more down.
    For offensive humor to work, anyway, it needs to actually be funny. These are just mediocre in addition to being icky.

    1. Catherine

      I don’t get it, either.

      I think my approach would be to take one down, carry it around with me, and use it as a conversation starter: “What do you think of this poster?” If someone says, “That’s hilarious!,” it’s an opening to say, “Hmm. Do you think so? I wonder if it might make real rape victims in attendance kind of nervous to see this kind of joke?” If somebody says, “I think it’s dumb–I don’t get it,” then I’ve found a friend!

      Not everyone would feel comfortable doing that sort of thing, but I think it’s a way that those who *do* could contribute to making the environment feel safer.

  9. Steve Holden

    @nick “Now, if we allow that maybe it’s okay sometimes to joke about sensitive, painful issues (including rape), we get to the more crucial issue of when. The answer to that is much simpler: only when you can be absolutely certain you’re not going to hurt anyone. A conference is absolutely not an appropriate venue for that sort of humor, because there is no way you can know you won’t hurt someone.”

    I believe this is the basis of sensitivity training. I learned in my training that there are few absolute rules about what will create a hostile (in my case work) environment for someone, but that one needs to be on certain ground, which means learning to accept feedback and to understand that inappropriate behaviors can result in disciplinary action.

    The open source/geek world is rather more anarchic, so there isn’t the direct ability to take well-defined disciplinary action (public companies need policies to cover all this). Then we start to get into questions of what actions are appropriate (“name and shame”, private requests by email, etc.). Rather than have a penal code, we need to learn to handle such matters with sensitivity, working steadily towards inprovements in communal behavior.

    Then we just have to work out what to do with the remaining insensitive pricks (obsmiley :).

    @CosmoVanPelt “For offensive humor to work, anyway, it needs to actually be funny.” Well, that depends. If it doesn’t work as humor but one’s *intention* is to offend then it works if it manages to be offensive. But again one needs to be on certain ground in determining intent. Some offense is given entirely inadvertently, some is given quite deliberately. In the middle ground are all sort of casual unthinking behaviors that often go unexamined.

  10. Natalie

    I would mention it to the conference organizers/staff in a polite “you might not be aware that someone has posted offensive material” sort of way. If they don’t remove it, or don’t take your concerns seriously, I would write to the sponsors of the conference, saying what happened, that the fact that they would sp0nsor a conference that allows such things makes you think less of their company and their products, and mentioning any role in purchasing decisions you may have. If you know anyone else who was offended, make sure they write such letters too. If sponsors start threatening to pull out, I guarantee the conference will be much more careful about sute things in the future.

  11. AMM

    I think it’s a broader question than that. It’s common to joke about earthquakes and war and death and starving children. I have trouble accepting that I can joke about those things, but I should never joke about rape.
    Jokes about horrible things are only funny if you can be certain that everyone agrees that they are horrible.

    So far, we usually trust that nobody at tech conferences believes that earthquakes or famines are Good Things(tm), or wants to cause them. (Depending on the tech conference, there may or may not be people who start real live wars and massacres, or want to.)

    But it is statistically certain that there are some guys at any reasonable-sized tech conference who think that raping women is a good idea, and some who have actually done it. It is even reasonable to have a sneaking suspicion that at least some of the guys who put up those robot rape posters are in one of those groups.

    So when someone makes jokes about rape, it’s hard not to wonder if maybe they’re really expressing the idea that rape is a good thing. Because if they really understood, they wouldn’t find those jokes funny.

    1. Russell Coker


      Psychology Today has an interesting article by Gil Greengross, Ph.D about the issue of when humor can encourage bad behavior. The main point I take from that article is that jokes about minority groups have the most affect if the status of the group is in question. As rape jokes are primarily interpreted as targeting women and the issue of the treatment of women is something that seems to be widely considered to be up for discussion (as opposed to say racial discrimination which is considered to be bad and beyond discussion by almost everyone) it seems that rape jokes will do real harm.

      Generally I think that the PT article supports your point but from a slightly different angle.

  12. todayiamme

    Even though I’ve gone through such abuse and I can feel that person’s pain. I disagree.

    This problem is a bit more complicated than that. It is common knowledge that traumatic experiences can be triggered by specific incidents, but the problem really is that we’re human and we’re prone to all kinds of biases such as misattributing what we feel.

    After months of what I went through, I couldn’t touch a math book (he was a math tutor), talk to a man without getting a panic attack, or look at this poster. That clearly isn’t the recipe for a quality life. If this was a math poster and I had felt the same thing, people would have probably given me a hug and told me that it was okay, and slowly with time I will learn how to cope with it. So what makes this case different? Is it because there is a direct link to my trauma that everyone else can see and understand? But humour can do wonders and sometimes the desensitisation implied by such jokes can work miracles in a victim. Laughing stopped me from feeling this constant thundering fear, and it helped me live.

    At the same time some humour is purposefully vitriolic and it is designed to hurt. So, I think the real question is how do you draw the line between the two? Further, who is qualified to do so? This is why I honestly believe that people have the right to offend me, and I have the right to stop listening.

    There are a lot of assholes in this world, and even if you change rape culture you will never get rid of them. We will just reduce the threshold of asshole-ness to get there, but we will never be able to eliminate them. That’s why I think you should think about how disgusting it is to you, shrug, realise that the world is filled with jerks and walk on by.

    1. Teaspoon

      Okay, so it took time for you to get to a place where you could see the above-referenced poster without it triggering anxiety and fear. What about the person at the conference who was assaulted just a couple of months or weeks or days earlier than the conference, who’s trying to regain a sense of normalcy? Would you really advocate that they just laugh it off, even if they haven’t reached that point in their recovery? What about the person who is never going to make it to that point in recovery, for whatever reason?

      I think it’s great that you’ve reached a point where you can laugh, but I don’t think we ought to expect that everyone will reach that point, or should reach that point, or should reach it on someone else’s idea of the proper schedule. I definitely don’t think it’s too much to ask that conference organizers take steps to avoid situations that can cause harm to the attendees.

  13. Madame Hardy

    Oh, hell.

    I’d probably gibber impotently. The imaginary me would make up a new poster to be placed side-by-side with the bad poster — feminist posse to the rescue. Something like “N% of all women have been assaulted. Q% of all men have been sexually assaulted. Almost certainly somebody you know at this convention has been assaulted. Do you think that person enjoys this joke?”

  14. Elena

    If I had to guess, I’d say it was probably some kind of in-joke between friends. It’s not very funny to an outsider – it’s like something from the 1970s – regardless of the issues relating to rape jokes.

    I kind of take the view that privileged idiots might not realise how genuinely problematic this is to some people; if this sort of thing goes unchallenged they will never have the opportunity to reconsider their behaviour. No harm in giving people the benefit of the doubt, ignorance being preferable to an much more correctable than malice. So, I’d probably tweet with the hashtag mentioned that I thought it was a crappy thing to do, as no doubt the flyposter would be avidly checking.

    Saying something might not achieve anything, but saying nothing would wind me right up inside myself.

  15. Nemo

    Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments. I’m the one who submitted this question. Your responses encouraged me to write to the conference organizers, pointing them to this page and the Event Guidelines on this site’s wiki. Their reply made me feel comfortable about approaching them about problems like this in the future. Here’s what they said:

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention. While you were correct
    in identifying our strong free speech stance at [conference], we also agree
    that everyone should feel comfortable participating. Issues such as
    this are certainly something we understand people might be sensitive
    to. Thus, in the future, please feel free to let any [conference] staff
    member know so that we can address it immediately.

    We want everyone to feel that [conference] is friendly and open to all. We
    pride ourselves being an inclusive community that encourages everyone,
    regardless of gender, background, etc. to participate.

    As such, we are updating the rules and regulations in our program to
    specifically address intolerance and harassment. We will also ask all
    presenters to use common sense and decency. It is a pity that we
    cannot assume people will act appropriately.

    As [conference] organizers, we look forward to having you at future events
    and thank you for contacting us. I hope this email offers some
    reassurance to you and others whom who also have concerns.

    1. Madame Hardy

      “We will also ask all presenters to use common sense and decency. It is a pity that we
      cannot assume people will act appropriately.”

      Wow. Absolutely pitch-perfect.

    2. Teaspoon

      That’s excellent! I’m glad that you received such an understanding response and that the conference organizers are taking specific steps to make clear that this sort of thing is not acceptable behavior.

  16. lemonade

    Re: humor about sexual violence, and what is and isn’t funny.

    There’s essentially three kinds of “being funny,” far as I’m concerned. Humor that goes “up” is when one makes fun of people with more institutional and social power than themselves, or makes fun of culturally dominant behaviors and ideas. Humor that goes “sideways” is when one makes fun of someone as powerful as oneself, or when one mocks a group to which one belongs. Humor going “down” is making fun of people with less power than oneself, or mocking people different than one for being other.

    So, for example, if Jon Stewart tells a joke about Obama, as I believe that he has less institutional power than the President I am likely to find that funny as well, and to read it as going “up.” If Jon Stewart tells a joke about Jews in the media, as a Jew in the media, he’s going “sideways” and I’m likely to laugh. Likewise if a survivor of sexual assault or mental illness jokes about their own experience, they’re not mocking other people for being vulnerable but processing their own trauma. If the President were to tell a joke about Jews, it’d be going “down” and I would feel threatened and unsafe. If I, as a non-survivor, joked about rape, especially in a public context, I’d be mocking the experiences of people less powerful than I and essentially being a bully and a douchebag.

    One of the nice things about “up” “down” and “sideways” is that most geeky people have dealt with “down” humor from non-geeks and may find it a more comprehensible argument against sexist, racist, or otherwise “down” humor.

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