Thoughts on the “Dark Side” discussions

I’ve been travelling this week, so it’s taken me a while to get around to this, but as founder of the Geek Feminism wiki and blog I wanted to respond to the posts by Nice Girl, Rikki Endsley, and others linked and listed in this post.

To Nice Girl and Nixie, I want to say I am sorry this happened to you at OSCON, and that you were made to feel unwelcome by people who identified themselves with the Geek Feminism community. It’s provoked a lot of discussion among us, and we agree — inasmuch as a loose affiliation of people with no official structure can agree on anything — that it’s not in keeping with the values we wish to espouse.

We are taking a few different steps to address the specific concerns raised. One is that we are reviewing our wiki pages to make sure that we have information on slut-shaming and that it is appropriately cross-linked with articles about sexualised environments at geek events to help reinforce/educate people that criticising an individual woman’s choice of clothing is very different from criticising (for instance) a business that uses booth babes as a marketing device.

The second thing is that we are setting up a process so that people can contact us if they experience harassment by someone associated with GF. This is a work in progress, especially since GF is (as mentioned) a loose affiliation with no official membership, and because we may be asked to deal with harassment that occurs outside our own spaces. However, if someone is harassing another person under GF’s name or in a way associated with GF, then we want to provide a private way for people to contact us, and respond appropriately.

Now, on a more general note, I would like to address a few of things I’ve seen mentioned lately.

Firstly, Geek Feminism — like feminism in general — is not monolithic or homogenous. People come at it from all kinds of perspectives and with all levels of experience. Because of this, it’s nearly impossible to say what tenets or beliefs we hold as a group.

As a short list, people who have publicly associated themselves with Geek Feminism (eg. by being a regular blogger or frequent wiki contributor) include: men, women, trans and genderqueer people, married people, single people, polyamorous people, monogamous people, parents, childless people, people of colour, mixed race people, immigrants, people of a variety of religions or no religion, people with disabilities, heterosexual, bisexual, gay and lesbian people, asexual people, people with > 20 years experience in technical fields, members of the “digital generation”, students, academics, unemployed people, people who wear suits every day for work, professionally published writers, artists and crafters, community managers, open source developers, people who work with proprietary/non-open source software, gamers (online and off), science fiction fans, anime and manga fans, vegetarians and vegans, femmes, butches, androgynous people, people who have worked as sex activists and educators, people who produce erotica/porn, people with PhDs, people with no degree, introverts, extroverts, people on the autism spectrum and off it, people with other mental health diagnoses… I said it was going to be a short list so I’d better stop now. And these are just among the “regulars” I can think of; when it comes to our wider community, including people who read our blog or regularly refer to our wiki or support us in some other way, I can’t even begin to imagine the range of backgrounds and perspectives. (Which is not to say that our diversity is perfect — we certainly have clusters where some backgrounds/perspectives outweigh others — but that we are not all alike in our views or opinions.)

A while ago I was talking to Mary, offline, about how we would define Geek Feminism. We weren’t really able, though we came up with a few ideas to characterise the style of feminism that tends to happen around here. We never published them or really took them anywhere because, again, they’re not entirely representative, though I think they do give a little insight into the overall tendencies of this community. So, I present them here, but ask that you take them with a big grain of salt and do please feel free to disagree or suggest other ideas if you have them.

  • Documentation: our main tactic is to document things. To some extent this grows out of my original (very personal and individual) reason for starting the GF wiki back in 2008: I was making an effort to learn more about women’s experiences in geek communities and to contextualise that within the framework/jargon that feminism had already developed in non-geek contexts. My tendency when learning something new is to write documentation to help cement the idea in my own mind and to (hopefully) be of use to others in the future. And so, I created the wiki, which has been fairly central to GF since then.
  • Scientific/logical: without trying to imply that everything we do follows the scientific method and is peer reviewed (because it’s obviously not) I do think we have a more science-friendly approach than many other branches of feminism. Some feminists tend to see science as a tool of the patriarchy, and distrust it by default, whereas we more often believe in science as a Good Thing even if we might criticise the methodology of participar research. As geeks, we also tend to fall more towards the “logical” end of the logical-emotional spectrum than is common among women and in other branches of feminism — noting, of course, that the very divide between logical and emotional is a cultural construct! We also communicate easily using scientific language and concepts.
  • Minority women environments: Most of us operate in minority-women environments (eg. tech industry, online gaming, science fiction fandom) which makes for a very different style of feminism from majority-women movements. As minority feminists, we talk a lot about “increasing the number of women” or “making a space welcoming for women” and we deal most often with issues of invisibility, marginalisation and harassment. Women in majority fields, on the other hand, have to face issues like having their work recognised as “real” work, and being fairly remunerated for it. These differences lead us to make all kinds of assumptions about who our community of interest is and what strategies/tactics work for us.

Again, I think these are just tendencies and I want to be clear that I’m trying to be descriptive not prescriptive here, but I do think those ideas are indicative of the way GF tends to think and operate as a community.

I don’t think we can say much beyond that. Many of GF’s regular posters try to operate with an awareness of intersectionality, but I don’t think we could claim it as universal; many of us consider ourselves sex-positive, but probably not all; many of us have left-leaning politics, but then again I haven’t polled everyone so who knows. My point, I suppose, is that when we talk about “what Geek Feminism does” or “what Geek Feminism is” let’s remember that it’s a large, diverse community and that generalisations tend to fall flat.

I’ve identified as a feminist for most of my life, but I only recently started really learning about (and, I hope, starting to understand) the complexities of it.

Like many feminists before me, I went through a stage of “girl stuff is icky”. I thought that feminism was about levelling up into male-equivalent privilege: being allowed to do boy things, being treated as one of the boys, being paid as much as men were. I eschewed anything feminine, and thought I was morally superior for doing so.

In my time, I’ve been a fan of all kinds of problematic media, up to and including Robert Heinlein, and not seen anything wrong with them. I’ve said things that were racist, ageist, ableist, transphobic, and, yes, sexist. I still do sometimes. Sometimes I’ve done it right here on the GF blog. At times I’ve been called on my *-ism, and deflected or derailed or made some excuse for it. I might be doing that right now — it’s hard to tell, actually, because defensiveness is such a natural reaction, and so hard to recognise and correct for.

Like everyone else, I grew up in a deeply sexist society, and I was trained from childhood to be a part of it. That training takes deep hold, and stays with you for life. We call it internalised sexism.

Someone said to me the other day, “I can’t imagine anyone from GF saying those things to Nice Girl”. I can. I might have said them myself. I might even still say them myself, if I were tired and/or cranky and/or had had a couple of drinks and/or wasn’t carefully filtering what came out of my mouth — all things that tend to happen to me at OSCON (which, to be clear, I didn’t attend this year or last.) I might have blurted something out, thinking I was being funny or making an in-joke, then realised a moment later that I was being a jerk and then not known how to gracefully extract my foot from my mouth.

It happens. It happens to all of us. Every feminist is on a steep learning curve when it comes to this stuff, and we’re all constantly battling our way up that hill while carrying all the baggage of our upbringing in a sexist society.

So to those people who say it couldn’t have happened: of course it could. To those who say it shouldn’t have: you’re right. But that doesn’t necessarily imply that the person saying it wasn’t a feminist, or that feminism (or Geek Feminism) is broken because of it. Saying that internalised sexism is the “Dark Side” of (Geek) Feminism is like saying that bugs are the “Dark Side” of Linux. Sure, Linux has bugs, but the point is that the community is committed to solving them together when they show up.

Another idea I want to touch on is that of the Overton Window, which is the narrow band of political thought that is considered reasonable/non-extreme. Someone actually introduced me to this idea early in my GF days and I’ve found it very helpful.

Unlike most other women-in-technology or women-in-whatever groups, GF explicitly identifies as feminist, right there in the name. Lots of people find this challenging, threatening, or overly strident. I’m okay with that.

I remember more than a decade ago, when the LinuxChix group first started. If I recall correctly, it was the first community for women within open source/free software. There was enormous negativity towards it at the time, and lots of people thought it shouldn’t exist, as if the very idea of a women’s group was threatening. These days, “X Women” groups within open source are commonplace. What changed? Well, one part of it is that LinuxChix and some of the other groups have been around for a while, and everyone’s got used to them. But I think another part of it is that, compared to strident activist groups like Geek Feminism, a mailing list for women to support each other and maybe a dinner at the annual conference seems pretty mild and unthreatening.

We see the same thing with harassment policies at conferences. The Ada Initiative’s Conference Anti-Harassment Policy project (hosted on the Geek Feminism wiki) is fairly uncompromising in how it defines harassment and how it suggests dealing with it. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a few cases where conferences have been lobbied by their attendees/speakers/members to adopt the policy, and have said “We don’t want to, because it’s too strict. But we’ll write our own policy instead.” Then they publish a policy or a “diversity statement” which is less firmly worded. Much as GF people might roll their eyes at this and say it’s wishy-washy and unactionable, the fact is that a conference just made some kind of statement about diversity and/or standards of behaviour, when they hadn’t before, and that that statement had seemed — in comparison to the GF version — to be uncontroversial. Think back a few years, and you might remember that even the mildest of diversity statements was a big deal. Now it’s commonplace.

That’s the Overton Window shifting. By being strident activists, we open up room behind us for moderates to say, “Well, I’m not as extreme as them, but I think we should do something.”

So, overall, when someone says that GF is too loud, too strident, too extreme, too pushy, I tend to consider it a feature not a bug. Feminism, and any political movement, needs people to be loud and pushy so that the moderates can look moderate.

Finally, I’d like to talk about “the opposition to Geek Feminism” that Bruce mentioned in his post. Geek Feminism — feminism in general — already has an opposition. It’s called the kyriarchy. It’s nothing new; we’ve been dealing with it forever.

What we have here is feminists (some self-identified as such, some not, but I don’t know how to describe them otherwise) from different communities/backgrounds/allegiances disagreeing over implementation details. This is common, and happens in all political communities. When it comes to feminism, people often trade on these disagreements to paint the whole movement in a bad light: see, for example, the so-called “Mommy Wars”.

Let’s please try and remember that there is room under the feminism umbrella for many feminisms. In fact, diversity in feminist tactics, just as in communities in general, is a strength. Not everyone has to agree with GF or take part in our community, though we do hope that some of the resources we provide are of use to other groups regardless of their focuses and methods.

It’s trite, but I’m going to ask that we remember that we’re all on the same side. While there are still people sending death threats to women in the geek community, no feminist group is “the opposition” to another.

In re: comments… I’m still travelling, and am going to be out and about with only my phone for the rest of the day, and on a train with limited Internet tomorrow. I apologise in advance if my responses are slow.

24 thoughts on “Thoughts on the “Dark Side” discussions

  1. azurelunatic

    I might suggest some variant involving “anti-oppression” or “equality worker” to describe some of the folks who are allied with the basic principles of feminism, but who don’t care for that label.

    1. Shekinah

      Personally, I’d like to see a place where rad fems and sex positives (or whetaver) could both answer questions and have a more philosophical discussion around the different answers with absolutely no ad hominem arguments allowed.I would love to see that, too. I know more sex-pos leaning people than radfems, but if you have any particular radfems in mind maybe you can see about contacting them to see if they’re interested?Jol said:so if there’s any need for work like researching specific points or proofing or anything that doesn’t require any expertise, just a warm body to process material, I’d be glad to contribute.I’ll put you on the list to be e-mailed; you’d be surprised how much of a help having someone to help process and organize is. And thanks for de-lurking! I always love it when I have a chance to get to know my readers Donna said:The only problem I see is that outside of initial interest you might not get enough questions to use as a full blown blog, why not make it a feature of the 101 blog?I did consider it, but the blog belongs to tigtog and I don’t want to step on her toes. I’m actually in the process of making a sister 101 site that will be directly connected with the FeministWiki that I’m (slowly, very very slowly) trying to organize, but that blog’s still in its very early planning stages. But I’ll bring it up to the volunteers and see if they think it would be a good idea to attach it to a 101 blog or keep it separate. Also, even as a separate blog I was figuring on a weekly posting schedule for exactly the reasons you mentioned.I think seeing the different answers from several perspectives would be cool too (like a WOC feminist, a white middle class radfem, and a male feminist for one week) and could spark some interesting conversations in the comments.That’s a great idea By the way, should I include you in the mailing? You don’t have to commit to anything, but I must confess that you were one of the people who I was hoping would be able to help out.

  2. Tim Chevalier

    Saying that internalised sexism is the “Dark Side” of (Geek) Feminism is like saying that bugs are the “Dark Side” of Linux. Sure, Linux has bugs, but the point is that the community is committed to solving them together when they show up.

    Yes, this. IMO, that’s the key logical fallacy you’ve identified here. (And, IMO, opposition to geek feminism is just anti-feminism — as you’ve pointed out, geek feminists don’t have any special extra ideological add-ons that non-geeky feminists don’t, simply a set of strategies and shared experiences.)

    One thing that I take issue with in an otherwise great post, though: “Some feminists tend to see science as a tool of the patriarchy, and distrust it by default, whereas we more often believe in science as a Good Thing…” Do you have particular feminists in mind who “see science as a tool of the patriarchy”? Because to me, this sounds a lot like an oversimplified, anti-feminist stereotype. Certainly, there are feminists who are critical of how science has often been intertwined with kyriarchal biases (for example, Emily Martin, Evelyn Fox Keller, and other people who do history of and sociology of science), and some people have oversimplified their work as being anti-science, but I don’t think it is at all — I think it’s work that makes science stronger by pointing out when scientists are acting based on innate bias rather than observations of reality.

    1. Skud Post author

      Tim: Good call; I was generalising there, based on fairly vague experience in various Internet forums. The sort of attitude I describe is something I associate with cultural feminism (ETA: and new-age/goddess-oriented feminisms) and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen comments along those lines on mainstream feminist blogs (feministing,, etc) over the past few years, but I don’t have anything solid to cite.

      Digging around online, I find which says:

      At the critical end of this spectrum of feminist perspectives on science lie such famous indictments of science as Virginia Woolf’s declaration: “science, it would seem, is not sexless: he is a man, a father and infected too” (1938). Lorraine Code takes a similar view, at a meta-scientific level, arguing that science-based epistemologies are inherently anti-feminist (1991, 314; 1993, 20). The worry here is that the sciences are not just superficially or inadvertently androcentric—male-centered in the questions they ask, in their claims and practice, their institutions and authority, their implications for the lives of women and for those marginalized within normative sex/gender systems—but are unreconstructably sexist; they embody deep and systematic gender bias by which women themselves, and any interests, perspectives, insights associated with them, are disvalued and marginalized. On this view the sciences are “master’s tools,” to use Audre Lorde’s phrase (1984), that will inevitably subvert attempts to turn them to emancipatory or, at least, non-oppressive ends.

      … but then goes on to say that “such implacably negative views of science are more often attributed to feminists than embraced by them” and then goes on to talk about the sort of feminist critiques of science that you allude to.

      1. Tim Chevalier

        Thanks for the clarification!

        Another point maybe worth talking about is:

        no feminist group is “the opposition” to another.

        I’m not sure I agree with that. Trans-excluding radical feminists are an example of a group that is most definitely in opposition to other feminisms that are more inclusive. While that hasn’t been much of an issue in relation to Geek Feminism as far as I know, in history, there are other examples as well. Third-wave feminism came about because second-wave feminists were largely concerned with middle-class white cis women’s issues. Lots of feminist groups, historically, have been based around excluding women who aren’t heterosexual. And right now, fourth-wave feminism is forming because many third-wave feminists are actually not interested in supporting all women, because they don’t support trans women. So I would say that just because there are common enemies doesn’t mean feminist groups aren’t necessarily opponents of other feminist groups. So long as there are feminist groups that advocate racism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia — so long as there are feminist groups that say that some women should be dehumanized and de-gendered — I, as a feminist, and going to be an opponent of those groups.

        Another problem with saying that all feminist groups are aligned is that it implies critiquing other feminists isn’t allowed, so all somebody has to do to shield themself from critical dialogue is to call themself a feminist. Moreover, saying this seems to foreclose pointing out when a self-identified feminist is not actually contributing to a discussion, but rather, is being derailing, or is expressing internalized sexism.

        I’m not sure that feminism needs to suppress internal conflict this way in order to succeed. I think feminism will succeed on the strength of its ideals, not on papering over internal differences, especially when those internal differences are really about which people to consider equal and worthy of a place at the table.

        1. Skud Post author

          Another good point, and thank you again. I will admit I was thinking mostly in the limited terms of the various women’s/feminist groups within geekdom when I wrote that, rather than broader movements in feminism, which is a bit silly seeing as how I’d just been thinking about broader movements as I was writing earlier parts of the post.

          I think there’s a difference, though I have trouble expressing it, between feminists debating/critiquing/calling out other feminists on issues, and the sort of divisive sides-taking that the media likes to whip up (as in the “mommy wars”). I think we can debate/critique/call out things that other feminists do without seeing them as the enemy except in the most egregious cases, and the situation we have here is far from the most egregious case. To me it feels like the Jay Smooth “That thing you said is racist” thing — you can oppose someone’s acts/statements, without saying that they are, in some fundamental way, “the opposition”. That leaves the future possibility of change and eventual alliance, which is what I would hope to see.

    2. Beth

      I do; I have typically considered a scepticism towards empirical science one of the trademarks of feminism, in that it showed a willingness to reevaluate all products as the result of human actions in a biased context. In my women’s studies classes in particular we were exposed to a body of work that was distrustful of experimental design, because it is trivial to manipulate experiments to reach conclusions that “make sense” to us and disempowers the people being studied. The conflict between qualitative and quantitative methods was a side-show to the real discussion over prioritizing the sharing of individual experiences and performing consciousness-raising on the basis of what people felt inspired to share, rather than the questions scientists felt inspired to investigate. This approach did bring attention (and sometimes later qualitative and quantitative research) to areas that had been ignored or used as mechanisms of disenfranchisement.

      The problem is that science involves a search for “truth”, even though it only ever produces a best-fit-hypothesis, especially in social and biological sciences. However, once science has “shown” (generally read, by scientists and the public, to mean “proved”) something when someone else’s lived experience disagrees, there is considered something wrong with that person for experiencing that thing, even though often the science involved will be deepened, refined or rejected all together later as the field advances, coming to encompass the experience it previously pathologized.

      Specific anti-science feminists include Ruth Hubbard, Emily Martin and Donna Haraway. Specifically misogynistic scientists who use “valid” science to justify their misogyny include: Simon Baron-Cohen, James Watson and David Buss.

      When feminism first emerge, science was, as a whole, anti-feminist. It makes sense that, especially when parts of the funding for science remain so, much of the budding philosophy was as well. What people miss, I think, is that being skeptical of science itself is actually necessary in order to do valid science, and the critique of science can be scientific work.

      However, that doesn’t mean it is. I’ve faced flack from feminists for employing statistics or revealed preferences instead of self-reported data. I think it is fair to say that feminism, as a field, is critical and often dismissive of the field of science.

      1. Tim Chevalier

        I don’t think that being critical of science means being anti-science. Male geeks who fetishize science want us to believe that, but the idea that you have to either accept everything that’s ever been done with the cognitive authority of science uncritically, or reject science completely, sounds more like a religious one to me.

        In particular, I’ve read both Emily Martin’s writing and Donna Haraway’s writing, and I don’t believe that either one rejects science. Both have been critical of specific people and ideological frameworks within science, it’s true. I think that when we point out how scientists are actually acting under the prejudices of the day and calling that “science”, it actually makes science better.

        1. lauredhel

          “I don’t think that being critical of science means being anti-science.”

          I’ll paraphrase and expand that a little, and say that, as a scientist, not being critical of science means that you’re doing science wrong. The absolute bedrock of the scientific method is critical thinking, scepticism, examining bias and excluding confounders, reproducing results, and always bearing in mind the possibility that what you think is a Result may well be due to bias, random chance, or both.

  3. Rikki Endsley

    Skud, thanks for the great follow-up post. I think “we are setting up a process so that people can contact us if they experience harassment by someone associated with GF” is brilliant.

  4. Bruce Byfield

    I’d like to think that you are right, and that what happened is just the usual responses. However, what looks different here is that a.) some of it is more targeted than the usual attacks on an imaginary image of feminists, framing Geek Feminists specifically in negative ways, and b.) the possibility of a moderate/radical division being exaggerated to discredit Geek Feminism” — in other words, a counter-reformation or backlash.

    1. Smilyface

      Why not do it as a discussion board as oppsoed to a blog?There is one in the works, actually. The problem, though, is that forums need moderators (especially general feminist forums, which will attract trolls like nobody’s business) and in general more attention than a blog. So far I haven’t been able to scare up enough of a mod team, even with the help of Feministe’s Jill, so that particular project’s on hold for the moment.Another advantage to having a blog is that it’s a controlled conversation, rather than a free-for-all. With the bloggers picking and choosing which questions to address, and then spending time addressing them (rather than doing a back and forth, like with a forum) it will be easier for a broad range of people to take something away from a particular thread. Forum threads tend to be good for those participating in them, but it’s hard for outsiders of the conversation to pick up the important bits because there are so many people talking.I guess if I were to say things simply, I think both are good ideas but the blog is easier to implement currently.

  5. Selena Deckelmann

    Thanks so much for writing this. I love the framing of Geek Feminism, with all its caveats and open-endedness.

    With regard to “many feminisms” and the opposition to Geek Feminism, I frequently come back to the Tyranny of Structurelessness as a primer in the methods and reasoning behind opposition to leadership in a movement.

    What I most care about in my activism is how someone is connecting with me right now, and whether they want to move in the same direction I am. If they want to come along, I take them with me.

  6. Ms. Sunlight

    What we have here is the good old Margaret Thatcher problem. That is, just because someone is a woman who gets ahead in a man-dominated area, doesn’t make her a feminist.

    One of the things that many of us have experienced is the concept of being “not like those stupid girls”. That is, buying into the assumption that behaviours and traits that are socially coded masculine are superior, and gaining acceptance through showing or adopting those masculine coded things. So, you’re not like one of those stupid girls that like makeup and pop music, you like heavy metal and Unix. You’re not one of those stupid women who dress and act like sluts, you wear jeans and hoodies and think great and serious things. You’re not one of those silly women with a job in the typing pool, you have a degree and a grey suit and a career.

    I’m sure we all think it’s important that women not be excluded on grounds of gender from those things they want to be included in. As geeks (I’m a gamer and SF lover who is also a network administrator at work, so not “high status” but a geek nonetheless) we’ve often made our way into man-dominated spaces exactly through that process, through adopting their camouflage, because we’ve had no other choice.

    If, however, adopting that camouflage means we hang other women out to dry, by slut-shaming or minimising their status or policing their reasons for participation, we’ve failed because we’re proving to ourselves that we’re only inside because the men allow us to be.

    I don’t want to see “not like those stupid girls” go unchallenged any more!

    1. Lindsey Kuper

      Yeah, the “not like those women” is internalized sexism, and it’s something that I still struggle with. It was eye-opening to me when a geek friend of mine owned up to her misogynist feelings, because it made me realize that I had internalized misogyny of my own. We’ve got to try to do better than that.

  7. addie

    Skud, thanks for so skillfully tying so much of this together. I feel a lot more at peace with regards to the larger discussion Nice Girl’s post inspired after reading this.

  8. Sandy

    This whole debacle has been fascinating. My experience with feminists and feminism hasn’t been great; when I first stumbled upon the Geek Feminism wiki, I was relieved to discover there are self-identified feminists out there who can explain feminism in eloquent, coherent, educative passages free from angst, aggro and a tone of superiority. Makes it easier for a theory-noob like me to not feel completely alienated when I just want to understand.

    I think GF has a good spirit about it, and one of its biggest challenges will be undoing any crapness created by people behaving badly under the “feminism” banner. Some folk have good experiences in feminism – yay! Others are soured by terrible individual examples – boo, but I suppose that’s what the expansive wiki is for. :)

    Thank you for your post and continued efforts.

  9. Camila

    The only problem I see is that ouidste of initial interest you might not get enough questions to use as a full blown blog, why not make it a feature of the 101 blog? Have Ask a Feminist Fridays for example. Lets say there are an average of 3 to 5 questions per week, you hand them off to several bloggers and post their different answers the following week, giving them time to really think about it and getting several answers for the same question. I think you would find alot more volunteers from diverse backgrounds if you do it this way too, since there isn’t pressure to do this every day, but only the one time and maybe again at a later date but not necessarily. I think seeing the different answers from several perspectives would be cool too (like a WOC feminist, a white middle class radfem, and a male feminist for one week) and could spark some interesting conversations in the comments.

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