Sex, Drugs and Muddy Waters

I participated in a discussion on HN about the article Shedding Light on the "Black Box of Inappropriateness." As is often the case, the only reply to my comment was an incredibly negative interpretation of a very evenhanded, non-accusatory position.

I had chosen my words and framing very carefully. My position is incredibly moderate. I think there are situational factors that foster these kinds of unfortunate outcomes. I would like to look at how we can change the rules of the game so as to reduce the number of such incidents instead of waiting for things to go wrong and then trying to decide who is in the wrong.

I am frustrated, I am in a bad mood and this piece is being written off the cuff. Any stats cited will be ballpark.

I have written about my track record of avoiding drama while I had a corporate job. You can read through this blog to find more detailed accounts of the two most concerning incidents. In one, I emailed a colleague and copied our bosses and I told him to never speak to me that way again. In another, I got very quietly moved when I learned that a man calling me "doll" and "babe" was scheduled to take over my team.

So, I am good at negotiating the social space when it comes to this sort of issue. I am good at identifying potential problems very early on and nipping them in the bud before it escalates.

This is why I blog about such issues. I think I know something useful that could help other people.

Unfortunately, most people default to either a shame model or a guilt model. If things turned out badly, someone must be guilty and the solution is to actively hunt down all bad people and punish them. This just creates bigger problems. It also means that moderate positions get wildly misinterpreted to mean "You are on the side of The Bad Guys" -- often by both sides, at the same time.

In the piece in question above, the author Cheryl Yeoh describes a situation in which Dave McClure repeatedly asked her to have wine with him basically alone. Sometimes she said yes and things went fine. Sometimes she said no.

Things escalated to sexual assault one evening after she, he and a group of people went to her home to socialize for business reasons. People were drinking and when everyone else suddenly left, she found herself alone with a drunken jackass who wasn't wanting to really grok a polite no.

I tend to hesitate to use specific examples like this one because people interpret it as victim blaming and assholes twist it to mean he isn't guilty of anything. But without specific examples, it gets hard to talk at all about pain points where this could go differently in the future if handled differently, in spite of people being people.

Most date rape or college campus rapes involve alcohol. But if you try to suggest that sobriety is a good preventive measure, people get pretty wrapped around the axle. People act like advocating sobriety is some sort of evil impingement on a college girl's right to have fun.

Here is another fact: Most first time sex encounters also involve alcohol. I don't mean loss of virginity. I mean the first time a particular couple get it on together.

Alcohol lowers inhibitions and the world is full of people with sexual hang ups. Consuming alcohol is an expedient means to shut up societal voices in your head telling you sex is never okay. It is vastly quicker than spending years in therapy to shut them up.

I am aware that there are settings in which alcohol is not a problem. But I have difficulty imagining that I would ever say yes to drinking alcohol alone with a male business associate at his place. I also think it is problematic to invite a group of business contacts to your place for drinks.

It is problematic because it signals a very high degree of trust and intimacy not signalled by meeting someplace more neutral. It is also problematic because you cannot up and leave if things go wrong.

Cheryl indicates that she felt confident she could defend herself if necessary because she has a black belt. But there is no circumstance under which using martial arts on business colleagues is a good means to win friends and influence people.

Business involves establishing and maintaining diplomatic relationships. The point at which you begin using martial arts is the point at which you have failed your diplomatic mission and gone to war.

My son has repeatedly told me that people who work with big cats never allow the cat to be above and behind them. When a big cat finds itself in that position, it will attack with deadly results. It may genuinely mourn the human it has just killed because it was fond of them, but its fondness for the person will not stop it from following instinct and pouncing.

There is strong general precedent that a man and a woman drinking alcohol alone together are very likely both actively and willingly trying to arrange a sexual encounter. If you are a woman and you wish to clearly signal that your intentions are entirely platonic and this is all business, it is bad policy to engage in behavior that can reasonably be interpreted as cooperating in his agenda to get you into bed. If you are a man, you should also stop proposing such things.

Regardless of your gender, if you want to keep it clear that this is a business relationship, drinks alone in a private setting with a member of the opposite sex is a bad policy. It muddies the waters for everyone.

I am not blaming Cheryl Yeoh for what happened and I am not saying that Dave McClure isn't a creep. It sounds like he was intentionally trying to get her drunk to facilitate predatory plans.

But I am saying that the world would be a better place if we established some ground rules for how to not have such situations develop in the first place instead of waiting for things to go wrong and then deciding who is guilty. They need to be pragmatic ground rules, not high minded BS that simply insists that all men need to be perfect gentleman and paragons of virtue at all times.

That standard is not serving us well currently. There is zero reason to believe that repeating it enough will somehow get better results.

Follow up post: Status Quo is Not God

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Pauleta Smith said…
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