An open letter to yesterday’s Convo speaker

Dear Convo speaker,

It’s not often that Convo speakers with a CS tie visit our fair campus, so it was with great anticipation that I attended your talk yesterday.  I wasn’t sure what type of talk you would give, but was pleased by your decision to go all visionary on us.  I love visionary talks.  I enjoyed your take on what the future may hold and your insights into the state of the field today.  I appreciated that your talk was accessible and engaging, at your attempts to work humor and levity into the talk, and, according to my students, your most excellent discussion at the lunch afterwards.  Your talk has given me lots to talk about with my students in my two intro-level classes in the coming weeks, and for that I thank you.

And then, It happened.  The Gratuitous Porn Reference (GPR).

Now, as a woman in tech, I’m certainly no stranger to the occasional GPR in the keynote or seminar talk.  It happens more often than I’d care to admit, unfortunately, but more on that later.  As a feminist and a compassionate human being, I abhor porn.  I abhor its extreme objectification of women and pretty much everything about it.  When I hear a porn reference in a talk, I feel extraordinarily uncomfortable, wishing a gaping hole in the earth would swallow me whole and take me away from the moment.  So you can imagine how I felt when you threw that GPR into the talk.  It distracted me from your message for most of the rest of the talk, which is unfortunate because I’m sure you said some more really insightful and interesting things.

What you did was sloppy preparation.  The GPR was completely gratuitous, and very obviously thrown in to generate laughs.  If you were hoping to use humor to illustrate your point, there were many other examples you could have used which would have fit your point much, much better.  I’m guessing you saw that you were speaking at a college campus, figured since you are big in the gaming field that your audience would be mostly male, and decided the joke would work.  But the audience was pretty mixed.  Regardless, I think it’s a bit insulting to your audience to make these assumptions about how your audience feels about such a lightning-rod topic, and such a big risk as well—the risk of alienating a good portion of your audience, not just women but men who strongly dislike porn and what it stands for as well.

And let’s talk about alienating your audience.  As I mentioned previously, this is not the first time I’ve heard a GPR in a tech talk, and as references go it was pretty tame.  But.  The world of technology already feels like a giant Boys’ Club, and those of us who don’t fit in to that Boys’ Club because of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or personality already feel plenty uncomfortable.  Trust me, as a woman in technology I’m reminded almost daily, in many tiny and mostly subtle ways, that I don’t really belong.  Throwing in a reference to something that so strongly objectifies women feeds into that Boys’ Club culture.  It tells the women in your audience that you see them first and foremost as objects of desire, not competent and welcome contributors to the field.  Even if this was not your intention, this is the message you send, particularly when you are a big name in the field.

Finally, your institution is one that is admired and lauded for Getting It when it comes to broadening and welcoming participation in tech-related fields—a real leader in this area.  When you speak, like it or not, you represent your institution as well as yourself.  And people, in the absence of other information, will assume that your views somehow represent the values and views of the school.  So you did your institution a grave disservice as well.

I hope you will keep this in mind the next time you give a talk like this.  Because as much as I’d like to say I’ll remember all of the fine points you made in your Convo talk, in reality I’ll probably just remember you as Just Another Speaker Who Doesn’t Get It.




4 thoughts on “An open letter to yesterday’s Convo speaker

  1. Amy,

    For a post that, I assume, was intended to be an intellectual and thoughtful response to a convocation speech, this proved to be less than adequate. You made some glaring mistakes, unfair stereotypes, and overall disrespectful comments. Let’s review them, shall we?

    1. You made a gross and clearly uninformed generalization about women in adult entertainment. I’ll use the word porn because you did, and I’ll use your GPR initialism because it’s cute. There are plenty of females/women (you failed to provide us with much in the way of definition for your operational language)) who enjoy “porn.” Furthermore, some women find it extremely empowering to perform, produce, and market this type of entertainment. I understand that you don’t enjoy this kind of entertainment. I don’t like chocolate ice cream. You do. Does that make me a terrible person? Based on the framework you used, it does.

    2. Using a GPR doesn’t in anyway reinforce gender norms, or other perceived sexual prejudices you believe exist. Conservatism rues the day when it comes to discussing sexuality. The real problem is people who fail to engage in intellectual discussions about sex and instead dismiss it as “inappropriate.”

    3. By writing someone’s accomplishments off because you didn’t like one GPR (hehe), you have set women back in the field of technology, nay academia, back a hundred years. Even if you didn’t appreciate that one comment by the convo speaker, you are falling into a stereotypical bout of female-over-sensitivity by expressing your hurt feelings. You said you enjoyed the man’s speech. Then, because of one GPR you didn’t like, it’s totally for naught. How can we as women gain acceptance into the wider field of academia if we run crying everytime someone makes a sex joke.

    Overall, I am terribly disrespected by your post. I am confident that after reflecting, you will realize you were hasty, and hopefully retract your ignorant statements.


  2. 1. Liking porn is not analogous to liking chocolate ice cream. Porn and chocolate ice cream do not at all play the same role in society. Whatever you think of adult entertainment, there are many many women (and doubtless men) who do not view it in a positive light. Why should someone speaking about computer science make assumptions about his audience’s perspective on the subject?

    2. A consistent pattern of men making gratuitous porn references in male-dominated field, where there is no evidence that the speaker has ever even considered whether porn/adult entertainment does/does not empower women, used to get a laugh out of the (expected to be male) audience, certainly does reinforce gender norms.

    3. Expressing offense at sexist behavior is not being “over sensitive.” It’s being feminist. Professional speakers talking about *computer science* (unless they are literally talking about sex toys) should not be making sex jokes. What on earth does sex have to do with the topic at hand? What purpose does it serve except to get a cheap laugh? Not all discussions of sex are inappropriate, but some are extremely inappropriate.

    Amy’s post was neither hasty nor ignorant.


  3. Amy, you are right on the money.

    While I agree with the first commenter that our society fails to engage in intellectual discussions of sex, but, THIS IS A COMPUTER SCIENCE TALK! Sex is outside the scope of the speaker’s topic. Furthermore, when he did mention sex, it was a joke (or an attempt thereof), and not a serious discussion, and therefore further contributing to the dearth of intellectual discussions of sex that the first commenter laments.

    I’m gonna go out on a limb and assert that all discussions of sex in a computer science talk are always inappropriate. There’s almost a money-back guarantee that if you have more than 10 people in the room listening to you, one of them is a survivor of sexual assault. And survivors of sexual assault are often triggered by sex jokes and references to rape. Why would you want to risk triggering somebody’s PTSD for a cheap laugh, when there are so many other topics you can laugh about? In every case of a gratuitous sex reference I have witnessed, I have been able to come up with a long list of humorous, non-sexual alternatives in under 30 seconds.

    I did not see that Amy “ran crying” — on the contrary, making your assessment of the situation public is the opposite of running.


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