My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

Relevant links:

Archive

boundaries, hang-ups and professional decorum

Last week, i stated my disgust at the image Marc Canter used to advertise his party at Etech. Since then, there’s been plenty of blogging conversation, speculation about my views, and dismissal by strangers who don’t know me. It’s a clear reminder of how reading my blog is not indicative of knowing me, my views or my philosophy on life. So, let me clarify a few things.

First, just because i spend a bulk of my life fighting to end violence against women does not mean that i abhor BDSM. In fact, anyone who knows me knows that i’m one of the most ardent supportors of consensual BDSM out there. I don’t believe that it’s violence and i have always supported the BDSM community both inside of and outside of V-Day. I am completely supportive of others’ sexual preferences; that’s not the point here.

Second, i believe in social mores and social decorum. It is outright inappropriate to advertise a professional party in the way that one would advertise a play party. Different social contexts require different social norms. Images set expectations, intentions. Certainly, people have the right to offend, just as i have the right to be offended and state that offense. The point of my frustration is that offensive adverts are not the way to build community or encourage proper decorum that is inclusive.

I view Etech as a professional activity. Of course i enjoy parties. Duh; i’m a trancer! But the roles that i play in my personal life are different than those that i play in my professional life. At a professional activity, i want to go to a professional event, not one that is advertising itself as a sex party, offering up images of the expected roles of men and women. As professionals, we’re working towards gender equality; sexualizing a professional event does not continue that commitment. Parties can be fun without sexualized imagery.

It is certainly a woman’s right to do whatever she wants in front of a camera. I’m not arguing against that. That doesn’t contradict the significance of social norms. If you want a party to be welcoming, you advertise it as inclusive. For example, there were children there. Thus, explicit sexual behavior or drug use is just outright unacceptable. This is common sense when it comes to social norms.

Perhaps i should take a Californian stand and clearly state my boundaries with regard to my professional/personal life. Note, these are *my* boundaries. As a professional colleague of mine:

1) It is unacceptable to ask me to participate in threesomes with your wife via email or any social network software. In fact, it is inappropriate to ask me for any sexual favors period.

2) It is unacceptable to corner me and try to get me to kiss you or go home with you, regardless of whether or not we were drinking.

3) It is unacceptable to treat me as a sexual object or token.

4) It is uncool for professional events to be held in environments that blur the lines between sexual and professional boundaries.

This isn’t about me being a prude; this is about me wanting a professional life that is not sexualized. I spent many years of my life trying to be just one of the boys. I’m finally accepting my femininity, enjoying playing with fashion and willing to be a female. This is not an invitation for sexual advances; it’s about me being me.

The fact is that i have friends who are also colleagues. Yes, i’m far more likely to be affectionate with them, even in a professional domain. That’s not about sex; that’s about friendship. The friends that i’m most flirtatious and goofy with are the ones who i am certain understand that there is no sexual innuendo involved; i don’t cuddle with people who don’t get me. Cuddling for me comes from the raver world where cuddle piles are about friends not sexual advances.

My friend group is not about cliquishness, but there are a lot of underlying social commonalities between us that bind us together both on and offline. For example, when it comes to the discussion about the image, the fact of the matter is that most of my close friends are feminists, as were their parents. They get it; of course, they understand why i’m upset and they have their own reasons beyond mine.

I do have a hang-up in this community that is tangentially related to that image. My hang-up is that i want to be accepted not because i’m a potential sex toy but because i have intellectually stimulating ideas to offer.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

7 comments to boundaries, hang-ups and professional decorum

  • joe

    The best part about all of this is… if people aren’t such assholes, the flow of information, theory, analysis and growth is at its maximum. We can make sure someone gets a taste of uncomfortable feelings if they’re so quick to dole them out…

  • Witheld for Privacy

    When you say, “The friends that i’m most flirtatious and goofy with are the ones who i am certain understand that there is no sexual innuendo involved; i don’t cuddle with people who don’t get me…” you echo an interesting irony of modern life. In my professional position in which I am technically in a position of academic “power” (relatively minor that it is) many people (including peer colleagues) come to me for both professional support and personal support. With many, it is common for us to develop good friendships. I find that I am quite sensitive to having physical contact – limited to hugs and European-style dual-cheek kisses – only with those people where both of us explicitly understand there is no sexual interest. Whenever I find any ambiguity, either in my own mind or in their response, I back off, not willing to risk the wrong message. The irony to which I referred is that we now reserve physical contact for those with whom there is little to no chance of physical intimacy.

  • The reason you and Marc dissagree on what is apropreat for a ETech related event may be that you don’t see it as the same kind of event as he. You clame that it is a professional event; he may see it as a personal one. I find my self reguraly dealing with the issue that my personal and professional life are less and less distinct. This not to say that my life is being consumed by my work but that I just work with my firends. For me events like ETech are at least as much personal social events as thay are professional ones. This is a natural result of being a member of the geek comunity where work and hobby are in the same field. With this comingaling personal and professional there new social normes that have to be created.

  • Jonathan – i think you’re quite right on this one. Of course, this raises new concerns. If it is a social party for your friends, you get labeled as being elitist and exclusionary if not everyone is invited. If you open it up more publicly at a conference (and get corporate sponsors), it gives the impression that it’s associated with the professional activity and, thus, those who aren’t a part of the extended geek social community feel awkward. My concern stems from the fact that the professional community is trying to be more inclusive, but that these events do not give off that vibe.

  • Thank you for posting this clarification. When I came across your site via Joi Ito’s LiveJournal post on the whole thing, I was rather irritated — I thought it obvious that Marc’s party was meant to be a big freaky personal affair rather than a professional one.

    Clearly this was not the case, and I appreciate your clarification, as it saved me from posting a big rant about the whole thing — not so much directed at you, but at the blogosphere in general.

    However — and it’s clearly none of my business — but you posted that you’d rather be accepted for your stimulating intellectual ideas than for being a sex toy.

    Personally, I like to be accepted as both. 🙂 And there is absolutely nothing sexier than a big brain.

    Do you think that there is a middle ground? And if so, are the standards different for men and women?

    I’m genuinely curious, because — as a big dorky-looking guy — I find that women are most attracted to my intellect. And I wonder if it’s the same thing for smart women.

  • “wanting a professional life that is not sexualized.”

    yes, i totally agree. i have different professional vs. social profiles. and sometimes people know me by two names. and socially i’m a little wild.

    i sent a lot of valentine’s on orkut just to be friendly. but i didn’t send them to professional collegues that they might overinterpret it.

    withheld for privacy: “Whenever I find any ambiguity, either in my own mind or in their response, I back off, not willing to risk the wrong message. The irony to which I referred is that we now reserve physical contact for those with whom there is little to no chance of physical intimacy.”

    4) It is uncool for professional events to be held in environments that blur the lines between sexual and professional boundaries.

    tribe and orkut parties are held in bars. and tons of these things have a ‘get to know you’ networking part. i have a gripe with a scavenger hunt game requires the participants to flirt with the actor. do we need this in the workplace?

    but i think you’re right to assume back to this.
    2) It is unacceptable to corner me and try to get me to kiss you or go home with you, regardless of whether or not we were drinking.

  • Danah, I guess I qualify as one of the ‘strangers’ you mentioned so I thought I should leave a few words to clear things up. I have no beef with you or your post in which you and others called Marc’s picture tasteless.

    What I did have beef with was how the incident turned out: a blogger making change to his post as a direct result of activities in another blogger. I don’t blame the people involved at all. I however did found the whole situation distasteful.

    Since I am a blogger, I made a post saying what I thought just as you did about Marc’s picture. I then deleted it because I felt it got in the way of another post I made after that.

    In summary, Marc blogged, you blogged in response, people commented, Marc flinched, I blogged about how I felt about his flinching, Shelly blogged in response, and others joined in. I do note that subtle ‘repurposing’ went on at each step and there is now a sense of temporal emptiness one might feel after watching a long line of dominos fall.