|TRIGGER WARNING This article or section, or pages it links to, contains explicit sexual descriptions and imagery.|
Welcome to those who were linked here from the Flashbelt website. This page is part of the Geek Feminism Wiki, a source of information about women in geek communities and the issues they face. The Geek Feminism Wiki has been running since May 2008 and has over 250 articles on all aspects of women in geek culture, of which this is just one. Please feel free to look around and see what else is here.
For context to this article, you might like to read:
At Flashbelt, a Flash conference in Minneapolis in June 2009, Hoss Gifford presented a session featuring graphic sexual imagery, drawings of penises (one ejaculating over a drawing of a face), and a flash application called the "Orgasmatron" which showed a woman's face which became increasingly excited and happy as the mouse pointer was moved over it.
- Hoss's slides are available online. The first one is the killer. Single JPG here (NSFW).
- Photo of Hoss with "cock" illustration (Flickr)
- Orgasmatron part 1 and part 2 from a previous conference (yeah, he's presented this multiple times)
The blog post that really broke this story was Prude or Professional by Courtney Remes, an attendee at the conference.
Many responses to women's complaints about this presentation included explanations that that's just how "the Flash community" is; that's the personality of the developer who gave the talk and everyone accepts it (He's just like that); women shouldn't be too sensitive or prudish; it was humor.
Conference organizer Dave Schroeder
The Flashbelt organizers quickly responded with a news post on the conference website . This has since been replaced with a longer statement and apology (see below), but here's a copy for posterity:
- A note from Dave about Hoss Gifford's session at Flashbelt.
- While I didn't see the entire presentation myself, I understand that there were several instances that attendees found offensive. I have been told that several of his images and comments created made female attendees feel uncomfortable, and essentially objectified women. My vision for Flashbelt is an environment where every attendee feels comfortable and welcome, and everyone grows together. Gender balance and equity is important to me. I consider myself a feminist and don't hesitate to say it.
- When a room that is 80% men is laughing at jokes that make women feel uncomfortable, it has an effect on the atmosphere of our community. And I don't see that as a positive effect. We need to work together. It's better for everyone.
- I try very hard to make all of the attendees comfortable and welcome. I highly value my female attendees and am aware that they make up an important part of the Flashbelt audience and the design and development community. I make an intentional effort to bring female professionals to speak at the event. I understand the gender imbalance in this industry and I hope Flashbelt can serve to to bring people together and help them improve their skill sets. Over the last 6 years I believe it has done this. This single instance is a setback, but I know it is not a representation of the other 100+ speakers and sessions I've presented at Flashbelt over the last 6 years.
- Be assured I take this seriously and I feel pretty lousy about it.
- As for why this happened, I'm still working that out, but somewhere I dropped the ball. I apologize for that. I accept responsibility. I'll focus on avoiding similar mistakes in the future.
- I have to footnote this with the fact that I've known Hoss for a few years, and I think of him as teddy bear. In person he's a warm, friendly person, and respectful. This doesn't excuse his problematic session. We have spoken and I know he is aware of the effect of his presentation.
- Sincerely, - dave schroeder - Flashbelt Producer
Courtney Remes, Dave Schroeder, and the GeekGirlsGuide bloggers
A day or so later, the official response moved over to the Geek Girl's Guide blog: We're in this together, by Courtney Remes, Dave Schroeder, Nancy Lyons, and Meghan Wilker.
- "This is an opportunity for us to step back and ask some important questions of ourselves: When a person or organization creates an environment that appears to foster a “boy’s club” mentality, how do we react – and make sure that it doesn’t happen again? How do we value our differences without isolating or ostracizing?"
- "How did this happen? There is no long exhaustive answer. I made a terrible error in judgment. I knew there was potential for this to occur and I blew it. And for that I deserve to on the hot seat for this. Hot seat accepted. Which I think raises a good point about the gender issues addressed above. Even a guy like me, who knows what is appropriate and what is inappropriate can be lazy at times, or even appear to be in a mild coma when inappropriate behavior occurs. It's important keep your own values close and online all the time. I'll certainly be working to improve this aspect of myself."
Hoss also provided an official response: A response from Hoss Gifford and a follow-up by Dave Schroeder.
Threats of violence against Hoss Gifford
Much of Hoss's response, and Dave's followup, focus on threats made toward Hoss Gifford by people who did not like his presentation.
Here are the threats of physical violence made against Hoss:
- If you waterboard this Hoss Gifford asshole, he sure as hell will never pull that vile crap again. I'm just sayin'. -- gabbyhon on Twitter
- Seems like guy that runs #flashbelt is an ok guy and had a genuine apology, but Hoss Gifford should be set on fire -- hudsonakridge on Twitter
- (got other links? add them. may as well be completist.)
While threats are definitely not OK, the focus on them rather than on Hoss' original error in judgment, and any apology for it that he might make, is an example of Derailment.
Was Hoss sexist? misogynist?
Many people, including Hoss and Dave in their official responses, have discussed whether Hoss and/or his presentation were a) sexist, or b) misogynist. Hoss and Dave both state that the incident was not misogynist.
I.e. Hoss and/or his presentation were sexist or misogynist.
It is possible for good, well intended people to say or do things that are sexist or misogynist. See Ill Doctrine's How to tell someone they sound racist (video, does not play on load) for notes on separating what someone says from who they are.
Here are some notes on why what Hoss said was sexist/misogynist. Whether or not Hoss himself is sexist or misogynist is hard to determine, however, some of his actions are.
It's not necessary to overtly express a hatred of women to be misogynistic. A pattern of behaviour that shows disrespect, dislike, or contempt for women may be indicative of misogyny. Here are some examples of how Hoss's presentation does that:
- The opening image of Hoss's presentation is an example of objectification, by reducing the woman in the picture to her sexual attributes in isolation from the rest of her.
- That same image is an example of the male gaze, which frames women in terms of how men look at them, rather than in their own terms.
- A female illustrator was invited on stage to draw something. She drew some squiggles. Hoss described them as "a cock". Defining what the women's squiggles were, rather than asking her, denied her agency. (See notes below on sexism related to the cock drawing, also.)
- The "Orgasmatron" depicted a woman (or rather, part of a woman -- again, not a whole person) as sexually passive and "done to", lacking agency. (Some people argue that the Orgasmatron wasn't sexual, but that does not change the effect of this argument.)
- Although the sketch of the face being ejaculated on was not particularly gendered, within the context of the presentation, the other instances listed above, Hoss's presumed sexual preference, and the preponderance of such imagery in straight porn ("facials", etc), the ejaculation's target could reasonably be presumed to be intended as female, in which case the same issues -- being "done to", lack of agency -- apply.
- Hoss's statement, "If you are offended, you can fuck off": who would be most offended by the presentation? Although both men and women were offended, women were more likely to be, and Hoss should certainly have been aware of this. If so, the "fuck off" statement was directed more at women than at men, showing a disproportionate disregard for their feelings and comfort. (Although Hoss excuses this statement by claiming the effects of Vicodin, the Vicodin probably just lowered his guard against saying offensive things, rather than changing the content and direction of those things.)
The above incidents show a pattern of treating women as objects, people/things to be done to, whose agency, opinions and sensibilities do not matter.
- The belief that people of one sex or gender are inherently superior to people of the other sex or gender.
- Unfair treatment or discrimination based on a difference of sex or gender.
- Disadvantage or unequal opportunity arising from the cultural dominance of one gender over the other.
- Promotion or expectation or assumption of people to behave in accordance with or deviate from a gender role.
Many people are unaware that sexism has more than one definition, and say that something is "not sexist" if it fails to meet the definition(s) they know of. For example, people might claim that Hoss's presentation didn't treat women unfairly or discriminate against them (definition 2), or that Hoss doesn't believe, or didn't show in his presentation, that men are inherently superior to women (definition 1), and therefore the presentation wasn't sexist.
However, the strongest arguments for Hoss's presentation being sexist relate to point 3, "disadvantage or unequal opportunity arising from cultural dominance". Hoss was operating in an environment where men had/have cultural dominance over women. This is true of most environments in the modern world, but at Technical conferences and the Technology industry in general, there is also an outright numeric dominance which intensifies the cultural dominance.
Hoss's presentation took advantage of, or reinforced, this cultural dominance in various ways:
- The opening slide, with its aforementioned objectification of women and male gaze, introduces the speaker in a way that says "This is me, this is what I'm like" and sets aside women as other. If Hoss hoped for the audience to identify with him (which good speakers generally do) then he was asking the audience to identify with the male gaze, with objectification, and with "laddishness" in general. That a small (female) proportion of the audience were unlikely to do so, and that Hoss apparently didn't take them into account, is an example of how women are disregarded or treated as invisible in tech culture.
- Hoss made a comment to the effect of "everyone draws cocks". I doubt there are any statistics or research on the matter, but I strongly suspect that generally, women do not draw cocks with any particular frequency, but men do. This sets up a rhetorical situation where "everyone" is equated with men: another case of making women invisible.
- Sexualized environments are uncomfortable to women for many reasons, one of which is that men in those environments may start to unconsciously (or consciously, of course) associate all women in those environments with sex. Liz Keogh has an excellent blog post on avoiding unavoidable associations which deals with this issue. A sexualized presentation such as Hoss's sets up these associations, and makes it more difficult for women attendees to interact with men who are consciously or unconsciously associating them with sexy lingerie, ejaculation, etc.
- Women who are made uncomfortable by othering, sexualisation, etc, are likely to avoid situations where this is likely to occur. This leads to even fewer women attending tech events, exacerbates numeric dominance by men, and perpetuates and supports the cultural dominance of men over women.
I.e. Hoss and/or his presentation were not sexist or misogynist.
The following are cited references to people whose blog posts defend Hoss against allegations of sexism/misogyny, along with any reasoning they provide.
- Hoss states that he is "neither sexist nor a misogynist" and offers as evidence the fact that he has a wife and two daughters who would not allow the slightest hint of misogyny. 
- Dave Schroeder "believes that misogynistic (hatred of women) is not correct" and "knows Hoss well enough to know he's not a misogynist". 
- Niqui Merret states, "Hoss’s talk was not showing a “boy’s club”, it was in no way misogynist. It may have been crude, a little too open about sexuality and some might even consider elements to be childish but I did not consider it as bad as the sensationalist blog post that started this all off." She also says, "I would say issues of sexism and sexual harassment for women should be labeled in a whole different section to Hoss’ talk. I will support you without a doubt if you have been harassed or sexually discriminated against. I will not support you saying that Hoss’s talk was misogyny."
- Grant Skinner believes that the talk was offensive but not misogynistic. Grant believes, and claims that his wife also believes, that complaints are examples of Reverse sexism.
- (Add more if you've got them, especially any that contain solid reasoning.)
The following blog posts/responses criticize or condemn Hoss and/or his presentation.
- "I’ve had the perennial conversation with many of the conference organizers: “How do we get more women involved?!” They all say they can’t find females who are willing to stand up and speak. It is truly a chicken-and-egg problem. It stands to reason that a woman may not want to show up, let alone speak, if she feels she’ll be putting herself out there to be disrespected or objectified. It’s not easy being a woman in a field dominated by men, and in some cases, boys."
- "My first encounter with Hoss was at the conference where I presented for the first time, with my female business partner. The sessions had just let out and there was a rush for the elevators. My partner and I were the last to get into a crowded elevator, and Hoss was the next in line. We squeezed back to make room for him, and he got a big grin and shouted to everyone within earshot… “Yeaaaah, I’m ridin’ with the LADIES!” and proceeded to press himself against us. We were of course disgusted and embarrassed, but as first-time speakers we didn’t want to make too much of a fuss. As women so often feel they have to do in business, we snickered and laughed it off. And just kept our distance."
- Spotted: more sexist behaviour in tech world
- Minneapolis Flashbelt conference gets pornographic
- Hossgate '09: Finding balance by Grant Skinner
- "Was Hoss's session crude, juvenile, and unprofessional? Absolutely. Was it inappropriate for the conference? Probably. Was it poorly described in the session book, and a mistake to run it as an all-call "keynote" session with no warning as to the content? Certainly. Was the session sexist or misogynistic? I don't believe so."
- "Time and place, kids. A professional convention — unless maybe it’s a pro-BDSM convention — is not that place."
- "Forget women being uncomfortable with this - any professional person would be!"
- Flashbelt Fiasco by Eric E. Dolecki
- "I personally think that there is no place for this kind of thing at a paid professional conference. If it was held in the corner of a bar with cigars, beers, a laptop & a projector, I wouldn't think it was appropriate either."
- Museum 2.0 blog [http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2009/06/dont-join-conversation-if-you-arent.html praises the conference's response
- Questions about the mimbo explosion at Flashbelt
- "If the room held only men, would a presentation like this be wrong? If the room held mostly women, would it be wrong? If the controversial content was geared to please adult women rather than mimbos, would it be wrong?"
- "We need to grow up. We need to work as an industry to stop attacking each other, because as these presentations show, it can quickly escalate. We need industry leaders to step up and stop supporting this culture, because if we don’t start now, this will likely continue to escalate."
- Sexism in technology (The Vagueware blog)
- "If that’s what the Flash community is like these days, frankly, I’m going to steer clients away from Flash so we don’t have to deal with such juvenile behaviour whilst doing our work. [...] There is no other industry on the planet (with the notable exception of the porn industry), where this behaviour and attitude would even be remotely tolerated. Collectively we are going to have to deal with this, and sooner rather than later."
- The "controversy" continues (Ted Neward @ Interoperability Happens)
- "Hoss, you're an idiot. Like any sprinter, you're going to head up the pack for a bit, but soon enough, your "shtick" is going to flame out and you'll be left behind with all the other "shock jocks" of the 80's who found their material unwelcome after a while."
- "I think the big thing that men often forget when they are being irreverent, is that on the whole, women take reference to their bodies more seriously than men do. Because of the history of objectification in our culture, there are just different emotions that are evoked when “humor” involves womens’ bodies. Many may laugh, but many WILL feel degraded personally. In some utopian world, we might be able to joke about each others bodies with no emotional consequence, but in our current historical situation this is not the case."
- Marginal voices by Erik Pukinskis
- "Given that, the fact that most of the men and women at your talk think it is great and not at all offensive doesn’t mean much. It doesn’t mean your talk isn’t extremely alienating to a large portion of the population. It means the women who would be alienated are already alienated from the community."
The following responses/blog posts support or are in favour of Hoss Gifford and/or his presentation.
- What really happened at Flashbelt '09 by Geoff Stearns
- "So this was the end of the talk. Everyone clapped and seemed to like the talk. There was no nudity and no “sexist” things said"
- Hoss at Flashbelt and women in tech by Niqui Merret
- "The issue here is not anything to do with being a woman, the issue is if you find the content offensive - man or women. I have been fuming about how this has turned into a man vs. woman issue. We are blurring the lines. We need to keep them clean. I would say issues of sexism and sexual harassment for women should be labeled in a whole different section to Hoss’ talk. I will support you without a doubt if you have been harassed or sexually discriminated against. I will not support you saying that Hoss’s talk was misogyny."
- Flashbelt | Pete's Eats by Pete Barr-Watson
- "I think it’s unfortunate that an individual was offended at Hoss’ recent talk at Flashbelt. It was definitely worthy of a discussion with him where I have no doubt he would have really taken on board any comments given to him. Or a complaint to the organizers in the same vein? But that wasn’t what happened. The complaint was made in public too, with several allegations leveled at Hoss which have subsequently been pulled apart elsewhere. Few of them seem to have stood up to this examination and yet the deluge of condemnation has continued. Not surprising perhaps given the sensationalist nature of the whole thing, but given the substance of the complaint it’s probably taking a fairly terrible toll on Hoss himself."
Hard to categorise
- Forward Movement by Stacey Mulcah
- "I’m struggling right now. Struggling to protect a community I love and adore. Struggling to find the words to articulate what I think, don’t think or haven’t given thought to about an issue that I’ve worked so hard ( and successfully so ) to make a relative non-issue for me. And yet, here it is, staring me in the face, and I realize, regardless of what I have to say about it, I simply can’t win.."