What a week it's been for male chauvinism in the tech industry. Between the ghastly "Titstare" presentation at the Disrupt SF Hackathon and the outrage over the noxious Twitter feed of Business Insider's (now former) CTO Pax Dickinson, the heated debate surrounding the industry's systemic sexism has reached "inside of Satan's very fiery mouth" temperatures. But, hey, at least this was a learning experience for everyone, right?
Sadly, it was not. Case in point: the Sydney-based Silicon Beach Australia listserv dissected and responded to the Titstare controversy, in which two grown men jokingly presented an app meant to curate pictures of men ogling the breasts of unknowing women (or, in the eloquent words of one presenter, "photos of yourself staring at tits"'). The app is necessary, they jested, because IRL women "just aren't that warm" to being creepily objectified. Ha-ha! Tech humor! Tits and apps, man, am I right?
In a post on the listserv, Elias Bizannes, one of the Hackathon Judges, formulated a response of his own, in which he argued that the press is "manipulating this story to be worse than it actually is" and stated that anyone outraged by the presentation is "just as bad as the majority of American's [sic] who thought Al-Qaeda was in Iraq and hence one of the stupidest wars of recent memory, all thanks to taking things hook line and sinker due to the media." He also argued:
If this presentation was a skit on Full Frontal or a comedy club, people wouldn't have said anything and laughed just like they did at the conference. Step away from the objectification of a female body part, and you will see it was an attempt at comedy. The words, the timing — it was an attempt on comedy, not an attack on women.
Yes, because making a big funny joke out of sexual harassment is in no way an attack on women. And it's very professional to hold a professional conference to the same standards of respect as a comedy club.
What the guys did was wrong: they used a sensitive term in the context of a female body part (tit) in a offensive way for a behavior women need to tolerate often (men staring at their breasts) at a professional event which did not have a mandate for comedy and had unspoken expectations of respect. That said, had they called their app "Douche Bag tracker" and focussed it on pathetic men who stare at women's breasts at they talked to them, they would have got a standing ovation from women who deal with this on a daily basis.
Yes, if the pair had called their app "Douche Bag tracker" and focused it on "pathetic men who stare at women's breasts," i.e., not included of photos of women's breasts in the "comedic" presentation about how funny it is to objectify women en masse, it would likely have been received differently. That is a fair point. There's a big difference between mocking men for engaging in predatorial behavior and making a joke of preying upon women — especially since distributing photographs of women's bodies without their knowledge or consent is something that happens far too often.
But the rest is blowing things out of proportion — the guys found a nerve (glass ceiling, women in tech, general male sleaze bag behavior) and smashed it with a hammer with their political incorrectness in a culture where if you fart you've caused global warming.
The tech industry is not welcoming to women. The tech industry has problems with treating sexual harassment cavalierly (a sad reification of this problem: in a terrible moment of Alanis Morissette-style irony, Adria Richards was reportedly standing onstage as Titstare was presented). So, yes, making a joke of sexual harassment does smash a nerve. Because these issues are so rampant in tech, it's not an overreaction to vociferously criticize an especially egregious example of everything that's wrong with the way the industry deals with women.
"Sometimes, unintentionally, our words and actions make women uncomfortable," muses Bizannes. Good point, sir. Very thought-provoking. But instead of defending sexist behavior by crying, "But some men just don't know better!", the tech industry needs to work to foster an environment in which such blind ignorance isn't acceptable. That's why the outcry is necessary — and why it's far from overblown.
"Thinking Titstare Was Tasteless Is as Bad as Supporting the Iraq War" [The Atlantic Wire]