How my community successfully reduced sexual misconduct

[Content warning: this post contains discussions of sexual misconduct, including assault]

In response to the recent articles about sexual misconduct in EA and Rationalism, a lot of discussion has ended up being about around whether the level of misconduct is “worse than average”. I think this is focusing on the wrong thing. EA is a movement that should be striving for excellence. Merely being “average” is not good enough. What matters most is whether EA is the best it could reasonably be, and if not, what changes can be made to fix that.

One thing that might help with this is a discussion of success stories. How have other communities and workplaces managed to “beat the average” on this issue? Or substantially improved from a bad place? For this reason I’m going to relay an anecdotal success story below. If you have your own or know of others, I highly encourage you to share it as well.

Many, many, years ago, I joined a society for a particular hobby (unrelated to EA), and was active in the society for many, many years. For the sake of anonymity, I’m going to pretend it was the “boardgame club”. It was a large club, with dozens of people showing up each week. The demographics were fairly similar to EA, with a lot of STEM people, a male majority (although it wasn’t that overwhelming), and an openness to unconventional lifestyles such as kink and polyamory.

Now, the activity in question wasn’t sexual in nature, but there were a lot of members who were meeting up at the activity meetups for casual and group sex. Over time, this meant that the society gained a reputation as “the club you go to if you want to get laid easily”. Most members, like me, were just there for the boardgames and the friends, but a reasonable amount of people came there for the sex.

As it turns out, along with the sex came an acute problem with sexual misconduct, ranging from pushing boundaries on newcomers, to harassment, to sexual assault. I was in the club for several years before I realised this, when one of my friends relayed to me that another one of my friends had sexually assaulted a different friend.

One lesson I took from this is that it’s very hard to know the level of sexual misconduct in a place if you aren’t a target. If I was asked to estimate the “base rate” of assault in my community before these revelations, I would have falsely thought it was low. These encounters can be traumatic to recount, and the victims can never be sure who to trust or what the consequences will be for speaking out. I’d like to think I was trustworthy, but how was the victim meant to know that?

Eventually enough reports came out that the club leaders were forced to respond. Several policies were implemented, both officially and unofficially.

  1. Kick people out.

Nobody has a democratic right to be in boardgame club.

I think I once saw someone mention “beyond reasonable doubt” when it comes to misconduct allegations. That standard of evidence is extremely high because the accused will be thrown into jail and deprived of their rights. The punishment of “no longer being in boardgame club” does not warrant the same level of evidence. And the costs of keeping a missing stair around are very, very high.

Everyone that was accused of assault was banned from the club. Members that engaged in more minor offenses were warned, and kicked out if they didn’t change. To my knowledge, no innocent people were kicked out by mistake (false accusations are rare). I think this made the community a much more pleasant place.

2. Protect the newcomers

When you attend a society for the first time, you do not know what the community norms are. You don’t know if there are avenues to report misconduct. You don’t have any social capital or reason to think you would be believed over an experienced member. And your likelihood to remain in the club is highly dependent on your initial experiences.

For these reasons, newcomers are easy targets. It came to light that some experienced members were essentially using the club as a way to pick up young and inexperienced university students. So new people would show up, and their first impression of the society would be multiple older men trying to sleep with them. A lot of them did not show up again.

We established a policy that established members, especially members of the executive, were to refrain from hitting on or sleeping with people in their first year at the society. This means that people get a chance to settle in and form friendships. And if an incident does occur, it’s no longer a case of the word of an experienced member vs someone nobody knows, it’s now your old friend Bob vs your new friend Alice. Alice is more likely to be believed, and more likely to actually tell people about the incident: the newcomer will often just leave, assuming that misconduct is the norm.

This policy is similar to the one proposed in this post and implemented by a few groups, which I endorse.

3. Change the leadership

Some of the people on the leadership team were the same ones that were accused of sexual misconduct. These people were removed from leadership roles, and over time the leadership became filled with people that were more trustworthy on this issue. I was one of the people that joined the leadership team around this time.

It’s somewhat hard to judge who actually can be trusted, of course. Women tend to be more trustworthy on this particular issue, but this is far from universal. And there are many stories of men publicly claiming to be devout feminists but secretly abusing people on the side. But I’d still take someone who has a reputation of taking misconduct seriously over someone who doesn’t.

4. Change the norms

We took a number of steps to remove the reputation as the place you go to for casual sex. We discussed orgies way less, had parties in pubs rather than in houses, and in general there was less sleeping around. It took years for the reputation to die down, but it did eventually. I think this disincentivized predators from joining, and encouraged more people who were there for the boardgames.

This is not to say that members became celibate. Existing relationships continued, new members got into relationships with each other. Age gap relationships also occurred, with the difference being that the younger person initiated and was part of the executive committee at the time.

Did it work?

I think it did. In the years following the changes, the number of reports of misconduct dropped drastically. There were no more reports of serious assault. I can think of two more cases of misconduct in the following years, and in both cases the offenders were non-core members that were swiftly ejected from the group. I can’t rule out that more misconduct was happening in secret that never got to us, but I’m fairly certain that it was significantly less than was occurring before.

I don’t think the new rules were overly burdensome on the community. The troublesome members were not crucial to it’s operation, and personally I found the society more pleasant with them gone. As I mentioned, relationships still occurred, just on a more even playing field. The one downside was that membership dropped a bit as it went from the “sex and boardgame” club to just the “boardgame” club, but I consider this to be well worth it.

I don’t think people should overly focus on my one anecdote. There are some similarities between my old community and EA, but also plenty of differences, such as EA being much larger, and much more decentralized, and has access to resources such as the community health team. And while I have tried to be as honest and accurate as I can in my recollection, this all occurred over many years, so it’s quite possible that parts have been misremembered.

I do think some of the lessons are useful. For example, I’m curious as to how long it take for newcomers to find out that the community health team exists. It’s not mentioned in any of the introductory resources on the forum. It’s plausible that people are being harassed and are just leaving without reporting it. Whenever I do dance classes they make sure to mention the code of conduct any time a new member is present, and to have it printed out and visible at the reception area. If something similar isn’t happening in your irl events, I would recommend it, it really is not a hassle. (This was not one of the things we did in boardgame club, but I think it would have helped as well).

What I am most interested in is hearing other success stories. Have you been in a community that defeated misconduct? Or that had such excellence in their policies that misconduct could never find a foothold? What norms and policies were in place?