What I’ve learned from Objectify A Male Tech Writer Day – and why I’m calling it off

The real mission has to be making everyone feel welcome, period.

"Objectify A Man in Tech Day" has become much bigger than I expected since I first wrote about it. At first I was excited, but now I see the scale of the discussion and coverage is creating a number of valid risks - and as a result, I'd like to call off the event.

The widely-covered event started out as a lark that emerged when I got fed up with experiencing - and seeing other women writers and presenters in gaming and tech - fielding irrelevant compliments on their appearance when people referenced their work.

I hoped the result of what we began calling "#Objectify day" would catalyse discussions about the way we use language and how seemingly-innocuous "compliments" are belittling and distracting. A lot of people liked this idea, understood the intention and found it fun.

My goal was that humor and empathy could help people open constructive dialog about sexism. And for a while it seemed like it could work! But there were also a lot of problems with my approach that came to light thanks to the feedback of some trusted friends and colleagues, and I take their concerns extremely seriously.

The dialogue's been great, but the end result - a day of circulating a hashtag on Twitter - runs the risk of catching fire with people who miss the point. #Objectify is not about celebrating objectification or about making people feel uncomfortable, but I'm increasingly worried that point will be lost and that harm can be done.

My friends and I have done our best to put clear information about our goals out there, but the sad fact is we can't expect everyone to read up or treat one another with respect. And there are some problematic risks even assuming everyone does "get it": We liked people comparing #Objectify to the Hawkeye Initiative but that also means we must consider similar criticisms, and the very real risk that our event would solicit homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other prejudices.

Though we wanted to call out gendered language, focusing on men in this way makes some dangerous assumptions about gender norms and sexuality:

For one thing, the event as it stands currently ignores the fact that gay men, trans men, men of color and any other man outside the "straight white guy privilege" zone are already victims of objectification. "Objectify a man" risks using harmful language toward people who may be vulnerable.

For another, some people feel that an environment of men tossing cute comments at each other ends up reducing women's sexual agency to a joke, since the compliments won't actually have the same effect on their intended recipients. But it's worse if the compliments do affect someone negatively -- is potentially triggering men who have body issues a victory for anyone?

We also need to consider people who live outside of the specific gender binary our society enforces: There are trans women, genderqueer and non-conforming people struggling every day not to be misgendered, and people living quietly with gender issues they may not share in the open. If these people end up caught in the crossfire of our event it doesn't matter whatsoever how well-intentioned we are: We risk actually traumatizing them.

I hoped discussions of gender norms would be one of the positive outcomes of #Objectify, and that attention to the issue would make it all worth some inevitable hostility. But for some people who may be exposed to the wrong kinds of language on the planned day, misunderstanding can be actually harmful, and that is absolutely not a risk I want to take.

"Starting dialogue" this way isn't worth potentially triggering others, putting them at risk or making them feel unsafe. I feel naive that I failed to fully consider the potential ramifications and want to apologize to anyone that was made uncomfortable or who felt threatened by my choice to approach an issue in this way.

There are a few good things, here: it's been an incredible learning experience, and I am still proud of the respectful attention my colleagues, friends and readership have given to issues of objectification and of making women feel welcome in tech. I've had positive conversations that would have been impossible even a year ago. That it took off in a larger way than I ever could have expected shows on some level that people care about change, and that makes me glad.

But the real mission is making everyone feel welcome, period. What I wanted to encourage through humor was caring, empathy and a willingness to listen and educate - now I've been asked to change course, and by calling a halt to #Objectify I hope I'm modeling those same qualities myself.

When people tell you they are hurting, are afraid or feel excluded, you don't get obsessed with your own sense of righteousness, you listen That's what this has always been about.

If you've been paying attention, I hope you continue thinking about the words you use to describe other people and their work. Please continue aiming to listen to and care for everyone who needs your help to feel respected, safe and welcome in tech -- or anywhere.

If you understood and appreciated our intention we thank you for your support, but we ask that if you've written about Objectify to please remove your post, or at least modify it to reflect our reasons for reconsidering this event.

Thanks for your compassion.

Leigh Alexander, gaming and social media culture journalist, is Gamasutra editor-at-large, columnist at Edge, Kotaku and Vice Creators Project, and contributor to Boing Boing,Thought Catalog and numerous others. This post first appeared at her blog, Sexy Videogameland.

There'll be no more objectification. Look at this lovely picture of a baby giraffe instead. Photograph: Getty Images
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war