Sexual Assault, Crowdfunding and Science Communication

21 June 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

There are times when it is okay to be angry.

When you see someone threatening people with sexual violence, you should be angry. When that threat is protected, rather than removed, you should be angry. That threat exists today, it is being supported by Kickstarter, and you should be angry. And the science communication community should channel that anger into action.

At issue is a project seeking funding on Kickstarter that bills itself as a seduction guide, but is actually a manual for how to physically intimidate and sexually assault women. The details are fairly repulsive, but here’s an example. The author of the “seduction guide” says that a man should get physically close to a woman, then pull out his penis, grab the woman’s hand and force her to touch his penis. That is not seduction, it is sexual assault, and it is completely unacceptable. [UPDATE: Kickstarter has now posted an open apology, admitting they were wrong. I give them credit for their honesty.]

The author of the guide defends this advice, saying that a man should stop if the woman asks him to. By that logic, it would be perfectly acceptable for someone to punch the author in the throat, as long as the assailant stopped when asked. But that rationale is clearly not acceptable – because the crime has already been committed. You can read about the relevant project here and here.

The content of the guide is clearly threatening and abusive, which would appear to be a violation of Kickstarter’s own terms of use. When concerned parties (including me) pointed this out to Kickstarter, and asked the crowdfunding site to remove the project, Kickstarter refused. Let me be crystal clear on what that means in practical terms: Kickstarter’s support for this sexual assault manual means that it has become a de facto supporter of sexual violence against women.

And let’s tackle the Freedom of Speech issue now: it’s not relevant. Kickstarter is in the business of supporting creative enterprise. I get that. But art stops being acceptable when it becomes an express threat to public safety – which is why the law incorporates limits to the First Amendment. This is why you are not allowed to phone bomb threats in to a school, threaten to kill someone, etc. Kickstarter is choosing to support this project, and that’s not acceptable.

So, what does this have to do with science communication?

Science communication is a creative enterprise, and getting creative enterprises off the ground takes money. Some great scicomm projects (e.g., ScienceStudio) are the result of funding via Kickstarter. I’ve supported some of them.

And if you were to search for the term “science” on Kickstarter today, you’d find a variety of interesting science communication initiatives. But no matter how good they are, I won’t be funding them. I won’t be funding anything on Kickstarter again, and I’m hoping you won’t either.

Crowdfunding is still an important tool for launching science communication projects, but Kickstarter has a lot of competition – there are more than 150 crowdfunding sites (that I know of). Here’s a list (and brief description) of the ten most prominent crowdfunding sites (nine, since one of them is Kickstarter), and here’s 20 more.

You have options other than Kickstarter. Use them. Kickstarter may not care whether it is linked to violence against women, but maybe they’ll care if there is any appreciable impact on their business. [UPDATE: While Kickstarter has now posted an open apology for supporting the project (as mentioned above), I'm not sure I can take a forgive and forget stance. It's something each of us will have to consider, and reach our own conclusions.]

And tell your creative friends. This shouldn’t be limited to the scicomm community. Violence against women is everyone’s problem, and everyone should take a hand in trying to prevent it.


13 Responses to “Sexual Assault, Crowdfunding and Science Communication”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    Is there a petition going around for this? If people amass behind a petition, it might spur more press coverage and might spur Kickstarter to take action, not least because of a taint in its reputation.

  2. David Wescott Reply | Permalink

    Curious to know if the identities of those who contributed to this project are public.

    • Kara Woo Reply | Permalink

      They were public when the project page still existed. I'm having trouble loading the cached record of the page, so I don't know if they are still available.

  3. Kai Reply | Permalink

    1. You over-react to the material. While the author of the "seduction guide" is morally in the wrong, you act as if he were promoting rape.
    2. To assert that kickstarter would be supporting sexual assault just isn't true. It's a logical fallacy
    3. Kickstarter delivered a rational and sincere explanation that makes sense.
    4. Maybe ask yourself why you react so violently to the issue (not the guide) and if you don't enjoy the little power you get from being the leader of kickstarter's pillorying.

    • Jacquelyn Reply | Permalink

      1. You don't get to decide what constitutes an overreaction. The guide does indeed promote sexual assault and contributes to rape culture. There is a lot of science that backs this statement up. If you do the things that are promoted in that book-- if you gran a woman's hand and forcefully put it on your penis without consent-- you could be arrested.

      2. They are supporting sexual assault by providing a platform for this book to be made and broadly disseminated, and then profiting from it. I'm familiar with all of the logical fallacies--remind me which specific one runs counter to that?

      3. Their rational and sincere explanation is welcome, but came too late and does NOT in ANY way negate the points that Matt has made.

      4. Maybe ask yourself why you react so defensively to the issue and if you don't enjoy the little power you get from being the sort of person who benefits from male privilege and rape culture.*

      *I am making an assumption that "kai" is male. This may not be true, but I'm using kai's language as a rhetorical device, which should be valid regardless.

      • Andy Reply | Permalink

        I'm not sure if that's sexual assault. First, he says this line: If at any point a girl wants you to stop, she will let you know. If she says "STOP," or "GET AWAY FROM ME," or shoves you away, you know she is not interested. It happens. Stop escalating immediately and say this line:
        "No problem. I don't want you to do anything you aren't comfortable with." Then he says to go for the kiss. They're making out, and he has his hands under her shirt. The assumption is that she's ok with it so far, and they're going to do the deed. At this point, he says to put her hand on his penis. This article is leaving out the context - it's not, go up to a girl at a bar and put her hand on your penis. No doubt, that would be sexual assault, but I don't think what the author advocates is sexual assault.

  4. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    1. I do not feel I am over-reacting.
    2. It was *de facto* support, not explicit support.
    3. Kickstarter issued a rational apology, and pledged funding to RAINN, which is great.
    4. I react so violently to this issue because I have a mother, a wife and daughters. I react so violently to this issue because I have worked with groups that support survivors of sexual assault and rape. As for the charge that I'm power tripping, I confess to being a little surprised. I'm not sure that it is even possible to power trip by writing a blog about science communication.

    • Andy Reply | Permalink

      I think you're not presenting the full context. The context is, they're making out, things are hot and heavy, and they're going to have sex, and she's ok with it so far. At that point, he says to put her hand on his penis. I'm curious, when you first had sex with your wife, did you ask for permission? I'm not being facetious - how would you go about doing it? Clearly, if the woman pulls away or says no, you need to stop.

      • Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

        To be honest, Andy, you're kind of creeping me out. While I am going to decline your request to discuss my sexual history, I will say this: At no point on any date, with any person, ever, have I pulled out my penis, grabbed the other person's hand, and tried to make them touch it. The fact you think there's even a remote chance of that being an acceptable "seduction" tactic, in any context, is pretty disturbing.

  5. Jennifer Reply | Permalink

    Given that Kickstarter regularly empowers businesses that come in direct competition with established sources of lobbying money, it's no surprise that they are regularly being investigated by both the SEC and the FBI. It is my understanding that they have now bowed to social pressure and have removed the funding page for 'Above the Game.'

    An impressive display of influence, but I can't help wondering, Mr Shipman, how you would feel if the authors moved forward with printing. Would you advocate burning the book? If not, why not?

    Silencing another party is never the correct course, for in doing so all we accomplish is to remove ourselves from the conversation.

  6. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Hi Jennifer,
    I am not in favor of bookburning. I am in favor of holding businesses responsible for their actions. My gripe with Kickstarter concerns their decision not to take down the project once they were made aware of its problematic nature.

    I do not think that outlets/businesses should be barred by law from offering space or services to the customers of their choosing. However, I do think that consumers should make informed decisions about which outlets/businesses they choose to support. I am not advocating for regulatory or legal action of any kind against Kickstarter. I simply want people to stop supporting it. At some point, I may even support them again. But right now I'm having trouble taking a "forgive and forget" approach. Businesses should be aware that their actions have consequences. As a consumer, my only recourse is to take my business elsewhere.

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