How an anonymous Facebook post sparked a conversation about sexual violence in UC Berkeley tech clubs

Students walk past Sproul Hall on a gloomy day.
Priyanka Karthikeyan/File

Related Posts

Content warning: Sexual violence

Three weeks ago, a UC Berkeley student wrote an anonymous post on Facebook alleging that they were sexually assaulted at a retreat for a campus tech club, opening a dialogue about sexual assault and consent in campus coding and engineering groups.

The post has moved groups to reevaluate their commitment to consent and inclusivity, and it has caused some to question campus education requirements regarding sexual violence and harassment training.

The confession and CodeBase

The story that would later spark a larger conversation was posted in Confessions from UC Berkeley — an anonymous Facebook group where students share their thoughts and experiences. In the post, the student alleged that they were sexually assaulted at a club retreat at Lake Tahoe during the fall 2018 semester and also described the club as having a “frat culture.”

“ive been too scared to say anything about it until now bc the guy who did it is v high up in the club and (the club) has never been very good about admitting that they have a problem of alcoholism and promoting individuals like him throughout the club,” the post alleged. “But i doubt anything will happen since the club is full of people like him.”

Of the 77 comments on the post, many — though not all — were messages of support.

The name of the club was later redacted from the post, but a campus group, CodeBase, came forward in the comments section of the post. CodeBase is a student organization of about 50 members in the electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS, department with dual missions of empowering individuals for industry impact and mentoring students in computer science and engineering.

“Though our organization’s name has since been redacted, CodeBase wants to make it clear that we will take full responsibility and are taking this information extremely seriously,” the group said in the comments section. “We are committed to finding the individual responsible and immediately removing them from CodeBase.”

Along with the statement, the club posted an anonymous Google form inviting commenters to come forward if they had any information related to the post. CodeBase also reached out to the LEAD Center and [email protected], as well as the PATH to Care Center, which it asked to host a consent and boundaries workshop at its first general meeting.

“We are taking a couple of tangible steps this semester to try to provide as safe of an environment for our members as possible, whether or not the events are true,” said CodeBase President Young Guo. “We didn’t really realize that these resources were out there, but we’re taking this opportunity as a learning experience for us all, and we are definitely taking these things very seriously.”

Guo added that CodeBase decided not to host a retreat this semester.

The night the original post went up, CodeBase members contacted the Berkeley Police Department with the intention of filing a police report about the incident described in the post. The LEAD Center, however, later advised against this because the choice to report is typically reserved for the survivor of sexual violence.

A lack of consent requirements for campus clubs

CodeBase’s confusion about reporting is, in some ways, a testament to the lack of consent education required of registered student organizations, or RSOs, said ASUC Senator Zach Carter, who ran for senate on a platform of sexual violence prevention.

“I don’t think this situation is unique to CodeBase in that it really could happen anywhere because we’re not giving folks the tools,” Carter said. “The people at CodeBase are probably well-intentioned, but how are they supposed to know how to report or be survivor-centric? … It comes back to education.”

And, in Carter’s opinion, there is not enough preventative education about sexual violence and sexual harassment, or SVSH, required for RSOs. There are more than 1,200 different registered student groups on campus. From each club, only two signatory members are required to attend a two-hour orientation, which includes 20 to 30 minutes of SVSH response and prevention training.

According to campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff, RSO signatories are not required to share their education with the rest of their club members or leadership, though they are encouraged to do so. Carter said that is a major problem.

“The fact that there’s an RSO of 400 people and only the (signatories are) getting SVSH training is terrifying,” Carter said. “People should be alarmed.”

Carter said he believes this means that clubs can go on retreats without mandatory social norms education, aside from the training of two individuals. That is why he is working with other ASUC senators to try to link RSO funding to some form of required seminar about sexual violence and consent.

“You want to get funding and you want to be a club that sets up and has retreats? Awesome,” he said. “No matter what the discipline is — tech, humanities, a faith-based organization — you should have an SVSH seminar.”

Ratliff said the LEAD Center and the PATH to Care Center are also in conversations with ASUC members to explore piloting additional prevention education opportunities for RSOs. He added that all UC Berkeley students are required to complete prevention education — which includes an online training and an in-person presentation — to register for classes.

Carter acknowledged that, at present, resources such as the LEAD Center and the PATH to Care Center might not be able to tackle the issue of consent education in RSOs because they are underfunded and short-staffed. According to Ratliff, the LEAD Center is working to fill its vacancies this semester, and its staffing model is being evaluated.

“We need to operate on a scale we can manage,” Carter said. “If we’re chartering hundreds of student organizations and we have no accountability measures for them or the people that are supposed to be accountable for them are understaffed, that’s a disservice to the entire campus.”

And on a campus with more than 30,000 undergraduate students, Carter said this sentiment is especially important in an SVSH culture that permeates different spaces in different ways.

UC Berkeley’s MyVoice survey, published in 2018, found that 16.8 percent of campus undergraduate students said they have experienced sexual assault and 29.8 percent said they have experienced sexual harassment. Of those who said they have experienced sexual assault, the large majority identified themselves as female or transgender and gender-nonconforming.

Combatting a “semi-toxic” club culture

The anonymous post also condemned a culture of binge-drinking in campus coding and engineering clubs. Since the post was published, other students within the community have said they feel this rings true.

One of those students is campus sophomore Michelle Mao, an EECS major who is also the vice president of the Association of Women in EE&CS. She said that while she does not think sexual assault is more prevalent in coding and technology groups than in others, she has observed harassment and a “semi-toxic and misogynistic culture” reminiscent of fraternity stereotypes.

Though Mao had not heard of a situation such as the one described in the Confessions from UC Berkeley post before, she said she “wasn’t surprised” when she read it.

Carter said that while he thinks drinking culture can contribute to sexual violence, these incidents are part of a larger issue, and he added that SVSH can still occur even if hard alcohol is eliminated. He said the issue circles back to social norms and a lack of SVSH education.

Mao said the Association of Women in EE&CS — an organization that aims to socially and academically support women who are interested in engineering and computer science — held a social last semester dedicated to talking about sexual harassment in technology communities on campus.

“We talked about gender biases that we perceived and opened the floor for anyone to talk about their experiences,” she said. “In the end we gathered a bunch of resources and sent them out to people.”

Mao recommended that campus technology groups listen to their female members, especially those who leave the group.

“I think it’s really important to ask them why they’re leaving, and the majority of the time you might run into things that are gender-specific,” she said.

Campus groups on the path to change

Technology and coding groups on campus are beginning to have conversations about SVSH. Since the post, campus computer science and engineering groups have been reevaluating whether their established club infrastructures encourage a culture of consent.

Launchpad, a campus tech group that builds intelligent software and applications, said that in light of recent events, the group has begun working with ASUC Senator Anne Zepecki’s office to enact policies to address these issues. Some of these policies include creating a designated position to minimize risks before and at social events, informing members of resources such as the PATH to Care Center and defining consent during socials and retreats.

Codeology, another campus tech group focused on software engineering, said it is also taking new measures this semester to educate members about consent and available resources.

“This semester, for retreat, we are going to give a speech to our members giving them very basic sexual harassment and active bystander training, and we are going to have them sign a waiver as well,” said Codeology President Sera Yang.

Many campus technology clubs are relatively new, according to Guo, having only been founded in the past three to four years. Mandatory RSO signatory training from the LEAD Center is also a recent addition, having only been implemented in 2016. As these clubs grow and mature, some students have said the resources offered should mature, too.

In the meantime, groups such as CodeBase have said they are reaffirming their commitment to consistent consent education.

“We definitely plan to continue doing these workshops and to continue to educate our members about consent and boundaries, partying safe and also providing all of our members with resources to learn more about these issues and to be as educated and as aware as possible,” Guo said.

CodeBase Vice President Amitav Baruah said that regardless of whether the allegations made in the anonymous post can be confirmed, they fit into a larger discussion about sexual harassment and violence, prevention and education in campus groups. Guo, who agreed with Baruah’s sentiment, added that this has become a more salient topic in the past year alone.

“It is a conversation that’s starting to be had now,” Guo said. “A lot of tech clubs are becoming more aware of this.”

Contact Maya Eliahou at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @MayaEliahou.