Behind the Leweb talk: 24 hours later

Image by Blogowski.

The reactions to this talk are the weirdest I’ve encountered in my many years of talking about sex at tech conferences (incl. SXSW, ETech, Forbes Internet Leadership Conference). Women loved it; all the feedback and backchannel chat from women has been excited and positive. And there’s been a lot of it, like “Who was one of the prominent women at #LeWeb? @VioletBlue. Er….not that there’s anything WRONG with that!” and “Your talk was great, refreshing. They may be priggish, prudish, non-liberal & reeling from @garyvee but that’s their issue.” I got positive feedback from guys too like, “I nominate @violetblue as ambassador to France.” My fave: “Fairly traditional marketer “turned me on” to @violetblue. LeWeb preso covers history, technologies and business opps” My criticism came exclusively from men. On Twitter and a blog or two (comments), they called me ugly and ‘not sexy’ and ‘boring’, said my talk was the ‘worst’ (and said things about my sex life), called me ‘a waste of skin’, and I gained a new male troll, who is still harassing me. It’s being pointed out to me that there are a *lot* of people shouting out support, and even my partner’s mom liked my talk. Still, I managed to upset and generally disrupt the thought patterns of conservative European businessmen. I was also treated totally bizarrely by LeWeb itself.

If you just arrived to this conversation, I was invited by one of the people who run the French internet conference (LeWeb) to specifically give a talk on ‘sex in the future.’ Which is what I did yesterday, and why I’m currently in Paris.

I’ll give you the rundown on what happened to me as a speaker at LeWeb after the jump. First and foremost, I want to give you the source material and credits for the substance of my talk. I want to thank Thomas Roche for his ongoing help researching, co-writing the talk, and being a sounding board for the talk itself; I could not have pulled together the material without his expansive knowledge. Thank you, Thomas! (Many of you know that I co-speak with Thomas a lot, he is my best friend, and we wrote a book together). I regret that I could not specifically source all the details of my data, source material, references and thank/credit the people behind the source materials while speaking.

In order:

* Instantaneous orgasms: Here I talked about the persistent fantasy of unlimited orgasms, without physical barriers. Links and source materials: Barbarella, Flesh Gordon, Sleeper, Demolition Man, brain implants, spinal implants.
* Sex with robots: Here I talked about the persistent fantasy of sex with machines that have no consciousness (despite sometimes being in humanoid form) and no feeling. Links and source materials: The Future Eve, First Androids, early vibrators (those are my uncredited photos from ‘Good Vibrations’), [sexual] hysteria treatment for women in history, Fucking Machines.
* Virtual reality sex: Here I talked about the persistent fantasy of sexual experiences in a world other than this where anything is possible. I wanted to include sex in space, but didn’t have the time to properly contextualize its inclusion. Links and source materials: MMORPG‘s, Lawnmower Man clip (which was part of LeWeb’s tech fail for me), sex in Second Life, gaming and consumer early adoption for sex (theory), marriage and relationships in online games.
* Promiscuous new friends: Here I discussed the persistent fantasy of sexual encounters with personalities free of judgment. Links and source materials: Virtual girlfriends, Nintendo’s Love Plus (many asked if I knew about the recent marriage of a Love Plus virtual girlfriend and human male; yes of course. however, I only had 20 minutes for the entire talk, which caused me to cut things I wished I had more time to cover in detail), Zoltan, ALICE, Virtual Kari, Virtual Humans Forum, Project Aiko, Aiko on Twitter, Aiko’s facial recognition skills.
* Designer sex experiences: Here I talked about the emergent trend of sexual experiences with technology that learns from the user and business breakthroughs combining cutting edge tech with customizable sexual fantasy experiences. Links and source materials: Je Joue, haptics and sex, biometrics, commercially available EEG brainwave headsets (which I’ve personally tested), Segment and their Virtual Hole, Gizmodo’s Mark Wilson trying the hole and stick (where the slide image came from), Segment’s technical concept, Segment’s business + distribution + implementation model, and Segment’s overarching business plan for world domination (via this detailed post by qDot aka Kyle Machulis, who wrote a description I sourced heavily from in this section because he described Segment’s technical specs on their Virtual Feeling Technology in a way I simply could not, and my comment about ‘sexy, sexy headphones’ is all qDot). Incidentally, I have known Kyle for years and he’s not happy I relied on his post for this section. I’m not sure why. I emailed, but he has not responded.
* Disruption: This segment was passionate theory about the human will to explore sex despite cultural inhibitions, sex hackers, and the disruptive force that is the rapidly growing force of sexually powerful (and knowledgeable, tech-social, connected, self-aware, articulate) women.

Update: Here is a fantastic, detailed, woman-centric review of my talk, Violet Blue and “The Future of Sex” at LeWeb (

Let me just make clear that I had a great time at LeWeb with the people I met, got to know and spent time with. I saw some fabulous, inspiring talks. I was, and still am, impressed with the amazing people who made it happen and rocked the stages — and the support staff, not to mention the dynamic and diverse attendees. I connected with *such* cool, smart, and truly exciting people.

My experience, for what it’s worth:

I was asked to give a talk at LeWeb about the future of sex by the male conference organizer in person. Afterward he sent me a confirmation email formally asking me to talk; I agreed. I submitted my bio as requested, as I was among the early confirmed speakers, and I excitedly watched the speaker page grow. The responses I received to fixing the formatting of my bio were prompt. Around September 26, I noticed that my short speaker bio on the ‘all speakers’ had been removed from its previous place in alphabetical order and put the the bottom of the page. My main bio page was untouched (and never edited to my knowledge). Shortly after this, my first and last name were reversed, and the bio remained at the bottom of the ‘all speakers’ page. I emailed about the mistake on October 6. They apologized, explained that the content of my website was a concern in regard to their interest in securing the presence of the Queen of Jordan, and that they would rectify the situation. I said no problem, let me know how we can tailor my bio to your needs. I was naturally upset, but I know my topic is controversial and am always flexible about presentation as long as I know what’s going on.

On October 29 I got an automated alert that a change was made to my short bio on the ‘all speakers’ page. The word “sex” was dropped, leaving my description as “futurist.” The next day, LeWeb announced that Queen Rania of Jordan* was officially going to be speaking. I emailed them about the change and was told that I was wrong, and that I was “never” described as a ‘sex futurist’. Still, the main bio page of me said (and still says) ‘sex’ and all subsequent ancillary schedule announcement descriptions describe me as a ‘sex futurist’.

When the program was announced, my talk was described in the online materials as being called ‘Open Source Sex’ which surprised me when I read it. I remarked to a colleague a few hours before my talk that I was concerned the audience did not know what to expect. In fact, the ‘future sex’ topic was introduced by my pal GaryVee about 15 minutes before I got onstage.

At talk time I went backstage an hour in advance to check in, concerned about the AV for my talk. After I waited, their AV team requested my USB key: this had my PowerPoint slides and a video I wanted to show. I watched as an AV guy (this is the guy that interrupted my talk, far after the technical fail) tried to comprehend why my Mac PP file wouldn’t run on his Windows machine. When he finally understood that I was using a Mac, he told me to get my computer. I gave him my MacBook, where it worked fine, and I saw that he had the correct dongle for my laptop already there (showing me I was not the first person to cross his path with a Mac). As he poked around in my display settings, I got his attention to point out that I now had 10 minutes of battery left and needed to plug in. There was a Mac charger on the next table. I indicated it. Without looking at me he told me to get my own charger. I went and returned with it, waiting until he took it from my hands. When he paged through my slides, they were also displayed on a second monitor that faced the public hall, viewable by anyone. Another man on staff made fun of my slides to the man working on my Mac, and it was clear that they did not know I understand French. They snickered and did not look at me. This happened more than once.

Then the AV guy told me I was done, though I wanted to set the files in order so I could use command keys and he told me it would be set. While he did this he closed all the windows, leaving my desktop on the public hall monitor displays. My desktop was an [animated] image of nude cartoon anime characters. I got his attention and requested that he open a window to cover up the image, which I felt may be inappropriate (not to mention my concern about having the contents of my desktop on display). It took him a minute to look at what I was trying to show him on my desktop. He opened the non-slideshow window of my presentation, and this is exactly how I found my laptop (read: not ready) when I walked out and got to the podium. When I attempted to play the video during my talk and found the program closed (not like I’d left the file, open), I was not surprised. I pivoted my talk to fit it, and was interrupted by the AV guy long after I’d embarrassingly tried to play the video onstage.

I am sure there are many reasons for these circumstances. I could also tell you about how 15 minutes before my talk I had LeWeb’s photographer take me outside for photos only to be refused re-entry by security, but there’s really no point.

The whole experience was bizarre. Especially after my warm, welcoming experience with Oprah and Harpo Productions, Inc. It makes me think that unlike my previous perceptions, Americans — or the minds in forward thinking American media, like Oprah’s media team that is specifically women-focused — are actually more sexually tolerant and progressive than Europeans. Which is something I never thought I’d say.

* I was very disappointed that Queen Rania did not talk about the grave human rights issues of women in her own country, while her talk focused on aiding the misfortune of uneducated children (girls) worldwide though the use of tech and social media and pivoted on the topic of Iran’s election.

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  1. @Loic, I have no doubt in my mind that you were happy to have me at your conference. this is different, however, than the experience I had with others in your organization.

    my intention in mentioning that I was invited by a male individual was not to personalize the situation (I would have named names if that was my intention). it was to communicate that I was indeed invited to be there, despite my own experience — as witnessed — that seemed to send a different message. after the reactions to a talk about sexuality, I needed to make it clear that my subject matter was actually invited to be there. you may know that people who have said nice things about my talk have also been harassed by the same trolls who pursued me online days after my talk. that your inclusion of diversity was a desired thing at LeWeb was important to express to my readers and any wider public who may have thought otherwise, or capitalized on such a notion for their trolling. and for the record, my experience with you, Loic, has been nothing but pleasant, gracious and enthusiastic. it was not my intention to post any conversations that might have been off the record, had I been made aware of such.

    that said, my experience is my own. and I think you’ll appreciate in the spirit of blogging and the principles of community conversation, I do have the right to tell my story. it is my experience, and mine alone.

    you may be disappointed that I chose to tell my story in the public forum of my own blog. meanwhile, I have been surprised throughout my experience to observe an organization ostensibly definitive of ‘the web’ that appears to be allergic to transparency.

    I am very glad you commented here. thank you for taking the time to reach out, and balance out the conversation.

  2. Hello Violet,
    I am for your readers, the male co-organizer of the conference. I am sorry you had a bad experience from our team and want to apologize for that, I don’t think that means the event was badly organized though, we had a problem with one speaker presentation on about 120 speakers and unfortunately it has fallen on you.

    I don’t want to get into details here but we tried as much as we can to make it work perfectly well and it is a shame that video did not start on account of communication issues, I don’t think this has anything to do with the content of your presentation. We actually had both PCs and Macs available for speakers and should have been able to make this work together, what can I say, it did happen and I am sorry. Connecting this to the content of your talk is a mistake, it is absolutely unfortunate and unrelated.

    We were happy to have you and I think many of the 1200+ people from 50 countries in the room and 3 to 4,000 more on live video who watched your presentation enjoyed it despite the video that did not start.

    As far as private email communication is concerned between you and us regarding our concerns when we were not sure about Queen Rania’s presence, I regret that you post this here in public and I feel certainly very bad about it, I would never post any private conversations in public before asking your approval.

    Since you took it public, yes, we were concerned that the content of your site in the agenda of LeWeb could have had an impact on the Queen to confirm and we explained it to you, as well as apologized already.

    As far as your bio is concerned we would have never modified it without your approval and we have not, my team answered you already on this point, I believe this is a misunderstanding.

    I am sorry that you seem so upset while I have been personally very excited to have you, excited by the result despite the video glitch and disappointed it happened.

    You can trust we tried everything we can to avoid that and I don’t think we deserve the comments you made here as well as your readers comments about the poor organisation, but that is life.

  3. Eeek. European is a completely meaningless term. Even more so than ‘American’.

    Am very surprised to see you use any enormous group terminology, to be honest.

    One badly organised conference does not a continent of intolerance make :)

  4. Enikao said it pretty well and objectively, kudos to him/her.
    However, being a native S.Franciscan and having lived in Paris for the past 12 years, and being around the TV/Cinema crowd, I can confirm that AV guys here tend to be more macho than their No. Cal. counterparts.
    Your suggestion that Americans might more tolerant than Europeans deserves study; put as Jacco said, don’t lump all Europeans together.

    It’s certainly true that the French have this mythological notion that us Americans are “Puritanical.”
    Since that myth ignores our hearty appetite for porn, or for fighting non-stop for the right to marry who we want, or for the right to have medical marijuana, it must come from the fact we shudder when in France and we see naked women on billboards being used to sell everything from yogurt to web-hosting services.

  5. That presentation was the tip of the iceberg! Please tell me you’re planning to take your notes as outline for a more indepth book about the future of sex.
    It would be fascinating to hear more detail about the (assumed) “why” behind all the future “whats.”

  6. Violet,

    It is a very interesting, although not positive, feedback you are giving to us (I’m no organisator, just a froggy invited as an official blogger too) about LeWeb, especially the “backstage” point of view. Not to make it funny, I think your on-stage intervention needed lube in some way. Because your topic is a bit different from the traditionnal things that are discussed there, the discourse was starting from maybe far.

    Please do not make amalgams, I don’t believe that “European” is a pertinent qualificative and my guess is that it is not a quastion of sexual tolerance. It is a matter of treatment (and according to your say, it was unfair and unprofessional towards you) and preparation of the audience. Some people just did not understand your role, your position (because of the bio problem, maybe,or because you’re not so famous here), and so did not underdstand the meaning of your presentation. This is the feedback I’ve had from some french journalists who covered LeWeb.

    The second day was very chaotic : Rania, Gary (very good but very unpredictible), our Minister who litterally interrupted the start-up prize ceremony because she arrived late… and indeed you did not receive the support and the welcome you deserved.

    I hope you’re not really angry about the audience, but you legitimately can be angry about the conditions.

  7. Please do not judge all europeans to be less “…sexually tolerant and progressive …” because of your, not to be mistaken, terrible expirience. Very dissapointing behaviour by LeWeb for sure!!!
    Keep ut the good work. I love your work!!!

    Greetings from the cold northern part of Europe.

  8. Sounds like you had a pretty normal hotel/convention center AV experience, I’m sorry to say. I’ve been in the show production / presentation trade for something like thirty years, and I’ve seen this kind of thing happen way, way too many times. If this had been my show, we’d have had both Macs and PCs up on line well in advance, and your presentation would have been set up to your specs; we’d also have muted and blanked the front of house projection systems, too, as showing the audience the run-through is the mark of a poorly-trained and indifferent technician. Doing good presentations isn’t rocket science, just attention to detail, and this guy just didn’t have it. If he had been one of my guys, you’d have gotten an apology at the very least, and he’d be looking for another job.

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