How to avoid supporting sexual predators

[TW: child sex abuse]

Recently, I received an email from a computer security company asking for more information on why I refuse to work with them. My reason? The company was founded by a registered child sex offender who still serves as its CTO, which I found out during my standard client research process.

My first reaction was, “Do I really need to explain why I won’t work with you???” but as I write this, we’re at the part of the Jeffrey Epstein news cycle where we are learning about the people in computer science who supported Epstein—after Epstein pleaded guilty to two counts of “procuring prostitution with a child under 18,” registered as a sex offender, and paid restitution to dozens of victims. As someone who outed her own father as a serial child molester, I can tell you that it is quite common for people to support and help known sexual predators in this way.

I would like to share how I actively avoid supporting sexual predators, as someone who provides diversity and inclusion training, mostly to software companies:

  1. When a new client approaches me, I find the names of the CEO, CTO, COO, board members, and founders—usually on the “About Us” or “Who We Are” or “Founders” page of the company’s web site. Crunchbase and LinkedIn are also useful for this step.
  2. For each of the CEO, CTO, COO, board members, and/or founders, I search their name plus “allegations,” “sexism,” “sexual assault,” “sexual harassment,” and “women.” I do this for the company name too.
  3. If I find out any executives, board members, or founders have been credibly accused of sexual harassment or assault, I refuse to work with that company.
  4. I look up the funders of the company on Crunchbase. If any of their funders are listed on Sexism and Racism in Venture Capital, I give the company extra scrutiny.
  5. If the company agreed to take funding from a firm (or person) after knowing the lead partner(s) were sexual harassers or predators, I refuse to work with that company.

If you don’t have time to do this personally, I recommend hiring or contracting with someone to do it for you.

That’s just part of my research process (I search for other terms, such as “racism”). This has saved me from agreeing to help make money for a sexual predator or harasser many times. Specifically, I’ve turned down 13 out of 303 potential clients for this reason, or about 4% of clients who approached me. To be sure, it has also cost me money—I’d estimate at least $50,000—but I’d like to believe that my reputation and conscience are worth more than that. If you’re not in a position where you can say no to supporting a sexual predator, you have my sympathy and respect, and I hope you can find a way out sooner or later.

Your research process will look different depending on your situation, but the key elements will be:

  1. Assume that sexual predators exist in your field and you don’t know who all of them are.
  2. When you are asked to work with or support someone new, do research to find out if they are a sexual predator.
  3. When you find out someone is probably a sexual predator, refuse to support them.

What do I do if, say, the CEO has been credibly accused of sexual harassment or assault but the company has taken appropriate steps to make amends and heal the harm done to the victims? I don’t know, because I can’t remember a potential client who did that. I’ve had plenty that published a non-apology, forced victims to sign NDAs for trivial sums of money, or (very rarely) fired the CEO but allowed them to keep all or most of their equity, board seat, voting rights, etc. That’s not enough, because the CEO hasn’t shown remorse, made amends, or removed themselves from positions of power.

I don’t think all sexual predators should be ostracized completely, but I do think everyone has a moral responsibility not to help known sexual predators back into positions of power and influence without strong evidence of reform. Power and influence are privileges which should only be granted to people who are unlikely to abuse them, not rights which certain people “deserve” as long as they claim to have reformed. Someone with a history of sexually predatory behavior should be assumed to be dangerous unless exhaustively proven otherwise. One sign of complete reform is that the former sexual predator will themselves avoid and reject situations in which power and access would make sexual abuse easy to resume.

In this specific case, the CTO of this company maintains a public web site which briefly and vaguely mentions the harm done to victims of sex abuse—and then devotes the majority of the text to passionately advocating for the repeal of sex offender registry laws because of the incredible harm they do to the health and happiness of convicted sex offenders. So, no, I don’t think he has changed meaningfully, he is not a safe person to be around, he should not be the CTO of a computer security company, and I should not help him gain more wealth.

Don’t be the person helping the sexual predator insinuate themself back into a position with easy access to victims. If your first instinct is to feel sorry for the powerful and predatory, you need to do some serious work on your sense of empathy. Plenty of people have shared what it’s like to be the victim of sexual harassment and assault; go read their stories and try to imagine the suffering they’ve been through. Then compare that to the suffering of people who occasionally experience moderate consequences for sexually abusing people with less power than themselves. I hope you will adjust your empathy accordingly.