Harassment at a Bitcoin Conference Highlights Problems of ‘Vicious’ Industry Sexism

Rachel Siegel was having a good time at the Bitcoin 2022 conference in Miami last month: swimming in ball pits, going to musical performances, and riding a mechanical bull. She’s been in the crypto industry for years, and decided to attend the conference—one of the biggest gatherings for crypto professionals and enthusiasts on the East Coast—at the last minute, to see some friends she hadn’t visited in a while.

On the last day of the conference, Siegel, who goes by CryptoFinally on social media, was waiting in line for the bull, she told me, when a man struck up a friendly conversation. She and her friends chatted with him, the line moved, they parted ways, and she didn’t see him again. Later, Siegel checked her Twitter notifications and saw that someone with the username @bitcoin_fukboi had taken a photo of her from behind, without her permission and without her being aware, and quote-tweeted her own selfies with the caption “Lol.” A scan of his Twitter feed and selfies he’d posted there confirmed, to her, that it was the same man who’d talked to her in line, she told Motherboard.

The tweet gained attention online, and people spread the image in their own posts, mocking her physical appearance or making fun of and minimizing the situation in replies about the conference. As she tried to report this attendee to the event’s organizers, she said, she realized that the person she reported it to themselves—an employee of BTC Inc., which threw the conference—was advancing her harassment online by liking and retweeting demeaning tweets about her situation. Someone started spreading rumors based on information she’d given conference organizers in confidence over email while reporting the harassment. 

All of this was effectively a case study in the way harassment can blur the lines between online and offline, and how it can spread out of control if the target tries to call it out or defend themselves. 

“I think there’s a big misunderstanding of consent,” Siegel said. “I just think the concept of sexual harassment is very misunderstood. Such bad things happen in the world, that unless you’re held up at gunpoint, people are not inclined to believe it’s a real situation… I think that women are allowed to have agency in their own bodies. And I think that they should be able to walk into a room without having that agency misappropriated.”

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The annual Bitcoin conference, now in its third year, is a spectacle of crypto bullishness. More than 25,000 people attended this year, and speakers included Wyoming Republican Senator Cynthia Lummis; anti-vaxxer and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers; billionaire and right-wing activist Peter Thiel, and Canadian professor (and apparent comic book villain inspiration) Jordan Peterson. It was presented by Cash App and organized by BTC Inc., which also owns Bitcoin Magazine. 

The conference has a code of conduct that includes a zero-tolerance policy for harassment, including “offensive verbal comments about personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender, disability or religion; intimidation; following or stalking; abusive recording; disruption of conference events; inappropriate physical contact; and inappropriate attention.” 

Siegel messaged the Bitcoin conference’s official Twitter account in a direct message during the early hours of April 10, after the image of her began circulating online, to report that this person was harassing her and breaking several of the conference’s policies. While she messaged back and forth with the person behind the official conference account, she noticed that someone who appeared to work for the event was liking the tweets she was reporting; when she confronted the @TheBitcoinConf account admin, he confirmed that the activity was coming from his own personal account, @CHAIRFORCE_BTC, in messages viewed by Motherboard. 

@CHAIRFORCE_BTC did not respond to a request for comment.

At this point, she’d tweeted a few times about the incident and being disappointed in the way the @TheBitcoinConf account was handling her report, but hadn’t named anyone specifically. Siegel contacted BTC Inc. in an email, asking them to look into the DMs between herself and the person controlling the @TheBitcoinConf account. After she contacted the organizers, someone tweeted that she was trying to get the person running the account fired.   

“All of a sudden, all of these big troll accounts are tweeting how I’ve identified a guy in the admin and I’m trying to get him fired,” Siegel told me. As the rumor spread, others started making jokes about her, or speaking up to defend the company publicly as a place that respects women. 

On April 10, the day after the bull-riding session attendee tweeted that photo, head of events for BTC Inc. Justin Doochin replied to Siegel’s email reporting the incident. 

“Hi – I’m the conference organizer, and I apologize that this occurred at our event,” Doochin wrote in an email thread viewed by Motherboard. “This is absolutely unacceptable, but without this person’s name or email, we have no way of identifying them and preventing them from attending future events,” he wrote, referring to @bitcoin_fuckboi. “We will reach out via Twitter though. Do you happen to know their name?” 

While the conference had strict rules against this type of behavior, it seemed unable to enforce them.

Doochin did not respond to a request for comment. 

Between April 10-13, Siegel, her legal counsel, and employees at BTC Inc. exchanged emails about the situation. Head of human resources Nick Beaird wrote to Siegel on April 13 in an email viewed by Motherboard saying that the activity on Twitter violated the conference’s code of conduct: “First, let me say that I am horrified to hear and see what has happened to you at our conference. While our terms clearly state in the Media Consent and Waiver section that your likeness and image may be captured and reproduced by one or more media presences or entities, it is absolutely unacceptable for someone to take that media and use it in a way that harasses you and violates our Anti-Harassment Policy and Code of Conduct. We care deeply about our attendees and take our terms seriously. We are thoroughly looking into this incident and will be taking whatever action we can, consistent with our terms, against this individual should we ascertain the identity.” 

Meanwhile, Siegel’s harassment online was getting worse. Memes and images joking about the photo, her status as a professional in the industry, and her body spread online. 

Siegel told me that all of this has taken a serious toll on her mental health. “I’m kind of scared to go outside, and I don’t want to be in public. I don’t want people to recognize me, and it’s affecting me in so many ways that the internet clearly can’t see and won’t ever see,” she said.

The same day Beaird wrote to Siegel that they take the code of conduct seriously, David Bailey, CEO of BTC Inc., posted a profanity-laden thread seemingly about the incident and saying the person who engaged with the tweet had been “reprimanded.”

“I absolutely despise woke bullshit but I want to build a community where everyone feels welcomed and people aren’t harassed over shit they can’t change. Someone on our team engaged with a dumb tweet from our official account. Extremely immature and I’m pissed about it,” he tweeted. “They’ve been seriously reprimanded but everyone makes mistakes and I’m not firing them for it. Let’s stay focused on the mission and build a dope community. As far as anyone at our conference being creepy and harassing woman because they don’t know how to interact with people, stop being a fucking loser and don’t come to our conferences. Bitcoin is for woman[sic] too. 26000 people attended, don’t let a few bad apples color the community.”

He went on to write that if his own relatives were in this position he’d have a different reaction. “My mom, sisters, aunts, wife, daughters all attend the conference and the moment one of them is made to feel uncomfortable I’ll kill a mother fucker,” he wrote. “I’ve said what I’m going to say about this publicly, and am now moving on with my life.” 

Bailey did not respond to a request for comment.

Much of the targeted harassment against Siegel has focused on the fact that she’s a woman who posts photos of herself online. She’s been in the crypto industry for years, and is an early adopter of the tech and investor in cryptocurrency, but as she’s gained popularity online, that visibility has often come at a cost to her own reputation. Women and femme investors are often reduced to “thirst trappers,” with little to offer but selfies and clout—while a mainstream push for women in crypto has veered into the absurdly, cringingly pinkwashed or expectations that they will solve the deeply-ingrained problems of sexism and bigotry rampant in most male-dominated tech industries.

“The problem with the sexism in the industry is that it is played out in every level”

For many marginalized people, including sex workers locked out of traditional finance avenues, crypto has been a literal lifesaver. People working in the adult industry, especially, have helped popularize the systems involved in accepting and paying online in crypto. But even with these radical, decentralized dreams, the industry is falling short—in Bitcoin, especially, those in the industry say. 

“Bitcoin is the most male-skewed industry in crypto yet Bitcoin is, IMO, the most important asset to learn about and utilize in crypto,” Sarah Satoshi, a pseudonymous bitcoin educator and founder of the nonprofit Ladies in Bitcoin, told me. It being the most “decentralized, censorship-resistant and widely accessible financial tool,” she said, allows women financial freedom that other currencies and platforms don’t. 

“However, from the outside, this industry doesn’t hold the reputation I just described. It looks cultish, alt-rightist, sexist, and unethical,” she said. “I want to work towards changing both the perception of this industry as well as the way it currently operates at a social level, since unfortunately, based on mine and many others’ experiences, there’s some truth to that description.” 

An artist who goes by Oona and who makes non-fungible tokens and frequently attends in-person events to display her performance art, told me that within the crypto industry, and the NFT industry as well, sexism is “displayed front and center,” but people are reluctant to actually address it. 

“The problem with the sexism in the industry is that it is played out in every level—men don’t make eye contact with womxn the same rate in these spaces, it’s almost as if they are talking to each other exclusively to each other or interested in womxn only for their sex appeal,” Oona said. “Womxn in this industry are constantly reduced to their body—it takes so much for them to be seen. Men constantly infantilize womxn in the space on stages and get away with it. IRL most of it is ‘benevolent’ sexism. But there is no hiding the sexism online. The online trolling is vicious and it’s incredibly backwards.” 

The idea that people are entitled to women’s bodies—and that they shouldn’t complain if other people take advantage of them—is a pervasive one. 

The industry professionals I spoke with who support Siegel and denounce the harassment happening to her online each said that the sexism that happens in crypto needs to be called out before it can improve. It’s incredibly difficult for them to speak up, though, because the kind of thing that happened to Siegel can happen to anyone. 

“We need more people to address this and get louder and louder,” Oona said. “I think as more womxn come into the space it will get worse for a little bit—until we start to get louder than the problem.”

“I do think it’s something that’s important, that should be acknowledged in our industry,” Siegel said. “When we look at crypto, and we look at the accessibility it offers… it’s just unbelievable that the power is being weighted and distributed to the abusers and people who are just not with it.”

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