"Coercive climate" of Silicon Valley's AI boom fuels "troubling" sex parties, researcher says

"Consensual non-consent": Women who work in Silicon Valley describe "dark side" of tech startup culture

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published May 21, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

OpenAI logo is seen displayed on a mobile phone screen, smoke in the background. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
OpenAI logo is seen displayed on a mobile phone screen, smoke in the background. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Female researchers in artificial intelligence and machine learning are calling for greater transparency into what they allege is a culture of sexual coercion in Silicon Valley. On Sunday, computational neuroscience and machine learning expert Sonia Joseph took to X (formerly Twitter) to describe a "dark side" of startup culture — including "heavy LSD use" and sex parties held by mainly male tech and entrepreneurial elites that involve mock-violent role playing with female participants.

"I have seen some troubling things around social circles of early OpenAI employees, their friends, and adjacent entrepreneurs," she said in a detailed tweet

Joseph, who said she is not currently under any non-disclosure agreements and has never worked for OpenAI, is a Princeton graduate and doctoral researcher at deep learning institute Mila Quebec. Her observations, she said, reflect what she witnessed in San Francisco's well-known community housing tech scene and through a network of women quietly navigating it. Joseph did not name any individual employees or executives at OpenAI in her posts, but said her knowledge of these incidents includes participants who were early employees at OpenAI and other companies. 

"I don't think events like the consensual non-consensual (CNC) sex parties and heavy LSD use of some elite AI researchers have been good for women," Joseph said, adding that when "combined with the shadow of 100B+ interest groups, leads to some of the most coercive and f***ed up social dynamics that I have ever seen."

CNC is a term used in alternative sexual-interest and kink communities to describe sexual acts that are agreed to by all parties in advance, but that may include violent fantasy re-enactment of rape, sexual assault or abuse. Group sexual events involving CNC are generally considered by sex researchers, community advocates and abuse survivors to be among those requiring the strictest participant-safety and ethics protocols in order to mitigate risks of potential criminal abuse

"It’s an event where by attending you implicitly give up right to consent," said Bay Area founder and former Palantir machine-learning specialist Rochelle Shen in a May 18 tweet. "The part I’m very concerned with is the age range and that they often target newcomers to (San Francisco). I've had friends who moved here recently ask me what they’re getting into, not fully understanding the nature of the event,"

"People hosting sex parties in their spare time isn’t the issue, it’s when they (consciously or not) use power gradients to encourage those who do not seek these experiences to join."

Shen's background includes computational neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. She added that the tech startup scene's lack of accountability is "resulting in issues not unlike those in Hollywood (and to a lesser degree, academia)."

"For many women, Silicon Valley can be like Westworld, where violence is pay-to-play"

"The relevant thing is the subsequent erosion of basic social etiquette as SV blurs personal and professional lines, magnified by lack of enforcement of accountability on those who misuse these structures," said Shen. 

Joseph similarly described how male researchers' participation in these allegedly coercive sexual contexts reflects a longer trend of industry predation. She further alleged that women who try to speak out — including herself — are placing their careers at risk if they week address male founders about the sex parties.

Such parties "create a climate that can be very bad for female AI researchers, with broader implications relevant to (artificial intelligence) safety," she said. "I believe they are somewhat emblematic of broader problems: a coercive climate that normalizes recklessness and crossing boundaries, which we are seeing playing out more broadly in the industry today. Move fast and break things, applied to people."

"For many women, Silicon Valley can be like Westworld, where violence is pay-to-play," Joseph said. "I have seen people repeatedly get shut down for pointing out these problems. ... Once, when trying to point out these problems, I had three OpenAI and Anthropic researchers debate whether I was mentally ill on a Google document. I have no history of mental illness; and this incident stuck with me as an example of blindspots/groupthink."

Joseph and Shen are the latest women to add their accounts to a long list of allegations from other female investors, researchers, programmers, founders, tech-community members and even family members of prominent CEOs — all of whom have repeatedly called for greater accountability for Silicon Valley power players and broad changes to a tech culture they believe encourages systemic sexual harassment, discrimination and misogyny

OpenAI did not immediately return Salon's request for comment. If it does, this story will be updated.  

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at