When it comes to demolishing irrational beliefs, the atheist community has done a brilliant job. But when it comes to rooting out sexism in our own ranks, we have a long way left to go.
Witness the blowup that took place at a conference in Dublin last month, where Rebecca Watson of Skepchick gave a talk about the religious right’s war on women… and then, that same night, was propositioned by a stranger who cornered her in an elevator at 4 AM. (See her recap and these two third-party accounts).
This attracted the predictable crop of apologists who asserted loudly, not just that Rebecca was wrong to be frightened or upset by this, but that she was wrong to publicly disagree with the people who asserted that there was nothing wrong with this man’s behavior. But what really made my jaw drop was that Richard Dawkins, or at least someone claiming to be Richard Dawkins [EDIT: It was confirmed that this was actually Dawkins —Ebonmuse], showed up on PZ’s site and made the following astonishingly obtuse and ignorant comments:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and… yawn… don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Similarly, Rebecca’s feeling that the man’s proposition was ‘creepy’ was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator.
I’m guessing that Richard Dawkins (if this was truly him) has never lived in an environment where larger, stronger men are constantly offering him chewing gum, and getting aggressive and even violent if he declines. The uncomfortable reality is that we live in a society where sexual harassment and sexual violence against women is accepted and condoned to a far greater extent than any remotely comparable violence against men. Men who fail to grasp this and act as if women are being unreasonable to fear it are just flaunting their own ignorance. Take this classic demonstration in which men and women were both asked what they do to avoid sexual harassment every day, which brought forth a torrent of responses from the women while the men stood there in befuddlement:
For many males, public space is either something they feel an entitlement over, or something that is neutral and to be simply travelled through. For almost all women… public space is loaded with threat that must be managed.
The man who propositioned Rebecca Watson, whatever his individual intentions, can’t be separated from this societal background. Maybe he was just too shy to approach her in public; maybe his intentions were entirely innocent. But that doesn’t matter. We want women involved in the skeptical movement, and if they feel harassed or creeped out or uncomfortable, they won’t be. It does us no good whatsoever to say, “You’re wrong to take offense at this, so you should just overlook it.” That won’t get them to drop their objection; it will just make them stop showing up. Worse, it will only cement women’s impression of atheist men as a bunch of rude, clueless know-it-alls who don’t care about the effect of their behavior on others.
Let me tell you a story that wasn’t about sex, but that has a similar take-away. I was at the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s convention in Madison last October, where I met up with a friend (hi, Linda!), who was telling me about the correspondence she’d been having with Annie Laurie Gaylor about bringing some of the FFRF’s billboards to her area. She also told me, much to my amusement, that she’d heard about a student who’d plagiarized one of my essays for the FFRF’s college scholarship competition. (I’m flattered by that, in a weird way, but really – do you think you’ll get away with plagiarizing something that’s so easy to Google?)
Annie Laurie walked by our table while we were discussing this, and Linda said I should ask her about it. I politely demurred and said I didn’t want to intrude on her time. But almost as soon as I’d said it, an elderly man got in her way and buttonholed her. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” he announced without preamble. “I have a theory about the origin of religion that I think you should talk about more often. Have you heard of hypnosis—?”
“I’m sorry,” she interrupted, “but I’m very busy” – which was absolutely true, and a lot politer than I would have been under the circumstances – and made a quick exit.
“You see,” I said, “that’s why I didn’t want to go up and talk to her – because I didn’t want to be that guy.”
Atheist men, here’s my message to you: Don’t be that guy.
Being a rude, conversation-dominating boor is bad enough in any context, but in a sexual context, demonstrating your own lack of concern for others’ desires is especially intimidating and frightening. There are plenty of ways to flirt, banter and chat that are friendly and non-threatening. (I did get to speak to Annie Laurie later in the conference, during a book signing when she was standing around and chatting with convention-goers.) But following women around, cornering them in private, or continuing to bother them when they’re with a group that you’re not part of, or after they’ve clearly expressed disinterest – we ought to know better than to do things like this, and I’m dismayed and angry that so many atheists apparently still don’t.