This is a guest post by frequent commenter Claudia.
Yes, I know the prospect of yet another post on sexism within the atheist community, along with its accompanying civil and productive comments thread, fills you with joy and enthusiasm. So prepare to rejoice!
In a previous post, Hemant mentioned women being frequently “propositioned for sex” within the movement. Of course, it was a part of a much larger point of women feeling devalued, or valued exclusively as sexual objects, while having their ideas disregarded. No matter, as reliably as ever, the general was discarded in favor of the specific, and a very long dissection of “propositioning” ensued.
However besides the inevitable individuals who will never admit that women are not asking for “special treatment,” or that there is even the possibility that their assumptions of what women should feel are wrong, I did see genuine confusion over an honest question: Is approaching a woman you’re interested in at a conference/meet-up by itself a sexist act?
I can’t speak for all women, of course, but I’m pretty sure I speak for at least some when I say that it’s a matter of accumulation.
Being propositioned (which can range from flattering to deeply creepy/frightening, depending on the approach) or flirted with at a conference will not make most women feel devalued. Being propositioned several times, or feeling like most men only approach you for the purpose of getting in your pants, can.
You know how when you meet a man named Dick you refrain from making dick jokes because you assume they’ve heard a lot of them before, and whatever you were thinking would be more annoying to hear than funny? The same thing applies to (many) women in the community. They’ve been in situations where they were sexualized to the exclusion of anything else of value they could contribute. They’ve felt passed over, diminished or valued merely as “cute.” They will know what it’s like to be scolded about “oversensitivity” for expressing discomfort. They will have heard stories from other women of the same thing happening to them. That doesn’t make you “bad” or “misogynistic” for wanting to flirt; it just means that each individual action does not happen in a vacuum, and your words and actions will be added to a pre-existing pile of experiences that the person you are speaking to has had.
Assuming you care about the comfort of the person you are speaking to, keeping that in mind when interacting with others can be enormously helpful. So can understanding that an atmosphere is not made up of an individual action or word, but an accumulation of experiences, big and small, that can make you feel at ease and welcomed, or the opposite. That makes solving the problem harder of course, but I still think it’s worth trying.