Sexual Harassment and the Secular Movement

DisenfranchisedHave you ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted sexual advance? Did it in some way happen within the secular/atheist movement, either in an online group or at a conference or special event? Would you know what to do about it in the event that you became a victim of sexual assault?

I ask this today first of all because so many of my friends are expressing anger, sadness, and frustration this week at the ascension of a man to the highest office in the land despite his having boasted of sexually assaulting women with impunity, and despite the fact that at least a dozen women have come forward accusing him of doing precisely what he himself said he does. Fifty nine million Americans seem to have decided that “boys will be boys,” thereby reinforcing an already deplorable disregard for bodily autonomy toward women in a century in which we should be long past such things.

But what about within our own smaller community, the subculture we call the “atheist movement” (and yes, that is a thing)? Do we have a system in place whereby this kind of injustice is dealt with in an effective and reliable manner?

And yes, I recognize that sexual dynamics are complicated, and given the immense variety within the human species, people are going to have widely varying comfort levels with sexual talk and touch. Everyone has a line they don’t want crossed, and for each of us it seems to be in a slightly different place. It makes matters even worse that so many of us bookish types within the atheist community lack the requisite social skills to detect when we are making the other person uncomfortable.

We seriously need more collective discussion of “good touch” and “bad touch,” just like they get in grade school. Not to mention an entire semester of a class entitled “How to Date Like a Mature Adult.”

But oftentimes the line is crossed, and I mean crossed in ways that just about anyone would recognize as “going too far.” What system, if any, do we have in place to deal with that when it happens?

How I Got Drawn into This

A few months ago, I got my first taste of intra-movement drama when a contractual dispute with an organization in the atheist/secular movement escalated into something much more tumultuous. I lost a lot of friends during that phase, although I must admit I also gained a few new ones in the process. I will spare you the details of that narrative since I think it already got beaten to death several times over. Rather than getting resolved, the dispute seems to have simply gone away on its own.

But there was at least one other development that came out of that ordeal which I haven’t been ready to discuss until now.

During the earliest stages of contractual re-negotiations last October, I received a phone call from a consultant to whom I had been previously introduced named Eliott Canter. He and his partner, Gayle Jordan, had been brought in to oversee the terms of the departure of Recovering From Religion‘s former executive director, Sarah Morehead. In order to work through the nitty gritty details, they needed to ask me a number of very pointed questions, and I answered them to the best of my ability. After a few more days of back-and-forth, I didn’t hear from him again, aside from occasionally seeing his name cc’d in some of the board’s email communications with me.

He called me again in April of this year, a couple of months after the completion of my contract term with the organization, in order to let me know that he was now being brought in to deal with the fallout of their contractual dispute with me (again, I’ll spare you the details because dear lord baby Jesus I think we all had enough). What matters for this disclosure today aren’t the details relevant to that particular issue, but the things he told me about his role in the secular movement.

Listening to him break down the function he serves in the secular community gave me far more questions than it did answers. What follows is a transcript of select portions of that conversation with Eliott, dated April 28 of this year:

I don’t think (and I blame myself for this) that I’ve clearly explained my role and what I do, not just for RFR but for the community in general. I’m a consultant, and I generally do sexual harassment consulting, and I do that for a variety of organizations and conventions within our community, and I do it all for free. If there’s ever a time when somebody wants to give me something for my time, I donate it back to the organization that gave it to me anonymously. I never make any money. I haven’t made any money when I’ve been doing this for RFR. I am not compensated. I do not get paid in any way, shape, or form. I do this completely for free.

And I do it like that for a real good reason. I’m autonomous in the ways that I act, so when I do an investigation (if I do a sexual harassment investigation), if I come to a conclusion, that’s the answer. I don’t have to… an org can’t say to me, they want to bury it or they want to do anything… that’s not the way it works. If I come up with an answer, that’s what we do. And we make that agreement going in with all the organizations. If I find other things or do other things, I wind up doing it the way I want to do, I investigate it the way I want to do, and that way I can live with myself. And so, the reason I want to say that is because, Neil, I don’t have any outside agenda.

I don’t have an outside motive in this. I certainly don’t have a financial one. I don’t make any money out of this, never have. In the past three and a half years, just so you’ll know (and I shared this at the Heads meeting), I’ve done 135 sexual harassment investigations in the community. I’ve interviewed over 400 people. Typically, and probably almost always nobody’s heard about any of them.

Wait a second, what? A hundred and thirty five sexual harassment investigations? In the secular movement alone? In the space of only three and a half years?

So Many Questions

I have so many questions.

  1. How could there be that many sexual harassment reports to investigate in one tiny movement over such a short period of time? That’s nearly 40 cases a year, an average of 3-4 every single month. How does one person juggle that many ongoing investigations?
  1. Why have we heard of so few of these cases? Were that many of them dismissed without any further follow-up?
  1. Speaking of follow-up, if anyone wanted to look into how these 135 cases (with over 400 interviews) were handled, would there be any way to do so?
  1. Did these investigations produce a written record of any kind? The matter of Eliott’s antipathy toward putting things into print has been brought up before, to which he replied “I can’t type for sh**…That’s my big secret.” But surely for something as serious (and as potentially litigious) as sexual harassment, there should at least be some kind of documentation, right?
  1. Does the movement utilize any other person or entity in order to investigate claims of sexual misconduct? Or does every organization and conference in the movement turn to the same individual for this matter every time?
  1. If he maintains complete autonomy as he claims, is there any accountability for him as a professional in this field? Do the organizations themselves answer to anyone for how they handle these matters? Are they beholden to their stakeholders—their board or their members—to maintain any transparency regarding the way these matters are handled?

All these questions came crashing down on me as soon as I hung up the phone, but I had to put them aside in order to deal with the matter at hand. I wasn’t even sure I would have any personal reason to look into those things, but that was before I published Eliott’s name on my blog.

At the time I wrote about the situation I was in, I didn’t say anything at all about the matter of his larger consulting role for the movement as a whole. I was only writing about my own specific circumstance, which had nothing to do with sexual harassment or assault. But then over the next few days I was contacted out of the blue by no fewer than four women who are active within the secularist movement, and they wanted to tell me their own stories of interaction with Eliott.

I don’t see any reason to discuss the details of those stories right now, and besides, they were given in confidence. But they further confirmed for me that Eliott does in fact function in this role within the movement, and that furthermore he has been doing this for some time. Going back to that original conversation, Eliott continued:

If you want references, you can talk to… people that I’ve worked with. I’ve worked with Silverman for a very long time. You know, talk to David. I’ve done the work at AA, and have done the work at AA for an extended period of time…

And I’m gonna be… I’m working with right now, I’m working with AHA. I just did the sexual harassment training with them in Washington DC. I did it for free. I’m gonna be attending their conference in Chicago as their sexual harassment consultant. Neil I’m gonna wind up doing all the training for the Reason Rally. I’m training all the volunteers… I’m gonna wind up being there for a week doing all this training for everyone.

You know, I work with Amanda Metskas. I do the training, and I do the investigations for them. I’ve been working with Augie as a consultant just helping with the organization just helping with sexual harassment cases. I am in and out of all the orgs trying to help everybody to the best extent I can, and I don’t make a penny.

It was very important to him that I know he doesn’t make any money doing what he does for the secular movement, as evidenced by the number of times he told me that. Of course, if as he says he anonymously gave back anything he was given for his work, there wouldn’t be any way for me to track that down. But frankly I’m not really concerned about that myself. If the work he does is both valuable and “above board,” then I see no reason why he shouldn’t be compensated for his time. But I suppose that’s his call.

Surely There’s a Better Way?

Looking in from the outside, however, what I’m seeing raises a number of concerns for me.

First, I’m not entirely comfortable with a single individual handling that many cases in one insular community all by himself. Given that so few of these cases ever see the light of day, this matter of accountability concerns me, especially surrounding a topic as heated and difficult to maneuver as claims of sexual harassment. Does he belong to any larger entity or organization which can provide oversight for the work he is doing? I’d like to think the orgs themselves provide accountability, but that’s not how Eliott himself characterized the nature of his work for them.

His bio on the website for NaNoCon, a conference in Nashville that he helped organize, says he is “president of a consulting practice,” so I decided to look that up. Checking his LinkedIn resume, which bears endorsements from board members of two secular organizations, it says that since 2008 he has served as president of EBC Consulting, and it contains a link to that company which also bears the company logo. Clicking through, I was somewhat surprised to find that particular link leading to a human resources firm based in Bologna, Italy, and to find the website is written entirely in Italian. Out of curiosity I had a friend who speaks fluent Italian call the company in order to talk to the CEO, and he assured her in no uncertain terms that he has no idea who Eliott Canter is. I can only assume the link itself was a simple mistake.

Second, I am concerned with what appears to me to be an excessive amount of secrecy surrounding his role in the community. While a little digging will turn up mentions of his role on multiple websites, his name seldom comes up whenever an actual case becomes known to the larger community. I am aware of only two of his cases making the news in the Freethought community, and only in one of them was his name or involvement ever publicly acknowledged.

For a case in point, Eliott disclosed in the conversation above that he handles cases for the Secular Student Alliance, but when an eventually litigious case involving Richard Carrier arose in June of this year, SSA only disclosed that it was conducting “an internal investigation” without ever publicly mentioning the name of the person(s) conducting the investigation, despite multiple requests from various people about the identity of the investigator(s). Was Eliott the one conducting the internal investigation over this particular case? And if he was, why the secrecy surrounding his involvement?

One particular issue that keeps coming up is that while this one individual seems to be central to virtually every investigation of sexual misconduct within the atheist community, those who are involved seem convinced that something bad will happen if they publicly disclose that he was involved. At this point I’ve spoken with several women who were involved in these cases, and the one thing they all have in common (besides knowing Eliott) is that they are not at liberty to publicly disclose anything at all about their cases. Sooner or later you will always bump into some form of nondisclosure agreement.

Another thing that concerns me in all of this is that Eliott’s background is in retail, personnel management, and human resources. He is not an expert in sexual harassment by any measure which professionals would use. To my knowledge he has no professional experience in counseling victims of abuse or sexual assault. He is not a therapist, he is not a legal advocate for victims, nor is he an investigator by trade at all. Yet he is the man to whom virtually every organization in the movement turns when an issue of this nature arises.

As a consultant with experience in human resources management, his primary expertise is in loss prevention. That means his greatest job experience is in protecting companies from actions by their own employees. I’ve worked for enough companies to know that when HR reps tell you that “this is for your own protection,” the truth is that their primary responsibility is to the company itself, not to the employee.

Which is fine in the corporate world, I suppose. But in the world of nonprofits, especially when what’s in view are claims of such a sensitive and vulnerable nature, it’s not appropriate at all to first send them a person whose primary role is to protect the organization itself rather than to care for the needs of the individual making the claims.

Lastly, I share all of this with you today because each of the women who either contacted me or whom I contacted myself  have made clear that they were not entirely satisfied with the way their cases were handled. At times they were made to feel uncomfortable, and they often dropped their cases without pursuing them because of that. It seems to me that even if nothing truly inappropriate or over the line occurred in those cases, this isn’t the ideal way to deal with these issues. Surely we can come up with a better system than this.

Finding Our Way Forward

So what do you suggest? What can the atheist movement do to provide a better system for following up on claims of sexual misconduct? My personal feeling is that the movement has lost an inexcusable number of gifted and intelligent women because of its failure to deal with these problems in a way that truly values their voice and takes their needs into consideration.

I can’t put into words the anger and frustration I have felt while listening to the stories I’ve already been told about the way their concerns were swept under the rug—or worse, resulted in legal threats and ostracism from the atheist community. Whether or not you agree that such things have happened, I can tell you that I am not aware of a reliable system in place, one in which each of the participating people or organizations answer to the community for the way they handle these things.

They are working on it, and for that I applaud them. But I think we should all hold their feet to the fire, especially if we are ever to stop losing some of our best and brightest women to other communities who work harder to protect them, giving them a voice in the matters that affect their dignity and personal autonomy.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

 

 

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