If you follow the atheist blogosphere, you’re probably aware of an internal debate about sexual harassment and the appropriate way to respond to it. Very briefly: skeptic activist Rebecca Watson gave a speech about religion’s “War on Women” at an atheist conference. During the conference, she and a group of people hung out in the hotel lobby sharing stories until around 4am. When she left to go to bed, one man followed her and buttonholed her in the elevator, asking her to come back to his room for some coffee. She demurred and returned to her room, but the man’s conduct had made her uncomfortable.
She discussed her experience on her blog and caught a lot of criticism for being over-sensitive and unreasonable. In another keynote, she called out some of her critics in the atheist blogging community by name and accused them of perpetuating the same kind of misogyny that she had identified in her talk about organized religion at the first talk. And then the atheist blogosphere blew up.
There are two issues that have gotten tangled during the arguments, so I’m splitting them off into two separate posts. I want to start by addressing the idea that Ms. Watson, and other women in the same situation, are being thin-skinned or shrill when they speak up. Later today, I’ll have another post up on the way the atheist community has been responding to this particular incident.
I completely endorse Jen McCreight’s post on this issue (“Richard Dawkins, Your Privilege is Showing“) where she did a great job explaining why creepy come-ons go beyond simple rudeness and awkwardness for women. It does not make sense to treat harassment and coercion as the expected price for participating in society, a nuisance, but no more troubling than any other social danger like dinner party bores. This attitude bullies women into keeping silent and legitimizes abusive behavior (the lovable lech archetype should be taken out back and shot).
Jen covered the issue well, so I just want to add a personal reflection. When I moved to DC a few weeks ago, it was a relief to know that I would be within safe walking distance of my local metro, even late at night. Last summer, I interned in DC and had been so persistently sexually harassed by cab drivers that I was starting to decide if I’d be better off taking the half hour walk on my own in the dark. Drivers commented on my appearance, repeatedly asked for my phone number (handing back my receipt and demanding it when I didn’t give it up), and tried to get me to consider accompanying them to a party in the future.
I went into more detail when I wrote about the experience for the Yale Daily News (“Out of the Driver’s Seat“), but suffice to say my experience was not dissimilar to Watson’s. I was never threatened or physically threatened, but I was propositioned by men I didn’t know in a situation where I was isolated and uncomfortable. And because men’s advances are treated as “all in good fun” and women who complain are pilloried for being too uptight to take a compliment, it was hard to figure out what to do, so I settled on a defensive silence.
The whole situation felt horribly unfair. Yes, I was getting a cab after 11 p.m., but I was sober; I was wearing pants, not a short skirt and my hair was in a ponytail, for heaven’s sake. Hadn’t he seen that I had a math book by Martin Gardner under my arm? I glanced down at my top, trying to work out if a polo shirt rather than a T-shirt qualified as showing too much cleavage.
It wasn’t after I got out of the cab that I realized that, for the entirety of the ride, I had been operating under the assumption that something in my own behavior must have provoked the driver. I had been imagining that I had earned the right not to be harassed because I wasn’t wearing make-up — instead of remembering I deserved to be respected because I was a person. A miniskirt wouldn’t have been an open invitation to harassment.
Letting these incidents pass in an effort not to be perceived as touchy requires that we blind ourselves to the way women are objectified and victimized. Harassment that does not result in physical assault still comes across as punishment for having the temerity to be a woman in public.
I’m glad to take questions in the comments, but I hope this example, Jen’s post, and this still-excellent essay on privilege make it clearer why the actions of the guy at the conference even if innocent in his own mind can be threatening and why they need to be called out, not ignored. As to the how of addressing them, I’ll get to that in part 2.