Sexism Among Skeptics

Sexism Among Skeptics July 3, 2011

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.

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  • JSA

    Dawkins ought to read about Schroedinger's Rapist.

  • Anonymous

    None of this is sexism, or misogyny. This is men and women bewildered at why a non-threatening, non-violent, if socially awkward, action is perceived as abhorrent. Regardless of whether she perceived a threat, there was no threat or even intention of a threat – which goes back to why most atheists find it ridiculous when Catholics get up in arms about a cracker taken outside the building.

  • JSA

    @Anonymous – Did you even read the "Schroedinger's Rapist" post? "Pay attention to the environment. Look around. Are you in a dark alley? Then probably you ought not approach a woman and try to strike up a conversation. The same applies if you are alone with a woman in most public places. If the public place is a closed area (a subway car, an elevator, a bus), even a crowded one, you may not realize that the woman’s ability to flee in case of threat is limited. Ask yourself, “If I were dangerous, would this woman be safe in this space with me?” If the answer is no, then it isn’t appropriate to approach her."As the post says, the guy might be a completely nice guy. And he may have just made a mistake. But he did make a mistake. Again, quoting:"You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety."If you think it's perfectly OK for a strange man to approach a woman and proposition her by holding her in an elevator, you are being cavalier about her personal safety.

  • YaleAlum’11

    Leah,On the one hand, it's entirely accurate that men can be uncomfortably aggressive in their pursuit of women (or other men, for that matter, as you no doubt witnessed at Yale as well). On the other hand, a man is not automatically harassing someone by attempting to talk to them and get their number or email or aim or skype or what-have-you. If you rather flatly turn someone down and they persist repeatedly, that is harassment, simply asking awkwardly for your number isn't harassment, it's a poor guy going out on a limb, risking rejection, hoping to get a chance to go on a date with you. Overly aggressive men who won't take no for an answer engage is sexual harassment, but so do overly sensitive women who portray men as automatic aggressors when all they've done is try to flirt for 10 seconds, often after overcoming self-doubt and trying to build up their self-esteem. A woman who blows up at a man for asking for her number in a flirtatious but not overly aggressive way is nearly as bad as a man that asks a woman for her number five times after being told no.

  • "On the other hand, a man is not automatically harassing someone by attempting to talk to them and get their number or email or aim or skype or what-have-you."No, he's not automatically harassing them. But if that man only approaches women in a situation where they can't easily leave if they feel uncomfortable – or, worse, if he deliberately puts them in such a situation before approaching them, as the elevator guy did – then that is threatening behavior. It's irrational to expect women in that situation to just be able to tell that a stranger's intentions are benevolent, when he's given them no evidence to make them think so.

  • Anonymous

    @JS Allen – yes, I read the post, but you fail to take into account that the situation here doesn't really change much if it were a man. It's about as dumb for a man as for a woman to enter an elevator with a stranger at 4 AM. Sure, the stranger may be less likely to rape the man, but they could just as easily pull a knife and take their wallet. Your gender doesn't absolve you from making smart personal safety decisions. The woman in question made a bad decision, but to claim that only women could get into that situation is sexism in its own right.

  • JSA

    @Anonymous – You probably think that's an original argument that hasn't been made by every slut-shaming gender privilege deniers every time something like this happens. I'm not really interested in conversing with someone whose ignorance is exceeded only by his inflated appraisal of his own knowledge.@YA11 – Ebonmuse is correct. When a guy is making excuses about how his low self-esteem and emotional vulnerability excuse his cavalier treatment of a woman's physical security, and acting victimized when she tells him to fuck off, that's not a good leading indicator.

  • This term "oversensitive" has an interesting history. In the comments and posts surrounding this issue I've seen it most often compared to Christians being oversensitive about PZ's host stunt, but I'm more likely to recall black people being called oversensitive when they respond to negative treatment in the media, atheist people being called oversensitive when protesting prayer in schools or businesses, or LGTB people being called oversensitive when decrying offensive uses of the word "gay." Most of, if not always, the word "oversensitive" signals not that the person offended has not right to be offended but that the person using the label fails to understand the offense. That failure to understand might be a result of their being no reasonable offense, but I think it's often a result of the labeller's privilege or, perhaps, outright unwillingness to see the offense.

  • Anonymous

    If I were a man, found a woman attractive, started talking to her, asked for her number and got told to "not interested" or something to that effect, most often my behavior has had nothing to do with her attitude toward me, rather my physical appearance (or her subjective opinion of my appearance) had determined her response. Let's stop pretending only men objectify; women objectify men all the time. Agressive jocks can get away vith behaviors due to their attractiveness (it's "confidence") while average or nerdy looking men cannot (suddenly he's being too aggressive by saying and doing things that a taller, more muscular man would get a laugh, a flirt, and a number for doing). Men are as often objectified as women, look at any bar and see an average looking man shot down and ostracized, then see a handsome man pick up a woman, all doing the same things. Behavior is not what is usually being judged, attractiveness is.

  • JSA

    @Anonymous – Who said that only men objectify? Women choose men based on looks, social skills, wealth, perceived health, and any number of superficial characteristics.In the human species, women get to set their own boundaries. It is women who make the final call in mate selection. That's how evolution made us.The problem is when some loser who can't get women to pay attention to him, ignores a woman's signals and transgresses her boundaries, simply because he is physically more powerful than her and he reasons "She let that *other* guy flirt with her, and I'm not doing anything *he* didn't do, so the slut wants it."

  • Wow, I re-read my comment and saw so many typographic errors. My apologies.

  • Anonymous

    @JS Allen – I'm trying to have a reasonable discussion here, not exchange ad-hominems. At least you didn't accuse me of blaming the victim, especially seeing as there is no victim. This is not remotely on the level of rape, or even attempted rape. You're trying to lump me and the other Anonymous into a strawman category.@Christian H – the problem is, sometimes people are actually oversensitive, and sometimes people have a good point but are labeled as such. The term is used and misused alike. For example, I think Leah's taxi example is actually a problem, unlike this situation.-the Anonymous of the first couple of posts

  • Anonymous

    Should men try to avoid doing what the man did? Yes. Is it "sexist and destructive" as Rebecca has claimed? Absolutely not.

  • Anonymous

    Bullying — the best description of what was written about the incident in the elevator — has nothing to do with gender.

  • I am struggling to see how this is a uniquely sexist issue. I obviously know that it is mostly women who are put in these situations and that men usually have a physical advantage that can be, in and of itself, intimidating but surely it can happen to m-m, f-f and even occasionally f-m?The men described above are obviously being, at best, unsympathetic to your feelings. Heck, they might even think they're been charming – which is why calling them out like this is good – but are they really being sexist? If they were gay would they not do exactly the same to another guy? At worst though they might actually know the effect they're having on women (people) in that situation and quite like it, they're the really scary ones.Let's assume everyone has enough social awareness to recognise situations matter. There are then two groups:1) Those who intentionally place others in awkward situations because uncomfortable people will often give out their number just to get away from the situation safely;2) Those who are socially insecure and do not want to get rejected in public.The problem is that the very ineptness that places people in group 2 may also mean they don't realise they are coming across like group 1.The problem with the current furore is twofold: people are going overboard; and people who might actually associate themselves with group 2 are being lumped in with group 1.There is also a slight problem that nature makes people irrationally fearful as a survival instinct and so what may be a perfectly innocent encounter for one will come across as a really threatening situation for another. So rational people who do things in a situation that others find threatening can't empathise and so call out the irrationality of the other, ignoring the fact that nature has made us that way. On that front I think Prof. Dawkins of all people should have been more aware and not commented as he did.