Sexual harassment discussion in the atheist and skeptical communities

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Warning for quoted misogyny, Islamophobia and descriptions of violence against women and harassment, not to mention Oppression Olympics.

On June 20, Rebecca Watson of Skepchick posted a video discussing a panel she spoke on at the World Atheist Convention in early June. Here’s an excerpt of the relevant segment:

And I was on a panel with AronRa and Richard Dawkins [which] was on ‘communicating atheism.’ They sort of left it open for us to talk about whatever we wanted, really, within that realm. I was going to talk about blogging and podcasting, but, um, a few hours prior to that panel, there was another panel on women atheist activists… I don’t assume that every woman will have the same experience that I’ve had, but I think it’s worthwhile to publicize the fact that some women will go through this, and, um, that way we can warn women, ahead of time, as to what they might expect, give them the tools they need to fight back, and also give them the support structure they need to, uh, to keep going in the face of blatant misogyny…

So, thank you to everyone who was at that conference who, uh, engaged in those discussions outside of that panel, um, you were all fantastic; I loved talking to you guys—um, all of you except for the one man who, um, didn’t really grasp, I think, what I was saying on the panel…? Because, um, at the bar later that night—actually, at four in the morning—um, we were at the hotel bar, 4am, I said, you know, “I’ve had enough, guys, I’m exhausted, going to bed,” uh, so I walked to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me, and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more; would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”…

I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4am, in a hotel elevator with you, just you, and—don’t invite me back to your hotel room, right after I’ve finished talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.

This excerpt is from Melissa McEwan’s full transcript of the relevant section of the audio, which is available at Shakesville. There’s more interesting stuff in the full transcript, including an example of the kind of dynamic where an individual woman who hasn’t experienced sexism denies it exists at all. But Watson’s criticism of the man who sexually approached her in the elevator has let to the Internet exploding, predictably enough. Especially when Richard Dawkins commented, most unsympathetically.

Here’s the setup:

  • PZ Myers, Always name names! [beware comments]: It’s not enough. Maybe we should also recognize that applying unwanted pressure, no matter how politely phrased, is inappropriate behavior.
  • Richard Dawkins, comment on “Always name names!”: Dear Muslima… Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with… Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee… And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
  • Richard Dawkins, comment on “Always name names!”: 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. It would be different if he physically attacked me.
  • PZ Myers, Twitter: For those curious, confirmed: those comments were from Richard.

Commentary (warning: some of these links contain extensive discussion of rape, including news coverage):

  • Jen McCreight, Richard Dawkins, your privilege is showing: …it makes me want to cry a little when you live up to the stereotype of a well-off, 70 year old, white, British, ivory tower academic.
  • Amanda Marcotte, Because of The Implication: I [got] an eyeful this weekend of how serious the problem of sexism in the atheist/skeptical movement really is, and how much hard work needs to be done to get a male-dominated movement to take the problem of sexual harassment and female alienation seriously.
  • Greg Laden, Ladies, Richard Dawkins knows how to protect you from being raped in an elevator: Most of the voices telling Rebecca Watson to quiet down and get a grip on herself are coming from, I think, men who just don’t want there to be a rule that says that they must modulate their behavior in connection to the idea that a very large number of women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and that the vast majority of sexual assault comes from men…
  • Phil Plait, Richard Dawkins and male privilege: Oh my. I have tried and tried to see some other way to interpret this, but it looks to me that he really is comparing a potential sexual assault to someone chewing gum.
  • Melissa McEwan, The Point, You Are Proving It: I always love when a man decides what the Important Things feminists should be worried about are for us feminist women. I also love the idea that Muslim women and American women are mutually exclusive groups, and the idea that there no American women, Muslim or otherwise, whose lives are controlled and whose bodies are violated with impunity.
  • Rebecca Watson, The Privilege Delusion: When I started this site, I didn’t call myself a feminist… And then I would make a comment about how there could really be more women in the community, and the responses from my fellow skeptics and atheists ranged from “No, they’re not logical like us,” to “Yes, so we can fuck them!” That seemed weird… And I got messages from women who told me about how they had trouble attending pub gatherings and other events because they felt uncomfortable in a room full of men… And then, for the past few years as the audience for Skepchick and SGU grew, I’ve had more and more messages from men who tell me what they’d like to do to me, sexually. More and more men touching me without permission at conferences. More and more threats of rape from those who don’t agree with me, even from those who consider themselves skeptics and atheists. More and more people telling me to shut up and go back to talking about Bigfoot and other topics that really matter.
  • David Futrelle, Two atheists get in an elevator: That’s it. That’s the whole thing. You would think that most guys would be well aware that accosting a woman you’ve never met before in an elevator at 4 AM is, you know, kind of a no-no. But, no, Watson’s comments suddenly became [to her critics] an attack on male sexuality and men in general.
  • tigtog, Bye bye Dawkins: a voice from the past: … nothing I can do can stop Dawkins being stinking rich and lionised elsewhere, but I will longer read, listen to or watch his work and will not recommend that others do either. (Most links here are via tigtog’s post too, thanks tigtog.)

Discussion is still continuing, for example David Futrelle documents on how some commenters are now regarding Watson’s actions as shaming and damaging a “nice guy” and thus singlehandedly discouraging nice men everywhere from their most innocent and gentle of propositions.

What do you think? Got other links? (Please warn for graphic accounts of harassment and rape.)

This is Watson’s original video post, it should begin playing at 2:20 when she begins talking about the World Atheist Convention. Again, there’s a full transcript of the relevant section of the audio available at Shakesville.


Note: don’t take us posting about this as a sign that Geek Feminism is a specifically atheist or anti-religious site. We vary. But feminist discussions in geekdom-overlapping communities are always of interest and atheism and skepticism are very geekdom-overlapping.