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Someone's wrong on the Internet!

tl;dr: Rebecca Watson, a leader in the skeptical/atheist movement mentioned that being propositioned by a guy who's a complete stranger while alone in an elevator at 4 a.m. is creepy and unwelcome behavior, and she suggested that avoiding such behavior is a first step that men can take towards making sure women feel welcome and safe in the predominantly male skeptical/atheist movement, a goal that most men in the movement claim to want to accomplish. Subsequently many people—mostly but not only men—read implications into her complaint that simply aren't there and went apeshit all over the atheist blogosphere. Watson replied to those complaints in turn, and now she's under attack for her reply to the replies.

Good summaries are available from Amanda Marcotte, PZ MyersJen McCreight, and Phil Plait.

EDIT: And here's a new post from Rebecca Watson. It makes me sad, but I'm afraid I agree with her. I want to argue for moderation, but I've met enough clueless guys in atheist circles to think she's right to put her foot down.

What I think I'm seeing in many comments to these posts, and in many replies to Watson herself, is a sustained failure of the imagination. So here's my small attempt to make it plain. 

The problem of rape

I'm a guy of average height and average build. If I were getting on an elevator at four in the morning, exhausted after a very long day, and a complete stranger followed me in (especially if this stranger was bigger than me in the way that most men are bigger than most women; especially if I'd seen this guy hanging around my group of acquaintances, but he's never actually spoken to me until now; especially if I had voiced my need and intent to go to sleep), and if he bluntly invited me back to his room, I'd be scared.

Maybe not as legitimately scared as a woman might be, for whom the odds of being assaulted or raped in a situation like this are vastly higher, but I'd still be scared. I'd be dealing with a complete unknown where the only thing I know for sure is that the guy in question is thoughtless at best and malicious at worst. He might just be socially inept, but then there are many guys who like to use intimidation when they ask for/demand sex, and he might be one of those. The fact that he's waited for this moment to get me alone argues strongly in favor of the latter. This is a situation that has no redeeming features in it whatsoever. No excuse exists for this man except that his stupidity might be an innocent stupidity. But frankly that's asking a lot, even of human stupidity.

And guys, if you can't imagine yourself as the woman in this scenario, then imagine it's your daughter, your wife, your sister, or your mother. Your girlfriend, or maybe just your best friend. Remember that compared to men, women get harassed, assaulted, and raped a lot. Way too much. Make an effort to understand—it's not that hard to do.

The problem of respect

But let's take fear of rape off the table, just for the sake of argument. Maybe the guy just wasn't that scary. Nevertheless, he'd been hanging around the group and would have heard Watson announce that she was tired and needed to get some sleep. In spite of this he followed her into the elevator, ignored what she had just said, and propositioned her.

He claimed to be interested in the things she had been speaking about, but ignored what she'd just said for the sake of propositioning her.

This, I think, is the heart of the unwanted sexual objectification that Watson is talking about. The problem is not that the guy found her attractive, and it's not that he made a move; it's that he completely dismissed her context and her interests so that he could try to get into her pants. The clearly stated desires of the person in whom he claimed to take interest had gone in one ear and out the other without lingering in the regions between.

Even if all he wanted was a cup of coffee and a conversation, he's trying to get it by ignoring the woman's stated wishes.

That makes the elevator guy kind of a creep.

Now, what Rebecca Watson said in response to this incident is not that men are bad, or that men should never flirt with or hit on women; what she said was that this particular behavior creeped her out, and that atheist/skeptic men who want women to feel welcome in the atheist/skeptic movement shouldn't do it. That's all.

To me this observation is utterly unremarkable. What's remarkable are the thousands of comments accumulating on atheist and skeptical blogs defending fragile male egos from ludicrous caricatures of Watson's point as a result of her observation. What's remarkable are the thousands of comments treating a criticism of one narrow kind of behavior as an attack on all male sexuality. What's more remarkable are the thousands of second-order comments attacking Watson again for pointing out the problems with the first kind of comment.

(Except it's not remarkable at all, because this is what feminists have been putting up with for more than a hundred years.)

Every atheist and skeptical activist I've met claims that part of their motivation is to support and improve universal human rights by demolishing the kinds of religious and superstitious myths that prop up discrimination and hatred. I think that's admirable; it's a point of view I share.

But if we enlightened modern secular western guys can't take the concerns of the women in our midst seriously, how can we claim to be working for the rights of women in Saudi Arabia, say, or in deepest, darkest Utah?

So I think we need to add some myths to the list of false beliefs that we should challenge. Here are two to start with.

  • Men do not have a right to expect women to cheerfully treat with respect any and every sexual advance, just as long as it falls short of physical violence.
  • Men do not have a right to expect women to be silent, to protect them from their stupidity for the sake of whatever organization or movement they might happen to be a part of.

Until we men figure these things out, we can't really claim to be good humanists, and probably not even decent human beings.

(I think that a lot of men have figured this out, actually, but I suspect that many of them would rather nod in agreement than wade into a flame-fest on a comment thread. Even I don't want to do that, which is why I'm posting my thoughts here.)

Posted by (Anonymous)
He claimed to be interested in the things she had been speaking about, but ignored what she'd just said for the sake of propositioning her.

Even if all he wanted was a cup of coffee and a conversation, he's trying to get it by ignoring the woman's stated wishes.

That makes the elevator guy kind of a creep.

Exactly this. And the men who don't get it would deny it, but they would be very unlikely to be this rude to another man. They think that sexual attraction is a reasonable excuse for the rudeness. It's not.
Posted by (Anonymous)
If you go out in public the law (and common sense) says you have implicitly given permission for normal human interaction like being talked to. The idea that men alone have to be punished if they try to talk to a woman is ridiculously sexist.

on 2011-07-06 03:37 pm (UTC)
yvi: (Atheism)
Posted by [personal profile] yvi
The comments at Pharyngula were just... well, I was glad all threads were closed by the time I got there.

on 2011-07-06 06:16 pm (UTC)
Posted by (Anonymous)
What was interesting to me was the complete inability of so-called skeptics (ie the feminists among them) to entertain an idea they disagreed with.

That's called dogmatism.

It's the exact opposite of skepticism.

Let's say hypothetically Richard Dawkins only made that comment to see the reaction. (that's not true btw; he's made similar comments before) The result of his "test" would be an illustration of a complete lack of ability to think straight. All brought on by hard line ideological feminism.

In fact I could never post such a comment at those boards as it would be instantly banned (and likely will be here too).



on 2011-07-06 06:06 pm (UTC)
Posted by (Anonymous)
You are advocating gender profiling. You are saying men should be discriminated against and treated poorly for no other reason than how they were born. That is sexist. You are sexist and so is Rebecca.

Do you also approve of other forms of profiling? eg racial profiling?

Do you think its cool for a store detective to follow black people around a store because black people steal more?

Do you approve of Arizona's anti-immigration law?

Then why do you think its OK to say a man can't talk to a woman because she might think he is a rapist?

What is really creepy is that you don't just approve of gender profiling but you actually dismiss any concern at all over the victim here -- the actual victim not the imagined one.

If Rebecca has an irrational and prejudical fear of men then the appropriate response is to (1) tell her to quit being sexist (2) tell her to get therapy for he phobia and (3) tell her that her sexist rants attacking men as "potential rapists" or "creepy" or whatever are not welcome and are incompatible with either skepticism or equality.

Re: DavidByron

on 2011-07-07 02:06 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] 6p00e5500620768834 []
why do you think its OK to say a man can't talk to a woman because she might think he is a rapist?"

Nobody said that or anything close to it, fool. Let me propose a scenario to you. You get into an elevator in your hotel in a foreign country. It's well past the time that almost everyone has gone to bed. The lobby's empty. As you push the button for your floor, a man steps in. He's heavily tattooed and sports a number of rather extreme piercings. He's a head taller than you and outweighs you by at least 50 pounds, very little of it fat.

He steps in front of you to push the button for his floor and stays in front of the buttons as the doors close. He turns around, looks at you and says, "Damn, you're a cutie. How's about you come to my room for a drink and a chat? We could have a real good time." He puts his hands on his hips and takes a side step, essentially blocking the doors.

How are you likely to feel?

Re: DavidByron

on 2011-07-07 03:21 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] 6p00e5500620768834 []
It's nowhere near as OTT as describing Rebecca's position as "a man can't talk to a woman because she might think he is a rapist." I'm trying to get through some rather thick cranial bone.

Remember that Dawkins told Rebecca that all she had to do to exit the situation was punch a floor button and step out of the elevator into "a well-lit corridor in a crowded hotel," forgetting that her elevator companion could very well have positioned himself between her and the button panel, and at 4 AM it's almost certain that every hallway would be empty.

Pieter B


on 2011-07-06 06:26 pm (UTC)
Posted by (Anonymous)
"Maybe not as legitimately scared as a woman might be, for whom the odds of being assaulted or raped in a situation like this are vastly higher"

Men are much more likely to be assaulted in public than women are. I realise facts will have no impact whatsoever on your dogmatism but for what it's worth that is true. Look it up. The odds of a person of either sex being assaulted in a hotel elevator at an atheist convention is zero.

Elevators are public places intended for and often used by many people - not just one. If you seriously have a fear of using public elevators then take the stairs and get therapy. Don't pretend your phobia is normal. And don't use your phobia as justification for prejudice and discrimination.


smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)

June 2012


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