Skepticism’s Dirty Little Secret Isn’t Secret Anymore
It started with Elevatorgate. Rebecca Watson related an experience she had at a conference at which she’d just spoken about how uncomfortable it makes women to be constantly hit on at conferences. Afterwards she was going up to her hotel room in the elevator and there was a man there with her who was at the conference. He asked her if she’d like to go back to his room. That was exactly the type of unwelcome advance that she was speaking out about. In a video blog about the incident she simply asked men to please not do that.
She didn’t call the guy a scumbag, she didn’t rail against men in general, or even those types in particular. She didn’t call for all women to rally around the feminists flag. She merely asked men to be respectful of women and not hit on them.
For her troubles she was called a bitch and a cunt. She was told that she deserved to be raped. She was threatened with rape and violence. Even the venerable Richard Dawkins weighed in saying that women like her needed to stop whining and think about all the women in the world who are forced into prostitution, abused by men, forcible raped, etc.
All of this highlighted the ugly underbelly of the skeptic, humanist, and atheist communities: men just don’t get it. Yes, there women around the world in much worse situations that Rebecca and other women like her in our society. That’s not the point. The point is that women feel unsafe in places where they should feel safe. The point is that women are being treated like objects. This treatment may not raise to the level rape, forced prostitution, or genital mutilation, but it is still unacceptable because it creates fear in thousands of women. No one she feel unsafe, especially in a community that prides itself on its inclusiveness.
Not only do some men in our community not get it, some are downright misogynistic. They are quick to call women who speak out about sexism in the community feminazis, whores, and man-haters.
Then there are the, what I will call, accommodationist. They try to show their understanding and support of women while at the same time making excuses for mens’ bad behavior. They say that these men are a product of their society, that they didn’t mean to offend, or some other lame assed excuse.
The fact is that there is no excuse for sexist and myogynistic behavior. And there certainly is no excuse for character assignations and threats of violence.
Women in the community have had enough of this disgusting behavior from men. They have said resoundingly that they do not feel safe at conferences. The vicious attacks from the misogynists have frightened them.
The effects of this may be seen at this year’s registration for TAM. Up until last year, registration for women was close to about 40%. So far this year it is 18%. Once can’t help but wonder if the events of this past year have had an influence on the huge drop in female registrations for TAM.
JD Grothe, president of the JREF and TAM’s organizer certainly thinks so. He recently stated,
Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.) We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking, and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.
He singled out Rebecca as one of those who were being, as he claimed, irresponsible.
Rebecca: Off the top of my head, your quote in USA Today might suggest that the freethought or skeptics movements are unsafe for women. This is from the article:
“I thought it was a safe space,” Watson said of the freethought community. “The biggest lesson I have learned over the years is that it is not a safe space. . . ”
Rebecca recently announce that she will not be attending TAM this year. I don’t blame her. This is incredibly sad, not because a well know skeptic won’t be attending, but because that those 40% of woman attending last year is in large part due to Rebecca and others at Skepchick. They have been raising money for years to send women to TAM and have succeeded in helping the number of women attending TAM to double over the last few years. This surge in women attendees have spilled over into other conferences such as Skepticon, and has fueled a flowering of hundreds of skeptical female voices in the blogosphere.
I was pondering attending TAM, but decided against it several weeks ago for financially reasons. Now I’m defiantly glad that we didn’t register. I would have been compelled to not attend TAM, despite losing a substantial amount of money for the registration fee. But more importantly, I could not attend TAM because I can not condone, or support with my money and presence, DJ’s stance here. Blaming women who speak out about their feelings and fears is no different than blaming a rape victim for being raped.
Of course this doesn’t rise to the level of rape, but the results are in the same. Women are being victimized by being blamed for speaking out and taking action against an injustice. They are being made to feel violated simply by saying they feel unsafe.
I won’t consider attending TAM until I see that the organizers are willing to stop blaming women and take real, meaningful actions to stop sexual harassment at their conference. I am also withholding my financial support for the JREF and will no longer write for the JREF blog while these conditions remain.
I am hoping that men in the community will respond to these events by voicing their support for Rebecca and all women in our community who are outraged by this latest turn of events. I would call on PZ Myers, Phil Plait and other prominent male skeptics, who I know wholeheartedly support women’s rights, to avoid TAM. We need to send a message to DJ and other organizers that this behavior will not stand. Maybe if we start throwing our support and our money behind other events, such at CFI’s Women in Secularism conference, this will send a message to organizers of conferences to take real, meaningful actions to alleviate this problem. Hopefully this will allow us to create events and venues where all participants can feel welcomed and safe.
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