I’m on my way home from CFI’s Women in Secularism conference. It was an intense conference in the best way possible. Speakers I have seen give speeches elsewhere were at their most passionate here. I finally got to see speakers who should be on every atheist convention organizer’s wish list. I’ll be talking more about the conference over the next few days.
Right now, though, I’m going to talk about something that happened almost outside the conference. It had its genesis on stage, when Jen McCreight mentioned that, when she started speaking at conferences, multiple people contacted her behind the scenes to tell her which male speakers she should steer clear of.
This announcement made no noticeable ripple in the room at the time. When I tweeted something to that effect, however, discussion started. One guy I’ve never heard of before thought we should tell him who these speakers were or, well, he’d just be snarky in the future when the topic came up because he couldn’t be responsible for knowing. Another said women should do more naming and shaming. A female speaker said the same happened to her. Someone who arranges speakers for her group expressed concern that this wasn’t common knowledge.
Then the topic started infecting the barcon and hallcon. I had multiple conversations over multiple tables yesterday. It turns out I have a few things to say on the topic.
So did other people, and you’ll find some of what they had to say here. You won’t find their names unless they let me know they want to claim their words. I’ll explain why in more general terms later. Most importantly, though, we didn’t talk about whether individual statements were off the record, but one of the premises of conversations like these is that the whole topic is off the record. If it weren’t, we’d have both less and more to talk about.
Without further ado, presented in the form of a FAQ:
Q: Do famous atheist speakers really act like assholes to women?
A: I said, “Yes.” I’ve experienced some of it, in front of witnesses. I’ve talked to other women who’ve experienced it personally. I’ve talked to conference organizers who have strategies for minimizing the damage when they have to invite one of these men to one of their conferences.
Also, did you just express “skepticism” over this? It’s a completely uncontroversial statement. Unacceptable gendered behavior exists. Our movement is not immune. Men don’t become immune to bad behavior just because people like how they speak or write or organize. Yes, it happens.
Q: But it’s never happened to me!
A: Now we’re getting out of the realm of questions. This will be the last of that. But, to your point, this may sound like a silly question, but are you a guy? If you are, you’re not likely to experience gendered misbehavior from another guy. Let that sink in for a bit.
Not male? Well, there are a couple of things to consider. If you flatter or lightly flirt with these guys, you’ll miss the kind of behavior that happens when they don’t get their way. If you interacted with lots of other people around, you’ve seen their more public faces. Beyond that, not every jerk can or will be a jerk to every person.
A: Shhh. Questions.
Q: So who are these guys?
A: I’m not going to tell you that, at least not here.
Q: I arrange speakers for XYZ. This is important information for me.
A: That is a very good point. I recommend networking behind the scenes. Nobody wants events to go badly. The people to ask are usually female conference organizers and speakers. Those who speak publicly about sexism hear more stories from other people.
Be prepared to give assurances that the confidentiality of your source will be respected. Then respect it, even in internal discussions, unless otherwise agreed beforehand.
Q: No, really. Who are these guys?
A: Ahem. Boundaries. I already told you I wouldn’t tell you. Respect that.
Q: Why aren’t you naming and shaming?
A: Until a year ago, this was harder to explain succinctly. Now, sadly, it’s much easier.
Did you see what happened to Rebecca Watson? Have you seen what’s still happening today? That’s why.
Q: But isn’t naming and shaming how we’re supposed to fix this?
A: Naming and shaming only works in an atmosphere that has some shame itself. This movement does have some, but not enough.
Let me let you in on a little secret, though. When I have heard speaker names attached to this, there have been no surprises. If you pay attention to the people who are named and shamed for public behavior, it isn’t hard to deduce that many (though not all) would have private behavior that was as bad or worse.
If you pay attention to how speakers treat women in public, particularly women who disagree with them, you’re halfway there. Who makes sexist jokes? Who talks as though only men are listening? Who only listens to men or the concerns of men?
Q: How bad can these guys be if they keep getting invited to speak?
A: As bad as they’re allowed to be. As I already pointed out, you’ve probably seen the public behavior of some of these guys already. Has it kept them from getting audiences and invitations? Has it kept them from getting jobs? Has it kept them from being treated as the cool kids?
No. It has not.
Not only are these speakers still allowed to show up, but they’re still in demand. Conferences need to sell tickets and fill seats. When organizers stop inviting some of the people on this list, unless sexism is a primary concern for donors, unless experiences are allowed to be made public, organizers get overruled. If the speaker is a draw, there is a limited amount organizers can do.
There’s a limited amount female speakers can do. Not only do they have less power (of the ticket sales and butts in seats variety), but they face backlash for using it. How *dare* they attack any of the heroes who are supposedly absent from our movement?
Q: Oh, well, if these guys are important to the movement….
A: Then we should encourage the women who are important to the movement to deal with or rearrange their lives to avoid being patronized, disrespected, insulted, leered at, inappropriately propositioned, harassed, assaulted? What are we offering these women that would compensate for that sort of “service” to the movement? What could?
Yeah. I didn’t think so.
Q: So, uh, what do we do about this?
A: Excellent question. I recommend three things. There will probably be other suggestions in the comments.
1. When someone points out sexist behavior in your heroes, start thinking instead of reacting. Listen to the harm being described. Say something when people try to shut down women who are reacting to the behavior; emotion is a *rational* response to attack. Make a place where it’s safe to talk about these problems, and don’t wander away because it makes you uncomfortable. This behavior makes the women complaining uncomfortable. You listening passively is much simpler.
2. Don’t ask to see the same speakers over and over again. Build up the number of popular speakers in the movement by demanding some degree of novelty in faces and topics. The bad apples are already a minority among speakers. Many speakers in the movement, even and sometimes especially the angry ones, are the sweetest people you’ll meet. The more of those we have, the more of those who are in demand, the easier it is to effectively marginalize bad behavior.
3. Don’t let women speakers have only nominal representation. The more of them there are in a venue, the fewer spaces there are for ugly behavior.
Okay, here’s a number 4. If something happens to you with one of these speakers, tell someone if you can. If you’re in a position to do so, scream it to the rafters. If you’re not, try to add your story to the ones traded behind the scenes. More stories = more credibility = more weight.
Q: Not all feminist infractions are huge deals. Where do we draw the line on this? How zero-tolerance should we be? What destroys a career?
A: I don’t know. We tolerate people who are jerks in other ways, but what’s happening here does create a hostile environment. Some things, however, are clearly wrong and should be treated that way.
There are people I respect greatly who have tried or are trying to draw lines in our speaker/representative sand on other issues. Lately, I’ve found that I have no heart for this on any issue while there are no lines on this issue. People can be as idiotic/harmful as they want to be on this. Why not everything else.
Or maybe there’s a better solution. Ya think?
Q: Okay, I think I get all that, but when are you going to tell me who they are?
A: I’ll tell stories when telling them makes life easier for the people whose stories they are. (Mine are minor but irritating.) When it costs their reputation instead of ours, then it will be a simple thing to satisfy your curiosity. Until then, as long as we live with our stories, you can live with your curiosity.
Photo credit: “microphone” by Daehyun Park. Some rights reserved.