I really, really didn’t want to throw down on the latest eruption going on around some FTB blogs regarding the matter of sex, harassment, and how not to be a creeper at conferences, but I really have to pronounce myself agog at how quickly a self-styled group of rationalists can allow a topic that any adult ought to be able to discuss like — oh — adults descend into a flamewar the likes of which would awe your stereotypical teenage LiveJournal junkie. It’s really something.
Allow me to make a general statement that I consider to be true.
Women should be able to go about their daily lives, particularly in situations where sexuality ought to be irrelevant such as careers and conferences, without having to put up with unwanted sexual advances multiple times a day.
Now, on the Controversy Scale — where a 5 would be “not only is that controversial, the person uttering it ought to be shot from a cannon for his stupidity” (Example: “Justin Bieber is a more important figure in the history of modern music than John Lennon.”) and a 1 would be “not even the least bit controversial, assuming you are a sentient vertebrate presently engaged in the act of breathing” (Example: “Justin Bieber is unlikely to be a more important figure in the history of modern music than John Lennon.”) — how controversial would you consider that statement?
I’m thinking it’s a 1, and anyone who would suggest otherwise needs to do some serious gazing into a mirror to see if the abyss gazes back.
This isn’t even about Rebecca and Elevatorgate anymore. Apparently the latest flareup has happened in the wake of the recent Women in Secularism conference, where Jen McCreight made the off-handed remark that she’d heard through the double-X-chromosomal grapevine that some A-list names among speakers at atheist and skeptical conferences have a habit of turning into Charlie Sheen around the ladies, and that perhaps these are men to avoid. Jen’s unwillingness to name names is, on its face, understandable. Do so without strong evidence, and you can find yourself legally liable for defamation or worse, and the woman doing the naming is going to be shouted down and vilified for trying to bring down a famous man out of spite or something. (Hell, Elevator Guy isn’t famous, Rebecca didn’t even name him, said nothing about him other than that he made an inappropriate offer at an inappropriate time and that she’d rather guys didn’t do that kind of thing, and the degree of abuse she’s endured in the wake of that is something Lindsay Lohan only wishes she had to put up with.)
Oddly, a lot of the vilification now is coming from some women in atheism, such as the increasingly S.E. Cupp-like Abbie Smith, who’s taken to openly encouraging some especially misogynist trolls to take up residency in her own blog’s commentariat. That’s a little weird, you know, kind of like a black guy trying to make friends at Stormfront, but hey, whatever floats her boat. It goes without saying that the usual gang of woman-resenting malcontents has also popped up once again, spewing bile-ridden comments around and about until the banhammer comes down.
What I don’t get is why this all has to unfold like this.
Oh, I don’t mean the problems with sexual desire and interaction, and their appropriate place in whatever venue or circumstance you find yourself in. I mean the inability too many people seem to have to discuss it without going into rage mode. And I don’t mean the people who have cause to be angry, like the ones getting the harassment. I mean the ones who ought to be taking to heart advice on how not to engage in behaviors that might be considered harassment, which would presumably help them avoid trouble later on down the road. Seriously, WTF?
At the core of any discussion of sexuality first needs to rest the matter of personal boundaries, and if your reaction to being told that boundaries are things you ought to respect is to fly into a rage, you probably have more bad wiring in your head than you realize. If you wouldn’t just randomly reach out and stick your finger up someone else’s nose for the lulz, then it ought to follow, as a rational thought, that reaching out to honk a woman’s boob or pinch her ass or tug on a guy’s junk is probably going to be just as — hell, twice as — unwelcome.
It comes as no surprise to me that a man in a position of power would test the waters in exploring how to use that to make time with the ladies. Men are programmed with the idea that women find status and power teh sexay, so dudes, for whom getting laid is usually an agenda item, will pretty predictably channel status when they have some towards those ends. Needless to say, in my own line of work (film), it’s pretty freaking rampant, often to the point of eye-rolling brazenness. When The Alamo shot here in 2003, one of its stars (who shall remain nameless other than to say he played Davy Crockett, has three names, the second of which is “Bob”) thoroughly lived up to his dual reputation of being 1) a really approachable and friendly man, far more than you’d expect from Hollywood superstars, and 2) an unabashed horndog who thinks nothing of asking any woman he knows more than casually to expose her breasts, usually as a prelude to fucking. As a movie star, it usually works for him, which is the hell of it. The rich, someone once said, are very different from you and me. What happens is, average dudes see that kind of privilege paying off, and want to make it work for them too.
So when you have a semi-celebrity in a niche community, be aware that yes, attempts to exploit that privilege are very likely to occur. But they will not always occur. (Most movie stars I’ve either worked with or know of do not behave in the least like the fellow above.) And so when the suggestion is made that communities and conferences ought to draw up sensible guidelines for what is and is not appropriate interpersonal contact, the idea ought to be welcomed and discussed rationally, and not with anger, personal invective, and all-around butthurt stupidity. (As in Abbie’s first response to Jen, which was to characterize her mentioning of some figures known for sexual harassment as an attempt to “attack every single male” in atheism.)
Not long ago I made some fun of a Christian conference that posted signs around the hotel stating that guys were forbidden to ride the elevators with women. That seemed like a little excessive chaperoning to me — but now I wonder, was it? They anticipated a problem, and so implemented a heavy, but probably undeniably effective, solution to forestall it, so that they could get on with running their conference.
Yet somehow, we rationalists don’t seem able to come to a meeting of the minds on this very subject in a rational way. And we ought to fix that. We need to live up to the high standards we set ourselves. Some have been doing their best, but they’re butting heads with the people who either can’t or won’t.