I think Greg Laden has gone a little far with that one. But…
He didn’t say the right thing.
Okay, so…latest drama in the Sex Wars. DJ Grothe, the current president of JREF, and the man responsible for running The Amaz!ing Meeting every summer in Vegas (which I’ve now attended three times and Matt and Beth once), made a comment concerning the serious drop in the number of women who have pre-registered for this year’s show. Unwisely, he made this comment.
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 no 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.
There are too many mixed messages one can get from that paragraph. On the one hand, DJ is understandably concerned about over-the-top Internet rumors that TAM somehow condones pedophilia and misogynist violence. But the very next sentence conflates that kind of irresponsible rumor-mongering (and I wish there were examples he’d presented of those kinds of heinous falsehoods) with the very real concerns women in the movement are expressing regarding plain ol’ sexual harassment and creeper behavior at conferences in general (not really TAM specifically). And that wasn’t a good move.
What he ought to have said is simply something like this. “I understand that there are a great many concerns about reported instances of sexual harassment and similar disrespectful behavior at skeptics’ events. I would like to reassure our supporters and attendees that regardless of what you may have heard, TAM is strongly committed to its own anti-harassment policies, and any reported violations of those policies will be swiftly and responsibly dealt with in order to ensure a positive convention experience for all attendees.”
As it stands, he comes across as shooting the messenger. As DJ is very much a politician in his interactions with people, it ought to have occurred to him to choose better wording. (Granted, he was making a comment on Facebook and not an official statement via a JREF source. But when you are president of anything, guess how every word out of your mouth will be taken?) His inability to remember an incident last year when he himself threw a guy out for harassing Ashley Miller just decreases everyone’s confidence that DJ’s really clued in here.
I’m a little disenchanted with TAM myself, mainly because I think they’ve been going off-message with the whole skepticism thing, bizarrely making room for selective inclusion of woo while increasingly marginalizing the more overtly atheistic among us. DJ’s reaction to a proposal I made to do a live Atheist Experience taping from the TAM stage went from “I like that idea!” at last summer’s show to “We aren’t doing any atheist programming this year” when I spoke to him at Reason Rally. Last year there was a workshop on, of all things, “Spirituality for Skeptics,” and one of the speakers was astronomer Pamela Gay, a devout Christian. While she commendably kept her religious beliefs out of her speech, some of what she writes about her beliefs on her own blog make me wonder if she’s best suited to speak at a skeptics’ conference rather than just at astronomy ones.
I don’t want to see DJ resign, I simply want to see him take everyone’s concerns to heart and make an effort to understand and improve. If he is seen to do this, it will go a long way toward rebuilding confidence that JREF’s ship is being well-steered away from any looming icebergs.
Addendum: In response to DJ’s remarks, Rebecca Watson has pulled out of TAM. This will fire up her haters, no doubt (“Yeah, and she said she wouldn’t buy any more Dawkins books either — I’m sure his career is over now!” “Hooray, I can ride the elevators again without having to register as a sex offender!”), but the fact is that Skepchick and Rebecca have been a major factor in TAM’s success in diversifying its audience and making the conference a welcoming place for women. Her quiz show was a popular part of TAM programming, and the Skepchick party at Caesar’s Palace in 2008 is something I’ll remember for years to come. A lot of people will accuse Rebecca of drama-queening this and elevating her own importance to the show (and it should be mentioned that TAM this year has so far scheduled 15 female speakers out of 32), but her concerns stated in her blog post — including her personal experience of harassment — should be given a respectful hearing. This is something I hope DJ and JREF won’t ignore, given the history of cooperation and partnership between TAM and Skepchick.