Rebecca explains

Rebecca Watson explains why she won’t be at TAM this year.

During my visit to Germany last week, I was asked by a conference attendee how I thought we could get more women to attend skeptic and atheist conferences. I gave the answer I nearly always give: when we increase the number of women on stage, we increase the number of women in the audience. As usual, I gave this example: The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) run by the James Randi Educational Foundation. I pointed out that when I first started attending (TAM 3), there were very few women on stage and the audience was only about 20% women. I explained that last year (TAM 9) an effort had been made to have women comprise 50% of the speakers. Most of those women were on panels and workshops, but it was a huge step. That, combined with ongoing promotion in places like Skepchick where Surly Amy raised thousands of dollars to give travel grants to dozens of women, helped finally raise the percentage of women in the audience to 40%.

Skepchick helped to promote TAM to women, and to send women to TAM. Skepchick has been good to TAM.

So it’s odd for me to be announcing that I will not attend TAM this year, because I do not feel welcomed or safe and I disagree strongly with the recent actions of the JREF president, DJ Grothe.

I’ve attended TAM since TAM 3 in 2005, and since TAM 4 I’ve actively raised money for grants to send more women. That’s actually how Skepchick got started – selling calendars to raise money for women to go to TAM. Signed calendars were even auctioned off at TAM in order to raise even more money for the JREF. For several years, we at Skepchick actively tried to work with the JREF to help increase the number of women on stage, as well, creating long lists of potential female speakers and suggesting panels and other events that would be of interest to women. TAM was the main event for Skepchick, even after we started running our own event at SkepchickCon.

You would think JREF would be grateful. But then DJ Grothe, president of JREF, blamed women talking about sexism and harassment for a reported decline in women registering for TAM. Say what?

DJ was blaming women skeptics for creating an unwelcoming environment. I found that claim astonishing, since I was only aware of women speaking frankly about their own experiences and their own feelings. I couldn’t imagine that DJ would be literally blaming the victim for speaking out. To be sure, I asked him in that thread to give us examples of what he was talking about. To my surprise, this was his response:

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. . . ”


Over the past several years, I’ve been groped, grabbed, touched in other nonconsensual ways, told I can expect to be raped, told I’m a whore, a slut, a bitch, a prude, a dyke, a cunt, a twat, told I should watch my back at conferences, told I’m too ugly to be raped, told I don’t have a say in my own treatment because I’ve posed for sexy photos, told I should get a better headshot because that one doesn’t convey how sexy I am in person, told I deserve to be raped – by skeptics and atheists. All by skeptics and atheists. Constantly.

This is quite obviously not a safe space for me or for other women who want to be free of the gendered slurs and sexual threats and come-ons we experience in our day-to-day lives. But apparently, DJ thinks I am lying about that, since apparently my feeling that the freethought community is not a safe space is “misinformation.” I should apparently put on a smile and pretend it doesn’t happen, because by reporting on my treatment, I am creating “a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe.”

As Jews in Germany circa 1936 might have created “a climate where Jews — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe.” As the Southern Poverty Law Center creates a climate where people who are the object of systematic vocal hatred end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe. That’s not to compare TAM with Nazi Germany or racist pockets of the US, of course, but then Rebecca didn’t name TAM in the item DJ quoted, either; she (or rather USA Today, indirectly quoting her) said “the freethought community.”

And once again we see that the tragedy isn’t necessarily in the initial problem – like say a man propositioning a woman who has just said she doesn’t want to be propositioned, at 4am in an elevator – but in the reaction to a mild rebuke from the woman. The nonstop avalanche of rape threats she gets because she had the temerity to say “Guys, don’t do that.”

And so here, the tragedy isn’t in the initial amount of harassment. It was (initially) only slightly more harassment than I had had to deal with in my every day life, after all, outside of this community. No, the tragedy is when the president of the organization that inspired me to join this community tells the world that women feel unsafe and unwelcome because of me. Because I talk about the men who harass me in this community, even while I encourage more women to attend these conferences and stand up and be counted, while I give conference organizers tips on improving the experience for women, and even while I help raise thousands and thousands of dollars to send women to these conferences.

It’s deeply depressing.