Guest post: I was raped at Oxford University. Police pressured me into dropping charges

I’ve known Maria Marcello several years. (Follow her on Twitter at @missmarcello.)
On her request I’m reprinting this post, originally published at Medium, about what she through two years ago.
Be warned: everything the title mentions is discussed in detail.
I was the friend.

000

Former judge Mary Jane Mowat’s recent comments about rape convictions are outrageous. (“Rape conviction statistics will not improve until women stop getting so drunk”, she said this week.) To me however, they are also personal.

In the first term of my second year at Oxford, I was raped while passed out in my bed. Yes, my unconsciousness was due to alcohol.

Desperate to learn how to play poker, I had invited some friends over to teach me, one of whom brought two companions. Poker rapidly descended into a drinking game and I, being a fatal combination of bad at poker and intolerant of alcohol, passed out. I have since learnt that I was put to bed, but I don’t remember anything. Then a guy I didn’t know had sex with me in my sleep.

I have one very clear memory which still haunts me two years later. I remember waking up during the night and seeing him on top of me, my trousers around my ankles and my shirt still on. I pulled away and heard him mutter “Oh no, it fell out” to himself, at which point I blacked out again. I assume he continued to rape me.

I told very few people at the time, but a friend came with me to the police station. The receptionist, on learning I was reporting a sex offence, insisted on me giving details in front of everybody in the waiting room before taking me somewhere private. Two officers then came to my house, where I was questioned further. One described rape as “just something that happens”, especially at university. The only advice I received was to drink less in future.

Once I explained what had happened and provided forensics, the policemen contacted a woman I was told was in charge of dealing with rape allegations around Oxfordshire. She came into the kitchen, where I had been with the two policemen and my friend, and sent him from the room insisting the conversation be private – even as I maintained I needed him for moral support and didn’t mind him being there.

She proceeded to question me rather forcefully, in a very short and matter-of-fact tone, and concluded that because I was drunk I couldn’t prove anything, informing me my evidence would not stand up in court. She said she got called to investigate a number of rape reports each day and her job involved deciding which of them it was worthwhile to pursue and which it wasn’t. In her opinion, as she made clear from the start, mine fell into the latter category.

The woman asked me to decide in that moment whether or not to press charges. I was not allowed to leave the kitchen until I had made my decision. She didn’t fail to emphasise how traumatic I would find the process or her certainty my case would not stand up in court: I would be unable to prove I was unconscious at the time or that I didn’t drunkenly consent.

000In fact, the Crown Prosecution Service states “capacity to consent may evaporate well before a complainant becomes unconscious”. Photos and videos my friends shot of me passed out both on the floor and on my bed proved I was incapable of consenting: unable to talk or stand up, I cannot have been capable of agreeing to sex. Furthermore, the Sexual Offences Act 1956 lists “evidence that by reason of drink… the complainant was unaware of what was occurring and/or incapable of giving valid consent” as a means by which to establish rape.

The entire experience, being separated from my friend and then questioned harshly hours after my rape, was perhaps as disorientating as it could possibly have been. I was given no opportunity to seek advice or regain composure; no chance to sleep on the matter. The woman insisted on me deciding whether or not to press charges immediately. Still shaken and vulnerable, I was in no position to make such a decision on the spot, and frankly her description of the court process scared me. It was little wonder, then, that I dropped it.

The woman who came to my kitchen told me my situation was exactly what former judge Mowat calls “one person’s word against another[’s]”. Her implication is that a woman who was drunk can’t prove anything – that the whole case is a matter of he-said-she-said.

For me, it wasn’t. As it happened, I did have evidence.

Had the police cared enough they could have acquired DNA, but the woman told them to return the clothes, bedsheets and used condoms I had given them. These all provided incontrovertible evidence that the guy had sex with me. In fact, given his bragging at dinner the following day, this was never really in question. “I lost the poker,” he said, “but I did pretty well if you know what I mean.” Just typing that today sickens me.

My Oxford college, when I spoke to its professional welfare staff, largely ignored me; the guy who raped me received a minor reprimand and no further repercussions. Despite several friends explaining on multiple occasions that his mere presence unnerved me, he seemed to devote his life to making me feel uncomfortable. On nights I was working behind the college bar, he would carefully place himself between me and the exit, sitting there all night. One time when I left a party as soon as he came in he followed me all the way out of college. I ran, and made it halfway back to my house before stopping. Whether his behaviour was intentional is irrelevant: I spent as little time in college as I could, rarely attending events there.

Despite the number of times I have contacted the welfare officers about this, they have largely ignored me except to say that if he’s around I should just leave. I have a year left at Oxford, as does he. I still don’t understand why I should be the one leaving.

“I’m not saying it’s right to rape a drunken woman,” Mary Jane  Mowat told the Oxford Mail. “But [when] they’ve got a woman who says ‘I was absolutely off my head, I can’t really remember what I was doing[’] . . . how are they supposed to react?”

Juries should react, in those circumstances, with the understanding that a state of extreme inebriation is not one where a person can give valid consent for sex and that this in itself is evidence of rape. The CPS explicitly states as much, encouraging investigators to “consider whether supporting evidence is available to demonstrate that the complainant was so intoxicated that he/she had lost their capacity to consent”.

There would be more convictions if the police process didn’t pressure women with viable evidence to drop their reports. In 2012-13, official treatment of victims like me meant only 15 percent of rapes recorded by the police even went to court. Mowat is right in that rape conviction statistics are lower than they should be. However, the criminal justice system is to blame, not drunk women.

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To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse

This post is currently getting a lot of traffic. If you like it, here are some of the other things I write.

As an undergraduate I chaired a group for student atheists — at least, that’s what I assumed it was. The finalist who’d stopped being in charge officially a year before I got elected, but who most people still answered to in private, disagreed. When we ran a stall at freshers’ fair together, he insisted I not tell punters Oxford Atheist Society was for people who didn’t believe in God, in case this stopped religious people joining.

It turned out what the ex-president wanted was a humanist discussion group welcoming believers and working with them for church-state separation, so once he’d done a lot of talking, we became the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. Supposedly this made us all-inclusive, but anything deemed antitheist was discouraged lest it put believers off — things I had to say, for instance, about being taught I was satanically possessed or trying to kill myself because of the things I believed.

* * *

I hear a lot about constructiveness, especially from fellow atheists convinced people like me should pipe down and behave. Calling religion harmful, they’ve told me, is immature and stops us ‘breaking down walls’. What, they’ve asked me, does it achieve?

Since I started talking publicly (mainly in print) about it, I’ve been informed I’m inflammatory; that I need to keep things civil; that I’m hateful, encourage stereotypes and impede mutual understanding; that atheists like me are a liability, holding the movement back; that I need to smile more.

I’ve noticed that often, atheists saying these things have no real religious past.

* * *

‘If you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause,’ Greta Christina wrote in 2011, ‘which cause, exactly, are you talking about?’ In the same post she proposes two competing atheist agendas: working against sectarianism and for secularism with believers on the one hand, opposing religion qua religion on the other. How polite or fiery we should be, Greta suggests, depends which of the two our mission is.

Chris Stedman, constable of the atheist tone police, responded at the Huffington Post: ‘If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist — you are an anti-religious activist. . . . I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanising generalisations about religious people’. Several combative bloggers, he pointed out, had said blinkered things about Muslims and Islam, therefore all attacks on religion were dehumanising.

* * *

American Atheists has launched a television channel. At Salon, Daniel D’addario calls the four hours he spent watching it horrific.

‘Despite my own lack of religious belief’, he writes, ‘I find it hard to imagine that even a casual nonbeliever would tune in . . . AtheistTV adheres to nasty stereotypes about atheism — smugness, gleeful disregard for others’ beliefs — to a degree that’s close to unwatchable.’

Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience is skewered in particular for ‘feed[ing] viewers a diet of scorn’. This translates to wearing a flame-patterned shirt, calling a Bible story ‘absolutely horrible’ and using the word ‘stupid’ about God. (No context is given.)

Fair enough if D’addario dislikes the channel, but by suggesting its tone does nonbelievers actual harm — that is, none will tune in because it hurts their movement’s image — he goes beyond writing a bad review.

AA has thousands of fee-paying members. The Atheist Experience has over twenty thousand fans and Dillahunty over thirty thousand Twitter followers. Whatever stereotypes their tone fits weren’t concocted by conservatives: obviously, it speaks for many real atheists. Smug or not, aren’t they allowed a voice?

* * *

Last month a column of mine went up at the new site of the Freethinker. I talk there about how as a queer teenager I tried to kill myself, and how I hold responsible the mainstream, nonfundamentalist Christianity I practised at the time: about letting go and letting God, convinced he never gave me more than I could handle while I was assaulted and harassed into self-harm; about declining to defend myself because the turning the other cheek was Christlike.

There’s a lot I don’t talk about there.

I don’t talk about how when I overdosed, I lost consciousness afraid suicide would land me in Hell, where aged six I’d been told relatives burned and where aged nine I’d been told I would go for lying.

I don’t talk about wondering what I’d done wrong to make that cycle of harassment and self-harm God’s plan for me and what I should learn from it.

I don’t talk about being pressured to pray in tongues once I was convinced aged eight the devil had possessed me, nor being aged seven to perform ‘faith healing’.

I don’t talk about the demons I believed entered our home, the one I believed was my father or the Hallowe’ens when year on year I hid from trick-or-treaters chanting prayers in abject terror.

I don’t talk about fasting till it hurt.

I don’t talk about the children who couldn’t visit on my birthday since they went to different churches, my childhood belief Hinduism was Satan’s work or result fear of anything Asian — yoga, Indian art, a woman in a sari.

I don’t talk about being told all Muslims practised FGM and ‘want[ed] to die for Allah’, or that Muslim men were instructed to rape Christian women.

I don’t talk about the schoolteachers I had who, sermonising, told me God ‘deplore[d] homosexuality’.

I don’t talk about the preacher in the streets of my hometown who called me an abomination, or how when I mentioned it online I was accused of ‘having a go at Christians’.

I don’t talk about my brother calling me an offence against nature and God.

I don’t talk about the magazine cutting my mother kept that said I was an atheist because I had a stubborn heart.

I don’t talk about being preached at by guests at my friends’ church wedding or glared at by the vicar when my friend’s body was buried because I hadn’t joined in with the hymns.

I don’t talk about being threatened with hell for being an atheist.

I don’t talk about being told I’d have my head cut off.

When I do talk about these things, people don’t usually suggest I smile more.

It’s other times I talk about religion I’m called bitter, hateful, counterproductive, told I need to quieten down. But when I talk about religion, I always have the above in mind.

When you tell me to speak more respectfully, this is what you’re telling me how to discuss.

Remembering it I return to Greta Christina and Chris Stedman, and want to say that after what it did to me, talking as rudely as I like about religion is my goal, not just a means to it. I return to every time I’ve heard atheists like me aren’t constructive, and want to say that after years holding my tongue, speaking freely is a huge achievement. If it hampers outreach by faitheists with no inkling of my experience*, I don’t give a fuck.

* * *

*A clarification: it’s in no way my intention to suggest no ‘faitheist’ has a history of this sort. Especially in Britain, where secular upbringings are much more common, I maintain they often accompany the silencing of confrontationalists – but I don’t mean to erase the trauma of people who challenge me. 

I will say this: if you’re telling me to shut up for no reason except finding my tone unpalatable – if it’s not (see below) about consequences or factual errors – it’s a charitable assumption that you’re doing it because you don’t know better. If you survived what I survived or worse, you have no more right than anyone to shush me, and (I’d have thought) more reason not to.

* * *

I return to Daniel D’addario at Salon. I want to ask: what’s it to him if other atheists are more barbed than he is? Isn’t switching off his TV enough?

I return to my atheist group’s ex-president. I wnt to ask: if a secularist mission means atheists can’t speak freely about religion, what is the point of it?

Others I know are called hateful.

Beth Presswood has family who refuse to acknowledge her long-term partner — Matt Dillahunty. Some have declared him, if memory serves, to be the devil. Except because ‘he thinks it’s nuts to rely on a book for wisdom and guidance’, D’addario can’t see why he’s ‘bothered’ by US Christianity. Could this not be at least a factor?

Jonny Scaramanga writes, occasionally snarkily, of the ultra-extreme Christian upbringing that left him alone, depressed, uneducated, socially unequipped and with wildly skewed attitudes to gender, race, sexuality and politics. Those he criticises label him bitter and his work a hate campaign.

Sue Cox has spoken publicly about the Catholic priest who raped her when she was a minor and her family’s decision to tell her this was part of God’s plan for her. When a television clip was posted on the Internet, some commenters called her an anti-Catholic bigot preaching hate.

Shaheen Hashmat lives with mental illness resulting from ‘honour’ abuse in her Scottish-Pakistani Muslim family. Because she sees Islam as central to her family’s actions, she is accused of ‘fuelling Islamophobia’ (demonisation of Muslims) and being a puppet of white racism.

These are extreme cases, but extreme manifestations of religion aren’t the only abusive ones. Many in religious communities…

…fall victim to genital mutilation. (About one human in seven or eight, specifically.)

…suffer violence, physical or sexual, in other contexts — by parents, clergy, organisations or states.

…are taught not to defend themselves from violence, as I was.

…are told traumatic experiences are punishments from a higher power.

…are terrorised with lurid images of damnation and hell.

…suffering ‘knowing’ those they care about are damned.

…have no chance to mourn loved ones properly due to religious differences.

…are seriously maleducated, including facing abusive learning environments, being fed fundamental scientific mistruths or being denied facts about sex and their bodies.

…are shunned or isolated for leaving religion or not following it as expected.

…are harassed in the workplace or at school for being skeptical.

…are denied child custody explicitly for being atheists.

…are rejected by family members or have to endure painful relationships with them.

…are forced into unwanted relationships or to end desired ones.

…are taught to submit to their male partners.

…are taught sex and sexuality are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies, when menstruating for example, are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies are a cause of sexual violence — including violence toward them — and must be concealed to prevent it.

…are taught their minds, because they live with mental illness, are gripped by cosmic evil.

…are medically or socially mistreated in hands-on ways while mentally ill.

…are told they’re sinful, disordered or an abomination because they’re queer.

…are told skepticism makes them a traitor to their race or culture.

…are denied medical care they need urgently — birth control, condoms, HIV medication, hormone therapy, transitional surgery, abortion, blood transfusions.

…give up much-needed medicine voluntarily due to religious teachings and suffer severe ill health.

…perform rituals voluntarily — fasting for instance — that seriously endanger their health.

…are manipulated for financial gain by clergy, sometimes coerced out of what little they have.

…are manipulated for social gain, often too reliant on their congregation to leave when they have doubts.

If this is true in religious communities, it’s also a reality for those who’ve fled them. Atheists who were believers have frequently been profoundly harmed; I suspect movement atheists are especially likely to have been; confrontational atheists, even likelier.

When you tell us how to talk about religion, you are telling us how to discuss our abuse.

* * *

There are times when rhetoric should be policed or at least regulated through criticism. It’s true many attacks made on religion, especially by those still forming atheist identities, are ill-informed, sectarian or oversimplistic — and that such attacks often punch down, reaching for racism, classism or mental health stigma as antitheist ammunition. (There are many other examples.)

It needn’t be so. I’ve challenged this because I think we can and should go after God without harming the downtrodden through splash damage. Doing so on everyone’s behalf who’s been downtrodden by religion is itself, I adamantly believe, a mission of social justice. Failing at it by making substantive errors or throwing the marginalised under the bus invites and deserves criticism; a rhetoric powered by justified anger needs to be carefully controlled.

But that is not a question of tone.

And it does not discredit the mission.

Bigotry and imprecision in antitheism have often been treated as intrinsic to it, conflated with the very notion of (counter)attacks on faith. Stedman, who states in his book Faitheist that he once ‘actually cried — hot, angry tears’ because of atheist vitriol, is especially guilty of this, treating racist comments on Islam like they invalidate all opposition to religion. D’addario’s attack on AtheistTV as smug and scornful has, similarly, covered my feed where secular ‘social justice warriors’ congregate.

If this is you — if you’re an atheist progressive who wants barbed, confrontational atheists to shut up — we’re likely on the same side most of the time… but there’s something I need to say.

People like us are infamous for words like ‘privilege’, ‘splaining’, ‘problematic’; part of the power of concepts like these is that when transferred between activist contexts they expose parallels. I’m deeply aware there can be only limited analogy between atheism and the concerns of more marginalised groups, and would hate to devalue their language. But I’m convinced of the following:

It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

It is tone-policing if when you’re not telling us to shut up about it, you’re telling us how to talk about it. How dare you tell us to be more respectful.

It is splaining if your answer when we detail histories of religious abuse is ‘Yes, but’ — or if you tell us we can’t blame religion for it since not all believers do the same. We know the details. You don’t.

It is gaslighting dismissing justified anger about widespread, structural religious abuse by telling us we’re bitter or hateful.

It’s civility politics implying our anger, bitterness or hatred is just as unacceptable, siding with the aggressor by prioritising believers’ feelings over ours on the false pretence of neutrality.

It’s respectability politics implying we need to earn an end to bigotry we face by getting on politely with believers, throwing those of us under the bus who can’t or won’t sing kumbaya.

It’s internalised bigotry shaming atheists for being stereotypical — smug, scornful and the rest — for letting the side down, instead of asserting our collective rights however we express ourselves.

It is victim-blaming to treat atheists who are stereotypical as a legitimate cause of anti-atheist bigotry or hatred.

It is tokenisation to impose on any individual the burden of representing atheists so our collective status can be judged by how they act.

And it is deeply, deeply problematic to cheer for snarky, confrontational firebrands of social justice who take on mass structures or beliefs that ruined their lives… then boo snarky, confrontational atheist firebrands off the stage who’ve survived religious abuse.

* * *

I must talk about religion and the things it did to me, and must do so however I like. This is my goal, not just a means to it — it’s my hill to die on and matters enough that nothing can compete. I don’t care if it sets back my career, hampers others’ work or hurts religious feelings.

Actually, hang on — yes I do.

If you feel your texts, traditions, doctrines, revelations, fantasies, imaginary friends or inaudible voices are licence to ride roughshod over other people’s lives, I want to hurt your feelings.

If your god, in whom billions believe, tells you to terrorise or mutilate children, deny them basic knowledge of their bodies or their world, jeopardise their health, inflict physical violence on them or assault them sexually;

If he tells you to inform them their trauma is deserved, that their own bodies were to blame or that their flesh and broken minds are sinful; if he tells you to instruct them against defending themselves or if their thoughts of him drive them to suicide;

If he tells you to preach racism, queerphobia or misogny; if he tells you what consensual sex you can and can’t have and with whom, or to destroy loving relationships and force nonconsensual ones on others;

If he tells you to threaten and harass others, subject them to violence or deny them medical aid;

If your god, in whom billions believe, inspires the fear, abuse and cruelty I and countless others lived through:

Fuck your god.

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Recommended reading: Catholicism, kink, feminism and Lydia Bennet

Britney tells me I should work more. While I’m busy, some things to be going on with:

  • ‘My Path from Rome’, by Barbara Smoker (The Freethinker)
    Whenever I mention my Catholic childhood, people tend to assume that the reason I have rejected religion so completely is that an extreme version of it was drummed into me as a child – but it wasn’t like that at all.
  • ‘Thank Goodness Richard Dawkins Has Finally Mansplained Rape’, by Erin Gloria Ryan (Jezebel)
    Dawkins, who himself suffered sexual abuse when he was fondled by a school staffer as a child, believes he has the right to quantify and describe the experiences of others who have also suffered sexual abuse.
  • ‘Yes, Richard Dawkins, I’m Emotional’, by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds)
    I had plans for today that had nothing to do with addressing Richard Dawkins’ self-serving justifications for his Twitter trolling. But no, he chose today to brand consequence-based ethical arguments about how he should shape his public messaging as ‘taboos’, as though they were based in religion or tea-table politesse.
  • ‘Sex-Positive Feminist Icons In Literature: Some Evolving Thoughts on Lydia Bennet’, by Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    Austen describes her as ‘self-willed and careless,’ ‘ignorant, idle, and vain.’ And yes. She is all of these things. But she’s also something else. She is a woman who thinks of her body, and her life, as hers.
  • ‘Fifty Shades of Grey Gets Bondage All Wrong’, by ahhidk (tickld.com)
    BDSM is a community that believes in safety and comfort. Consent is always necessary, and partners take care of each other. AFter acts and role plays, partners comfort each other to help transition out of that zone. FSOG does not include any of this.

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The Dawkins Cycle: an infographic

There are stages, I’ve noticed, to every Richard Dawkins Twitter storm.

It starts when he says something crass about a sensitive topic. (Child molestation/rape/‘all the world’s Muslims’.)

People whose ally he’s supposed to be get annoyed. Often they blog about it; often he trends. (‘Your a dick’ tends to get tweeted a lot, too.)

Dawkins becomes tetchy and berates them for being PC/absolutist/illogical/unable to think.

International media takes notice and reports the argument.

Dawkins publishes a response at RD.net, often referring to ‘a storm in a teacup’ or insisting – despite being a professional communicator – that the rest of the world was at fault for not grasping his true meaning.

People at wit’s end tend to give up at this point, but eventually he mouths off on something else and the cycle repeats.

I’ve come up with an illustrated guide.

DawkinsCycle

(On the other hand, there’s this.)

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Terms of engagement: why the Dawkins-Benson pact is meaningful

Richard Dawkins trended today on Twitter, which is never a good sign. ‘Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse’, he’d tweeted, an idea I blogged about last year. ‘Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse’, he added, which Ashley Miller has unravelled along with Amanda Marcotte. Dawkins, it turns out, was only making a simple point about syllogisms using the two most inflammatory examples imaginable – how anyone could be upset about is a mystery. (It always is.)

I’ve just criticised Richard Dawkins, and some will say – indeed they have – this makes the last thing I posted meaningless.

We have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults,’ he said in a joint statement with Ophelia Benson, ‘as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap.’ The statement has been called a ‘peace accord’ and was read by many, it appears, as the ‘ceasefire’ in atheist infighting some had demanded. Now that so soon after cosigning it, Dawkins has put foot in mouth again and been lampooned, it’s a sure bet hands are rubbing gleefully.

That was hesitance about this statement from the off. Some said it didn’t go far enough, and that Dawkins had yet to ‘walk the walk’ in pursuing activism ethically; others found it too nonspecific. Some declared he hadn’t meant a word, either to undermine him or it; others suggested Benson ‘bullied’ him somehow into signing it. But sign it he did, and my view is that even assuming a cynical reading, the Dawkins-Benson pact – shut up, that’s what I’m calling it – matters.

Because it wasn’t a ceasefire at all – the authors’ wording makes the point extremely clear that ‘disagreement is inevitable’, which must include on things like Dawkins’ tweets yesterday. The point is what it adds: ‘bullying and harassment are not.

It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.

This isn’t a peace accord – it’s a treaty establishing terms of engagement.

For the past three years, the above behaviour has been endemic in online atheism, targeting secular ‘social justice warriors’ and feminists in particular. There’s more: to quote a recent list,

There’s no serious doubt this began when Richard Dawkins mocked Rebecca Watson’s discomfort at being hit on in a lift and roused entitled male atheists the net over against her. Implicitly or explicitly, these harassment campaigns have often been carried out in his name.

We have to conclude that if a blog comment from Dawkins could unleash such violent torrents of misogyny, the man has influence, and any statement from him will have impact; more specifically, we also have to conclude that the hordes of angry antifeminists who till then hadn’t advanced on Watson felt empowered by his example.

So it’s not meaningless that in his statement with Benson, he says: ‘Some people think I tacitly endorse such things even if I don’t indulge in them. Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement by silencing its voices and driving away support.

If Dawkins’ current tweets on rape and molestation tell us anything, it’s that he’s going to keep arguing with feminists in our community – there’s no peace in our time to be seen here, and nor should there be if it meant letting statements like these go. But his statement alongside Benson makes clear too that the bullies, harassers and abusive trolls in atheism aren’t part of that argument any more.

There is no single atheist as influential as Dawkins; there may never be again, and likely this is a good thing. There’s certainly no feminist atheist as influential as he is, but his feminist critics are many and hold great collective influence. In the atheist sex wars, these are the sides – and the Dawkins-Benson pact means both sides will shun atheism’s worst elements.

That means the Slymepit, who exist entirely to harass and bully feminists among us.

That means the ‘Amazing’ Atheist, who has repeatedly threatened them with rape and violence.

That means Justin Vacula, who published the home address of Amy Davis Roth.

It means everyone who mounts cyberattacks against websites like this, including DDOS attacks and leaking private emails.

It means everyone who hounded Melody Hensley till she had PTSD, and everyone whose whole online existence is about harassing feminists in atheism.

When Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson – people almost never on the same side of the fence – agreed that this was unacceptable, they defined a new community standard. If any of the above is you, you don’t meet it, and however loudly or venomously you respond, this the start of your being squeezed out of our movement.

Have fun, to quote Jen McCreight, as you circle jerk into oblivion.

Going, going. Soon enough you’ll be gone.

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Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators

Unlike Grace Dent, I’m not old enough for Rolf to have entertained me as a child. (June 1991. I know.) At eight or nine, I only knew of him from ads for Animal Hospital, which I didn’t watch. I did, however, grow to like him in his Rolf on Art programmes during my teens, and I’ve followed Operation Yewtree enough to know his case is different from the other men’s involved.

Those whose guilt has been ascertained – Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter – or were arrested over allegations (Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck) have a certain seediness in common. After meeting any of them one would want to wash one’s hands: if unsavoury reports had come to light ten years ago, I doubt most of us would have been that shocked, and with one or two it seemed only a matter of time. Rolf – even now, calling him by anything but his first name feels wrong – was by contrast the last person you’d fear in a dark alley. With a quiet, distinctly Australian warmth and a unexpectedly thoughtful painting style for someone who made his name through novelty children’s records, he remains the only Yewtree suspect ever to have come across as a nice bloke, and this makes his guilt uniquely disturbing.

I can’t be alone in feeling this. Harris (alright) was obviously seen to be harmless enough that BBC bosses placed him in kids’ TV, and unlike in Savile’s case (whose child sex abuse it appears was extraordinarily prolific), one doesn’t sense their heads were in the sand. So formidable was the man’s natural charm that it seems it constituted his entire defence strategy in court. ‘In his evidence,’ news stories state, ‘Harris reminded the jury of his career, how he had invented the wobble board instrument by accident and popularised the didgeridoo, and talked about his hit records, briefly singing a line from one of them, “Jake the Peg”’ – as if proving himself likeable would be enough to get him off. While assaulting girls between the ages of seven and fifteen, his barrister reportedly argued, he had simply ‘los[t] perspective and rational thought in the face of flattering attention’. High on well earned public adoration, in other words, who could blame him?

What unnerves is that Harris was evidently quite justified in thinking this would work. For many years it clearly did. With the conviction of men like Savile and suspicion of ones like Davidson, a note of smugness is tempting and to deny it would be humbug. Something about them was always a touch pervy, and it’s hard to resist told-you-so-ism. Harris had us fooled, and that’s harrowing – because mock it as we might when relied on in court, the assumption that a nice bloke couldn’t sexually assault children is exactly what enabled him to get away with it repeatedly.

It’s easier to talk about abuse – assault, harassment, rape – in ways that don’t implicate us, to make out predators are just violent strangers, sexual violence is a problem elsewhere in the world and only leering creeps molest young girls. As I write, the press is busy monstering Harris with words of sickness and perversion, tipp-exing out of history a lifetime of popular affection and approval because inevitable evil is less threatening than a perp who doesn’t fit that image. Admitting Rolf was a nice guy means admitting, too, that apparent nice guys do what he did. That’s a difficult red pill to swallow, but on the other hand, how many victims does denying it prevent from being believed?

Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.

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Chapter 6: The Age of Consent

Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits.

Rage is the simplest response to Jonathan, and for a while it was mine. As we fell over the years into non-overlapping peer groups, connected only by fragile silence, it subsided to be replaced with disdain. He left school at 16 without ever coming out, shaved legs and a gaggle of female friends declaring for him what he couldn’t, and is now a hairdresser; I resented, I think, that someone who had the balls to snatch at mine was so pathetically timid about what made his own dick hard. Assaulting me was the most audacity he ever managed, and a chapter in this book’s all he’ll ever be – the truth is, he no longer matters enough to hate.

My anger hasn’t mellowed, but it has found better targets. I’ve made Jonathan a villain as compellingly satanic as he was when I was twelve, so it’s only natural reader-responses have focused on him. (Was he punished? Does he know I’ve written of him? What was his real name?) But there are better things to ask about, because what he did was just one gory detail in a much bigger picture.

I’d be lying if I said I that in my early teens, I never casually groped anyone the way straight boys, joking at least ostensibly, groped me – not a calculated or sadistic touch like Jonathan’s had been, but still uninvited and unwelcome. I’m positive they did as much or worse to the girls in our year, believing honestly – as for a time, I did - that this was just how flirting worked. Jonathan was special only in that he knew what he was doing, and even then, he’d seen encroaching physically as an acceptable come-on while we were friends.

If he took harassment to an extreme, it’s partly because none of us knew what sexual assault was to begin with. Nothing about the theory of consent or practice of not touching-without-asking came up in what sex ed we’d had. Biology made it all about how mums and dads made babies, and Mrs Swainson, who spent at least the first third of each French lesson discussing being head of PSHE, was too beside herself about having the job to do it properly. (If she had, I might have recognised lines like ‘I know you love it’ and ‘That means you like it’ from my own experience for what they were.) In my final years at Keswick School, I learnt about female pupils boys there had assaulted, convinced what they were doing was fine. Even as this unsettles me, I find it unsurprising.

Violence of that sort wasn’t discussed except clandestinely by those who knew the girls; I’ve no idea how much went on that I didn’t hear of. My assault could never have been dealt with formally, since that would have meant discussing it, and talking about sex attacks as real – queer sex attacks at that – would have been as out of keeping with the ethos of respectability that held sway as high heels and untucked shirts. (At that stage, of course, I’d have been terrified to mention being anything except straight to a teacher in the first place.)

Jonathan was just one product of that place, which prided itself on clinging to a long-dead age of values and traditions. Its own included homophobia and prudishness, and so it could never have weathered an age of consent.

Chapter 7: Stranger Danger.

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Chutney, pineapples and flying spaghetti: why atheism can never be inoffensive enough

This month, posters were snatched from an atheist group at South Bank University. ‘Looking for logic?’ they read, Flying Spaghetti Monster in God’s place on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. ‘Pastafarianism is a real religion.’ Not quite The Satanic Verses, but student union officials took them down in the society’s absence, afraid they’d trigger ‘religious offence’. (The union has since apologised.)

The row recalled a string of prior ones. Censors initially claimed the problem to be Michelangelo’s Adam, painted nude, but changed once offered a blurred-out version to fears of offensiveness. We’ve seen this bait-and-switch before: when UCL’s union tried to ban Jesus and Mo from its atheist group’s Facebook page, complaints were just as interchangeable – the cartoons, said critics jumping between bad arguments, were wrong to show Mohammed in a pub, blasphemous for depicting him at all, or else a form of ‘bullying and harassment’. Officers’ invasiveness is likewise familiar: when LSE’s atheists wore Jesus and Mo shirts at their freshers’ fair, union staff ‘started removing material’; a year before, when Reading’s labelled a pineapple Mohammed, authorities ‘seized [it] and tried to leave’.

Drawings of the Prophet; fruit with his name; the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Targets of censure on our campuses grow, by the year, absurder. The pineapple, displayed in reference to a teacher prosecuted in Sudan for calling her class teddy bear Mohammed, was no doubt chosen for its innocence. The Monster, like space teapots or invisible pink unicorns, is a generic spoof-god – mocking no faith in particular, targeting no one for abuse. It’s a nicer god than any mainstream one, as venomless as parody could be. These items are whimsical, silly, fun. To call them offensive is to take offence per se at anyone finding religion funny.

Atheist blasphemy, even as atheism is blasphemy, has been called gratuitous. Drawing Islamic prophets like Jesus and Mo, or for Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, is one example. Mocking the Eucharist, like PZ Myers or Goodness Gracious Me – whose banned sketch where a British Asian adds chutney to his wafer visibly pained Ann Widdecombe – is another. These exercises, we’re told, are intolerant and crass, offending with intent and for the sake of it. It’s rarely true, but anyway: if any atheist meme attempts the opposite, being as inoffensive as it can, surely the FSM does? If Spaghetti Monsters are aggressive enough to ban, what isn’t?

‘There’s probably no god’, Ariane Sherine’s Atheist Bus Campaign proclaimed, ‘now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Just calling oneself an atheist, most of time, says something not unlike that, but the ASA got 141 complaints. When the British Humanist Association pushed for better census data, railway companies refused to run its ads, which read ‘If you’re not religious for God’s sake say so’ - suggesting nothing either way about believers or belief. In Pennsylvania, bus owners rejected signs as overly controversial and provocative which would have read ‘Don’t believe in God? You are not alone’ and, in one case, simply ‘Atheists.

The advert U.S. bus owners refused to run

Unbelief can never be inoffensive enough. Items like these – bus and rail ads, sketches, spoilt Communion wafers, Mohammed drawings, Jesus and Mo, the pineapple, the Flying Spaghetti Monster – are awkward reminders atheists exist, and this alone, it seems, makes them impolite, unwelcoming and intolerant. Widdecombe, gasping in anguish for the cameras at the gentlest fun-pokes, seems genuinely unready for a world where not everyone shares her beliefs or has grace enough to act as if they do. In theory, no doubt, she’d concede atheists their right to draw breath, but that some might actually behave like crackers aren’t really Christ’s flesh appears to wound her. Response to Mohammed cartoons can be the same, and whoever tore the South Bank posters down must have felt similar. ‘We know you don’t believe,’ blacklisters say, ‘but for heaven’s sake, must you live like it, too?’

Few things but faith could yield such results: blasphemy, even apparently when most benign, threatens the norms on which religion rests. The earnestness of faith, and faith itself, can’t be taken comfortably for granted when its sacraments are others’ standing jokes, and what can’t be assumed must be explained. Spectators like Tom Bailey of Spiked overlook this, who conflate the campus banning of Spaghetti Monsters and unholy fruits with that, for instance, of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, a song a score of student unions boycotted, which insists in colourfully violent language that women who dance with men ‘must want’ sex with them. No thinking person equates advocacy of rape, or any assault, with dismissing or lampooning doctrines of faith.

Conservative believers and the faitheists who aid them, on campuses and elsewhere, suppress the softest of critiques insatiably – motivated, it’s hard not to conclude, by simple shock at public sacrilege. We can only guess, after the hateful smörgåsbord of chutney, pineapples and noodles, what their next targets will be, but if ‘zero tolerance’ means anything, it’s this.

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‘Mild paedophilia’: Richard Dawkins’ molestation comments in depth

NB: contains personal reference to molestation/abuse, statements trivialising them.

Camp Dawkins have been after me since this morning, claiming that post misrepresented him, took what he said out of context or misunderstood his point.

I don’t think any of this holds, and I’m conscious too that I’ve heard clarifications from him before. When he told Rebecca Watson to shut up since FGM and stoning exist, people replied that didn’t mean nothing should upset her; he clarified – actually arguing something quite different – that he meant since Elevator Guy didn’t physically assault her, she had no reason to think ‘coffee’ meant ‘sex’. When he tweeted ‘All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though’, the tweet (and his general commentary about Islam) were criticised; he clarified, in a lengthy, wilfully ignorant, defensive screed, what he actually meant.

This isn’t fair play. Dawkins is a professional communicator and globally read writer: his job is to say to things clearly, from the off. For a long time, in fact, he was paid specifically to teach ‘the Public Understanding of Science’: when many in the press, the public and his own community read his comments on sensitive matters (ones far less complex or mysterious than science facts he’s explained with ease) and reach certain conclusions, he and his acolytes don’t get to write them off simply as mass misapprehensions. Being apprehended right the first time round is well within his skill set; the onus should not be on the rest of us correctly to divine his intent.

This being said, I do want to be fair, and it’s true my prior post makes only so much reference to the context of his comments. With that in mind, I’m going to scour through the interview in which he makes them to the Times, published by RDFRS, and give my thoughts precisely on what he says.

The following is the passage from the article which deals with the issues at hand. I’ve cut the introductory paragraphs and extract from his book which follows, since I don’t think they’re relevant, but you can view them at the source.

Let’s begin.

Dawkins is fascinated by the way today’s transgressions might have been viewed differently not long ago. For instance, as a junior academic he went to the University of California at Berkeley for two years in the late Sixties, which gave him a ringside seat at the Summer of Love. He relates one vivid memory in his new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder:

“I was walking along Telegraph Avenue, axis of Berkeley’s beads-incense-and-marijuana culture. A young man was walking ahead of me, dressed in the insignia of the flower-power generation. Every time a young woman passed him, walking in the opposite direction, he would reach out and tweak one of her breasts. Far from slapping him, or crying, ‘Harassment!’, she would simply walk on by as if nothing had happened… Today I find this almost impossible to believe.”

Which side is Dawkins coming down on here? On the face of it, the one which says deems this unacceptable: ‘impossible to believe’ has a distinct ring of outraged shock, and the next sentence (below) claims – while paraphrased from unknown comments – that he’s glad this wouldn’t now be allowed. (So he presumes, at any rate: five minutes browsing @EverydaySexism‘s feed might stop it seeming such a clear thing of the past.)

On the other hand, isn’t there a subtle romanticism to this account? In the heady days of incense, flower power and marijuana, ‘tweak[ing] one of her breasts’ sounds rather harmless, almost sweet – is that how the women in question would describe it? Instead of ‘tweaking’, as in a consensual sexual setting, might we not refer to ‘groping’, ‘assaulting’, ‘uninvited touching’? Something about ‘crying, “Harassment!”‘, too, feels hyperbolic, conjuring imagery of hysterical, overemotional women exaggerating infractions against them. This could just be my imagination – I’m not totally sure it isn’t – and it’s possible his comments in the past are biasing my reading here – but one could also say ‘informing’. Dawkins is talking here about a teacher’s assaults not being all that bad, notoriously told Rebecca Watson what happened to her wasn’t all that bad, and has a record of pointed innuendo toward anti-harassment rules. This colours my reading, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t.

He says he’s pleased how things have changed on the harassment front in the past 40 years. But on other occasions when that shifting moral zeitgeist rears its head – as boys, including him, are molested or beaten at his various boarding schools, for instance – he fails to be outraged. One master at his public school, Oundle, he writes, “was prone to fall in love with the prettier boys. He never, as far as we knew, went any further than to put an arm around them in class and make suggestive remarks, but nowadays that would probably be enough to land him in terrible trouble with the police – and tabloid-inflamed vigilantes.”

‘Nowadays’ – here, again, a flavour of reactionary nostalgia which typifies the red top press as much as pitchfork-wielding fears of paedophilia. (British tabloids, for readers overseas, have certain ever-present bogeymen: political correctness, one; standards of health and safety, another; child protection measures, likewise.) Never mind police: intimate touching and sexualised remarks from teachers in positions of trust do constitute harassment and abuse, just as they would among adults. What of it if this teacher ‘never went any further’? Children’s bodies are their own, just like anyone else’s, whether or not further infractions followed. Consequences for the man involved would have been fair and appropriate, not ‘terrible’ – that word describes his conduct, in my view, much more than any repercussions from police.

Is he guilty of rationalising bad stuff just because it’s past? “I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”

My earlier comments on this passage stand:

That he insists the past not be assessed by present standards – a line we’ve all heard once too often, I’m quite sure, in religion’s defence – seems incongruous, since he’s carved out an atheist career doing just that. The God Delusion, damning of Yahweh, calls him a homophobic, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; the book, and Dawkins’ commentary since writing it, attack religious morals as out of step with modern secular ethics; his condemning William Lane Craig’s defence of scriptural genocide, for instance, would never yield to a ‘That was then, this is now’ defence. Why does he then mount just such a defence of child abuse, his own included, when secular? (I for one – and, I think, most people in this corner of the net – do absolutely hold 18th and 19th century characters guilty of racism.)

One further question, though: if 18th century racism, 1940s child abuse or 1960s street harassment took place each in ‘another era’, what brought those eras to an end? It wasn’t some naturalistic progression of human ethics on its own, it was that people present objected. Slaves who revolted in the 1800s objected to racism; policymakers in the 20th century objected to corporal punishment in schools; women’s liberation objected to assault and harassment. These movements weren’t ahead of their time, they were of their time: clearly we can judge these transgressions by modern standards, since in part we inherit those standards from those who fought them in the past.

The mention of paedophilia inevitably brings us to the recent run of arrests of old white men accused of child sex abuse, starting with Jimmy Savile. Has the moral zeitgeist been shifting at their expense? “I think we should acknowledge it. That’s one point… But the other point is that because the most notorious cases of paedophilia involve rape and even murder, and because we attach the label ‘paedophilia’ to the same things when they’re just mild touching up, we must beware of lumping all paedophiles into the same bracket.”

Let’s not talk, for a start, about paedophiles; let’s talk about molestation. Actions, not desires, have ethical value, and discussion here needs to be about consent (or absence thereof), exploitation and abuse – not sexual feelings stigmatised as sick and evil just because.

It’s certainly true some kinds of molestation and abuse are worse than others. There’s an ethical spectrum, sure – but we can still draw discreet lines to mark out parts of a spectrum; even with infinite shades of grey, we can still mark the range between ’80% grey’ and black. Any sexual contact with anyone lacking consent, and any exploitation of anyone who can’t consent, means assault and abuse. This is the bracket that counts: that some within it are worse than others matters not at all in ruling who abuses and who doesn’t, who deserves our condemnation (however much of it) and who doesn’t.

So is there a risk of a metaphorical lynching of well-known people as soon as they’re accused? “I think there is a risk of that.”

Lynchings were when white people hanged and/or burned black people to death. Let’s not make this a metaphor for talking about sex abuse.

With regard to content, see my most on rape, reputations and reasonable suspicion. Although not written about adults and children, much of its commentary – on our response to accusations, specifically, and the fear of smearing those accused – applies here too. Importantly however, Dawkins’ concern is not based solely on allegations being unproven: even if someone is a molester, he seems to say, we shouldn’t tar them too heavily, since some are far worse than others. That is not the point: the point is that consent and autonomy matter, be their violation benign or sadistic.

What about the child sex abuse scandals that have led to anguished soul-searching and multibillion-dollar payouts in various outposts of Christianity? “Same thing,” he says. “Although I’m no friend of the Church, I think they have become victims of our shifting standards and we do need to apply the conventions of the good historian in dealing with cases which are many decades old.”

There’s little to be said here that I haven’t said above – except one thing. No, Richard: priests who rape, assault and abuse and church bodies that protect them are not victims – of shifting standards or anything else. The only victims here are their victims. But if they were the victims of those standards, they would be your victims – casualties of everyone who holds (like me, most atheists and previously you) that churches’ standards are their truest relics. Be consistent.

In the book, Dawkins mentions one occasion when a teacher put a hand down his trousers at a prep school in Salisbury, and four others at Oundle, when he “had to fend off nocturnal visits to my bed from senior boys much larger and stronger than I was”. The Oundle incidents don’t seem to have bothered him. The prep school one did, but he still can’t bring himself to condemn it, partly because the kind of comparison his adult mind deploys is with the mass murders carried out by Genghis Khan in the 12th century. “Without condoning what was done, at least try to put on the goggles of the period and see it through those eyes,” he says. “I find it much harder to put on those goggles where we’re talking about the monstrous cruelty that went on in past times. It’s hard to think of that and to forgive using modern standards in the same way as it might be for the schoolmaster who touched me up but didn’t actually do me any physical violence.”

I’ve seen recourse to non-violence like this elsewhere from Dawkins, when he insisted Elevator Guy did nothing wrong because his conduct involved ‘just words’ and not a physical attack. The relevant ‘nocturnal visits’, while we don’t know details, sound for one thing very much like attempted rapes (or else assaults which might easily have led to rape) – that, and in any case the fact they needed ‘fending off’, makes them violent. Regardless, though: boundaries of consent and bodily autonomy exist, and matter, whether or not violence is carried out.

None of this is to say Dawkins must feel traumatised by what was done to him – people can feel how they want about what happens to them, dealing with it how they want, and this is more true of serious transgressions rather than less. But what he’s said isn’t just that.

Calling molestation ‘mild’, proffering only tepid condemnation, asking abusers not be lumped together – as if not raping or killing, and not doing ‘lasting damage’ made some of them excusable – is not a personal statement of feeling, it’s a generalised prescription about how we treat assault. The extent of emotional harm done doesn’t affect whether something, groping specifically, constitutes assault and abuse. Personal feeling doesn’t matter here: standards of consent and autonomy do.

These, through his statements on molestation, are what Dawkins threatens – what, ultimately, he surrenders. Courtney Caldwell, of the Cult of Courtney blog, has called on him via petition to retract them. I recommend you sign.

See also: Greta’s round-up of posts on this.

Commenters, please see this request.

Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion

Greta, over on her blog, has a summary of statements made to date against Michael Shermer.

As of this writing, August 20 2013, 12:19 Pacific time, according to Jason Thibeault’s timeline: We have one unnamed source reporting that Shermer, to use her own phrasing, coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her. We have one unnamed source reporting that this first unnamed source told them about this incident shortly after it happened, and was visibly distraught. We have one unnamed source reporting, not that Shermer assaulted her, but that he deliberately got her very drunk while flirting with her — a story that corroborates a particular pattern of sexual assault. All of these are people PZ knows, and whose reliability he is vouching for.

In addition: We have a named source, Carrie Poppy, stating that she knows the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, that she knew about the assault, and that she’s the one who put her in touch with PZ. We have one pseudonymous commenter, Miriamne, reporting in 2012 that she was harassed by Shermer. We have one pseudonymous source, delphi_ote, reporting that they personally know a woman who was assaulted by Shermer. (Important note: These other reported assault victims may be the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, or they may be different people: since they’re unnamed or pseudonymous, we don’t at this point know. It’s deeply troubling in either case: these are either multiple independent corroborations of the same assault, or they’re multiple independent reports of different assaults.) We have one named source, Brian Thompson, saying he personally knows a woman who was groped by Shermer.

In addition: We have one named source, Elyse Anders, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have another named source, Naomi Baker, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have a pseudonymous source, rikzilla, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. To be very clear: By themselves, these wouldn’t be evidence of anything other than creepiness. But added to all these other reports of sexual assault, they corroborate a pattern.

It’s quite a list. I’m prepared to say now that personally, in light of all these accounts and their consistency, contextualised by the compelling rarity of false reports, I find the case against Shermer significantly plausible and not to be dismissed, if ever it justifiably could have been, as baseless gossip. It may not meet criminal standards of proof required in court – not being a lawyer, I can’t speak to that – and certainly doesn’t provide grounds to conclude with no time for new data or room for doubt that he’s guilty of what’s been reported. It does, however, provide grounds in my view for a reasonable person at least to entertain that suspicion, and more than sufficient grounds for investigations to be made.

In terms of our community’s reaction, to comparable situations elsewhere as well as to this one, whether criminal standards of proof have been met is not the sole point of concern. When a serious question mark overhangs an individual’s prior conduct, event planners – conference-holders especially – have to decide whether they want them present. That judgement call, whichever way it goes, means gambling with the potential safety of their attendees. As in Pascal’s scenario, there is no way not to bet.

If as a conference official I received the range of reports above stating someone’s behaviour was abusive, severely unethical or inappropriate, I would not be comfortable inviting them to my event. Could I be certain? No. But I’d have to err on one side or the other. Personally, my choice would be to err on the side of caution, apparent likelihood, and not placing someone among my guests whom a reasonable person could suspect had raped. If it transpired the allegations were all false, falling within a tiny number of such reports (which I don’t deny is possible) – if it turned out those making them conspired at great personal risk to smear someone blameless – then in my opinion it would still, at the time and with the facts at hand, have been the most responsible decision.

What statements we have don’t warrant certainty and may or may not meet legal standards of proof. But they do meet what standards we need to ask ourselves, ‘Should this person attend our conference?’ or ‘Should we invite them to our group?’ – and to answer these questions reasonably, if provisionally. This does not amount to pitchfork-laden mob rule; it does not amount to vigilantism; and the evidence we have, while many no doubt would welcome legal proceedings, should not in my opinion be deemed wholly meaningless in the absence of court action.

The ‘Take it to court or else’ approach – the all-or-nothing suggestion that until and unless a trial is held and a guilty verdict reached, no statement can ever be more than idle gossip or demand concern – is naïve and illogical. We know only a tiny percentage of rapes end in conviction. Refusing to entertain, even hypothetically, the notion someone may at some point have raped because no court has deemed them guilty is likely to mean ignoring almost every instance of rape in the real world. It evokes, too, the ‘Just tell the police’ response to conference harassment.

I wouldn’t want legality to be the sole requirement for conduct at my event, and reporters of harassment don’t always want punitive action anyway (they might just want a sympathetic ear; they might want organisers to look out for them throughout the conference, have a private word with someone who’s bothered them or keep an eye on that person; they might want to be placed with a friendly, reliable group or companion during social hours, so as to feel less stranded). But things like expulsion from conferences do not, in any case, require criminal convictions or the standards of proof those demand. Innocent-till-proven-guilty, with no shades of intermediate, probabilistic grey is how court systems work, rightly, when incarceration or registration as a sex offender is on the cards; it’s not how the rest of the world, where degrees of reasonable suspicion exist, has to work – and the idea accusations less than totally airtight must never be made is a dangerous, damaging one which silences a great many victims.

Last year a guest in my friend’s house raped her. She was paralytically drunk, unable to stand up or speak coherently, when he had sex with her. (It doesn’t matter why she was drunk, whose fault this was or what she’d previously said. When someone is so drunk they can’t talk, sex with them is rape. This isn’t complex.) The following day, when I’d gone with her to file a report, police officers asked if she knew him, if she’d done anything to suggest attraction to him, and whether there’d been friction between them – all of which was irrelevant. She was made to choose, in the space of an hour, between pressing charges or dropping everything; she had no chance to seek legal advice, consult family members or even sleep on it. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that she let it go.

We had, as it happened, fairly incontrovertible evidence both that the man in question had sex with her and that she wasn’t able to consent. A public solicitor would, I’m quite sure, have told her as much, but she wasn’t allowed a professional’s legal view. The all-or-nothing message she got that unless and until taken to court, her report could mean nothing at all – that she had no right to be taken seriously by anyone before that point – was exactly what stopped her pursuing it. (One officer’s worldweary comment that rape was ‘just something that happens‘ didn’t help.) If you’re only willing to treat reports as plausible or act on them, even provisionally, once court procedures are in motion, I sincerely hope no victim ever needs your support: most only come forward, including via legal action, when reasonably sure what they say will be listened to rather than dismissed.

Ignoring plausible reports, refusing to act on them even provisionally since no legal verdict has been reached, has major consequences. When at school, another friend had a sister in the year below her whom, while on a school trip at the aged fourteen, another student raped. Their parents, once informed, told both police and the school, where during breaks and over lunch, my friend’s sister was so visibly distraught that teachers isolated her inside an empty classroom. This prompted a two month withdrawal from attendance and ultimately a change of schools. The student who raped her and denied anything had happened, meanwhile, saw no consequences whatsoever, since the school’s head teacher ruled that while investigations were ongoing, no action would be taken.

No course of action existed which presupposed neither that the victim told the truth nor that she hadn’t – again, authorities had no way not to bet. I presuppose the former here because I trust my friend, but also because again, only a few reports of rape – the clear exception to the rule – are false. Given this and the girl’s obvious terror, beside the prospect of leaving a pupil among the student body who’d raped, wouldn’t suspending or isolating him while investigations continued be a more conscientious choice? Like conference organisers, they had to make a judgement call: it should have been quite clear whose account provisionally to believe. (Teachers, after all, are paid to be judges of character: I don’t accept a 14-year-old girl could feign trauma, with no clear motive, well enough to fool experienced school staff.) If the report did turn out to be false – one of a tiny, exceptional few – it would still, again, have been the best approach to take given the facts they had. A choice between which student to expel certainly wouldn’t be a comfortable one – but nor, in my view, should it be such a hard one ethically.

When I say things like this, I hear responses like ‘Yes, but couldn’t this all just stay behind the scenes? Couldn’t conference organisers communicate, discreetly, amongst themselves? Someone’s reputation is at risk!’

I have three replies.

The first one is, that happened. Since the current wave of allegations broke, corroboration and agreement in most cases have rippled back – sometimes in the format ‘That happened to me too’ and sometimes in the format ‘I’ve heard that too’. (In one particular case, six people I know told me, independently of one another, that they’d witnessed or been told of the individual’s serious misconduct.)

It’s obvious that for the last few years, these discussions have gone on under the radar – in fact, much of last year’s drive for anti-harassment policies was prompted by Jen McCreight’s comments that several female activists swapped anecdotes about certain male skeptics’ behaviour. Given the rapid explosion of public namings which followed Karen Stollznow’s disclosure, it seems to me things may by this point simply have come so far – behind-closed-doors revelations and private statements spread so widely – that accusatory floodgates were bound to open sooner or later. If harassment and assault had, under the surface, grown so prevalent such a deluge could be released, doesn’t that suggest we needed to address them earlier? Might those hushed whispers and private comments, just perhaps, been insufficiently effective? (See also reply number two.)

After Jimmy Savile – a veteran British broadcaster, if you hadn’t heard the name – died in October 2011, reports from people he molested and raped as children poured in by the hundred. He may, it’s now thought, have been one of UK history’s most prolific sex offenders. Why did this happen only after his death? Because while he lived, his reputation was at stake; because victims, no doubt, were afraid to smear a much-admired celebrity; because many feared reprisals, equally doubtless, from a multimillionaire’s legal staff. In view again of the speed at which reports emerged, it seems certain confessions, accusations and intimations made the rounds in private before Savile died, as they did in skepticism till recently. Consider: how many of his crimes might have been prevented, and how many people saved a major trauma, had the kind of scandals broken decades back which are breaking for us now?

My second reply is that frankly, we cannot always rely on institutions to take action. The BBC, we know now, failed for years to act against Savile; the Catholic Church failed for decades to act against child-raping priests; my friend’s school failed to act after her sister’s rape; it seems reasonable to conclude based on statements like Carrie Poppy’s and the apparent extent of this problem that skeptical organisations too have failed to act. If things had never reached the point where we now find ourselves – and in many cases, they wouldn’t have if organisations had trusted and supported victims – that would, agreed, have been quite wonderful. Most people who’ve spoken out of late (prompting a barrage of condemnation, bullying and legal threats) would I’m sure also agree. Unfortunately, things have reached this point. Didn’t something more need to be done? And if not this, what?

My third reply, the one I feel matters more than anything, is the following:

Reputations matter, but no reputation matters more than stopping sexual violence.

Plenty of reputations have been endangered recently, and not just Michael Shermer’s or the other leading skeptics’ accused. Individuals’ reputations – PZ Myers’, Carrie Poppy’s, Karen Stollznow’s – are on the line. Organisations’ reputations – the JREF’s, CFI’s – are on the line. Our entire movement’s reputation, and that of atheists at large, is on the line.

I am convinced none of this matters.

At least, I’m convinced none of it matters more than addressing, for the sake of our community, things like rape, harassment, assault and abuse. Damage to reputations is serious; this is more serious still.

If there’s one common lesson from the Savile affair, the Catholic Church’s history of sex abuse, the rape of my friend, the rape of my other friend’s sister, the allegations currently overrunning skepticism – it’s that sometimes, when fires in a crowded theatre are being lit or a reasonable onlooker might think so, shouting arson is defensible even if that means naming as arsonists the guests of honour in the royal box.

We share a communal stake in our movement’s safety, especially at events and conferences, and when reasonable suspicion (even if not demonstrable certainty) exists that someone’s actions there endanger others; when off-the-record conversations, on-the-record reports and open secrets have failed to prompt resolution, surely there comes a point when public statements are justified – even if making them threatens that person’s public image? Surely in certain circumstances, concern for the public safety of our movement – not based, necessarily, on certainties, but based on reasonable suspicions and reports that seem overwhelmingly unlikely to be lies – can trump individuals’ PR concerns? Isn’t there a case for the principle of public interest here?

I don’t, in the end, believe this debacle will ruin atheism’s image. I accept that, in the short term, religious critics may use it to snipe at us – but what right, anyway, does religion have to take swipes at sex abuse controversies? On the contrary, I smell an opportunity.

If two or three years down the line from now, we’ve taken painful steps to clean up our act; if the scandals breaking today have been seen through to their conclusions, with appropriate investigations made and sufficient measures taken where necessary; if guidelines for the future are established which set out clear, well-defined ethical boundaries of accepted conduct, and we rise to the challenge of fixing our community – then religion will have lost, definitively, a major fortress in the culture war. We will, as an organised community of atheists, have shown we take sexual and social ethics seriously, and done in ten years what the Catholic Church failed to accomplish in two thousand.

Isn’t that a challenge worth embracing?

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