I know. We’re all sick of talking about it. I’m sick of talking about it; you’re sick of talking about it. And not just this latest blow-up, either, the one that’s been dubbed “Elevatorgate.” All of it. The whole freaking topic. I don’t know anybody who actually enjoys starting an Internet shitstorm about sexism (or racism, or ageism, or classism, or whatever-ism) in the atheist movement. I sure as hell don’t. Whenever I turn on my computer to write about one of these incidents, I don’t do it with an eager gleam in my fingers. I do it with a heavy sigh, and I brace myself for the ordeal that is likely to come. I am not happy about it.
But I’m a whole lot more unhappy being silent about it.
And I want to argue that we all should be a lot more unhappy being silent about it.
For the six of you who have spent the last three weeks under a rock in a cave on Mars with your eyes shut and your hands over your ears: Rebecca Watson of Skepchick recently made a video that mentioned an incident at an atheist conference in which she’d been propositioned by a man in an elevator at four in the morning; she said that this made her uncomfortable and briefly explained why… and an apparently unending shitstorm in the atheosphere has resulted. A shitstorm in which many men, including Richard Dawkins, have argued that this is a trivial issue, or even a non-issue: that it’s ridiculous for women to be cautious or fearful when they’re propositioned by a strange man in a strange country alone in an elevator at four in the morning; that men have the right to proposition women wherever and whenever they like and women should just suck it up; and that (as Dawkins seemed to be arguing) we have more serious problems to be worrying about than whether women feel comfortable and welcomed at atheist events. (This is a ridiculously inadequate summary of the explosion; Lindsay Beyerstein has a better one.)
And lot of the pushback against this feminist ruckus has come in the form of asking why the ruckus had to be raised at all… and why it had to keep getting driven into the ground.
So that’s what I want to talk about today. Or, more accurately: That’s not what I want to talk about — but it’s what I feel like I have to talk about.
Because, to misquote Oscar Wilde: There is only one thing worse than talking about sexism. And that is not talking about sexism. (Or racism, or ageism, or able-ism, or classism, or whatever-ism. This latest kerfuffle was about sexism, so that’s what I’ll be specifically talking about today… but this is also about all these touchy issues of discrimination and privilege, and the fights we keep having about them.)
Where to begin, where to begin?
Okay. I’m going to begin with a point that I haven’t seen raised very much.
To the men who have been resisting and pushing back against the feminists on this issue, there’s a very important thing I want to say to you:
We’re trying to do a lot more than that, of course. We’re trying to make the atheist community more welcoming to women: because that would be better for women, and because it’d be better for atheism. We’re trying to educate men about the reality of women’s experiences, including the reality of how sex commonly gets used to trivialize women, and the reality of sexual violence. We’re trying to make the world a less sexist place.
But we are also trying to help you get laid. (Many of us, anyway.) We are trying to show you the context into which your flirtations and advances and comments about our appearance are falling. We are trying to show you what it’s like to be a woman: what it’s like to try to be flirtatious and sex-positive and still be realistic about the no-joke threats we face every day to our safety and our lives. And we’re doing this, in part, to give you a better shot with us. In fact, one of the very first feminist responses to this latest ruckus, from Jen McCreight at BlagHag, came in the form of a helpful guide: a guide about context, a guide about when/ where your flirtations and advances and comments about our appearance might be well-received… and when/ where they might be perceived as insulting, demeaning, or dangerous.
The women who are raising this issue are not a bunch of man-hating ball-busters or sex-phobic prudes. If you read Watson’s blog, or McCreight’s, or Amanda Marcotte’s, or mine… you should know that this is patently absurd. We like sex. We like flirting. We like men. We’re not saying you’re all rapists. We know you’re not all rapists. We know that most of you aren’t rapists. We’re explaining that, until we get to know you pretty well, we have no way of knowing whether you’re a rapist or not, and that some situations (such as being alone with a strange man in an elevator) are well-documented as posing a greater risk of rape than others, and if you approach us in those situations, our guard is very likely going to be up.
We are trying to help you get laid.
And if you’re fervently resisting that help… then I have to assume that getting laid is not the point.
When women explain to you — in a calm, nuanced, proportionate way — that there are some contexts in which your advances are less likely to be well-received than others, and you respond by sticking your fingers in your ears and screaming about ball-busting, man-hating feminists who are hell-bent on eradicating all flirting and sex and eroding your First Amendment right to proposition any woman at any time and place? When you resist hearing that hitting on a woman who’s alone in an elevator in a strange city at four o’clock in the morning is not likely to be well-received, that it’s likely to be perceived as a potential threat, and that you are likely to be perceived as an insensitive clod at best if you do it? When we explain ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times, that elevators are well-documented as a common place for women to get raped and that it’s therefore not an appropriate place to make sexual advances — and you still reply, “But I don’t understand what the problem is with elevators”?
I have to assume that getting laid is not the point.
I have to assume that the point is something entirely different. I have to assume that you will do anything to resist hearing that women experience male advances in a very different context from the way men experience female advances. I have to assume that you have an active resistance to understanding that women’s experiences are different from men’s: that (among other things) women routinely get our professional/ intellectual/ artistic accomplishments dismissed in favor of a focus on our sexual attractiveness, and that women have to be seriously cautious about physical and sexual violence from men. When you are so vehemently unwilling to see some of the ways that privilege works in your favor, I have to assume that maintaining privilege is the point.
Even if it reduces your chances of getting laid.
And that is EXACTLY the reason we have to keep talking about it.
Because continuing to talk about it is how people are eventually going to understand it.
And so now, I’m going to address, not just the men who have been insisting on their right to hit on any woman in any place at any time, or complaining about how trivial and self-absorbed it is to raise this issue at all… but everyone. Everyone who’s been participating in this blowup. Everyone who’s been following it. Everyone who sees one of these blowups on the horizon, and buries their head under the covers, and prays to the non-existent God that this one won’t eat the Internet for three solid weeks.
And in particular, I want to address the people who have been asking the question, “Why do we have to keep having these fights? Why is it that every time there’s an atheist conference, there’s some kerfuffle about sexist comments or actions, and everyone flies into a tizzy about it, and it’s the only thing anyone remembers about the event?”
Let me ask you this. When religious believers tell atheists, “Why do you have to keep talking about atheism? Why do you have to keep pointing out religious privilege, and anti-atheist bigotry, and the ways that religion is so deeply entrenched in our culture? It’s so divisive. Nobody can talk about religion and atheism without starting a huge, ugly fight. So why do you keep bringing it up?”
When religious believers say this to atheists… do you say to yourself, “You’re right. This is such a troubling, divisive issue. I’m so sorry I brought it up. We’ll stop talking about it now.”
Or do you say to yourself, “Wow. You really don’t want to hear what we have to say, do you? There’s a part of you that knows we’re right, or that fears we’re right, or that’s getting some assumptions challenged that you’re deeply attached to… and you’re uncomfortable with that. And you’re trying to shut us up. Knock it off. And try listening to what we have to say for a change.”
I’m going to assume that the answer is the latter.
So why on earth would you turn around and say to people who are talking about feminism, “This is such a divisive issue — why do you have to keep bringing it up?”
Do you see how this is the same?
I know. Everyone is tired of the huge Internet blowups about sexism. Everyone would like to avoid them. I’m right there with you. So here’s a tip. You want to know how to not have huge Internet blowups every time women in the atheist movement complain about sexism? LISTEN TO WHAT THE WOMEN ARE SAYING.
Here’s a perfect example of how this can play out well. At the American Atheist regional Rapture conference in Oakland, one of the speakers, David Eller, said that one of the ways to make atheism more appealing was to make greater use of pretty female videobloggers, with no mention of the actual content of what the videobloggers in question have been blogging about. Jen McCreight, and Rebecca Watson, and myself, and probably some other people, called him out on it, both at the conference and in blogs. And Eller apologized. His initial response at the conference was defensive and missed the point, but after a couple of days of thinking about it, he said (paraphrasing here), “Okay, you’re right, that was a dumb thing to say, my privilege was showing, I won’t do it again.” His apology was accepted.
And the crisis was over. In fact, I now have more respect for Eller, whose work I hadn’t really been familiar with before all this happened. Everyone screws up: I’ve said and done more dumb, thoughtless, privileged stuff in my life than I care to think about. It’s how you handle your screw-ups that makes the difference. The fact that Eller was able to see when he’d screwed up made me think very highly of him. And the ability to acknowledge when you’ve made an error is highly prized among atheists and skeptics.
So listen to what the women are saying, already. Women, oddly enough, know a fair amount about sexism. Just like atheists tend to know more about religion than believers — because we have to, because religion is the dominant voice in the culture and we have to be familiar with it — women tend to know more about sexism than men do. Not all women are always right about it — there are women who make critiques of sexism that I passionately disagree with — but we’re worth listening to on the subject.
And even if you don’t agree with the specific point that feminists are making?
DO NOT FUCKING WELL ATTACK WOMEN FOR BRINGING IT UP IN THE FIRST PLACE.
You know how I just said that, if you want to avoid a huge Internet blowup about sexism, you should listen to what women are saying? Here’s a great way to create a huge Internet blowup about sexism: Try to shut women up. Try to tell women that we shouldn’t criticize sexist ideas and actions. This is a bad, bad idea. Trying to stop the latest Internet firestorm about sexism by asking women to please shut the fuck up does not work. It does worse than not work. It throws gasoline on the flames.
I am boggled by the number of people who are blaming Rebecca Watson for “creating” Elevatorgate. You want to know who “created” Elevatorgate? People trying to shut Watson up. People insisting, not only that she had no right to be upset over being propositioned by a strange man alone in an elevator at four in the morning… but that she shouldn’t have said anything about it in public. If the response to Watson’s videoblog had been, “Hm, that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that” — or even, “I don’t really get this… why, exactly, are elevators such a bad place to proposition women? Oh, okay, now that you’ve explained it, it makes sense” — this would not have eaten the Internet for three weeks. This would have been one of many moderately interesting topics of conversation for a day or two, and we would have all moved on.
If you don’t agree — with Watson, or me, or any other feminist making a critique about sexism — then by all means, say so. I don’t always agree with every other feminist about whether such-and-such does or does not constitute sexism. (In fact… this is something of a side note, but it has bugged me during this kerfuffle when women have called other women tools of the patriarchy and the like for disagreeing about what is and isn’t sexist. As a feminist who defends porn, sex work, sadomasochism, etc., I’ve been on the receiving end of that “you’re just sucking up to sexist men” trope way, way too often. Let’s not do it, okay?) So anyway… yes. If you don’t agree that a comment or an incident really was sexist, say so. But keep your disagreement focused on the content of what you don’t agree with and why. Don’t attack us for the mere fact that we brought it up. When we express our observations about sexism in a calm, nuanced, proportionate way, and the Internet reacts by shitting all over itself, do not attack us for bringing up an ugly, divisive issue that we knew people would react to by shitting all over themselves.
I want to address the women and men who have been raising this issue, and who have been keeping it on people’s radar.
I want to encourage you to keep on doing it.
And I want to remind you — and everyone else reading this — that what we are doing is working.
I know there are women in the atheist movement who are reluctant to point out examples of sexism. I know there are women who have raised this issue in the past and got a faceful of backlash for it, and now… well, they don’t regret it exactly, but they’re wary as hell about doing it again. And I know that a lot of us — women and men — are exhausted by this issue, and passionately wish it would just go away.
In fact, when I’m in a cynical, pessimistic mood, I often think that this exhaustion is part of the point. The really grossly sexist men — not the genuinely well-meaning men who don’t yet get this stuff and are struggling with it, but the seriously hostile, hateful, deeply entrenched in their misogyny men — are trying to get us so sick of the backlash, and so daunted by the prospect of having to deal with it one more freaking time, that we don’t ever want to bring it up again. They are trying to wear us down.
But to the people who are getting discouraged by this fight — and this may be the most important point I have to make about all this — there is one more reason we have to keep talking about this:
Talking about it works.
I want to show you an email I got last week, which I’m reprinting here in full with permission of its author (and with my utmost thanks, both for the permission to reprint and the sentiments expressed in it).
After having followed your blog for awhile I eagerly looked forward to meeting you at the AHA conference in April of this year. My wife Lisa and I both attended. I remember seeing you standing in the hall between breakout sessions a couple of times and thinking to myself that you looked and dressed very sharp. In short, I was impressed seeing you in person for the first time.
We also both attended the panel discussion on outreach to women, the LGBT community and people of color. After the Q&A, I came up to the table to ask whether you might be available to speak to our group in New Jersey. And then I did it. Right after all the talk about how women at atheist conferences get sexualized by men, I told you that your hair looked great and you ought to use a picture from the conference as your avatar.
I wasn’t hitting on you, and I hope you knew that. My wife told me later that she thought my comment was inappropriate in that setting, and I agreed with her after a short discussion. I saw you speak at the AA conference later that month but never got a chance to talk to you and apologize in person.
To make a long story short, all the recent discussions of male privilege and sexism involving PZ, Richard Dawkins, Jen McCreight, Ophelia Benson, Rebecca Watson and you have further enlightened the feminist I’ve always thought I was and made me remember my faux pas.
So I want to apologize. I want to emphasize that your writing is what first gripped and inspired me. And your speaking voice only enhances your talent of putting forth ideas with a clarity that only a few can match. I am constantly thrilled to have a person of your talent advocating for both the LGBT and atheist movements and look forward to a day in the future when equality for people of both groups is accepted as a matter-of-fact proposition.
I still think you looked great. But I should have waited until we met again in a more casual environment, say, sitting around a hotel bar, to pay you that compliment.
And this isn’t an isolated incident. Every time we have a huge shitstorm about sexism in the atheist movement, things get better. Every time the feminists break atheism, it gets put back together a little stronger, a little more conscious, a little less sexist. A couple/few years ago, whenever one of these fights broke out, it was mostly “girls against the boys”: largely women making the case against sexism, mostly men making the case that sexism wasn’t a problem or wasn’t worth paying attention to. Now, whenever one of these fights break out, there are a hefty number of men right in there fighting alongside the women. Many of the most eloquent and passionate voices defending Watson have been men: PZ Myers at Pharyngula, Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism, Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, many more. And comment threads in the blogosphere, while toxic and ugly, have had loads and loads of men battling against the ugliness and toxicity.
This. Is. Getting. Better.
Yes, we all want this issue to go away. You know how it’s going to go away? By dealing with it. You know what’s making it better? Talking about it.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll almost certainly say it again: As exasperated as I am at the fact that we have to keep having these fights, I am also thrilled beyond my power to express that we’re dealing with it now… instead of ten years from now, or twenty, or forty. To quote myself: We have a chance in the atheist movement to learn from the mistakes of the LGBT movement, and the mistakes of every other progressive movement before ours. Our movement — at least, the current incarnation of our movement, the visible and vocal and activist incarnation of our movement — is still relatively new. We have a unique opportunity to handle this problem early: before these self-perpetuating cycles become entrenched, before decades of ugly history and bad feelings poison the well. Every other social change movement I know of has been bitten on the ass by this issue, and desperately wishes now that they had dealt with it early, before bad habits and self-fulfilling prophecies got set in a deep groove that are hard to break out of. As exasperating and exhausting as it is, the fact that the atheist movement is hashing this out now — relatively early in our current incarnation as a highly visible, vocal, mobilized, activist movement — gives me tremendous hope for the future of our movement.
We are making atheism stronger. We are making the world less sexist. What we’re doing is working.
So to those of you who are trying to shut us up: Knock it off. You’re making it worse. If you really are well-meaning and are genuinely trying to stop atheism from getting broken by huge fights… it’s not working. The more you try to shut us up, the more thousand-plus comment threads you’re going to get. So please don’t throw gasoline on the flames. Please help us move this thing forward.
And to those of you who are bringing this up:
Keep up the good work. Thanks.
UPDATE: This piece has been linked to, on Pharyngula and lots of other places, and as a result, traffic and commenting is increasing significantly, including from many non-regulars. This is excellent… but it means that people are participating who aren’t familiar with the usual standard of discourse here. Quick summary: I encourage lively debate, but I also expect it to be civil. Criticize ideas and behavior, but please keep the heated rhetoric to a minimum, and don’t personally insult other commenters. I have already banned someone for trotting out the “We don’t have to listen to you because you’re ugly” trope. (Full comment policy is here.)
And it also means that the trolls are seriously starting to come out. Please, please, I beg of everyone: DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS. This conversation is loaded enough. If you’re not sure what constitutes trolling, consult Katie Hartman’s Bingo card. (My regular bulldogs are hereby authorized to give the trolls a “Thank you for sharing” on my behalf.)
My very, very strong preference would be to keep this conversation ON TOPIC. I don’t think we need to re-hash the details of Elevatorgate again. The specific topics raised by this piece were: (a) the proposal that men who steadfastly and angrily refuse to listen to women giving guidance about when and where their advances are likely to be welcomed are more interested in maintaining their privilege than in actually getting laid; (b) the suggestion that, if you disagree with women who are criticizing what they think is sexist behavior or language, you focus on their ideas rather than chiding them for expressing them, and that telling women to shut up about sexism is equivalent to religious believers telling atheists to shut up about atheism; and (c) the proposal that, as unpleasant as they are, these kinds of controversies are necessary for the health of the atheist movement, and that we are far better off having them now instead of ten or twenty years from now. Please, please, if you can possibly bear it, keep your comments focused on these ideas.
I’m leaving for TAM tomorrow, where I’ll be on the diversity panel — I know, perfect timing, right? — which means that as much as I would like to (and I’m serious, I really would like to), I won’t have time to participate in this comment discussion. I will be checking in periodically to moderate (and if necessary, bring down the banhammer on trolls), but I will not have the time to jump in. Greta’s Bulldogs are already doing an excellent job of saying pretty much everything I would have said on my own behalf, though, and I’ll trust them to keep it up. Thanks.