Content note: rape threats, rape denial, trivialization of rape and rape threats.
An open letter to anyone in the atheist community who takes an attitude of “We don’t have to agree about everything to work together” towards people in the community who make rape threats — or who assault women, harass women in person, or harass women online.
That’s what some of you said. When Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist blog recently posted a link to a video by The Amazing Atheist — and when it was pointed out that he had made graphic, brutal rape threats in multiple public forums, including in his book — that’s what some of you said. (Note: Hemant has since said that he didn’t know about the rape threats, and that if he had, he wouldn’t have posted the video.)
“I will make you a rape victim if you don’t fuck off.”
“I think we should give the guy who raped you a medal. I hope you fucking drown in rape semen, you ugly, mean-spirited cow.”
“BTW, you have to admit, when I told you that I hope you drown in rape semen, you got a little wet, didn’t you?”
“Well, you deserved it. So, fuck you. I hope it happens again soon.”
“Is that kind of like the way that rapists dick went in your pussy? Or did he use your asshole? Or was it both? Maybe you should think about it really hard for the next few hours. Relive it as much as possible. You know? Try to recall: was it my pussy or my ass?”
“Rape isn’t fatal. So imagine my indignation when I saw a chatroom called ‘Rape Survivors.’ Is this supposed to impress me? Someone fucked you when you didn’t want to be fucked and you’re amazed that you survived? Unless he used a chainsaw instead of his dick, what’s the big deal?”
“Just because you got raped, you have to rape the English language? You vindictive bitch! Also, don’t you ever get tired of being the victim? How many failed relationships are you going to blame on a single violation of your personal space?”
“Actually, I don’t believe you were ever raped! What man would be tasteless enough to stick his dick into a human cesspool like you?”
“I told her, ‘You’re lucky it wasn’t me. I’d have busted your fucking nose and raped you.'”
“Go get raped in whatever orifice you have to get fucking raped in.”
“I’m going to rape you with my fist.”
This is what you called “being an ass at times.” This is what you called being “an asshole…but IMO, a harmless one.” This is what you called “not be[ing] an ally of feminism.”
Atheists, I need to ask you: Is there any line that you think should not be crossed?
Is there any line that someone could cross that would make you unwilling to support them or work with them? Is there any line that someone could cross that would make you not link to their videos, not share their blog posts, not upvote them, not post admiring comments about them in public forums, not buy or promote their books? Will you really support the work of absolutely anyone, regardless of how vile their behavior has been, as long as they say one thing you happen to agree with?
Would you support the work of an avowed racist, who has publicly and unapologetically stated their opinion that black people are not fully human? Would you support the work of an avowed homophobe, who has publicly and unapologetically stated their opinion that LGBT people are mentally ill and should be locked into mental hospitals?
If you would — why?
And if you wouldn’t — why would you support the work of an avowed misogynist, who has publicly and unapologetically stated his opinion that women he disagrees with should be raped, and who makes public rape threats against them (visible to other rape victims, I’ll point out), in brutal, graphic detail?
Shunning is an extreme measure. It is a last resort. We are a social species, we need other people, and deliberately pushing someone out of a community is a strong and harsh response to bad behavior. Accepting human imperfection, accepting that everyone screws up and does things we have serious problems with, and being willing to move forward from that, is absolutely necessary if we’re going to live and work together.
Shunning is an extreme measure. But if we are never willing to do it, even in the face of the most despicable behavior, we are saying that we will tolerate anything. Literally anything. We are saying that there is no line that cannot be crossed.
Now, reasonable people can certainly disagree about where that line should be drawn. We can disagree about how bad someone has to be before we’re unwilling to work with them; how consistently bad they have to be; how many times we try to reason with them before we give up.
But whatever our disagreements might be about where that line should be drawn, I would think that “I will make you a rape victim if you don’t fuck off,” “I hope you fucking drown in rape semen,” “I think we should give the guy who raped you a medal,” “I’d have busted your fucking nose and raped you,” and “I’m going to rape you with my fist,” would clearly and unquestionably place someone on the far side of it. The very, very far side.
And it is deeply distressing to realize that this isn’t the case. It is deeply distressing to realize just how many people in the atheist movement don’t consider that to be flatly unacceptable. It is deeply distressing that I have to calmly spell out why we should not accept people into our community who mockingly trivialize rape and make brutal, graphic, public rape threats. It is deeply distressing that this is a controversial issue in our community. It is deeply distressing that we even have to have this conversation.
Is there any line you think should not be crossed?
If you don’t — why not?
And if you do — why not this one? Why does “I hope you fucking drown in rape semen” fall into the category of “Well, I don’t agree with everything he says, but…”
In many instances, of course we can agree about some things while disagreeing about others, and agreeing when someone says (X) doesn’t automatically mean you agree when they say (Y). But when someone crosses a clear line into vile and unacceptable behavior, the community needs to make it clear that this behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. We need to show that some lines absolutely should not be crossed, and that if people cross them there will be consequences. Supporting someone’s work when they’ve acted abhorrently means there are no consequences.
And that’s especially true in the case of rape threats, persistent harassment of women, and other misogynist behavior — because in the atheist community, we don’t, unfortunately, currently have a clear ethical standard that this is unacceptable. We have a culture in which it’s depressingly common for people to engage in this behavior, and for other people to defend, rationalize, trivialize, dismiss, or victim-blame it — without consequences, or without serious consequences. Leaders in the movement do this, and remain leaders. We need to change that culture. We need to make it unmistakably clear that we do not tolerate this behavior. Promoting people’s work who engage in this behavior is tolerating it. And tolerating this behavior helps perpetuate it.
I’m sure that you, personally, don’t like rape threats, or approve of them. But the way you personally feel about rape threats is irrelevant. What’s relevant is how you behave when they happen. When you support and promote the work of someone who makes rape threats, you are tolerating rape threats. I agree that with some words and actions, we can agree on some things and disagree on others, and set aside disagreements to work together. Someone who says and does what The Amazing Atheist did does not fall into that category.
I understand that when it comes to the divisions and hostilities in the atheist movement about feminism and sexism, many people want to remain neutral. But there is no way to remain neutral. You cannot welcome people of color into our community, and also welcome racists. You cannot welcome LGBT people, and also welcome homophobes. And you cannot welcome women, and also welcome hateful misogynists who want to rape us.
Neutrality is not neutral. Neutrality supports the status quo. And the status quo, apparently, is one in which people who publicly make brutal graphic rape threats, and who express joy over the fact that someone was raped, still get to be respected members of the community with
thousands hundreds of thousands of followers — because they sometimes say clever things about creationists.
Is that the community standard you want to support?
I keep thinking about something Juan Mendez said at the last American Atheists conference (paraphrasing here): “The atheist community is becoming more and more visible. In a few years, the whole world will be watching us. What do we want them to see?”
When the world looks at atheists, is this what you want them to see?
(Back view of teen boys head image by Alex Neman, via Wikimedia Commons)