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Aug 04 2012

Why I am a Feminist – Aron Ra

Warning: I’m about to voice my opinion on feminism and misogyny in the freethought community. Get out while you can. I know I should keep my mouth shut like I have done for the whole last year, but I’ve I decided not to take my own advice anymore.

When I was a little boy, (we’re talking 1971 here) my deeply religious babysitters told me that women could never fly fighter jets because of alleged differences in their depth perception, or their physical center of gravity altering their sense of balance, or the ways in which female brains reportedly processed information differently than the brain of a male.

This is just one example of sexual inequality being alleged as a biological fact. While I concede there are a few things most women can’t do as well as some men -owing to a proportion of upper body strength, that just might be the limit of justifiable reasons for gender restrictions. That is as much credence as I can give to that. So women shouldn’t be expected have fair odds against men of equal weight in a boxing ring. What about beyond that?

I knew a woman who was six feet tall and could bench 270lbs. She could be an ambulance paramedic because she could meet the criteria -where a lot of men could not. That’s what matters. Maybe that’s how my metric differs from the norm of earlier generations. Now what if the job is not physically demanding in that specific area? How could there be any difference then? I don’t think there is.

I know of one case where a female pilot killed 20 people in a helicopter crash. I doubt her gender could have played any role in that at all. If it was her fault, I would sooner blame the fact that the military put a difficult and dangerous multi-million-dollar aircraft in the hands of a teenager. Perhaps any pilot who was old enough to qualify for commercial insurance should have done better?

My wife often laughs at me for being “roaringly heterosexual”, but I am also one of those atypical freaks who finds intelligence sexy. Cute cannot compensate for dumb, and one certainly is not the other. If a woman shows that she is actually smarter than I am, oh honey! I know; there are not many other men like that.

It’s not about sex either. There are many women in the secular movement with commercial-grade comeliness, and I am proud that they count me among their peers, but that’s not the criteria by which we are associated, obviously. Some of my favorite heroes are women; Boadicca, Hypatia, Ruslana. When I say that I respect a woman for her mind, I actually mean it, and not in the same tongue-in-cheek fashion as saying that I read Playboy for the articles.

At the same time, I can’t simply turn off hard-wired hormonal responses to sexual stimuli. For example, it has often happened that I may be amongst a number of sharp-witted women intellectually analyzing subjects of scientific substance with profound perspective, and there I am, suddenly –helplessly- focused on some elegant lass who casually passed with a fabulous ass, and befuddled my brilliance, rebooting my brain in mid-debate. I don’t always possess the necessary class to conceal such embarrassing distractions discretely.

Still I won’t support or defend a policy prohibiting or inhibiting women from wearing ‘sexualized’ clothing at skeptics conferences; vendors or not, doesn’t matter. I know it’s mostly nerds at these sorts of things, but it still doesn’t take that much research for anyone to figure out how to blend in or stand out appropriately. I wouldn’t dictate how someone else dresses. Speaking personally, even having such a rule seems unnecessarily prudish.

I have even heard a suggestion that speakers in skeptical events should be prohibited from engaging in carnal liaisons with any attendees who were not also on stage. This is just absurd. The excuse is that there is supposedly some unequal power issue which leaves those in the audience being treated like doe-eyed sycophants –not by the expectedly exploitive speakers, but by the policy itself. I know from experience that occurrences of adulation are relatively rare, and typically concern only legally responsible adults. So why should there even be a rule like that one?

Mind you, while I have been on stage a few times myself, I have no bias on this point to influence my objectivity. I am married, and my wife and I prefer not to ‘swing’. Another reason I might avoid such judgments is that I have the advantage of sufficient social skills that I know there are behavioral boundaries. Even if I’ve had a few drinks, I still know there’s a line there, and I don’t always need to venture toward it. A lot of other people aren’t aware there should even be a line, and that’s only part of the problem.

Even though I’m neither popular nor important enough to be invited to TAM or Skepticon, it sometimes happens that I am asked to participate at atheist events. Once I even shared the stage with Richard Dawkins and Rebecca Watson at the same time. That was a stunning revelation. Watson was supposed to talk about ‘communicating atheism’, but instead she used her time to explain how uncomfortable feminism is in the secular movement. What was shocking about that were the comments on the video once it was uploaded to my channel. Anyone who thinks she exaggerated, or who doesn’t believe there is a problem with sexism in secularism need only read a few of those posts, especially the early ones; they vindicated all the horrible things she listed about the vile sexist threats she spoke of.

Understand that I do not say any of this to fit in or be popular. I don’t think it is possible to comment on this topic at all and still be popular in this movement anymore. But I sincerely do not understand hate, nor why other people fixate on negativity. It’s just not the way I think. There is a positive aspect to nearly all our experiences. If you can’t find something good, at least allow yourself to be impressed, because sharing the things you love is what will endear you to others. Seriously, nobody cares about what you hate, and you shouldn’t either.

So I don’t get the sort of mindset which sets any demographic as being superior or inferior to another in vague general terms. Specific arguments of that sort are at least possible, though I can’t remember ever seeing one. Being a white male from a fairly insular upbringing, I may not be very observant of that sort of thing. There were a lot of bigots in my own family once upon a time, but now my more-ethnic friends have to tell me about the prejudice they’ve encountered, or else I wouldn’t know that still goes on.

I was equally unaware of misogyny, and by that I mean REAL misogyny, not just guys being heterosexual. There has to be socially acceptable means of having a healthy sex-life, of seeking and inviting partners to pursue such basic biological drives with mutual benefits. No, a misogynist is not simply responding to his hormones; he is making a hate claim, portraying women as subordinate, subservient, insufficient, and somehow deserving of disrespect or even abuse. I honestly do not understand how even the most hateful bigots can take that stance.

The shocking part of all these recent controversies to me is not that misogyny exists outside the world and works of Martin Luther, but that it somehow thrives today, and that it still exists in the freethought community of all places. How could it? Who else has a more progressive perspective, with the most tolerant attitudes, and the most advanced ideas? How could such a despicable disposition, so repugnant, so medieval, remain at all in any group that includes so many Star Trek fans? Have we learned nothing from the next gen?

24 comments

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  1. 1
    machintelligence

    Great statement. In the past few months I think all of us have become more aware of the diversity of opinions of our fellow free thinkers, as well as how wretched some of those opinions are. I have certainly had to rethink some of my biases and privileges.
    IMHO the addition of video bloggers to FTB was a success, with yourself and Christina Rad more than making up for the “oops” with Thunderfoot. Your posts have been well written, interesting, and thought provoking.
    Thanks for providing this forum, Taslima.

    1. 1.1
  2. 2
    Equalitarian

    “No, a misogynist is not simply responding to his hormones; he is making a hate claim, portraying women as subordinate, subservient, insufficient, and somehow deserving of disrespect or even abuse.”
    I’ve never been to one of those conferences, but if there is real misogyny, as you describe it, in the conferences it should be easy to point those people out (especially if they are speakers) without blowing the whole issue out of proportion as it has been, where its been made to look like every man in the community is a rapist or misogynist. Hateful comments are wrong obviously, but youtube comments can’t be taken seriously, otherwise I would have 24/7 police protection. All you’re doing with this, is create a tense atmosphere, where people are going to fear criticising anything to do with women (whether its criticism of a female speaker or of rules that have been implemented) just like the fear of criticising Israel because one could be labeled an antisemite. And this has happened with RW saying that she now hates Dawkins and thinks he’s a misogynist, because he disagreed with her. The only rule that should be implemented (and I think it would be weird if it wasn’t already there) is a ban from the particular conference for people who are known to have made hateful comments and this should apply to any topic, not only gender.

    1. 2.1
      aronra

      Yes real misogynists should be easy to pick out, especially when they are speakers. And yes there are those who have blown this all out of proportion -as I pointed out in this article. ZOMGitsCriss said it too. Extreme feminazis came after her so harshly that she considered dropping the label of feminist, just so that she wouldn’t be associated with those people. There are some few people out there who seem to consider all forms of sexual behavior to be some form of abuse. Neither Zomgits nor myself share that opinion. Neither will we criticize Rebecca Watson or minimize the abuse she has to deal with. The fact that some people have overreacted (to a lot of different things here) does not diminish the fact that a problem really does exist, and is being addressed, and that it is not only to be found in the comments section of YouTube videos.

    2. 2.2
      Sassafras

      And this has happened with RW saying that she now hates Dawkins and thinks he’s a misogynist, because he disagreed with her.

      Wow, did you have a link to where this happened? I mean, I read the blog post where she said she was put off enough by his dismissive arguments that she wasn’t going to buy his books anymore, but I didn’t see where she said she hates him for disagreeing with her. I’m just curious. I mean, you seem to not like people blowing things out of proportion so I guess you wouldn’t be mischaracterizing her unfairly or painting her in a deliberately extreme light.

    3. 2.3
      jmst

      You’ll need to point out specifically when, where, and by whom it has been “made to look like every man in the community is a rapist or misogynist” lest you risk a charge of blowing things out of proportion yourself right after you criticise this in others.

      Yes, there is that brand of feminism that analyses generic man as the oppressor, that takes every other thing a man does as an intentional and conscious act of upholding the patriarchy, that claims that men not only on average but each one individually has a tangible benefit from patriarchy, denying that gender stereotypes have negative effects on men too, and thus can never be trusted as allies since they have a vital personal interest in upholding the status quo. It usually goes along with a very essentialist interpretation of gender differences – and when I say “essentialist” I mean in the most literal sense, as a belief in some form of incompatible female and male “essence” – and thus is ironically in some ways not very far from the most reactionary misogyny except for trying to revert the evaluation of the different stereotypes. It also correlates well with goddess worship and other new-agey woo, and understandably with separatist strategies. I’d be very surprised if you could point to any prominent feminists within the freethought/secular/skeptic movement who fit the description. Rebecca Watson and the other people who’ve gotten all the heat in this embarassing affair certainly don’t, so it seems that your interjection is rather irrelevant here.

  3. 3
    Vasha

    Minor question — who’s the Ruslana you listed among your heroes? None of the three with that name on Wikipedia seem to have much heroic about them.

    1. 3.1
      aronra

      I threw Ruslana in as a bit of a joke, but she is worthy of mention. She was born in the Carpathian mountains near the Transylvanian border, and is fiercely proud of her homeland and ancestral heritage. Like Bjork, Ruslana was also sent away at 7 years old to be raised in a music school. In 2004, she won the Eurovision international song contest with her quintuple platinum hit, Diki Tanci. This meant that her country would host the next Eurovision. She toured the whole world and has a string of hits across Europe and Asia, and returned home for that concert. But her greatest achievement, I think, came during the Orange revolution of 2004. In a country still flirting with socialist and communist parties, the standing prime minister was poisoned with dioxin. He survived, but was replaced during a rigged election. Ruslana lead a massive protest to overthrow the new president and let everyone vote again. As a result, the prime minister was re-enstated by natural majority, and Ruslana the rebel leader found herself elected into the new Parliament. How cool is that? Since then she was appointed adviser to the Prime Minister -as well as being a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and a spokesman for O.S.C.E. in their mission against human trafficking. So this chick is certainly worth meeting, and not just because she looks like a barbarian werewolf priestess auditioning for a shampoo commercial in leather lingerie.

      1. George Hanson

        Hey Aron …Great article. You may not remember but a couple of months ago in Madison WI. we were outside the auditorium discussing some of the finer points of secular reasoning when a very good looking woman walked past. We both stopped and stared and then looked at each other and laughed. It was a great demonstration how the reptilian parts of our brains function even when we are not paying attention. I too am one of those odd ducks who finds intellegence in a woman to be uber sexy, and I have always maitained that really smart dudes marry woman who are smarter than they are. I did and it was the smartest thing I ever did. Anyways great article bro. Keep the greasy side down.

      2. BCat70

        “looks like a barbarian werewolf priestess auditioning for a shampoo commercial in leather lingerie”

        Pic please!

  4. 4
    Tim

    You seem to assert misogynistic behavior based on comments people made on youtube. To me youtube is somewhat of an artificial environment in the sense that people’s behavior in non real-world / virtual settings don’t actually reflect their true personality. So trolls that write disparaging comments on youtube are not really misogynists – they’re trolls and giving them any higher status than that is a false assertion.

    Also don’t dismiss your babysitter – she has a point. No woman to my knowledge has ever made it as a top driver in any motor sport.

    1. 4.1
      StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

      Trolls being misognyist = misognist trolls. Those are not mutually exclusive categories.

      As for women motor racers see :

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danica_Patrick

      Danica Patrick who won the Indycar (“Amercian F1s”) series and finished third in the Indy 500 for one counter example that instantly springs to mind.

      There’s also a wikipedia page for female racing drivers and the link to the female f1 drivers notes 2 current F1 test drivers for the 2012 season.

    2. 4.2
      Sassafras

      “Troll” is an excuse to let people get away with cruel behavior. Someone who is deliberately awful to other people isn’t somehow better if they say they were doing it for the lulz, yet they’ve managed to manipulate internet culture to the point where this excuse is widely accepted.

  5. 5
    Corylus

    I have even heard a suggestion that speakers in skeptical events should be prohibited from engaging in carnal liaisons with any attendees who were not also on stage. This is just absurd.

    Well I dunno about absurd … “Carnal relations “on stage”?

    Dude, some things just aren’t spectator sports. (I draw the line at wrestling myself).

    As for ‘swinging’? Woah. Only if it involves a trapeze – anything else I just don’t want to see moving from side to side on a podium.

    Thx.

  6. 6
    Hank_Says

    Thanks for writing this Aron (and thanks Taslima for the series!).

    There is (unfortunately) something of a need for more male skeptics to talk publicly about sexism and feminism related issues; I’m glad that at least at places like FtB and Skepchicks that’s exactly what’s happening.

    My hope is that eventually, if this Deep Rift continues, those on the side of minimising or denying the problems faced by women will be themselves marginalised and their opinions relegated to the minority. At least until they see some freakin’ sense.

    The reality is that women are people, they experience problems not usually faced by men but which are, unfortunately, usually caused by men; it is not misandry or bullying or femicommunazism to simply point that out reality or to seek to remedy it.

  7. 7
    Annie

    “…roaringly heterosexual…”
    “I was equally unaware of misogyny, and by that I mean REAL misogyny, not just guys being heterosexual.”

    I’m going to need “heterosexual” defined before I can confidently respond to this post. I know the standard definition, but you use it differently here and what it means is important if I’m to accurately interpret what you wrote.

    Would you offer me an example of an instance which was labeled misogynistic but actually wasn’t and was in fact just “guys being heterosexual”? (That’s not pointed, I’m trying to understand.)

    Because in cases like Elevator-gate there’s frequently some confusion about what we’re talking about when we talk about “misogyny”. Would I say the guy had negative intentions? No, not necessarily. He lacked perspective, maybe he was impolite propositioning RW in such a confined space and alone. When we talked about “misogyny” it had to do with the ragestorm of male indignation that ensued when it was brought up that one had to reconsider what was and wasn’t appropriate to do to a woman and when we were confronted with the concept of male privilege, where you didn’t have to feel anxiety about your safety with a member of the opposite sex you didn’t know. That is where we found somersaulting misogyny.

    1. 7.1
      aronra

      As Cristina Rad [ZOMGitsCriss] pointed out in one of recent her videos, there are some few feminist extremists who consider any sexual attention to be inappropriate, a form of abuse. Zomgits said that such women even questioned whether she should call herself feminist because we can sometimes see her legs. A feminist should be able to dress sexy if she wants to. A misogynist would say that she has to dress that way even when she doesn’t want to.

      Ashley Paramore [HealthyAddict] addressed this recently too, wherein she said that men simply desiring sexual relations with women who appeal to them does not qualify as sexual harassment. She said it isn’t harassment until those invitations are repeated long after they have been denied and are known to be unwelcome.

      These are two women I’ve known for years and feel very close to. They both admit a basic human compulsion -even within themselves- toward sexual gratification. At the same time, both of them have had to find tactful, respectful ways of keeping some wolves at bay. I’m proud to say that I have even acted as the designated cock-blocker on occasion. I’ve been called on to be a stalker-stopper too, and I don’t mind that either.

      Two or three decades ago, I had both men and women coming onto me so forcefully that they would not accept any polite means of rejection. Fortunately most people are not that beastly. How this issue has been exaggerated to extremes is that we are so willing to defend a homosexual lifestyle as a matter of human rights, but we’re expected to suppress heterosexuality as if it is always a criminal threat. It’s not, but it is a very powerful drive, and is therefore difficult for some people to manage and maintain dignity at the same time.

      1. Annie

        All right, I gotcha. We’re in agreement then.

        And yeah, sex-negative feminists are a bit narrow. And I concur that there needs to be a careful balance between addressing unceremonious behavior and/or misogyny and being progressive in our views about sexuality–male or female.

        Thank you for clarifying your position.

  8. 8
    Jon

    What about being a masculist and fighting for your own gender? Males get screwed in education, divorce, and other areas.

    1. 8.1
      sezit

      Its always good to fight against inequality, and inequality is everywhere. BUT! degree of inequality matters. If your sibling gets a bigger cookie than you do, but also gets abused (you don’t), which inequality should you fight to fix? In the arenas that you specifically mention – education and divorce – women in many parts of the world either have no access at all, or they do not participate on an equal playing feild. 100 years ago, that would have been EVERY part of the world. We humans have a deep, deep history of ingrained gender inequality. Every slight correction has been fought by some men (not all!) with vitriol and self pity, and even violence. I can’t feel too awful for the few areas where the compass may have passed north and swung one or two degrees to the east after pointing 90 degrees west for eons. It still costs more to be a woman, even just getting your clothes drycleaned or getting a haircut – let alone equal pay for equal work! Women are the target of violence in ways that most men can never understand. Sorry, but to me your complaints sound like a rich person who complains about the things he doesn’t own.

    2. 8.2
      malo

      Men don’t need anyone to “fight” for them; they already control everything, and you know that.

      Education isn’t biased against boys. That’s just a dumb antifeminist talking point. It has been shown that boys get called on more often than girls do in class, and that they are more likely to be recommended for gifted programs than girls are. Teachers and parents encourage boys to pursue math and science related activities, which ensures that they have a competitve edge in the job market. Even if education was biased against boys, it really wouldn’t matter, because they end up getting higher-paying, higher-status jobs, anyway.

      As for divorce- I guess you’re talking about alimony and custody, right? Well, no. Wrong again. Men pay alimony more often because men are still usually primary breadwinners. Wives who make more than husbands do get ordered to pay alimony. That’s generally how those cases are ruled. Custody ususally goes to the primary care giver, which is usually the mother. Why the fuck is that so difficult for MRAs to understand?
      If you want men to get more custody and alimony awarded to them, then you should be focused on breaking traditional gender roles, not calling for courts to discrimiate against wives and mothers.

  9. 9
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    One of my female heroes – Sally Ride the first woman astronaut* to orbit the Earth died last month. She was a superb pilot -and lived for twenty-seven years of her life (Post-NASA though) in a same sex partnership with was Tam O’Shaughnessy, the chief operating officer and executive vice president of Ride’s company, Sally Ride Science. They co-authoured several books as well – some of which won awards.

    I’d recommend a good non-fiction book on female astronauts – ‘Almost Heaven : The Story of Women in Space’ by Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles (MIT Press, 2006) if folks are interesting in learning more about her and her fellow female astronauts. Heroes the lot of them!

    Particular fondness and respect for Space Shuttle astronaut Pamela Melroy who I’ve actually had the honour to meet when she toured Adelaide.

    * Preceded by two female cosmonauts.

  10. 10
    fork

    What does this apologia for male sexual entitlement and EvoPsych trash have to do with feminism?

    Look, Kitten

    1. 10.1
      flippertie

      What exactly makes the post an “apologia for male sexual entitlement”?

      Is it the bit where he says there’s no reason to deny women access to jobs just because they’re women?
      Where he says speakers and audiences at these conferences should be treated as competent adults? Where he acknowledges the problem of sexism in secularism? Where he affirms the right of women to dress as they choose without threat of abuse and unwanted attention? Or the bit where he acknowledges the fact that heterosexual men notice and respond to women they find attractive at an instinctive level before their thinking brains kick in?

      Did you read the same article as the rest of us?

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