Two prominent skeptic women share stories of sexual harassment and assault

Get out your hard hats and run to the nearest drama bunker, because the floodgates have been opened.

A week ago Ashley Paramore released a video detailing her sexual assault at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas, an annual skeptical conference put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation. At the time both Ashley and I gave kudos to JREF for handling the situation well. But now two more prominent women within the skeptic movement have started speaking out, and no kudos are going to be doled out here.

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a research fellow for JREF and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, as well as a co-host on skeptical podcasts and columnist for Skeptic magazine. She recently wrote a piece for Scientific American detailing the years of sexual harassment and even sexual assault she experienced from a coworker at her previous employer (emphasis mine throughout this post):

From late 2009 onwards I made repeated requests for his personal communication to cease but these were ignored. He began manipulating the boundaries by contacting me on the pretext of it being work-related. Then came the quid pro quo harassment. He would find opportunities for me within the company and recommend me to television producers, but only if I was nicer to him. One day the company offered me an honorary position that I’d worked hard for, but he warned me that he had the power to thwart that offer. I threatened to complain to his employer, but he bragged that another woman had accused him of sexual harassment previously and her complaints were ignored. According to him, she had been declared “batshit crazy”. Then, he saw me at conferences and took every opportunity to place me in a vulnerable position. This is where the psychological abuse turned physical and he sexually assaulted me on several occasions.

It didn’t take long for people to figure out the person. Her accused harasser and assaulter is Ben Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer and host of Monster Talk. You may better remember him from his “take down” of a 4 year old girl where he insisted women like pink for evolutionary reasons, his dishonest representation of studies on eating disorders in order to support his hypothesis that the media doesn’t affect women’s body images, or his recent assertion that he is “over rape.

And the company in question was none other than the Center for Inquiry, who unfortunately did not handle the situation well according to Dr. Stollznow:

When I approached them with my accusations they appeared to be compassionate initially. I spent many hours explaining my story over the phone and days submitting evidence. Then they hired an attorney to collect the facts and I had to repeat the process. I provided access to my email account. I also devoted two days to face-to-face discussions about my ordeal. This “fact collector” also collected a lot of hearsay from my harasser, about how I’m a slut and “batshit crazy”. This tactic of the accused is so common it’s known as the “nut and slut” strategy. I soon learned that the attorney was there to protect them, not me.

Five months after I lodged my complaint I received a letter that was riddled with legalese but acknowledged the guilt of this individual. They had found evidence of “inappropriate communications” and “inappropriate” conduct at conferences. However, they greatly reduced the severity of my claims. When I asked for clarification and a copy of the report they treated me like a nuisance. In response to my unanswered phone calls they sent a second letter that refused to allow me to view the report because they couldn’t release it to “the public”. They assured me they were disciplining the harasser but this turned out to be a mere slap on the wrist. He was suspended, while he was on vacation overseas. They offered no apology, that would be an admission of guilt, but they thanked me for bringing this serious matter to their attention. Then they asked me to not discuss this with anyone. This confidentiality served me at first; I wanted to retain my dignity and remain professional. Then I realized that they are trying to silence me, and this silence only keeps up appearances for them and protects the harasser.

The situation has disadvantaged me greatly. I have lost a project I once worked on, I have had to disclose highly personal information to colleagues, and I don’t think that I’ll be offered work anymore from this company. Perhaps that’s for the best considering the way they have treated me. I have since discovered that this company has a history of sexual harassment claims. They also have a track record of disciplining these harassers lightly, and then closing ranks like good ol’ boys. Another colleague assured me this was better than their previous custom of simply ignoring claims of sexual harassment.

This news is especially troubling in light of CFI’s recent controversy with their CEO Ron Lindsay’s contemptuous remarks during his opening speech at the Women in Secularism 2 conference and their board of directors’ tepid non-response. The negative environment at CFI caused their Point of Inquiry podcast to jump ship and move to Mother Jones. CFI has posted a  vague reply to Dr. Stollznow’s article.

I am doubly glad that I asked to be removed from CFI’s speakers bureau (which they did, even though they never had the common courtesy to reply to my email at all or address my concerns).

CFI is not the only organization involved in Dr. Stollznow’s troubles. The assaults she described occurred at TAM. Carrie Poppy, former communication director for the JREF, has spoken out about how poorly JREF handled the situation:

1. Dr. Stollznow says that she was assaulted at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s (JREF) annual conference, The Amazing Meeting (TAM) on three separate occasions. Dr. Stollznow is a research fellow for the JREF, and is a respected speaker at TAM. The person who she says assaulted her is Ben Radford, another speaker at TAM and a long-time ally of the JREF’s. I am not speaking to the legal validity of these claims, as I have no legal expertise on the matter, but I believe Karen’s account, given the information she’s relayed to me in private, which I won’t recount here.

2. Dr. Stollznow says she made these alleged assaults known to JREF president D.J. Grothe several months ago, but according to Karen, he declined to do anything about the matter.

3. CFI told Dr. Stollznow that they would only be reprimanding their employee for his behavior. Dr. Stollznow let Mr. Grothe know that she felt her harassment and assault were being treated as nothing more than a grievance among friends, and Grothe responded, ” I am happy to learn from you that the CFI has responded to your complaints with the seriousness they deserve.” (see attachment 1).

4. Dr. Stollznow requested that Mr. Grothe assure her that her alleged assailant would not be at future JREF events, for her safety and the safety of others at future events. Mr. Grothe declined to ban the speaker, saying, “there are at present no such plans” to have Mr. Radford speak at a JREF event, more than a year before the next TAM, and well before speaking engagements are secured (see attachment 2).

5. Dr. Stollznow approached the JREF board, asking them to intervene in Mr. Grothe’s bizarre behavior, and make a commitment not to have the speaker in question at future JREF events. Their response: “JREF does not and will not have a blacklist” (see attachment 3).

Isn’t it comforting to know that JREF doesn’t have a blacklist, even for speakers who have sexual assault against other speakers? Those are some great morals you’re upholding there, JREF. I’m sure it has to do with “free speech” or something, right?

But that’s not the only issues JREF has. Carrie Poppy’s time there was short and ended abruptly, and she now speaks out about some of the reasons why:

 In my time at the JREF, I witnessed continuous unethical behavior, much of which I reported to the Board of Directors. I was assured on more than one occasion by James Randi that D.J. Grothe would be fired (I hear Randi denies this now, though he repeatedly promised it to another staff member as well, and that staff member and I represented the entirety of JREF full-time staff other than D.J. and his husband, Thomas), but after several months of waiting and being asked to wait, it became clear that D.J. was not going to be fired. The list of problems that I sent to the board was so long that my pasting it here would be comical at best, but it is relevant to note that although I didn’t list it, Mr. Grothe’s prejudice toward women was one undeniable factor. My predecessor, Sadie Crabtree, had warned me about D.J.’s misogyny and disrespect for women coworkers (she even advised me not to take the position, due to this issue), but I thought myself strong enough to endure it. I underestimated the degree to which such constant mistreatment can beat a person down. As I mentioned, I only lasted six months.

The final straw, for me, was that Mr. Grothe attempted to remove me as a speaker from the Women in Secularism 2 conference, going above my head (and Melody Hensley’s head) to her male boss, Ron Lindsay, and telling him that it would be bad for the JREF’s image if I attended a “feminist conference.” In defending his actions to me, D.J. told me he didn’t trust me to handle the event, saying I would be asked if he was a sexist (an unanswerable question in his mind, apparently) and that I might break down in tears crying about my own sexual assault, if the issue of rape arose. I was given no credit for the fact that I am a professional spokesperson with almost a decade of experience, that I have a successful skeptical podcast, am a published author, and that my personal assault experience makes my opinions on assault more relevant, not less. To him, I was a hysterical woman, nothing more.

This is ludicrous. I don’t even know what I could possibly say, other than this:

Thank you, Karen and Carrie. Thank you for having the bravery to come out and speak about your experiences. I wish it didn’t require bravery to do so, but sadly we’re a community that thinks the proper response to “guys, don’t do that” is years of harassment and rape threats. Thank you for speaking up, because the more people who speak up, the safer this community will be. I hope this gives the strength for others to be open about their experiences and start naming names. I know many women have come to me with similar horrible stories or specific examples of harassment from prominent speakers, but I can’t speak for them – the people who experienced it need to be the ones who speak up. And we need to create an environment where that is possible.

Thank you.


  1. Kevin Schelley says

    I hope this and the other stories that have come to light will make other people feel more comfortable coming forward to share their experiences with harassment. I applaud Carrie and Karen and Ashley’s courage in discussing this.

  2. PDX_Greg says

    It’s so disheartening to read how this crap is so entrenched at JREF and CFI. WTF? Women are having to tolerate this abuse and sacrifice their careers over this? I think we should crowdsource a legal fund to enable them to sue the perpetrators. I’d be happy to contribute. I’m so sick of the f’d-up assholes that bring their own ignorant misogyny to skepticism.

  3. sezit says

    Actually, I am VERY heartened by this escalation of reporting. The web has the benefit of connecting and amplifying voices. Really, in only 2 years after the first awful response to Rebecca’s public airing, misogynistic actions toward women in secularism are now being recognized in mainstream press! Those who practice (or more prevalent.. those who deny) hateful activity toward women cannot be taken seriously when they pretend that it does not need to be addressed.

    Really, only 2 years!!! When this has been a unspoken or hushed up problem since EVER? Doesn’t everyone see that social change is being escalated by the pressure cooker of the internet? Look what is happening with societal acceptance of gays… the exposure of institutional child molestation cover-ups. Women and other oppressed group’s voices are being heard.

  4. PDX_Greg says

    I agree that it is VERY good that this is coming out into public view. This IS a huge step in solving these problems.

    And I’m very aware that women have been facing this kind of crap for forever in commercial, religious, and virtually all post-adolescent group settings. My new outrage and disgust is learning that what I mistook for stupid reputation-protecting and male-blind-underprioritizing of sexism issues at CFI and JREF turns out to be symptomatic of gross widespread top-down sexist abuse. At CFI and JREF! I expected much more from these organizations. Though I was deeply dissappointed in their actions for the last couple of years, I had no idea how deep and raw their dysfunction went. They cannot continue to exist with any of the current leadership. I really hope to see lawsuits. Time for new organizations to form and take the torch.

    And yes, I am VERY thankful for those who have been brave enough to share their experiences. I hate that they have had to make such huge sacrifices to stop the abuse and to report it. I hate that a shitstorm of ranting MRAs is aimed at them. I hate that people are stupid enough to be or enable MRAs, self-declared or not.

  5. psanity says

    @ sezit:

    You have a point. It’s very true that stepping back for the long view makes this stuff less disheartening. We have to be careful, though, to watch out for the next wave of “See, everything’s great! Public outcry over sexual assault means it totally won’t happen anymore, so quit whining about all those policies and processes, ’cause we obfamously don’t need them!”

    Gosh, how long ago was it that I was ranting about the irresponsibility of the JREF board? a couple years? Now (actually back in July) we can add CFI. The boards of those organizations are behaving irresponsibly toward, well, everyone, but in terms of governance, they are putting their organizations into a very bad position. One of these days, someone is going to sue them, and regarding their failure to provide strong policy, clear process for grievances, and proper staff education, not to mention any real consequences for staff misbehavior — the documentation already exists. Slam dunk.

    Nonprofit board members have a “Duty of Care” to their organizations — that means the long-term health and welfare of their organization is of utmost importance to their decisions (and behavior).

    This is why we need to really support and develop the young orgs — Secular Woman, SSA, Skepticon, and more. The old guard is not going to be useful to anyone if they can’t even keep their own houses in order. They’d do well to replace some of their knee-jerk Skeptics with experienced nonprofit governance gurus. (Oddly, or maybe not, y’know who the go-to folks on nonprofit governance are? Mennonites. No shit.)

  6. says

    This is horrid. Not that it will have much impact, but neither CFI nor JREF will have my support in the future. I liked James Randi, but if he will not speak out against such an obviously barbaric culture of misogyny festering under his name then I must have been wrong to have liked him. He may not have the power to fire someone, but he does have a voice and an obligation as a human.

    Maybe these groups will change in the future. But allowing sexual assaults – encouraging them with jokes and banter, even – falls into that category of stuff people don’t need to learn is bad. Nobody should be “evolving” in their “rape good or rape bad” opinion. So any change won’t make them good groups, it’ll just make them less monstrous, and while it’s progress, that’s not worth respecting.

  7. gron says

    This is all really sad.

    Though it’s obviously a very personal decision, I hope these women consider reporting these incidents to the police so that something can be done. Certainly, these women are not the only one’s to have been harassed or assaulted by these men.

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