Under the rug

Stephanie Zvan has a pair of great posts on…well I’ll let her tell you, in the first one:

It had its genesis on stage, when Jen McCreight mentioned that, when she started speaking at conferences, multiple people contacted her behind the scenes to tell her which male speakers she should steer clear of.


Stephanie summarizes via a FAQ:

Q: Do famous atheist speakers really act like assholes to women?

A: Yes.

Q: Really?!

A: I said, “Yes.” I’ve experienced some of it, in front of witnesses. I’ve talked to other women who’ve experienced it personally. I’ve talked to conference organizers who have strategies for minimizing the damage when they have to invite one of these men to one of their conferences.

Also, did you just express “skepticism” over this? It’s a completely uncontroversial statement. Unaccetable gendered behavior exists. Our movement is not immune. Men don’t become immune to bad behavior just because people like how they speak or write or organize. Yes, it happens.

Unwanted sexual overtures, is what this is about. Lunging, grabbing, cornering, flashing, leering, following. Not “romance”; not “flirtation”; sexual harrassment; hostile work environment.

And then there’s who are they. (I knew one name before the conference. I now know three.) We’re not in a position to say.

Q: Why aren’t you naming and shaming?

A: Until a year ago, this was harder to explain succinctly. Now, sadly, it’s much easier.

Did you see what happened to Rebecca Watson? Have you seen what’s still happening today? That’s why.

And Rebecca didn’t even name.

Q: How bad can these guys be if they keep getting invited to speak?

A: As bad as they’re allowed to be. As I already pointed out, you’ve probably seen the public behavior of some of these guys already. Has it kept them from getting audiences and invitations? Has it kept them from getting jobs? Has it kept them from being treated as the cool kids?

No. It has not.

Not only are these speakers still allowed to show up, but they’re still in demand. Conferences need to sell tickets and fill seats. When organizers stop inviting some of the people on this list, unless sexism is a primary concern for donors, unless experiences are allowed to be made public, organizers get overruled. If the speaker is a draw, there is a limited amount organizers can do.

That’s the part that really bites. “Oh hey, so he makes a few women miserable, big deal – he’s a name and we can get him, so he’s in.”

Stephanie got the comment she needed, so that’s the starting point for her second post. Read Erista’s comment. It’s a scorcher.


  1. Rudi says

    It’s hard to know, as an outsider, what to think here. We haven’t been given much to go on, other than “we know of some bad stuff some well-known speaker did”. No details of what that bad stuff is, no attempt at even-handedness (usually people are innocent until proven guilty) and no apparent evidence. I hope you aren’t expecting us, as skeptics, to simply accept this unquestioningly.

    I’m not saying the accusations, whatever they actually are, are false. I am saying this is a very odd way to deal with alleged sexism at atheist conferences, and I don’t think you and Stephanie have considered how strange this approach might look to someone with no knowledge of who it is you are talking about, what it is they are supposed to have done and what evidence there is.

  2. says

    (usually people are innocent until proven guilty)

    In criminal trials, in judicial systems that operate that way.

    But anyway, when there are no names, what does that even mean? Who exactly is it who is [presumed] innocent until proven guilty?

    I’m not sure I’m expecting “you” (whoever “you” are) to do anything. But do you actually find these claims incredible? Really? You think sexual harassment is super unusual?

  3. Brian says

    Hi Opelia, this is a little off topic, but can you recommend any good reads to bring a dufus like me up to speed on issues such as privilege, not just with sexism, but racism too? I’ve read lots of interesting stuff on FTB, but would like a book (preferably Kindle) that sets it all out…

  4. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Brian, Google for these; they’re quite good:

    Derailing for Dummies

    Feminism 101 (it’s a blog)

  5. ckitching says

    Unfortunately, by not naming names, it pretty much ensures that this unwanted behaviour will continue. It’s a lovely catch 22 we’ve got here.

  6. iknklast says

    Sexism is a fact of life when you’re a woman. It shouldn’t be. But it’s an uncomfortable subject for most people. I don’t even bring it up at work, because I know I’ll instantaneously get the rolling of the eyes, the little sigh – oh, not that again – oh, she’s playing the victim card!

    Strange how many people think sexism is a think of the past. I’ve had many men (not sexist men) tell me they haven’t seen anything. It’s because they don’t recognize it, because it looks normal to so many people.

    Susan Douglas calls it “Enlightened Sexism”. It doesn’t feel so enlightened when you’re living with it.

  7. Philip Legge says


    it’s not strange at all. Ever hear of ‘whistle-blowers’? Ever hear of witness protection programs?

    Admittedly, those are the heavy-weight versions of the exact same disclosure issues that involve abuses of trust – there is an all-too-frequent unfair burden involved with ‘coming out’.

  8. Robert B. says

    Rudi, maybe you should also google “Derailing for Dummies.” Seriously, dude, what kind of evidence were you looking for? Footage from the secret DoucheCam network that surreptitiously finds and films people acting like privileged assholes? For that matter, what’s your prior probability for “some men harass women in the workplace”? Mine is pretty high. I would need to see strong evidence to be convinced that crap like this does not occur in any given sufficiently large environment.

    Ophelia: I get why no one’s naming names. I hear Stephanie on that. But my gut reaction to this is still, “I wish I knew who these assholes are.” Because they deserve some shunning and loud condemnation. Right now, I feel helpless about this. I don’t have a network, I don’t organize conferences or anything, I don’t know what I can do to help. It kinda sucks. (Not as much as it would suck being the victim of such harassment, of course, or the target of an Elevatorgate-scale shitstorm trying to punish a whistleblower, but it still sucks.)

  9. Torquil Macneil says

    I am not confident that sexual harassment will ever be eradicated, having spoken about this recently with some much younger women colleagues. I was very surprised by their experiences given the amount of procedural protection that appears to exist and the general change in attitudes (as it seemed to me) over the past 20 years. But it will only begin to change in a situation like this if the victims start to stand up and make formal complaints. Hard on them, I know, but without it, everyone loses.

  10. Robert B. says

    Actually, Torquil, it will begin to change when authorities offer the procedural protections you speak of – in particular, a process for respecting and investigating formal complaints. Otherwise, we are asking for serious risk and sacrifice from people who are already victims, and offering nothing in return.

  11. hm says

    This is troubling, and its prevalent throughout society.

    One of the biggest reasons its prevalent is that those men will be thought of as “manly”, confident men. Assholish behavior is encouraged and lionized. And, sadly, they probably will be more successful (in life, in romance, in earnings) by being assholes than respectful men will be by being respectful. Effectively, there is zero negative cost to this behavior right now, and a small chance of a positive outcome. This will only change when the men that are engaged in this behavior suffer some additional cost. IE … naming and shaming.

  12. says

    Rudi, in this community “naming name” is exactly the same thing as “accuse, arrest, arraign, try, conflict, sentence, carry out the sentence.” So when you say “innocent until proven guilty” and ask for names, you are not really thinking this through. (Also, giving details and not naming names could be the same thing as naming names.)

  13. says

    Robert, do you go to any atheist events? Tell the organizers you want to see formal and visible harassment policies (and please don’t limit it to sexual harassment–let’s do this all at once) in place. If you’re not satisfied with the policy (i.e., it has no mechanism for reporting or doesn’t protect the identity of those who report), tell them that too.

    You don’t have a lot of formal power, but the power of numbers works too.

  14. says

    Such behavior is unfortunately common, and seldom dealt with. While still in DC I told a female friend who works for NASA and travels frequently to speak at meetings about this, and she said it was exactly the same situation in those circles. This is infuriating, and it must be stopped.

    I’d like to make a suggestion as to how this problem might be handled. I posted this previously on Great Christina’s blog and on Blag Hag, but have yet to receive any feedback.

    I totally understand the reluctance to come forward on the part of individuals. Any one woman who made such an accusation against a prominent speaker would undoubtedly be, pardon the expression, crucified. Also, I suspect that some women might be willing to take the heat but unwilling to do something that could well create a real division within the movement, as people line up to take sides for one party or the other. Not to mention the fear that the tarnishing a prominent speaker could bring the movement itself into disrepute.

    But there is a way past this difficulty: COORDINATED action.

    We need to find multiple women who have had similar experiences with the same speakers, and persuade them to make a joint statement to that effect. One statement per speaker, each statement containing specifics from at least three women. The statements must be as factual as possible, with details of places and times, etc.

    These statements need to be made under the aegis of a major secular organization, or even better, a coalition of such. These organizations should concurrently issue their own statement that, effective immediately, all named speakers will be removed from their conference rosters.

    The long term history of such events in the media at large shows that when multiple women come forward with similar accusations, the public is much more likely to credit them. Moreover, if this is done formally by secular organizations, it will be a demonstration that we police ourselves and protect our own, and that will be a positive for the movement rather than a negative.

    And the banning of named speakers will be a warning to those whose misbehavior has not yet been adequately documented, which is likely to improve things immensely.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *