Mark Oppenheimer has a long article titled Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement? that uses as his starting point the accusations leveled against well-known skeptic and author Michael Shermer for being at the very least a sexual predator.
The short answer to Oppenheimer’s question is ‘no’ because the movement is far bigger than a few individuals but of course that is not the main point of the article which is to really to explore how the broader skeptical community in the US, that originated in groups that were predominantly male and used to one form of behavior, is having trouble coming to terms with the increased presence and visibility of women at these gatherings.
After World War II, groups like American Atheists drew from university faculties, particularly philosophy and science departments, and from libertarian and objectivist political culture — all heavily male. Scientific skeptics found each other in universities and in amateur science clubs — for astronomers, coders, rock collectors — that were very male. Magicians — mostly men — became interested in scientific skepticism, which, like magic, deals with the question of how people are deceived. Freethought also drew from geek subcultures, like sci-fi, gaming, chess, and Dungeons & Dragons, that value rational thinking and computational skills — and which are all, of course, traditionally boys clubs. There were women involved, including the famous Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who in fact founded American Atheists, but they were exceptions.
What really bothered me in the article were the stories of the vitriol that is aimed at those women like Rebecca Watson, Melody Hensley, Jen McCreight, and Amy David Roth who speak out against being sexually objectified and call for better standards of behavior at skeptical gatherings. It must be emphasized that they are not relics of a Victorian era who are fainting and reaching for their smelling salts because their sensibilities are easily offended. They are asking for a greater recognition of the fact that even among those with very liberal views about sexuality, there are still standards of behavior and that liberties should not be taken.
There really is no excuse for such behavior and the response that everyone on the internet, male and female, gets hate mail and death threats (for the record I don’t, but that may be due to me being far down the prominence rankings) and has to learn to suck it up does not persuade me in the least. Yes, the internet has a lot of people who seem to enjoy periodic bursts of two-minute hate aimed at someone or other and are only satisfied when they draw blood but that is no excuse. That should not be the norm and its existence elsewhere does not justify it within the skeptical community.
This issue reminds me of how women were treated during the counter-cultural revolution and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, where male-dominated movements treated women in demeaning ways until the latter fought back in now what is referred to as the second wave of the feminist movement.
This article is bringing to the surface what has been around for some time and I suspect is going to generate a huge amount of discussion. Other bloggers on FtB are much more aware of all the people and issues relating this topic so those interested in getting more should go to the FtB home page and check out the postings there.