In the wake of the most recent ‘sexist atheists on reddit’ scandal, which you can read more about here, I think it’s time that we had a talk. Not about the event itself, because we can all agree that a girl posting her face online is not “inviting” sexual harassment and frankly Rebecca Watson (see previous link) and Kate Harding said it better already. I’m more concerned with the rejoinder of the moderates, those who try to calm the angry feminists with some variation on the theme “It’s the internet/it’s reddit/it’s humans! This is the way things are. What did you expect?”
Well, since it is so often asked, I want to answer that question.
We expect more. We expect that men relate to women as people, and afford them the same respect and dignity they afford to other men. Not sometimes, not just when they are offline, not just when they can be held accountable, not just when they’re not attracted to the woman in question, but always. We expect to be able to present ourselves in public as women without being told that in so doing we should be prepared to receive constant, invasive sexual overtures and lewd suggestions.
We expect that people understand that it is never okay to joke about raping someone.
We expect those of you who have done any of this not to be so utterly callous as to ask women to “indulge” you. We expect that you stop pretending you are too foolish to know what is right and in any case too spineless to do it. We know you are vertebrates and we expect you to act like it.
We expect you not to pretend that we hold the power and that you are our victims when it has been otherwise for millennia. We expect that we do not have to explain this to you. And when we do have to explain, and complain, and make you aware, we expect that you will take us seriously. These are things we expect from everyone. I hope that clears things up a little.
We also expect more from the moderates, from those of you who would never harass women but who ask women to accept and expect harrassment from men as a matter of course. We expect you to be smarter than this, and take a bit of a longer view. You say this is the way things are on the internet or in human society, thereby implying that things can never change. But it should be obvious that this is just the way things are now. Just like Europe in the Middle Ages, where feudalism was the way things were, and just like in the USA in the 19th century where women not not being allowed to vote was the way things were. So I guess you’d be “that guy” back in 1880 being all “Women not voting is just the way things are!” Meanwhile, other people (not you) were then, and are now, demanding change and/or going out and changing things.
Humans changed those things about their societies then, and today we can change things too. Looking around, I really don’t think we’re reaching peak enlightenment right now. If we think we’re the pinnacle of human society and culture, it is only because of our geographical and temporal narcissism. There is simply no reason to assume you’re living at the very peak of excellence, the greatest level of tolerance and enlightenment that human society can ever attain. Think outside your timezone, man.
But more immediately than that, we expect you to think about the effect your words will have now. Have you ever thought about what the flip side of “what did you expect” and “this is inherent in reddit/the internet/the world” is? Think about those men whose first response to any woman or girl, in any context, is to inform her of how much sexual pleasure her appearance provides them: what do they hear when you trot out this line? What about those men who talk about raping a 15 year old girl “as a joke”? When they hear you say women should expect it, what do they hear? Acceptance. They see that their behaviour is tacitly approved – by you.
Your call for acceptance gives any man who does these things the clear message that what he is doing is acceptable, indeed, expected behaviour on his part. So why should he stop? Not only does he have his buddies up-voting his vile comments, he has all the “moderates” telling the angry feminists to ignore him and calm down! That is the effect you have when you ask women to accept that harassment is “the way life is”.
When it comes to treating women as human beings equal in rights and dignity, there is no middle ground. There is no “let’s stop here, near enough is good enough” (and for the record this is not actually near enough). There is no compromise. I believe the probability of making good progress is substantial, but it wouldn’t matter if this probability were virtually zero. As long as the probability of change is not zero, that is enough, because success is hugely valuable and failure is enormously damaging. The situation is not acceptable, and we have to do whatever we can to change it.
One more thing for those who want women to calm down about harassment: would you ever accept this treatment as “the way life is” for you? Would you ever accept a situation where, once you let people on the internet know you are a 15 year old boy, hoards of older men descend upon your thread to make lewd comments about having sex with you? No. If someone told you to expect people to joke extensively about their desire to rape a teenage boy under any circumstances – let alone because that boy had posted a picture of himself online to show everyone his new book – you would be horrified. You would be sickened. You would ask yourself how this came to be and wonder how it could be stopped. That is the right reaction.
So stop trying to tell us that this treatment is what we should expect as women. It’s not good enough. Heck, it’s not even good. It’s an improvement relative to the time when women were chattel, but that’s about as much as can be said for this behaviour – both the harassment and the calls for acceptance of harassment. When that’s all that can be said for you, it’s time for you to change. Please, come and join us here in the future. We’ve been expecting you.
These movements are unfortunately overpopulated with men who are obsessed with androcentrism and a blunt, blinkered perversion of inductive reasoning that they employ without questioning their premises. I have felt emotionally unsafe in comments sections on rationalist/skeptic blogs, usually when the issue of “getting a girl” gets raised: because the answer is usually that if men’s precious right to hit on ladies is ever impeded in any way by anything at all (for example, common courtesy or human decency) it is an outrage and a grave injustice. How else will they ever “get” girls?
Women’s objections to this way of thinking have been largely ignored in the community until very recently. Atheists and skeptics were forced to confront the situation when, in a youtube video, prominent feminist skeptic Rebecca Watson expressed her concerns about some men at atheist events lacking a firm grasp of the boundaries of appropriate flirtation or how to treat women in general.
Her argument was simple: a man who approaches a woman in an elevator at 4 in the morning and asks her back to his hotel room, after she has clearly stated that she is tired and wants to go to bed, is being creepy, pushy and generally demonstrating a suspiciously cavalier attitude towards the stated wishes of the woman.
It should be beyond obvious that such behaviour is likely to make a woman feel unsafe. First, because it reinforces that these men think their desire to hit on us is more important than any of our desires. That’s pretty skeevy, guys. Moreover, for many women it is actually seriously scary, because it’s not that uncommon for men – even men who seem very nice – to go further with that cavalier attitude and actually commit sexual assault. Rebecca clearly said she did not fear being raped, but in her situation, I think I would have been subconsciously worried.
In case it’s hard for men to remember this, let me remind you: in Australia, 1 in 5 women experiences sexual assault at some time. In America, 1 in 6 women is the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime – most of them completed. Many women are pretty fucking aware that being alone in an elevator with a guy hitting on us at 4 am can go really very badly for us, and colour me unsympathetic to you if you are lucky enough to be oblivious to that.
The community’s response to Rebecca’s video is pretty predictable: the men who don’t get it are whinging about being victims of prejudiced women, while the rest of us are respectfully discussing how the community can make the situation better. My homeboy and hero PZ Myers has our back on this. Awesome atheist women like Jen McCreight at Blaghag are on it too, and Rebecca’s follow-up post is great. But what I did not expect was for Richard Dawkins to throw in with the people claiming that their right to hit on women in elevators after said women have expressed their desire to go to bed alone is absolutely sacrosanct.
I really respect Richard Dawkins. I love his writing about evolution, genetics, and zoology. I love The Blind Watchmaker, The View from Mount Improbable, and The God Delusion. He is a great thinker, a great writer and a person who has done a lot for atheism around the world. I admire his academic career immensely, and I wish to emulate his commitment to educating the public. I am a huge fan. It absolutely guts me to see him casually dismiss Rebecca’s concerns, and by proxy the concerns of all women in these situations. It shows a complete lack of empathy and an unwillingness to step outside of his male social role and imagine what it might be like to be a woman. To have men feel they have a right to hit on him whenever they want to, regardless of how he feels about it. To have a substantial chance of being raped in his lifetime.
Dawkins says that he doesn’t understand how Rebecca could be so hurt by mere words. Do we really need to explain that words mean things, words cause harm, words can be used to threaten, intimidate and abuse people? Do we really have to explain this to an adult human being? Yes, obviously it’s worse to both verbally and physically assault someone, but that doesn’t make it okay to use words to make them uncomfortable.
The other issue Dawkins raised is the fact that western women have it much better than women in the Middle East, so we shouldn’t focus on the plight of western women at all. It is definitely true that women as a class face must greater oppression in those nations, but that doesn’t mean that Western women are not allowed to be concerned about issues in our own lives. In fact, surely the plight of women in the Sudan is much more important than say, I don’t know, the academic field of zoology for example. Therefore nobody should ever spend time doing zoological research because that detracts from our focus on women being raped in the Sudan. So unless you’re quitting your job to go help out in the Sudan, don’t come at me with this. You’re allowed to surf the internet in your spare time, I’m allowed to talk about the ways in which I feel unsafe in public because of how men treat me in my spare time.
Overall, It’s very hard for women to come into atheist and skeptical spaces when we know this attitude prevails. The men inside the movement have to take some responsibility for their own behaviour and start working to change this, or not only will there not be more women in the community anytime soon, but there may very well be fewer of them. That’s bad for everyone. Surely even the most self-involved atheists must be aware that the movement for a more secular society needs all the support it can get. Of course, you should care about how women feel because women are human beings. But if that’s not enough for you, how about this: start paying attention to how women feel, or we are all going to lose.