The Lament of the Atheist Feminist

I am an atheist and a skeptic who has never been to an organised event related to these communities. In fact, most of my female friends are atheists and yet none of us has ever been to these events. I can’t speak for them, but for my part, it is partially because as a woman my encounters with these communities online have been really mixed.

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.