Today I would normally post my next installment in the dialog James Croft and I are having. James has very graciously allowed me to beg off for this week.
When D.J. Grothe posted his apology yesterday, I posted a prompt response. I was then taken to task for responding only to the negative in D.J.’s statement. I feel perfectly entitled to have a personal, emotional response, having been blamed and mischaracterized. However, I do agree that there is value in a more detailed response.
Presented below the fold, because the original, before I add any comment, is over 1,500 words long.
Rebecca: Sorry for not responding to this sooner; I was flying much of the day Friday and got to the hotel late, and Saturday was busy with skeptic events in the D.C. area.
First, let me say how sincerely and deeply regretful I am that I blamed you as the messenger. No woman – no person – should ever be blamed for being a victim or for speaking out about sexism or any social problem.
This is a good, strong statement about not laying blame where it doesn’t belong. That’s good. We could use more of that in these discussions. Too many people are trying to use D.J.’s original statements both to argue that talking about the problem is part of the problem and to tell Rebecca that she needs to stop being “dramatic” about things. It’s more than time that both of those stop.
I was wrong to write anything that could even be construed that way, and it was never my intent. I am sorry.
This is more problematic. How were those statements intended to be construed? There were multiple statements and requests for clarification, and the message that came through all of them was that “irresponsible” talk about the problems of harassment in the community and creating solutions to those problems is what led to fewer women signing up for TAM this year. Nor were there any other reasons posited.
I appreciate that D.J. regrets this now, but what was he trying to do in the first place?
I should also say that I believe I understand why there has been so much vituperation, anger and emption surrounding these issues: we want to protect others from harm (indeed, this is a central motivation in skepticism) and if we think people are being harmed, it angers us.
This is not nearly this impersonal an issue for most of us talking about it. Yes, some of our anger is in sympathy with others whom, for the record, we do not merely “think” are being harmed–we’ve been told and have no reason to doubt it. Some of our anger, however, is because this happens to us. Over the last year of talking about all of this, well, everyone should know what has happened to Rebecca. She’s hardly the only one. I had people start researching me and posting details of my employment over what I said.
Some of our anger is over what happens to people who are being harmed, yes. The rest of it is because the people who should be stepping up to ask what they can do to help professionalize this movement and make it accommodating to more people are instead turning around and fighting us. They are so invested in something–peace at all costs, appearances, the status quo–that they are making the inevitable take much longer. And that leaves all of us vulnerable to attack for longer as well.
I hope that we may increasingly refocus that anger toward working together on solutions to these problems.
That anger has been focused, and it has been getting results. If you wish to channel your own anger toward those results, that would be quite welcome.
I believe strongly that women’s voices need to be taken seriously in the atheist and skeptics movements, that any reports of harassment or assault at atheist and skeptics events need to be taken seriously and recorded, and acted on effectively, and that those who make reports of such harassment shouldn’t ever be blamed for such. And I am mortified to find out that you have been “groped, grabbed, touched in other nonconsensual ways,” etc. I had absolutely no idea. It disgusts me and makes me angry to hear it. I assure you that if any such offenses at TAM were reported, the offender or offenders would have been removed from TAM, and/or law enforcement called. I think it is very important that such incidents are reported to security or conference organizers or law enforcement, and that this is the most effective response.
I agree with this generally. Reporting is the only way we will be able to stop giving the offenders a playground within our movements. However, reporting doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Organizations have to actively create an environment that is friendly to reporting. As Ophelia points out, reporting comes with costs to the reporter; they have to work to remove those costs. Harassment is part of the background noise of women’s lives; as Pteryxx points out, organizations have to be specific about the behavior you want reported. As I’ve pointed out, they have to have people prepared to take the sort of reports that will get at any harassing behavior that has occurred. Organizations have to do more than hope for reports if they want them.
I know that the atheist and skeptics communities have had serious problems when it comes to women’s issues, and this is something I have personally worked to combat over the last decade and a half I’ve been involved, including by making better hiring and programming decisions when it was within my power to do so. One way we worked to combat problems was by publishing a code of conduct for our particular event last year (http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/jref-news/1354-with-tam-right-around-the-corner-some-important-announcements.html).
This is good. I have asked for clarification that a harassment policy will apply this year as well.
Other ways include focusing on these topics on the program: a few years ago, I asked you to moderate a panel on women in skepticism and also run a workshop on related issues, for which JREF was grateful. And we have grown in the direction now of TAM having the highest number and percentage of women speakers at any major skeptics’ conference (50% solo speakers last year were women).
These are good. The success of these behaviors was seen in the attendance figures from last year’s event.
When we ran reports this year and discovered that while 40% of attendees at TAM 2011 were women, but that at the time I made my initial comments in a discussion on a friend’s Facebook wall about these issues, only 18% of TAM 2012 registrants were women, we were deeply concerned. That Facebook wall comment on a friend’s wall was partially quoted and blogged and reblogged a lot last week, and I think this discussion is important, especially if it helps improve the situation at atheist and skeptics meetings – which is our common goal.
I’m glad D.J. think it’s important. I’m quite concerned, however, that he has tried to take the discussion back underground. People considering attending TAM deserve access to these kinds of discussions every bit as much as an extended group of friends on Facebook do. People who don’t want to go to TAM should have a space to speak up and be heard if we want data on the situation.
My concern was that the message going to women who are not already familiar with the skeptics movement and TAM in particular be balanced.
Those messages are already balanced. I can’t think of a single person who writes about these problems who doesn’t also write and/or tweet enthusiastically about the events they participate in. Skepchick sends women to TAM with grants that are widely promoted. The positive aspects of events in these movements in general, and TAM specifically, are hardly ignored.
I do not deny that there is a problem with sexism at atheist or skeptics conferences, nor any of the accounts blogged about in general terms by women who have attended TAM or similar kinds of events, but I would appreciate if such reports were balanced with an acknowledgment of the great effort the JREF goes to ensuring that TAM is a safe and welcoming environment for women.
What is that great effort? That sounds snarky, but it’s a serious question. Most of the women I know of who go to TAM go because James Randi is a personal hero and their gateway into skepticism. Randi himself gets the credit for that, I think. Others go because they’re already involved in skepticism and TAM is the big professional meeting in their field.
Still others, a lot of others, go because of the amazing women involved in and peripheral to the event. JREF has certainly invited many of those women, but I don’t think anyone wants to claim that required a great effort.
Nor have I seen great effort put into making women safe at TAM. Plenty of stories attest to the fact that TAM hasn’t been “safe” in sense that women felt they had official recourse when approached or touched inappropriately. To claim otherwise doesn’t fit the data we have at the moment. Last year’s policy was an admirable start to changing the situation, but I think most of the effort on this is yet to come.
I and the rest of the JREF team are passionately invested in skeptic outreach to diverse communities. Skepticism is for everyone, not just privileged straight old white men.
Good. Please keep repeating that, particularly in venues where the opposite is being said. Far too many of them exist, including in JREF’s own message boards.
My sharing survey data and other data from last year’s TAM was an attempt to suggest that despite many blog posts and other public messaging focused on how unsafe and unwelcoming atheist or skeptics events may be for women, the data suggest we have at least been partially successful in making TAM safe and welcoming for women.
I think we’ve already covered both parts of this particular message.
If this data is wrong, due to underreporting, then I think we should work together to correct that.
There isn’t really any room left for “if” here. It’s time to stop referring to this data except in the past tense.
(Unfortunately, the atheist movement has almost a universally bad reputation for being bad to women. Just a couple days ago on a popular non-movement website there was advice for readers about how not to be “creepy” at atheist conventions: http://bigthink.com/daylight-atheism/the-ten-commandments-of-flirting-or-how-to-not-be-creepy-at-atheist-conventions).
Adam’s a bit surprised to not be considered part of the movement. I’m surprised as well, as he’s been part of the discussions here on this topic.
Talking about sexism isn’t the problem, sexism is the problem — I completely agree.
But when trying to solve the problem, I believe reporting instances of being groped or grabbed (these may be criminal acts) to be the most effective way to help organizers make sure events are safe for everyone.
We’ve already gone over this. Again, reporting does not happen in a vacuum.
This week, there were over twenty blog posts about TAM specifically, many containing misinformation.
Here are the blog posts from this network on the topic:
- Why Would Women Choose Not To Return To An Atheist And/Or Skeptical Convention?
- Where Are the Women?
- Perhaps it is time that DJ Grothe resign as the President of the JREF
- Shooting the messenger
- No, DJ Grothe should not resign from JREF
- DJ, please fix this genuine problem
- Irresponsible messaging
- D.J. Grothe Tackles the Problem of Harassment
- A Blogging-Break For June!
- I support DJ Grothe
- Rebecca explains
- Rebecca Watson won’t be at TAM
- Rebecca Watson at TAM
- I want to be Howard Wolowitz when (if) I grow up
- The DJ Grothe quote that sticks in my craw.
- Wait – that was last year…
- The further hyper-skepticism stalling our conversation
- Words, actions, or attitudes
- Skepticism gone wild
- DJ Grothe apologizes to one woman
- The darkness before dawn
- About That TAM Harassment Policy
- Reporting harassment and naming names
- The GrotheBot 5000 meme
I haven’t been informed of any misinformation in any of my posts. I’d like to be told if there is any. These things should be reported. Also, to the extent there is misinformation, this is a very strong argument for JREF getting out in front of this with official communications.
Many commenters on these blogs, mostly on one blog network, appear to believe that going to TAM or similar events in the skeptics or atheist world means they will be assaulted, harassed, or worse.
I’ve been reading those threads, particularly at that (this) one blog network (the name is Freethought Blogs), and that’s not at all what I’ve seen. If D.J. has seen otherwise, I would like a pointer to that discussion.
What I have seen is people being very realistic about the fact that, where harassment is not actively discouraged, it will occur. It won’t happen to everyone. It won’t happen every time. But it will happen. If someone wants to have a serious discussion about harassment concerns, it’s important to recognize the distinction between this simple realization and the deterministic idea that D.J. is presenting here. I hope he gets that distinction soon.
Additionally, the week before that, there were around a dozen blog posts about how if you’re a woman, going to an atheist or skeptic con likely means you’ll be sexually harassed, and how many women have been warned about certain men on programs as likely sex offenders.
Again, D.J. is confused about the distinction between an atmosphere and policies that don’t stop harassment and events that constitute nothing but harassment. The latter is a gross caricature of anything anyone has said on the topic.
Many solutions were proposed in these blog posts, even as no one entered into direct dialogue with organizations on these issues, preferring instead to engage in a kind of public messaging which I believe has the paradoxical and opposite effect of making our movements seem less welcoming to women than they are. (I concede that blogging may come more naturally to some folks than direct dialogue, or that vague public messaging about problems may feel safer than reporting incidents to law enforcement.)
The concession is sweet and all, but this is flat out wrong. I’ve been talking to organizations. Rebecca has been talking to organizations. Jen has been talking to organizations. Kim Jones talked to JREF. The response she received wasn’t exemplary, but D.J. should know about it. JREF is a very small organization.
And here D.J. started blaming people “for speaking out about sexism or any social problem” again. This is completely unacceptable, even by his own terms. He knows this is wrong. He said this is wrong. He apologized–for being able to be construed to have done this–and then he did it again.
Not only that, but he did this after having been repeatedly told in those comment threads he said he was reading:
- Talking about sexism is not the problem.
- Women are already aware of the problems of harassment in all aspects of their lives.
- Some of them have actually been harassed within the movement.
- Getting harassment policies in place makes the movement safer.
- The thing that does make the movement seem less welcoming is the prevalence of misogynist bloggers, commenters, Redditors, and forum threads.
That’s what people are saying. I would think someone dedicated to making the movement more welcoming to women would pay attention to this information so he can focus his efforts on the real problems.
Rebecca, you are a talented, funny, influential skeptic who has introduced skepticism to new audiences.
I have always admired you for that in particular. Indeed, that is why I have featured you so prominently at TAM in the past. (And I believe that years before I came to lead the JREF, TAM was the first conference you ever spoke at.) You have contributed a lot to our communities of reason over the last few years. That’s why I regret not only how you have been treated over the last year especially, but how issues surrounding feminism in atheism and allied movements — issues for which in some ways you have become the standard bearer — have grown so divisive, with reprehensible behavior on all sides. Invective and enemy-list making. Bullying. Dishonest mischaracterizations.
I’d sincerely hope D.J. would regret any woman being treated the same way. Using all of that as a lead in to tell Rebecca that her “side” is as bad as the people that have been harassing her and others is reprehensible, however.
If anyone thinks these things are in any way balanced between the people who have been harassing Rebecca–writing entire blogs dedicated to talking about her and the people who work with her, demanding that she be removed from The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, sending her threats–and the people who have expressed disgust with this behavior, they’ve got some work to do in critical thinking. And D.J. is well aware that the equivalence he’s suggesting is, at best, controversial.
Presenting that kind of equivalence as part of an apology to Rebecca is insulting.
I have to remain optimistic that these are growing pains in our fledgling movements and that civility and honest disagreement over best strategies will eventually win out. People of good will may disagree on which strategies are best to address serious problems, and should be able to do so without being vilified. I believe we need more good will, and less us vs. them thinking, in atheism and skepticism.
I would like to see this as well. That’s part of the reason that D.J.’s statements, for which this is supposed to be some sort of apology, have created the reaction that they have. See the part way up above where I discuss anger.
Before I close, an important correction to a misstatement of fact in your post: no one reported to JREF staff or hotel staff any incident of assault or sexual harassment at our speakers reception last year, and no JREF staff were told about nor knew about any such incident until last week. In fact, someone was removed from the speaker reception because he wasn’t permitted to be there, and was apparently drunk. In her blog post and in further comments, Ashley says she didn’t feel like she needed to personally report the alleged harassment to JREF staff or hotel staff at the time because she thought someone else reported it, and that it had been taken care of. Unfortunately, neither she nor anyone else mentioned the incident of sexual harassment in one of the TAM attendee surveys, nor made any other report of it at the time. I find this regrettable, because without knowing about it, we (JREF, hotel security, etc.) were not able to do anything about it.
As has been mentioned in many places, well before this apology was made, it is a weakness of the reporting procedures last year at TAM that this was not classified as sexual harassment. It’s an understandable weakness, as no such policy had been put in place before. It is still a weakness of which D.J. was made aware. Insisting on an account of events that doesn’t recognize that weakness in what is supposed to be an apology is also insulting.
Nor does it address Rebecca’s objections to D.J.’s behavior. Her concerns were that D.J. was gaslighting Ashley, trying to convince her that her account of what had happened to her was unreliable in order to protect the reputations of JREF and TAM. Whatever D.J. says here, Ashley feels the characterization is reasonable.
Let me be clear: If I or any of the other TAM staff or hotel staff would have known that someone (or possibly more than one person) had been sexually harassed, or assaulted or otherwise accosted at our speakers reception, we would have contacted security and removed the offender immediately from TAM, and/or called law enforcement. As it turns out, someone was just removed from the speakers reception because he didn’t belong there and seemed drunk. A complaint has since been reported and recorded (last week), and appropriate action will be taken to make sure the person won’t be able to assault or sexually harass again at one of our events.
It’s good that further action has been taken to address this specific event. I would also like to see action taken for the future that addresses that weakness in policy.
In light of this new information JREF received this week, we can no longer say that there were no reports of sexual harassment at the event last year. This only motivates us to redouble our efforts to create a space where everyone is safe and welcome, so that we can focus on what brings us together at these events in the first place.
And that’s the end of the apology, such as it is. Notice what it doesn’t walk back. It still insists what he started out saying, that female bloggers are “making our movements seem less welcoming to women”. Notice that he still doesn’t talk about the male bloggers who are also talking about the problems.
Notice that he still doesn’t even come close to addressing his statement on the discussion of harassers among high-profile speakers in the movement.
So much of that feels to me more like rumor and distasteful locker room banter, often pretty mean-spirited, especially when it is from just one or a few women recounting sexual exploits they’ve had with speakers who are eventually deemed as “skeezy,” and whom they feel should be not allowed to speak at such conferences going forward.
D.J.’s statements that remain unaddressed are what people are up in arms about. This isn’t a personal matter between D.J. and Rebecca, and it’s insulting for him to treat it as one. It’s an insult to the bloggers he wagged his finger at. It’s an insult to the ones he left out who are also working on this. It’s an insult to the person whose experience of harassment at TAM he is trying to manage the perception of. It’s an insult to the women he’s accusing of regretting “sexual exploits”. It’s an insult to everyone who has taken the time to tell him what actually concerns them about the conference scene in general, and now, TAM in particular.
That’s why I walked away from this apology more angry than I went into it. 1,500 words in, and I still have no idea what D.J. is sorry for aside from choosing a woman with a high-profile blog as one of his targets when it came time to lay the blame for female registration at TAM being down. There are some nice sentiments, no specific actions being taken, and a lot more blame for the situation being laid anywhere but with the person who started all this–D.J.
That’s not going to (and demonstrably hasn’t at this point) increase anyone’s confidence in D.J., in JREF, or in TAM. It isn’t even, when it comes right down to it, much of an apology.