So Much Wrong: James Randi’s Rape Culture Remarks

Interesting factoid: James Randi doesn’t think women are worth as much as men. Oh, I’m sure if I got hold of him on the phone, he’d deny that. Probably would have some wonderful words about how amazing women are and how much he respects them and equality and achievement and such. Problem is, if he spoke those words, I wouldn’t believe him. Neither does he, deep down.

Let’s look at the evidence, shall we? Here is what he told Mark Oppenheimer, who blew the lid off Shermer’s (alleged) career as a serial sexual harasser and assaulter.

But Shermer’s reputation really does precede him, and it predates the recent wave of attention given to sex crimes and sexual harassment. I reached the movement’s grand old man, 86-year-old James Randi, by telephone, at his house in Florida. Randi is no longer involved in his foundation’s daily operations, but he remains its chair, and he is a legend of the movement, famously not fooled by anybody. He seems not to be naïve about Shermer — although he’s not so troubled by him, either.

“Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion — I do know that,” Randi told me. “I have told him that if I get many more complaints from people I have reason to believe, that I am going to have to limit his attendance at the conference.

Oh, my. Let’s stop right here a moment. James Randi knew Shermer was, in his words, being “a bad boy on occasion.” Generally, when men talk about other men being “bad boys” in the context of a discussion on sexual harassment and assault, they mean that those “bad boys” were harassing women. Hitting on them. Making them uncomfortable by pressing unwanted advances, or molesting them, or making unwelcome sexual comments, or possibly getting them too drunk to consent or protest and then raping them. Men say other men are being “bad boys” when they don’t think it’s a very big deal, except that those wimminz are sooo sensitive, amirite fellas? And Shermer’s behavior was bad enough for Randi to threaten to “limit his attendance at the conference,” so the behavior Randi was aware of was probably not limited to unwanted flirting.

Randi didn’t give a shit about those women. If he had, he would have limited Shermer’s attendance at the first credible report. But the complaints of however many women – and it seems that there must have been more than one, considering the “on occasion” and “many more complaints” wording – weren’t enough for Randi to throw out his golden boy. No, a few, or a handful, of women being victimized just weren’t enough. He needed more. And those had to be “from people I have reason to believe,” because apparently a woman’s word is kind of hard to swallow, so they had to be reallyreally believable.

How much would you like to bet Randi would put more weight on a man’s word than a woman’s, and not even necessarily realize he was doing it?

And I’ll bet you further that if the believable complaints hit the magic number, he wouldn’t ban Shermer from speaking and eject him permanently from TAM. Nonono, that would be too extreme. He would just have to limit his attendance, is all.

Right, let’s move on to why even this small bit of discipline was never administered.

“His reply,” Randi continued, “is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember. I don’t know — I’ve never been drunk in my life. It’s an unfortunate thing … I haven’t seen him doing that. But I get the word from people in the organization that he has to be under better control. If he had gotten violent, I’d have him out of there immediately. I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

I may have given Randi the benefit of the doubt, without that statement. I may have been all understanding, and generous, and allowed that yes, it can be hard to believe strangers telling you bad things about your friend, and sure, it’s hard to comprehend just how serious sexual harassment is when you’re not the one constantly subjected to it, and he’s an old white dude (see here for a magnificent rant by RQ on that), and excuses excuses, but that bit ruins him. Let’s look at it closely, shall we?

“His reply,” Randi continued, “is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember.

Oh, well, it was all Demon Rum’s fault, the poor man! Allowances must be made! He doesn’t remember assaulting people, so as long as he doesn’t do it too much while he’s blacked-out drunk, no problem, right?

“I haven’t seen him doing that.

And, of course, if a man has not personally witnessed another man doing horrible shit while drunk, there’s no reason to take complaints so damned seriously. Probably didn’t happen. Cuz I didn’t see it personally. Could not possibly be because a) Shermer wasn’t that drunk and b) was smart enough not to assault people right under the eyes of the man who could have him ejected from TAM for life.

“But I get the word from people in the organization that he has to be under better control.

People in your organization are telling you this giant jackass is not under control. And what’s everybody’s brilliant solution? Tell him he has to be under better control! Whee, problem solved, no harm no foul except to the women already victimized, but it’s not like they’re as important as this man who makes lots of money, and it’s definitely not like I, James Randi, am the head of this ship and can decide that Shermer needs to be under better control somewhere else.

Only, it is.

“If he had gotten violent, I’d have him out of there immediately.

ORLY? He allegedly raped a woman in 2008 – that’s not violent enough for ya? Oh, right, unless he’s jumping from the bushes with a knife and beating her unconscious rather than merely drugging her into unconsciousness and then raping her, that’s totes not violent in your world. Riiight. I wonder how non-violent you’d think it was if you were the one waking up after being drugged (yes, alcohol’s a drug) with someone shoving their dick where you didn’t want it?

Limber your shouting voices, folks, it’s about to get far worse.

“I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

Image on top is a My Little Pony looking upward in shock. Caption says, "WTF is that?" Bottom image shows her looking in a different direction, seeming angry. Caption says, "Srsly, WTF is that?"

I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

Image shows Puss in-Boots from Shrek holding something in his paw, with his mouth open in an angry O. Caption says, "You see this? You see this shit!"

“I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.

Image shows an anime woman with pink hair screaming so hard she's spitting and her eyes look like they're exploding. Caption says, "What is this I don't even"

“I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

Image is an angry troll face with red eyes. Background has the letters FFFFFUUUU repeated in red.

If he had gotten violent, I’d have him out of there immediately. I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

Image shows a man in a very tacky wizard's outfit, holding out his hand. Caption says, "Stand back. Shit's about to get real."

Image shows a nuclear bomb explosion.
Operation Castle – Bravo shot explosion. Image via Wikipedia Commons.

Excuse me. I seem to have exploded all over my part of the planet and must gather my remains. BRB.

Image shows an orange kitten hugging a broom handle. Caption says, "Yah, itz a big job, but somebudyz gotta do it."

How do these words come out of your mouth if you believe women are actual people with genuine autonomy, and not just objects for men, i.e. real people, to play with? How do you speak these words about a man who you have been told harasses women, causing them enough distress that you have actually confronted the harasser and advised him he is risking your limiting his presence at your conference, and think they are reasonable words, if you believe that women have the same value as men? HOW THE ACTUAL FUCK do you speak these words and believe they absolve you of your part in this, excuse your inaction, if you actually believe that sexual harassment and sexual assault are serious problems?

He doesn’t. I’m sure he’d say he does, but his own words and actions prove he doesn’t. Look at what he’s saying: guys will just “misbehave” around women when they are drunk. So it’s perfectly fine that all he did was sexually harass women. Grabbing their tits without consent isn’t violent. Getting them drunk and raping them when they are too incapacitated to refuse sex or give any sort of meaningful consent isn’t violent. To James Randi, anything short of Michael Shermer actually beating a woman right there on the convention floor is not worth fussing over. It’s boys-will-be-boys. It’s oh-well-that’s-what-dude’s-do-when-they’re-drunk. Whatevs. What are all you harridans on about? It’s not like he grabbed a man’s junk, or hit anybody, amirite?

This is rape culture. This is James Randi fully and enthusiastically participating in it, and seeing no real harm.

James Randi couldn’t take women’s complaints seriously. Now we have at least one woman saying she was sexually assaulted by Michael Shermer. And James fucking Randi doesn’t consider that violence. No, she was drunk, and he was drunk, and that’s what dudes do, force themselves on women while they’re drunk. It’s not like that’s real violence that warrants ejecting Michael Shermer from TAM. Not in James Randi’s world.

Hopefully, he’s going to read those words over to himself a few times, and do some hard thinking, and realize exactly what it is that he’s saying. And he’ll realize that what he is saying reduces women to third-rate beings rather than human beings with the right to not be molested, and he’ll apologize, and we’ll see him take a thorough look at the evidence again and maybe, just possibly, decide that the way Shermer “misbehaved” warrants expulsion.

But I will not hold my breath, any more than I am breathlessly anticipating Michael Shermer will become my bestie (newsflash: he never will). Too many male skeptics have proven they’re unable to examine their own sexist behavior and thought patterns, much less correct them.

I just hope that the people who nodded along with Randi’s odious statement are now doing a double-take, and will realize it’s time to confront and eradicate those attitudes, both within themselves and in the broader movement. I hope a lot of people have now realized that treating men’s “misbehavior” towards women, including trans women, as “boys will be boys” gets us nothing but a movement where women and LGBTQ folk aren’t safe, while rapists and harassers are allowed to prey on them with impunity.

If you love skepticism, you’re going to have to clean house. And you’re going to have to admit your heroes have some horrifically bad behaviors and attitudes, and change the culture so that it is made manifestly clear that this shit must and will stop.

You want skepticism to survive as a viable movement? Stop making it a safe haven for predators. Stop making excuses like Randi’s. Start holding everyone accountable for the damage they do. And start making it clear that this sort of shit will no longer be tolerated. At. All.

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So Much Wrong: James Randi’s Rape Culture Remarks
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35 thoughts on “So Much Wrong: James Randi’s Rape Culture Remarks

  1. rq
    1

    OH MY GOSH I’m so glad you’ve taken on Randi himself, I was so mad yesterday at everyone who was willing to cut him slack for his age or something equally stupid, as if he lives in a vaccuum and has been completely ignorant of the situation instead of perfectly alright with it, thank you!! Now to actually read the post. :P

  2. 3

    I think that Randi’s spiel is the “I’m a gay man, I don’t want to fuck women, therefore sexism can’t have anything to do with me” stick. Sure, he’s heard it exists, even from credible (i.e. male) sources, especially in Africa, but he’s just personally clueless because he has been raised by space-wolves. Fascinating, I tell you, fascinating! The mating process of the common heterosexual. It’s like watching Discovery Chanel. Sure, what those seahorses are doing ssems a bit strange to you, but since you’re not one of them, you can’t really say anything about it.

  3. rq
    4

    Yes. Exactly this. Especially that bit about ‘only misbehaving with the wimminz’. “Only”, ha. Here’s my middle finger.

  4. 5

    Perfect. This very well captures the meaning of Randi’s remarks and what i think of as a reasonable reaction to them. WTAF, indeed.

    This whole boys will be boys, this is perfectly natural, normal, acceptable behavior on the part of men is such a craptastic assumption as to be unbelievable, especially coming from supposedly critical thinkers. Yeah, we know guys are, widely, like that. It doesn’t mean that this be the innate order of the universe, not is it a remotely good explanation or excuse. And it is goddamned obvious on its face that it is wrong when the predator feels he has to be sly about it much of the time.

  5. rq
    6

    Except he’s involved in a major organization that has resources and information about harrassment and sexism, and gets complaints about it, all the damn time. Heck, he’s a sceptic himself, and he can’t even properly analyze the evidence – sure, on a personal emotional level maybe he distances himself, but from a purely logical, rational, evidence-based approach, he should have had this one, easily. If he wasn’t being such an unconsciously misogynistic asshole. It should totally be in his consciousness by now.
    And as a gay man, he should know about allies.

  6. 7

    I don’t want to generalize, so I won’t.

    But I expected this from a guy who let DJ Grothe represent his organization for so long.

    There was no excuse for that and there’s really no excuse for this.

  7. 8

    That’s why I said “spiel”. He could, if he wanted to, and frankly, you don’t have to want to fuck somebody to see what is happening.
    But yeah, if that ally thing came naturally then black men and white women would stop being asshoes to women of colour, so I’m afraid that everybody has to walk the long way.

  8. 11

    I couldn’t help but notice that at least two of the names you mention are aggressive libertarians. There are subcultures within the atheist community, and the atheists in my circles are not misogynists.

  9. 12

    Sure, I’ll cut him some slack on account of his age, but that slack is in precise proportion to how much he shouldn’t be on the board (let alone the chair) of an organization. Any kind of organization. If you’re living in the past, enjoy your game shows and your canasta group. But if you look out the window and realize some shit’s changed, you got to change, too. If you want to go out and run stuff.

  10. 13

    @2: There’s that, but there’s also this undercurrent of “I don’t drink I don’t understand drinking. Don’t ask me why those wacky drink-a-doos always are raping.”

  11. 14

    “His reply,” Randi continued, “is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember.”

    I know that this isn’t all that novel but this excuse only flies if the person had never had much experience with alcohol and its effects on them. People are usually willing to let bad behavior due to drinking too much slide if it truly was the result of a misstep, which can happen. That said, once it starts happening with frequency then “I drank too much” doesn’t cut it. If you know from experience that drinking to excess causes you to act in certain negative ways then it is your responsibility to make sure you do not drink to excess. If you continue to do so, even with that knowledge, that excuse simply becomes a dismissal of your behavior without having to address it or take responsibility for it.

  12. 15

    I will NOT give him a pass for his age. He is far too old to use “I am just a naive young man who doesn’t understand drinking or sexism. Sorry!”

    Puh-lease. He understands perfectly well. He just doesn’t want to rock the boat. He wants to remain neutral.

    Which is rather interesting considering his professional history. But obviously, speaking up for women isn’t worth “rocking the boat” but revealing the lies of, as he calls it, “woo-woo”.

    This man is not stupid. There is no way he doesn’t understand this shit. He just doesn’t want to admit it, because that would mean speaking out against his buds. The good ol’ boys club strikes again!

  13. 17

    That line you blew up on doesn’t just reduce women to 3rd rate citizens. He basically says men are barely in control of themselves when not drinking. And that if I want to drink with a group that contains women I need to get (chemically) castrated first to prevent me from raping one of them if I get one drink to many.
    And that is why men should come done on him just as hard as women should.

    Toxic masculinity indeed. Randi I’m not my penis with only enough self control that an inhibition relaxer is enough to break it you [insert expletives here since I can’t think of anything that fits the occasion]. You do know, you dolt, that that would mean that on a bad day, the type where you end up snapping at people who did not wrong due to what happened before that, men would accidentally rape women.
    Worse then that the prat now has a ready made excuse, pretend he’s drunk or actually be tipsy/drunk, to sexually assault women and not face the repercussions.
    I really wish I had the money to go to TAM and then grope your breasts/chest area (BAC level high enough to be drunk optional) then see your reaction.

  14. rq
    18

    Please don’t threaten retaliation, Randi is still a human being (one rather poorly by way of compassion and understanding, but still), and it doesn’t do anyone any good to threaten any kind of relatiation-in-kind, no matter how ‘benign’. Harrassment is still harrassment, and sexual harrassment is still sexual harrassment, no matter the reasons behind it – the answer to fear is not more fear. Please don’t lower yourself to the level of the enablers and predators.
    You’re not actually helping anyone feel safer.

  15. 20

    I was also incensed by Randi’s comments. So much so that I have added him to my “ignore” list with Dawkins, Harris, and Thunderfoot (and legion). Whatta maroon. I revoke your skeptic card.

    I have considerable practice at drinking in public including a few times when I’ve had trouble finding my way to my room. Apparently being drunk makes me like guitar blues – not sexual assault. So “F you, James Randi!” For assuming that alcohol makes men get all rapey. Some skeptic, you are!

  16. 21

    @ Who Cares (8)
    I’m with you on that (except for the retaliation part). The idea that men cannot control themselves when faced with the opportunity for sex is one of the most misandrist things you can say, but it’s something I hear a lot from men. Usually it’s because it excuses their own behavior. I wonder how he would react if somebody from an Islamic country used a similar excuse to blame a woman for their own rape?. Actually, we don’t because when it’s religious people doing it, they have no problem condemning it. Just so long as they don’t have to exercise any self-reflection and view all misogyny as committed by “those bad religious people”. As someone who has been pretty drunk I can tell James Randi that groping, harassing, and raping isn’t something “men do when they drink”. It’s something some men do when they drink because they can always count on somebody excusing their behavior. Also, if somebody repeatedly tells you “well, I was pretty drunk and don’t remember”, they’re telling you they have a seriously problem with alcohol. At some point, Shermer is going to do something to somebody and they won’t be able to sweep it under the rug. At that point, some competent lawyer is going to ask James Randi to explain his statements in that article to a judge and jury. Then that lawyer is going to explain to the jury the concept of “prior knowledge” and how that makes the JREF legally responsible for Shermer’s actions and that will be the end of the JREF.

  17. 22

    Thank you for writing this. Randi’s comments really shocked and horrified me. There seems to have been an assumption that he was just a doddery old man who was being kept out of the loop by people who were trying to protect him from some of the less savory aspects of running an organisation, but it seems he was fully aware and just didn’t care. (And, if I was feeling ungenerous and cynical, it almost seems like he’s using that slightly doddery persona as a reason why he didn’t pay as much attention as he knows he should have done. “How was I supposed to know feeling up women was wrong and should be stopped? I’m an old gay man who doesn’t drink, it’s a completely foreign world to me. I mean, yes, I could have asked some women for advice but I never learned how to talk to them about [hushed tones] ‘women’s issues’.”)

    These skeptical organisations really need to figure out what they want to be. Debunking bigfoot and UFOs is fun and is often a way in to skepticism for people (it was for me), but once they’ve done that there’s got to be somewhere to go. Organisations like the JREF will have to recognise and adapt to the changing face (and membership demographics) of skepticism, or else they’re going to die off. Though in their present incarnations I can’t see that many will miss them.

  18. 24

    In a comment on another blog a few days ago, I said I was willing to cut Randi some slack on the basis of age and gayness. I was wrong, Dana, you are right. Thank you for writing this.

  19. 25

    Oh crap, you are right. Sorry about that remark. Wasn’t my intention (I was reminded of my first time seeing Randi working out how to critically think by subjecting his audience to what he was trying to explain) but that doesn’t matter, it was wrong of me to write that.

  20. 26

    Marcus, I think you are diagnosing the problem wrong.

    On the minor level, Shermer isn’t accused of malfeasance while drunk (which would be bad enough). He is accused of getting women drunk by concealing what he drank himself and then having sex with them while he was sober and they were incapable of consent.

    So no, Randi is not recognizing the same facts you are. He is willfully ignorant of them. Which isn’t an excuse but its an explanation of his behavior. And I think it is important to get to the bottom of the matter and understand it rather than just competing to express outrage.

    His reaction strikes me as remarkably similar to some of the folk in the UK establishment who are now found to have been involved in covering up sex abuse at the BBC and by celebs elsewhere. Lots of folk had all the facts necessary but they rejected the obvious conclusions.

    One pattern we see time and again is leaders of an organization ignoring sex harassment claims that might lead to a scandal if discovered: The BBC management, The management of Stoke Manderville hospital, a long list of children’s homes and of course the Roman Catholic Church. And of course it is very easy to see why they would want to ignore the evidence because admitting it would probably cost their jobs. And one of the things humans do in such circumstances is refuse to accept the inconvenient facts.

    So one of the conclusions that should come is that nobody should put themselves in the position of investigating this sort of complaint in an organization they lead themselves or hand it to a subordinate. Inquiries have to be independent.

  21. 27

    “Too many male skeptics have proven they’re unable to examine their own sexist behavior and thought patterns, much less correct them.”

    This sums it all up. It’s always so much easier to be skeptical and rationally examining logic and evidence when it’s something for which you have no emotional stake. It goes out the window real fast when you’re the one under the spot light.

    Just as a Creationist has can’t see how flawed his arguments are because he’s so invested in a certain outcome, these guys can’t see through their own BS because the consequences to their self-images or to their relationships would be devastating. If Randi were to truly face up to what a monster Shermer really is, then he’d have to fire him and drive him away and he probably doesn’t want to face up to that.

    All these guys I used to admire, who’s work did so much to influence who I am, and they all turn out to be such horrible shits. Makes my gorge buoyant.

  22. 29

    Ditto. The first thing I thought when I saw the Randi quote was, “Wait, he doesn’t consider rape to be ‘violence’? What the shit?” Then the boys-will-be-boys bullshit was all the worse.

  23. rq
    30

    Umm, Shermer himself has been making the excuse that he’s been going around getting drunk and accidentally harrassing the women. I’m pretty sure that’s where Randi gets his idea from, that drunk men harrass women. It’s in the original article on Shermer.
    And no one’s asking Randi to investigate. What Randi should have done, at the very least, is suspended Shermer from all JREF-related events (and yes, he has the ability, as figurehead, to very strongly suggest this in a manner that will be obeyed), and had that investigation conducted (by someone else, if necessary). This would mean that he had heard about all those women harmed (which we know he did anyway) and he would have taken a good, strong solid stance on harrassment at JREF events. It would show that he is not a raging misogynist, willing to wallow in the supposed infirmities of his old age, just to maintain an image of ‘heh, I’m gay, women are such a mystery to us guys, heh?’.
    Yes, suspended Shermer… Wait, what, innocent until proven guilty? Fuck that noise, this is not a court of law. Randi had information that Shermer was, several times over, an annoyance (at the very mildest) to other women. That he was making women uncomfortable at JREF events. Not one woman, women. If he cared about his attendees at all (and by ‘attendees’ I do mean all people, men, women, everyone), he would have done more than maybe say a few words to Shermer about behaviour. He would have taken those complaints seriously.
    Ignore the evidence? He did not ignore the evidence: he dismissed it outright. He is not willfully ignorant. Here’s Randi himself:

    “His reply,” Randi continued, “is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember. I don’t know — I’ve never been drunk in my life. It’s an unfortunate thing … I haven’t seen him doing that. But I get the word from people in the organization that he has to be under better control. If he had gotten violent, I’d have him out of there immediately. I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

    Yup, that’s not ignorance, that’s an admission of inaction. Randi’s a smart guy. He is perfectly capable of figuring this out. Stop defending him.

  24. rq
    31

    Let’s make sure, then, that nothing gets swept under the rug. The information is out there, it’s all in the original article. Let’s keep it out there.

  25. 33

    “I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

    And I thought feminists were supposed to be the man-haters. I’m a feminist and I’ve never said anything this contemptuously nasty about men.

  26. 35

    Late to the party, but I want to thank Dana Hunter for carrying the epic on into the alt-text some of us get instead of images. I just read the text with my eyeballs, but imagine hearing it through a text reader!

    Behold:

    Limber your shouting voices, folks, it’s about to get far worse.

    “I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

    Image on top is a My Little Pony looking upward in shock. Caption says, “WTF is that?” Bottom image shows her looking in a different direction, seeming angry. Caption says, “Srsly, WTF is that?”

    “I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

    Image shows Puss in-Boots from Shrek holding something in his paw, with his mouth open in an angry O. Caption says, “You see this? You see this shit!”

    “I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

    Image shows an anime woman with pink hair screaming so hard she’s spitting and her eyes look like they’re exploding. Caption says, “What is this I don’t even”

    “I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

    Image is an angry troll face with red eyes. Background has the letters FFFFFUUUU repeated in red.

    Alt-text is a beautiful thing. ♥

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