Let’s Talk About The Other Atheist Movement

Let’s talk about the other atheist movement.

I get it if you’d rather I discussed the brouhahas—the CFI/Dawkins Foundation merge, Richard’s second epistle to the Muslima, that chain of tweets, that disinvitation. I could do that, and maybe make a decent fist of it—could give you another flowchart, another acrostic, some more zingers. Right now, I just don’t care. There are other posts to be read; there will be other times to mock the movement Dawkins inspired, one that often insists it isn’t a movement, which hasn’t moved since 2006, but sits stickily back, wanking to the thought of its own rightness. Progressives spill a great deal of ink over that movement, talk that’s as cheap as it is lucrative. I want to talk about the other one.

Over the last twenty-four hours, with media fixated on Dawkins’ absence from one upcoming convention, atheists have been gathered at another in Houston. The Secular Social Justice conference, sponsored jointly by half a dozen orgs, highlights ‘the lived experiences, cultural context, shared struggle and social history of secular humanist people of color’. Sessions address the humanist history of hip hop, the new atheism’s imperialist mission and the lack of secular scaffolds for communities of colour in the working class US, whether for black single mothers or recently released incarcerees. Perhaps we could talk about this?

‘When African-Americans across the economic spectrum look to social welfare,’ convenor Sikivu Hutchinson writes, ‘they are more often than not tapping into . . . faith-based institutions. . . . Atheists who bash religion but aren’t about the business of building [alternatives] are just making noise.’ ‘There are compelling reasons’, Hutchinson wrote last autumn, ‘for black women to be attracted to atheism. The stigma of public morality, fueled by white supremacy and patriarchy, has always come down more heavily on black women. Religious right policies gutting reproductive health care disproportionately affect poor and working class black women.’

I’d like to talk about that too—and if the editors who put Dawkins in charge now want to milk their monstrous creation, there’s a lot more I want to talk about. Continue reading “Let’s Talk About The Other Atheist Movement”

Let’s Talk About The Other Atheist Movement
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David Bowie, 1947-2016.

David Bowie was wonderful. He was also an abuser. How do we handle that?

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I dreamt about David Bowie last night. I forget the details, but I woke up thinking I’d write a post about how he seemed to regenerate rather than age. (The first Bowie was Cockney and a mod, the second was Byronesque, et cetera.) The first thing I saw on starting my computer was a friend’s Facebook post: ‘I don’t think I ever really believed it was possible.’ The headline underneath took me a moment to digest: ‘David Bowie, the Legendary Musician, Has Died at 69.Oh no. Don’t say it’s true.

While there was me, I’d always assumed, there would Bowie. At eight, a clip of Ziggy’s arm round Mick Ronson was a queer wake-up call, and later ‘Life on Mars’ would help keep suicide at bay. Having died three short days after a new album’s release, it seems music sustained him too, and it hurts to have been denied the songs the twelfth or thirteenth Bowie would have made. After ten years away, The Next Day and Blackstar were considered two of his best records, and it would be a fair statement that he meant far more to me than any other singer.

It would also be fair to call him a child rapist. (Details ahead.)

Bowie did bad things alright. In the seventies he fixated on Nazis, calling Hitler one of the first rock stars and himself a believer in fascism—a phase which, to be fair, he grew out of and came to call ghastly. More disturbing are the stories of hotel room threesomes with fourteen year old girls. Former groupie Lori Mattix describes Bowie disrobing and having her wash him in the bath before ‘devirginising’ her. Both Mattix and the friend of hers who joined them later had been plied with drugs.

It’s hard to know what to do with this knowledge except rehearse it. I know the above to be true, according to Mattix’s nostalgic account, and that it deserves to be remembered. I also know without Bowie, my own obit would have been written long ago, and I can’t help but remember that too. How do you find room in one eulogy for both those facts? Just for today, I’ll mourn the hero I saw in Bowie, thankful on behalf of the kid who needed all those songs; tomorrow and the next day I’ll let one more hero go. That’s the best I can manage—sorry if it’s not enough.

It’s the legend more than the man I’m grieving in the end, the performances that have stayed with me. ‘Starman’, aforementioned, on Top of the Pops, a Technicolor explosion in a monochrome world. ‘Footstompin’’ on Dick Cavett’s programme, Bowie’s mic trained on joyous, gyrating Ava Cherry. ‘Under Pressure’, where Annie Lennox stares undiluted lust at him after that last breathy note. ‘Heroes’ live in Berlin, where Bowie’s voice rises over six minutes from a mumble to a shout. And then, of course, this week, the video to ‘Lazarus’.

You wouldn’t call it a live act, but surely that’s the point. How much sense it makes now, that song that was so inscrutable days ago, the deathbed pose, title and lines about release, even the rush to productivity between this album and the last, the decision not to tour or perform. Unmissable as it is in hindsight—how visible the cancer’s impact is, quite suddenly—no one took ‘Lazarus’ literally because no one imagined Bowie could die. How unlike anybody else, how entirely like him, to stage his own death as performance art. Now ain’t that just like me?

Hard to think someone who did that could have much faith in any afterlife. (Bowie, for his part, called himself ‘not quite an atheist’.) I don’t often wish I believed in one, and it’s hard to wish heaven on a man with his history, but at eight I longed to travel to Ziggy’s world. It hurts to know for the first time that where he is, I can’t follow. But I do live in David Bowie’s world—the world where everyone followed his tune, where he was sometimes a hero, sometimes a monster, always singular. I don’t feel good about all of that. All the same, I’m glad it was my world too.

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

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David Bowie, 1947-2016.

‘Shut Up, I’m Talking’: Why I Refuse To Educate Bigoted People

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‘I don’t really understand what biphobia is,’ a partner told me once. It was, he felt, a useless word. ‘If you’re a male bisexual, you’re normal except attracted to guys. The only people who object are homophobes.’ Like so many gay men, he thought the bi label was a way of clinging to a comfortable life, one foot in the straight camp for appearances’ sake. ‘You seriously think it’s harder to come out as bi?’ he asked when I said it had been for me. ‘Then you have no idea what you’re talking about.’ (‘To say it’s worse for bi people,’ he added later on, ‘I just found ignorant.’)

In the US, a quarter more bi men than gay men live in poverty, while fifty percent more abuse alcohol and contemplate suicide. Three times as many bi women as lesbians are raped, a third more abused by partners, two thirds more severely beaten by them. (Their numbers are also far worse than straight women’s.) Bi men are sexually assaulted more than gay men are and abused by their partners fifty percent more. Police attack three times as many bisexuals as monosexuals, and health workers place bi patients at risk of undiagnosed STIs by asking about their activities with one sex and not the other.

I could have offered statistics like those about our comfier, more normal lives. Instead I talked about my own. When the other guy informed people he was gay, how many told him he was lying or in denial? How many other gay men said he was untrustworthy and spread diseases? How many people said he should make up his mind, or wasn’t really gay? That he was misleading partners and making things more difficult for real gay people? How many kept calling him bi, despite him saying he wasn’t? ‘Wait,’ he replied. ‘Your point is that people don’t believe you’re bisexual? Why do they have to?’

If he wanted to understand biphobia, I said, he only had to listen to himself—but he insisted people not understanding something didn’t mean they were bigoted. ‘Instead of blaming them and calling them biphobic, it’s important to educate them. When the reaction is aggressive and defensive, of course people start to form their own weird opinions. You think every time someone makes a stupid comment about gays, I should just freak out? How is that supposed to help? It won’t change their mind. I’d rather stay put and explain. If you don’t have any patience, don’t moan about people not getting it!’

It’s conceivable people who disparage bisexuals should be able to reason for themselves, but cis gay men regularly tell LBTs to pipe down and be more polite, that they didn’t get where they are today with confrontation, anger or entitlement; that we won’t make strides of our own till we accept we owe people an education who demean and degrade us nonstop. Forget Stonewall and who was there, that bi people threw bricks at police while homophiles told them and poor, black, brown, Jewish and trans queers to be quiet: abandoning self-respect was what Pride was all about.

Anger has changed my mind plenty of times, and I know mine has changed other people’s—alienating those you care about, it transpires, is a good incentive to adjust how you act—but when at-risk groups are told we need to school people who treat us badly, it’s always as if there’s no overlap. Bi people need to educate gay and straight people, not to scream at them. Trans people need to educate cis people, not to bully them. Black people need to educate white people, not to frighten them. People with disabilities need to educate people without, not throw a fit. It’s always one or the other.

I told the other bloke what people like me tell people like him, that it isn’t marginalised people’s duty to be teachers—but I think there’s another issue here. Lots of us want to be educators, and we know the difference between being listened to and being talked over, between salient, responsive questions and irrelevant ones—between privileged people who know where their knowledge ends and those who speak like they know more than us. We know the ones who value our input are the ones who know we don’t owe it to them. We know the ones who order us to school them are never the ones who want to learn.

Here’s my experience: when someone I’ve called ignorant demands I educate them, they don’t want me to be patient—they want me to have infinite patience, to listen to them affably, without anger, however they behave, and to treat anything they say as valuable. They want me to teach them what I know, but not to act like I know more than them. They don’t want me to assert any control of the discussion, to set limits on what I’m willing to explain, on where and when and for how long, or to impose any kind of boundaries. When they tell me to educate them, what they mean is ‘Shut up, I’m talking.’

Professional educators—teachers, lecturers, instructors, sports coaches, health experts—are authorities in their field who expect to be listened to, not talked over. Good educators expect students to learn on their own instead of being spoonfed; they reward some contributions more than others and impose boundaries on how their students act. Bad educators display infinite patience; good ones are patient but know where to draw the line, as well as how and when to get angry. Good ones nurture relationships with their students but allow bad attitudes to harm them.

When I request input from someone with a background I don’t share—legal advice, tech help, perspective from a black or trans colleague—that’s the kind of relationship I want. When people ask for my input, I sense it’s what they want as well. When I needed an education in the past, getting kicked round the room for being ignorant was a pretty effective one—but when people who’ve just insulted me tell me I’m obliged to educate them, I don’t think an educator is what they want at all. I think what they want is an enabler and a doormat, and I have better things to do than supply one.

And that partner of mine? We didn’t last.

‘Shut Up, I’m Talking’: Why I Refuse To Educate Bigoted People

Designing A Visual Identity For Brute Reason

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If you follow this blog, you’ve probably come across Brute Reason, where Miri writes lucidly on social justice and psychology. In a recent response to this annoying meme, she notes:

Many atheists have had coercive and abusive experiences with religion. Some consider their time in religious spaces to have been traumatising. And when you’ve experienced a trauma, little reminders of it can be overwhelming. Viewed through this lens, a certain amount of snappiness or impoliteness from an atheist being told “At least your mother is smiling down on you from heaven” makes much more sense.

But there’s another way in which Christian privilege plays out in this situation, and that’s in our perceptions of tone and politeness. . . . While it’s apparently egotistical to reference one’s atheism in response to an explicitly religious comment, it’s somehow not egotistical to offer unsolicited help that’s not what the person needs, without bothering to ask what they need, and then get offended when that help is rejected as irrelevant.

A while back, Miri hired me to create a fresh look for her blog—specifically, a set of promotional images, and more specifically, a new banner. Since hers is some of my favourite writing, I was only too happy to say yes. Since joining this site three Decembers back, she’d been using this one, which is likely how her blog looked the last time you saw it.

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Navigate to it now, or indeed to its Facebook page, and you’ll notice she’s redecorated.
Continue reading “Designing A Visual Identity For Brute Reason”

Designing A Visual Identity For Brute Reason

What happened when I wrote about the rape scene in Russell T Davies’ gay drama Cucumber

In the first episode of Russell T Davies’ new drama Cucumber, middle aged Lance finds a much younger man in a nightclub who has no money and nowhere to spend the night. ‘You can stay at ours if you want to fuck,’ Lance tells him. ‘No hassle. Just sex with the both of us. And then you can stay the night.’

‘Yeah,’ the younger man replies, ‘that’s cool’ – but it’s clear, including to Lance’s uncomfortable partner Henry, that he’s ‘off his head’ on some substance or other, wide-eyed and slurring out fantastic images of kings and cowboy-men and nodding in and out of consciousness during their taxi ride. At their house, he appears not to register most of what Lance and Henry say; he walks off-balance and seems to have trouble standing up, sitting down at the first opportunity and collapsing half-asleep minutes later onto Lance’s bed. By the time Lance performs out-of-shot what looks and sounds like oral sex, he can no longer speak coherently. Five to ten onscreen minutes later, presumably once Lance has had anal sex with him as he says he means to (‘[He’s] gonna fuck my arse’), Henry brings police officers to the scene. The younger man, now fully naked and seemingly unaware of it, is no more lucid when they confront him, gripped in a haze of drug-induced visions with no idea what’s going on.

The above scenes, if anyone contests this description, can be viewed here.

There are two ways to argue what they show isn’t (at minimum attempted) rape. The first is to say the man Lance has sex with is lucid enough to consent to it – in which case, you’ve the narrative above to explain. The second is to say consent doesn’t require lucidity – in which case, the Sexual Offences Act disagrees, deeming consent impossible if ‘by reason of drink, drugs, sleep, age or mental disability [someone is] unaware of what [is] occurring’. The Crown Prosecution Service further acknowledges meaningful consent to ‘evaporate well before [someone] becomes unconscious‘ if mind-altering substances make them incapable. Continue reading “What happened when I wrote about the rape scene in Russell T Davies’ gay drama Cucumber”

What happened when I wrote about the rape scene in Russell T Davies’ gay drama Cucumber

Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse

I hoped Cucumber and its partner shows would be as good as Queer as Folk. I feared they’d be nothing like as good. As it turns out, Cucumber is a show you need to watch – at least, that is, if you thought Looking‘s characters were unlikeable, Vicious was the nadir of queer TV or having your molars slowly drilled without anaesthesia was excruciating.

For its entire 45-minute running time, I cringed. Episode one of Cucumber was so non-stop wince-inducing that by the time its credits rolled, I found myself feeling the weight of my own face. I knew there and then that I’d pay a considerable sum never to see another episode – yet also that I’d rewatch it this morning, cataloguing every last thing I hated about it.

Because Cucumber isn’t merely crap. It’s a well written, well-produced, well-executed show that achieves its apparent aims. The trouble is, its aims are fucking regressive – at times even outright dangerous. Continue reading “Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse”

Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse

What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion

Legend has it that before Christ was crucified, his executioners found a blacksmith to forge the nails. There are two accounts of what happened next, the first telling how God cursed the blacksmith and his kin the Romanies to wander the earth, forever denied shelter. The second – the one I was told as a child – says that the blacksmith forged four nails but only gave the Romans three, absconding with the one meant for the heart. For sparing his son that pain, the story goes, God blessed the Romanies, permitting them to steal from those who persecuted them trying to reclaim the lost nail.

Which version you tell reveals your views about people known to their enemies as gypsies. Which one is a revision of the other I don’t know, but the two competing myths offer a clue about my ancestors’ relationship with Christianity – in some ways a historical yardstick of their status in Europe.

A couple of weeks ago – on Hallowe’en, no less – Constantine‘s second episode aired. The series, despite its comic book source, feels like a far less inspired crossbreed of Doctor Who and Apparitions (Google it), and its race issues are doing it no favours: this episode in particular featured (spoilers ahead) a greedy, dishonest, sexually aggressive Romany woman as its villain, whose husband’s violence toward her seemed not to make her killing him by supernatural means any more morally complex. At one point the series lead, a white exorcist fighting demons through Catholic prayer, even remarked disgustedly: ‘There’s nothing blacker than gypsy magic.’

Pale skinned Christianity, virtuous and pure, versus Romany witchcraft’s exotic evil – this is an opposition I know well. Continue reading “What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion”

What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion

The real male equivalent of a female rape victim getting drunk

This was something I said yesterday.

Let’s try this again.

The male equivalent of a woman getting drunk is not a man leaving his house unlocked, leaving his car unlocked, leaving his front door open, walking down the street with £20 notes sticking out of his pockets or walking around with his wallet hanging out.

You know what the male equivalent of a woman getting drunk is? A man getting drunk. And when men get drunk, they’re usually not sexually assaulted.

84 Facebook likes, 22 shares, 13,965 views at Imgur and the top post at r/feminism with 436 points: the numbers say the Internet liked it.

More to come. (Thanks to Marianne Baker for screengrabbing this, and Maria Marcello’s trolls for inspiring it.)

The real male equivalent of a female rape victim getting drunk

What if rape at university wasn’t impossible to prove?

Discretion advised if graphic details of this subject upset you.

Somewhere or other, you’ve probably read the last post on this blog by now. Other versions of Maria Marcello‘s article ‘I Was Raped At Oxford University. Police Pressured Me Into Dropping Charges‘ have appeared at the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mail, the Tab, the Huffington Post and openDemocracy – the fact it’s the first thing she’s ever written is why you should follow her and why I’m privileged to be her editor. (It’s also why if you’re looking for one, you should hire me. Just saying.)

In the follow-up she published today, Marcello dissects what users at the Mail told her. Among other things, many fixated on her assumed inability to prove she was raped after falling asleep drunk.

I would ask this lady[:] Just what does she know about the event?

If you are so drunk that you have lost your memory or passed out how can you remember if you consented or not?

What evidence can she provide that she said ‘no’ to the main she claimed raped her?

How do you know you were raped if you don’t remember the night? In the period between being put to sleep and waking up with a man next to you, consensual sex could have been initiated, due to the heavy state of intoxication.

If you’re drunk and passed out, then who knows what happened? She could have dreamed the whole thing!

There would little to no evidence to bring a successful prosecution in this case. No DNA, no witnesses, no other evidence apart from a statement from someone who was so drunk they were passed out at the time with only a dim memory as their evidence.

In other words, her assault was just another case of ‘he-said-she-said college rape‘ where nothing could be proved.

As she notes in the sequel, the point of the original post was how much she could prove.

According to the Crown Prosecution Service and the Sexual Offences Act, extreme inebriation makes consent impossible. To prove her attacker raped her, Marcello had to establish a) that she was in such a state and b) that he had sex with her. What evidence did she – or rather, since I was with her at the time, we – have?

Well:

  • We had Marcello’s word, mine and up to three other people’s that she was so drunk she had to be helped to bed (i.e. couldn’t walk unassisted).
  • We had photos and several minutes of close-up video footage taken of her on the floor, unable to speak coherently and obviously extremely drunk.
  • We may also have had forensic evidence of how much alcohol she’d consumed had police physicians examined her. (The CPS advises they present this sort of evidence to courts in rape trials.)
  • We had Marcello’s word that she woke up while her attacker was having sex with her.
  • We had the word of guests who believed this was about to occur when they left.
  • We had the rapist’s statement witnessed by half a dozen people over dinner that he’d had sex with her, and possibly other statements to this effect.
  • We had bruises on her upper thighs and her statement she had difficulty walking, which police physicians would have confirmed had they examined her.
  • We had several used condoms which were presented to police.
  • We had clothes and bedsheets covered in forensics which were presented to police.

This was the case a police official informed she didn’t have once they’d got her upset and alone, before making her decide on the spot whether to press charges. The pretext for making others leave the room, gut wrenchingly, was that she not be coerced out of doing so.

Says Marcello of the official:

She said she got called to investigate a number of rape reports each day and her job involved deciding which of them it was worthwhile to pursue and which it wasn’t. In her opinion, as she made clear from the start, mine fell into the latter category.

I have to wonder: if this wasn’t a case worth pursuing, what was? I’m not a lawyer, but my guess has always been that if she’d been allowed to speak to one before making her choice, they’d have told her it was stronger than average. Even without the forensics, it should have been enough for her college to expel the undergrad who raped her – if a student’s shown to have broken the law any other way, they don’t have to lose a court case before there are consequences.

The received wisdom about rape, especially where alcohol’s involved, is that it’s impossible to prove – a matter by definition of one person’s word against another’s. Since that day in Maria Marcello’s kitchen, I’d always assumed her case must be exceptionally good.

When Stephanie Zvan said this, as so often when I read her, my assumptions changed.

We know victims of sexual assault skew young. According to Britain’s Home Office, women aged 16-19 are at the highest risk of sexual victimisation, closely followed by those aged 20-24, and are four and a half times as likely as the next hardest hit age group to experience rape. (Marcello had just turned 20 at the time of her attack.) In other words, university-age women are the most raped demographic.

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We know that, according to a rightly maligned set of government posters, ‘one in three reported rapes happens when the victim has been drinking’. I’d speculate that since only one in five rapes is reported and alcohol commonly used to dismiss complaints, the real-life figure is higher – and that it’s especially high on campuses and among young people where drunkenness is more common in social settings, men and women live in close quarters and a culture of sexual assault has been widely observed.

‘I’ve heard lots of stories similar to mine’, Marcello writes, ‘from people assaulted [at university].’ All factors suggest the reality we’re looking at is a very high number of rapes that share the broad outline of hers: heavy social drinking, a vulnerable or unconscious woman and a man who ‘took advantage’.

She had, I take it you’ll agree from the list above, a large amount of evidence both that she too drunk to consent and that her attacker had sex with her. But how much more was it than the average woman in her situation has?

Hours afterwards and with law enforcement’s tools, it’s not that hard to prove two people had sex – or at least, that someone with a penis had sex with somebody else in one of the ways the law requires for rape. Often seminal fluid can be found, either in used contraceptives or the when victim is examined. Often there are physical signs they were penetrated, including internal injuries. Often there are external marks left on them or forensics at the scene that point to sex. Sometimes the attacker thinks they did nothing wrong and <i>tells people</i> it happened, in person or by other (e.g. online) means. Sometimes they’re interrupted in the act, whether or not the witness views it as assault.

Many women in Marcello’s situation, I’d guess, have at least some such evidence.

Proving the absence of of consent can be more complex, but it doesn’t need to be when someone’s so drunk they can’t walk, talk or consent to sex. The video footage we had always struck me as an exceptional clincher, but then drunk photos and videos often appear on students’ social media accounts. Even when drunk victims aren’t filmed, they may be seen collapsing or needing help by far more people than a handful in their room – by crowds at a college party, for example. They may be assaulted after receiving first aid, being admonished by bouncers or no longer being served by bar stuff – all evidence of drunkenness. They may still be suffering symptoms of severe intoxication the next day, or have signs of it in their system police physicians can record.

Many women in Marcello’s situation, I’d guess, have at least some such evidence.

It’s still true, of course, that proving rape isn’t quite as straightforward as proving a crime where issues like consent aren’t involved. But it’s not true drunken college rapes are simply a case of he-said-she-said: on the contrary, extreme inebriation where demonstrable makes the absence of consent much more clear-cut.

Writes Marcello:

There would be more convictions if the police process didn’t pressure women with viable evidence to drop their reports. In 2012–13, official treatment of victims like me meant only 15 percent of rapes recorded by the police even went to court.

According to a report at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, official treatment of victims like her means evidence of vulnerability that should guarantee conviction – including drunkenness as well as things like disabilities – is routinely used precisely to dismiss reports, stop charges being pressed and get rapists off.

The best way to convict more is to stop telling victims with a strong case that they have no evidence.

What if rape at university wasn’t impossible to prove?