Last year, when the bugs crawling out from under the rock that had been overturned several months prior by Rebecca Watson continued unabated, and pretty much everyone was shocked that that many creepie-crawlies resided in our vaunted skeptical community, I wrote a series of posts on the whole ordeal called The Problem with Privilege. One of those posts dealt with the rampant and repeated demands for evidence regarding the incident that Rebecca had called creepy — as though recounting a story and saying “guys, don’t do that, it’s creepy” was some kind of misandrist clarion call, which must be rebuffed lest it result in fewer pick-up artists getting their dicks wet.
So these trolls, being part of the skeptical community (apparently), used our strengths against us by attacking the claim on its merits, since the claim “I was tipsy in an elevator at 4am and a guy followed me in and asked me to his room” doesn’t meet the high standards of evidence we use in the skeptical community when it comes to extraordinary claims. Never mind that it was a perfectly ordinary claim about someone’s experience with a slightly-offputting person that did not result in any physical harm. Specifically, I characterized this compulsion as hyper-skepticism, along the same lines as 9/11 truthers, birthers, and other conspiracy theorists.
We’re now seeing the exact same tactic being used again in the wake of a conflagration that Jen McCreight accidentally set off when she casually mentioned at the Women In Secularism CFI conference that female speakers occasionally warn one another of potentially creepy male speakers.
Since Stephanie called for real harassment policies to be implemented, and over half a dozen conventions started putting a very good template policy into place in response, real progress has been made on the issue. Progress involving building infrastructure that ameliorates the problem and provides harassment victims with real support. People have come forward with their specific complaints about harassment that had not been reported immediately, supporting the need for these infrastructures — and the hyper-skeptics replied in droves, “but where’s your evidence!?”
In the middle of all this, DJ Grothe, president of JREF, wondered aloud whither all the women were going, and why female TAM registration — while they had made such great inroads at TAM9, after implementing a harassment policy of their own — was way down. He wondered further whether all those women reporting harassment and working to try to get conventions to implement real support structures were, in actuality, driving people away from his vaunted convention.
When the conversation was not going his way, DJ made some very pointed remarks about specific women who’ve worked on the problem of harassment before; including some women who had taken him personally to task for attacking feminists as contra the skeptical movement, and defending some rather indefensible folks (including the Epstein/Krauss flap) in the past. The hyper-skeptics repeated their cries of “where’s the evidence!?”, aiming those cries at the women targeted.
They meant of course to ask where the evidence was that there was even any harassment that needed addressing, naturally. That was, after all, the point that DJ was trying to make — that point became especially obvious when he claimed that the complaints sounded like “locker room talk”, “rumors”, or discussion of “sexual exploits” that women thereafter regretted. But there’s a really good question that is raised when these folks ask that one in this context: where is the evidence that DJ Grothe used to make the leap that the problem this whole time has been those damned uppity feminists scaring everyone away?
Consider that Melody Hensley put together the apparently awesome Women In Secularism conference, and that those of us in the skeptical community who are not independently wealthy have to consider travel, expenses and vacation time. Single parents, predominantly but not always women, often also have to consider parenting issues — who to get to babysit the kids for the conference while they go get their skeptic on. This means there are large financial and personal hurdles to going to every conference if you’re not making money on the public speaking circuit or a member of an organization yourself, which limits the number or frequency of conventions you can attend. That has the knock-on effect that, when a new conference springs up with a high draw value for the demographic you’re looking to improve, you might see your own numbers erode. I am shocked that DJ did not consider this as a possibility before he decided to throw several women bloggers under that bus.
To the point the trolls are making, about where the evidence is that there’s even a harassment problem at all considering DJ’s “exit survey” from TAM showing no such thing, is a pretty good one. At least, if you only consider the data he’s providing, and do not question the data collection methods and the greater societal problem of harassment and underreporting. See, there’s a serious problem with that, which we can demonstrate (with scientific evidence, no less!), showing women simply putting up with harassment because it’s easier. We have some numbers specifically from the secular community, though there may be those same reporting biases at work there too. Regardless, the numbers show a significantly larger proportion of women than men experiencing harassment, and a very large amount of that being very serious and actionable harassment. So why isn’t it being reported?
Well, because we haven’t made this space safe yet, partly. Not “unsafe” as in you’ll almost certainly get assaulted, but “not safe” as in it is no better than background levels of harassment. The victims of harassment are not reporting it mostly for the same reasons that harassment in society as a whole is drastically underreported. And the reasons in just about every case are the same: power imbalance, fear of retaliation, belief that nothing will come of the report, embarassment.
Pteryxx proves that underreporting is a major issue in a comment xe left at Ophelia’s (with a minor correction in-line at hir request):
All righty… I did some research into the problems with using surveys to determine the prevalence of sexual harassment. Much of what I found was paywalled research. It’s not something that can be done with a general survey not designed for the purpose.
Basically, surveying sexual harassment is difficult *at all* because of pervasive underreporting. As with sexual assault and rape, only a small percentage of incidents are ever reported, for many reasons: the victims are too embarrassed or ashamed, they assume (often rightly) that nothing will be done to address the problem, or they’ve normalized the harm. Fear of retaliation or escalation, while also major factors, probably don’t have much effect on a truly anonymous survey.
This is from page 32 of a 2005, 72-page report on sexual harassment among US college students (it’s big but quite readable):
Given the strong reactions to sexual harassment,
we would expect students to report incidents, yet
most do not. More than one-third (35 percent)
tell no one. Almost half (49 percent) confide in
a friend, but only about 7 percent report the
incident to a college employee.
Female students are more likely than male
students to tell someone about sexual harassment,
although they, too, have reservations about
discussing their experiences (see Figure 10).
A common theme among female students is a
feeling of nervousness or discomfort at reporting
something that might not be “a big enough deal.”
One young woman describes an incident that
made her feel “horrible” and “helpless,” but
she didn’t report it because “it didn’t seem to
be that important.”
Also, for a victim to report sexual harassment (or sexual assault, or rape), the person has to first admit that what happened to them WAS harassment, assault, or rape.
From a 2004 U of Iowa report:
Because research has shown that many people are reluctant or unwilling to label even serious unwelcomed behavior (e.g., physical assault of a sexual nature) as sexual harassment, this survey separated questions about respondents’ experiences with unwelcomed sexual behaviors from the question of whether or not they felt they had experienced sexual harassment. The intent was to capture more accurately the occurrence of behaviors without the stigma of the label.
This survey asked about eight types of unwelcomed behavior which may constitute sexual harassment. A majority–52%–of respondents indicated that they had experienced one or more of the eight categories of unwelcomed behavior. Yet, when these responders were asked explicitly about whether they had experienced sexual harassment in the past 10 years at UI, most responders (62%) indicated that they had not been sexually harassed, whereas 24% (805 individuals)) indicated that they considered the unwelcome behavior to be sexual harassment. This represented 26% of female and 19% of male responders.
It’s not just that DJ Grothe’s survey fails to capture the incidence of sexual harassment. ANY form of self-reporting will fail to do so, as long as sexual aggression combined with victim-blaming is culturally normal, particularly when internalized so that the victims blame themselves. Sexual harassment and violence can only be addressed in a supportive environment – otherwise, the vast majority of harassed persons will simply remain silent.
If a culture exists at DJ Grothe’s organization that is not supportive of victims, as may be indicated by his recent remarks, then that culture could have DIRECTLY contributed to the observed low reporting rate. One instance of a witnessed, publicly reported incident has already been shown to have gone unrecorded within TAM’s harassment reporting system.
Thus, the low reporting rate at TAM may be largely a RESULT, not a cause, of DJ’s (publicly articulated) perception that sexual harassment is not a problem under his purview.
*note: I decided (with reservations) to stay with the term “victim” throughout to keep focus on the concept of victim-blaming. Not all recipients of sexual harassment consider themselves victimized by it.
Underreporting is a problem because spaces aren’t safe. Declaring a space safe by fiat won’t work, even if you’ve attempted to enforce the policy really well during certain incidents, and if the data you’ve collected says nobody “felt unwelcome” because you never aggregated in those incidents in the first place — because you’re going to have a major problem with that data when someone comes forward to contradict it. Especially if you thereafter try to gaslight that person and convince them that there was never any such event. The data collection methodology was simply insufficient here, and incidents apparently happened and were dealt with in realtime that were never documented thereafter and thus never showed up in DJ’s numbers.
We have a manifold problem with harassment in the skeptical community, one that won’t be solved by ignoring the fact that they’re plugging their ears every time someone actually proffers evidence to meet the trolls’ demands. The only path forward, as far as I can see, is to steamroll the trolls by moving forward with implementing strong anti-harassment policies at conventions, leaving these trolls to deal with the consequences despite their cries that we’re implementing some sort of Taliban-like puritanism (heh), and doing so in such a way that everyone’s well aware that there will be consequences for violating those policies, and that victims will be protected.
THAT is how you make a space safe. Certainly not by answering every disingenuous call for evidence, despite that being our natural compulsion as a community — we’re skeptics after all — and especially not when you can legitimately say “Objection! Asked and answered!” Preferably with a link back to this post, if you could be so kind.
Of course, you could also take the tactic favoured by Stephanie Zvan — ask the trolls exactly what sort of evidence it would take to convince them that the person they’re trolling experienced what they say they experienced. When they inevitably clam up, THEN point them here.