Michael Shermer’s Harassment

A piece has just been published about misogyny in skepticism and atheism, and particularly about Michael Shermer, that includes me as a named source who has experienced inappropriate behavior from Mr. Shermer.  It’s worth pointing out that my story is merely a supporting story to the larger overall story of Mr. Shermer’s behavior, and not nearly as awful as some others.  I have never told it in public, though many people have heard it in private, because of a fear of litigious reprisals and hate mail; it never seemed worth it until I was asked to comment on this story.  To the extent that it’s useful and people would like to have full details on what happened, this is my full story.

In 2010, I went to the Orange County Freethought Association Conference after reading about it on PZ’s blog.  You could pay $50 to eat dinner with PZ, which struck me as a good deal.  I was in LA and didn’t have a lot of friends and I was a big fan of PZ’s blog.  I was, at the time, an atheist but not really aware of the larger skeptic and atheist communities.  Which was a shame.  As I later learned, if you were part of the movement before you went to events, you’d get warnings on who to avoid.  The number one person I was told to avoid was Shermer, but I didn’t hear that until months after I met him.

I largely had a good time at the conference.  I was there alone, but succeeded in talking to a few people, including PZ, who I really liked.  And, with the exception of Shermer, I wasn’t really hit on or harassed despite it being an overwhelmingly male environment.  I didn’t really know who Shermer was before this, I’d never heard of him — he was obviously a speaker with a book, but he wasn’t swarmed by people either.

During a break, I went to speak to him as he was sitting alone at his book stand.  We had a brief talk, he was flirtatious but I ignored it and I bought one of his books.  I had noticed that he had his hand on his crotch while we were talking, but I tried to not look at it, thinking he must not have realized.  He appeared to scratch himself a few times, though I was making an effort not to look because he otherwise seemed like a nice enough guy.  Then he kept chatting a bit and sunk lower in his chair and started asking me more personal questions and was clearly not only touching and rubbing his crotch but apparently trying to drive my attention there by slouching further and thereby directing his crotch more clearly at me.  He repositioned in such a way that my direct line of vision to him required I see his crotch and his hand moving on it.  It felt like it went on an eternity, but it couldn’t have been more than a 10 minute conversation.  I extricated myself.

It was weird, to say the least.  I had no idea what to make of it.  It’s the kind of thing you expect from weirdos in a subway car.  He wasn’t excessively hitting on me verbally, though it felt like it was leading to that before I left.  I tried to rationalize the behavior… Maybe he just like had a very thorough and never-ending itch?  It rattled me.  But I pushed it to the back of my mind, because it was gross and weird.  And I didn’t know him.  I was by myself, there was no one to talk it through with, so I just ignored it and decided not to talk about it, because how do you?

At the dinner, I was extremely worried that Shermer would sit near me.  I just felt like if I had to spend more time with Shermer, it would go badly, and then I wouldn’t be able to ignore it and pretend it was nothing.  I was new to all this, new to all these people, didn’t know the guy at all, and didn’t have firm ground to stand on.  It had also become clear to me over the day that politics around Shermer were complicated and I didn’t want to become a pawn in that particular game when I didn’t even know what game it was.

You can read nearly full accounts of my dinner with PZ and my overall impression of the conference.  I point you to these two, because they both mention Shermer, and do not mention this behavior, and I don’t want anyone going through the archives to feel as though I am hiding this information.  The bits on Shermer:

I never quite figured out what [PZ] was vaguely irritated with Michael Shermer for.  Michael Shermer, by the way, looks eerily like Jonathan Pryce and has a weird arrogant swagger to him that is both compelling and a bit unsettling.  He was super nice when I talked to him and I got his newest book, so nothing personal there, just an observation.


Post lunch and it’s Michael Shermer, the aforementioned Jonathan Pryce doppelganger with the arrogant swagger, and I can’t for the life of me remember what he talked about except that it pissed some people off.  If anyone was there and remembers, tell me?

I cannot remember whether I spoke to Shermer before or after his speech, so I don’t know if my complete blockage of his speech is because I couldn’t pay attention after our encounter or because it got subsumed by my vivid memory of our interaction.  I’m a bit surprised at myself for going as negative as “unsettling” in my description of him at the time.  And he was perfectly nice in conversation, he just was also touching his crotch and trying to get me to look at it.

The closest I got to posting about it was a year later when I was writing for SheThought.  Once I was part of the movement, I heard a lot more stories about him and realized that my experience was part of a larger pattern.  I just wish I’d gotten the warning so many skeptic women get about avoiding Shermer before my first conference rather than after.  My friends dubbed him Crotchdexter, though it’s clear to me that while his behavior towards me was absurd, some of his other behavior has been incredibly damaging.  To be clear, there was damage done to me by Shermer — it made me question joining the movement at my first event ever and it made me feel obligated to keep a secret to prevent the Lewinsky effect, whereby the only thing I’d be known for in the movement was as a footnote to Shermer rather than a person.

Comments Policy: I normally am very liberal with the kinds of comments I allow on my site.  However, due to my high anxiety about dealing with the fallout, I will be very heavily moderating the comments to this post.  I would like the comments here to be a safe space for people who’ve experienced sexual harassment and assault as well as a safe space for me, and as such, will delete anything out of keeping with that goal.  There are many other places to discuss this if you’re uncomfortable with this policy.  If the comments become overwhelmingly bad, they will be turned off.

Michael Shermer’s Harassment

22 thoughts on “Michael Shermer’s Harassment

  1. 2

    I believe I was there at that OC Freethought gathering, and may even have met you if you attended the night-before gathering which got booted from one place to another on the strip mall and wound up at the sushi place. 🙂

    Shermer’s talk there was blatantly political, having to do with the superiority of the right-wing worldview in the skeptical community as opposed to the left-wing. Several folks got up to challenge it during the Q&A; I took the opportunity to visit the porcelain conveniences, a better use of my time.

  2. 3

    Just wanted to stop by and wish you luck as the sociopaths come out of the woodwork yet again. You’re obviously a brave person, and you deserve a lot of respect. Thank you for sharing what must be a painful memory.

  3. 5

    I am a lurker…I’m not out and proud about it but whatever. After the ship storm re: Rebecca Watson I’ve realized the danger of putting too much faith in any community of humans. There be as% holes among us. Pease, Love, Dope Y’all.

  4. 8

    Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things made me a skeptic. Dawkins’ The God Delusion made me an atheist. Learning that they are both sexist pigs has been a disappointment to say the least.

  5. 9

    Reading this, I can’t help but think of a friend of mine who has a, uh, crotch-adjusting problem. In his case, it doesn’t appear to be anything sexual (he does it when just alone with male friends too [and no, I am about 99.9% sure he is straight]), but it is certainly creepy and off-putting — disproportionately so towards women of course.

    That said, nobody has ever mistaken it for the kind of behavior you describe from Shermer. I think most people can pretty easily tell the difference between rudely-itching-balls-in-public versus making-a-point-of-touching-your-genitals-in-a-sexual-way. So all of this is a roundabout way of saying I don’t believe Shermer’s denials for a second. It just doesn’t ring true, at all.

  6. 10

    Long Long Long time lurker of FTB and most of the blogs before they came here. Thank you for talking about this. It’s incredibly brave and hopefully inspires more people in the atheist and skeptic community to talk about these events and the problem of misogyny in our movement.

  7. 12

    zaxter says, #7:

    Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things made me a skeptic. Dawkins’ The God Delusion made me an atheist. Learning that they are both sexist pigs has been a disappointment to say the least made me a feminist.

    Fixed that for you.

  8. 13

    I also want to thank you for being so brave and sharing your experience. And I am very sorry for what Happened to you, and to others and for all the times before my enlightenment when I was a part of the culture that allowed this sort of thing to go on.

  9. 17

    Ashley, thank you for sharing your experience here and in the Buzzfeed article. Each woman who spoke of her experience with Shermer in that article is someone I know, even if only from speaking briefly once or twice at conventions (as in your case). Each time I put a face to one of his victims, as when Pamela Gay came forward about being groped, the pit in my stomach grows deeper. I am beyond appalled at how long this has gone unaddressed.

  10. 22

    Thank you for talking about this. I have no personal experience with anything of this nature and while I really wish you didn’t either, getting the story helps me understand the problems and find better ways to act if I ever do experience them.

    That knowledge does have a real impact. One of my regrets in life involves not understanding faster when a friend asked me for help upon entering the emergency room. I thought she was asking for morale support and while that was useful, I didn’t at first understand that the doctor was being wildly unprofessional and let her sit there in pain for far longer than was actually necessary. She had an ectopic pregnancy and was not married which he seemed to think justified dragging her into playing a part in his right wing fantasies. I know I helped while I was there but I wasted some time understanding the situation. There is a cost to being ignorant of how stupid people can be and what that looks like when it’s happening.

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