The Problem with Privilege (or: you got sexism in my skepticism!)

This particular blog debacle has already been done to death pretty well everywhere on the ‘tubes. I usually find that’s about the right time for me to weigh in, so here goes. First, I need to set the stage for those of you just joining us, though I’ve already given you links to this particular rabbit hole in the past, in case you’ve bothered to click them.

Rebecca Watson attended a conference in Dublin recently where she gave a talk addressing the sexism problem that appears to be relatively rampant within the skeptic and atheist communities, a problem that, every time it’s brought up, is generally pooh-poohed by the privileged white men of the community. This is an oversimplification of course, but the talk was generally well-received. It provided examples of behaviour she experiences all too often, being objectified and sexualized at pretty much every con she attends. I’m sure her experiences are not at all out of the norm, either.

After a convention is over, there’s often a traditional follow-up called “Bar-Con” where the convention-goers socialize in the hotel bar for an inordinate amount of time. Rebecca attended this particular convention’s Bar-Con, where the con’s attendees congregated and drank and socialized and generally had a good time. At about four in the morning, Rebecca announced that she was out of steam and was going to head to bed. She left the hotel bar and got in the elevator. A man from the group, evidently an attendee, followed her from the bar to the elevator and got in with her. While she was trapped in this elevator with him, he said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”

She declined. He desisted. She went to her hotel room without incident.

The offense, dear readers, was not that the man hit on her rather clumsily. The offense was not that he found her sexually attractive enough to make such a hamfisted attempt at breaking the ice. The offense was that in order to do so, he would have to ignore at the very least the pointed declaration of intentions to retire for the night in order to make the suggestion. Worse, as a con attendee, he very likely would have heard her speech, as I believe this wasn’t one of those multitrack cons, so he would have also had to ignore the “could you please just consider me a thinking human being first, instead of as a potential conquest?” aspect of this speech. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt, he expressly ignored one of her expressions of intent to make clear his own. To assert his privilege to flirt, a privilege men evidently get to enjoy by mere virtue of being men.

Rebecca went on to discuss this anecdote in a Youtube video shortly thereafter. She explained how this made her feel uncomfortable, especially knowing that the man had to ignore one (or both) of her declarations to put forth his proposal and in a manner that involved trapping her in an enclosed space instead of approaching her in a neutral situation like, say, at the bar they were just at, where he had access to her (well, to her ear at least!) for many hours. Where the bar has coffee, which she could have had if she was interested in coffee at all. Or, say, if the following-her bit and the cornering-her bit were both entirely coincidental and not at all a stalking tactic, he could have invited her to have coffee at a later date, in a neutral location. It was obviously not about coffee, in other words.

The outcry from the blogosphere was deafening.

… From people who claimed Rebecca was wrong to attack this man.

One in particular, a student named Stef McGraw, blogged about it explaining that she’s doing feminism wrong by saying that people cannot express sexual interest.

Never mind that Rebecca didn’t say that — she said and I quote: “um, just a word to the wise here guys, uh, don’t do that. You know, uh, I don’t know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country at 4 AM in a hotel elevator… with you – just you – and… don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.” She didn’t accuse this man of rape, she didn’t call for an end to all sexual behaviour, she said his particular behaviour made her uncomfortable.

Stef quoted this too. So she understood it. She went on to say:

Watson is upset that this man is sexualizing her just after she gave a talk relating to feminism, but my question is this: Since when are respecting women as equals and showing sexual interest mutually exclusive? Is it not possible to view to take interest in a woman AND see her as an intelligent person?

Emphasis hers. Except, in what way is ignoring at least one if not two declarations of specific intent a) not to be sexualized, and b) to go to bed, actually respecting the woman as an equal? Why does his right to flirt override her right to go to bed unharassed? Therein lies the problem, entirely.

Rebecca mentioned Stef’s posting specifically — naming names, even — when she next gave a keynote speech at another convention. Stef was in attendance. Rebecca pointed out that Stef’s attitude is often used to excuse harassing behaviour, and that it is not healthy to suggest that a man has more of a right to flirt than a woman has to declare her intentions and follow through without being interrupted. Now, you must know I’m a bomb-tosser, and I love to shame people publicly when they do something worth shaming, so I’m biased in saying this, but there’s a very important lesson in this — the skeptical community has a very big problem with naming names and providing examples. Rebecca did the right thing in naming names and providing a specific example, unlike Phil Plait’s famous “Don’t Be a Dick” speech in which he did not. That was pretty much the main criticism of his speech throughout the blogosphere — what *exactly* was he talking about? What behaviour did he consider dickish? Was it simple rudeness? Or was it something more insidious?

It’s sad that Rebecca has always been on the Don’t Be a Dick side of that particular argument (posting a series of anti-Dick Youtube videos in fact), but in trying to provide an example, she was called a dick herself.

By another Dick, even. Richard Dawkins. Yes, THAT Richard Dawkins.

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


You’d think someone as aware of privilege issues as Richard Dawkins would never have said something so utterly tone-deaf. Yes, Rebecca’s situation wasn’t nearly as bad as issues like Muslim women being subjected to female genital mutilation (not that it’s confined to Muslim women by a long shot). Injecting this particular bit of venom into the “debate” over the proportionality of Rebecca’s response to the offense at hand was a Dick move to pull, Dick. It’s nothing but a derailing tactic. And it does not recognize that women, in their marginalized status in society, are forced to practice rape-avoidance tactics all the time which make situations like the one Rebecca experienced in the elevator rather more nerve-wracking than you yourself have any concept.

I’m very glad Rebecca was unharmed, and I’m very glad that so many good people stepped up to support her in this ongoing imbroglio to provide Rebecca with a support structure when she needed it. Stephanie Zvan, as a victim of sexual assault, put together an open letter to Richard Dawkins from herself and other victims of sexual assault, and if you’re a victim yourself, I strongly encourage you to sign it as well. And Rebecca rebutted in I think the best way one can to such derision: with more derision. Plus an explanation of where her actual position in life made her situation significantly different from what Richard Dawkins’ might be.

When I started this site, I didn’t call myself a feminist. I had a hazy idea that feminism was a good thing, but it was something that other people worried about, not me. I was living in a time and culture that had transcended the need for feminism, because in my world we were all rational atheists who had thrown off our religious indoctrination so that I could freely make rape jokes without fear of hurting someone who had been raped.

And then I would make a comment about how there could really be more women in the community, and the responses from my fellow skeptics and atheists ranged from “No, they’re not logical like us,” to “Yes, so we can fuck them!” That seemed weird.

Movement skepticism and atheism both have a problem with sexism. The Venn diagram of skeptics, atheists and feminists/egalitarians do not wholly overlap. I can think of examples of people who fit into one, two or all three bubbles, including important, famous or influential people; the feminists do not have significant representation except amongst themselves. That Rebecca is forced to stand up and be counted as one of them and that she is taking so much damned flack for doing so is galling. Surely we are better than this!

I have a hell of a lot more to say on privilege soon enough, especially as concerns our so-called enlightened movements. It’s long past time this shit ends.

The Problem with Privilege (or: you got sexism in my skepticism!)
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14 thoughts on “The Problem with Privilege (or: you got sexism in my skepticism!)

  1. 1

    “She didn’t accuse this man of rape, she didn’t call for an end to all sexual behaviour, she said his particular behaviour made her uncomfortable.”

    The overreaction to this mild statement is the weirdest part.

  2. 2

    It astounds me how few men can accept the words “this made me uncomfortable” at face value as opposed to a personal affront. I’m not a fan of Shut Up And Listen style feminism but I’m certainly not against saying Shut Up and Listen when that’s ALL that’s being asked. There was no outcry against her speech, but the moment someone is expected to put it into practice it explodes? And from the top down with Dawkins? We can do MUCH MUCH better.

    Oh and Jason, keep in mind, Humanist is a philosophical term, and anyone using it in terms of gender politics is Wrong On The Internet. I’m sure you heard it used in that context from some MRA who didn’t know any better, but it’s a label proudly worn in its original context by some of your allies like me. 🙂

  3. 3

    While I agree with the points you make here, I have a minor quibble. I don’t think you should equate Rebecca’s DBAD videos with the speech Phil gave. At least Rebecca thinks there are real differences to their respective meanings and actually disagreed with Phil’s speech. Here is a link, check around the 3rd minute.

  4. 4

    Mitchell: fair point on the “humanist” bit, one can certainly be a philosophical Humanist without explicitly supporting egalitarianism between humans. I don’t think it’s a particularly tenable position with the implications of humanism, mind you, but it’s a nuance thing. I’ve edited the word out; the sentence doesn’t lose anything.

    Postman: I wasn’t aware she disagreed with Phil. That’s interesting. I definitely subscribe to her version of DBAD over Phil’s, where Phil recommends being nice under pretty much every circumstance, including in naming specific examples, which I’m now getting the impression Phil Plait considers dickish (and thus excluded from his talk).

    Interestingly, Phil Plait is very much coming down against Richard Dawkins on this. So I think there’s significant overlap in their DBAD philosophies, even where they subtly differ. I also suspect if questioned further, Rebecca would admit to that overlap.

  5. 5

    On further reflection, Rebecca’s DBAD videos provide specific examples of people being dicks. Being churlish in unreasonable situations and lashing out unnecessarily. Phil Plait’s DBAD speech is maddeningly unspecific.

  6. 6

    Good summary of the situation. I’m disappointed in myself that I’m too wrapped up in my own life to deal with this in a bigger way right now, but I’m glad people like you are stepping up to the plate.

  7. 7

    I have been watching this unfold for the last… how long has it been going on? Almost 2 weeks now. I thought the final nails had been pinned on the instigating cause already and we could move on to the more important aspect of talking about the problem in general again. It is an important issue to discuss. Whenever it gets brought up, we get a lot of rather loud and outspoken people who don’t seem to want to change. Thank you for the summary, nice to know most of the male bloggers I respect and follow are coming to the same conclusions I make.

  8. 13

    […] The Problem with Privilege (or: you got sexism in my skepticism!) The Problem with Privilege (or: no, you’re not a racist misogynist ass, calm down) The Problem with Privilege (or: missing the point, sometimes spectacularly) The Problem with Privilege (or: after this, can we get back to the actual issues?) The Problem with Privilege: Manifesto for Change The Problem with Privilege (or: cheap shots, epithets and baseless accusations for everyone!) The Problem with Privilege: some correct assertions, with caveats […]

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