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Fail at feminism, fail at humanism, fail at life
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Someone's wrong on the Internet!

tl;dr: Rebecca Watson, a leader in the skeptical/atheist movement mentioned that being propositioned by a guy who's a complete stranger while alone in an elevator at 4 a.m. is creepy and unwelcome behavior, and she suggested that avoiding such behavior is a first step that men can take towards making sure women feel welcome and safe in the predominantly male skeptical/atheist movement, a goal that most men in the movement claim to want to accomplish. Subsequently many people—mostly but not only men—read implications into her complaint that simply aren't there and went apeshit all over the atheist blogosphere. Watson replied to those complaints in turn, and now she's under attack for her reply to the replies.

Good summaries are available from Amanda Marcotte, PZ MyersJen McCreight, and Phil Plait.

EDIT: And here's a new post from Rebecca Watson. It makes me sad, but I'm afraid I agree with her. I want to argue for moderation, but I've met enough clueless guys in atheist circles to think she's right to put her foot down.

What I think I'm seeing in many comments to these posts, and in many replies to Watson herself, is a sustained failure of the imagination. So here's my small attempt to make it plain. 

The problem of rape

I'm a guy of average height and average build. If I were getting on an elevator at four in the morning, exhausted after a very long day, and a complete stranger followed me in (especially if this stranger was bigger than me in the way that most men are bigger than most women; especially if I'd seen this guy hanging around my group of acquaintances, but he's never actually spoken to me until now; especially if I had voiced my need and intent to go to sleep), and if he bluntly invited me back to his room, I'd be scared.

Maybe not as legitimately scared as a woman might be, for whom the odds of being assaulted or raped in a situation like this are vastly higher, but I'd still be scared. I'd be dealing with a complete unknown where the only thing I know for sure is that the guy in question is thoughtless at best and malicious at worst. He might just be socially inept, but then there are many guys who like to use intimidation when they ask for/demand sex, and he might be one of those. The fact that he's waited for this moment to get me alone argues strongly in favor of the latter. This is a situation that has no redeeming features in it whatsoever. No excuse exists for this man except that his stupidity might be an innocent stupidity. But frankly that's asking a lot, even of human stupidity.

And guys, if you can't imagine yourself as the woman in this scenario, then imagine it's your daughter, your wife, your sister, or your mother. Your girlfriend, or maybe just your best friend. Remember that compared to men, women get harassed, assaulted, and raped a lot. Way too much. Make an effort to understand—it's not that hard to do.

The problem of respect

But let's take fear of rape off the table, just for the sake of argument. Maybe the guy just wasn't that scary. Nevertheless, he'd been hanging around the group and would have heard Watson announce that she was tired and needed to get some sleep. In spite of this he followed her into the elevator, ignored what she had just said, and propositioned her.

He claimed to be interested in the things she had been speaking about, but ignored what she'd just said for the sake of propositioning her.

This, I think, is the heart of the unwanted sexual objectification that Watson is talking about. The problem is not that the guy found her attractive, and it's not that he made a move; it's that he completely dismissed her context and her interests so that he could try to get into her pants. The clearly stated desires of the person in whom he claimed to take interest had gone in one ear and out the other without lingering in the regions between.

Even if all he wanted was a cup of coffee and a conversation, he's trying to get it by ignoring the woman's stated wishes.

That makes the elevator guy kind of a creep.

Now, what Rebecca Watson said in response to this incident is not that men are bad, or that men should never flirt with or hit on women; what she said was that this particular behavior creeped her out, and that atheist/skeptic men who want women to feel welcome in the atheist/skeptic movement shouldn't do it. That's all.

To me this observation is utterly unremarkable. What's remarkable are the thousands of comments accumulating on atheist and skeptical blogs defending fragile male egos from ludicrous caricatures of Watson's point as a result of her observation. What's remarkable are the thousands of comments treating a criticism of one narrow kind of behavior as an attack on all male sexuality. What's more remarkable are the thousands of second-order comments attacking Watson again for pointing out the problems with the first kind of comment.

(Except it's not remarkable at all, because this is what feminists have been putting up with for more than a hundred years.)

Every atheist and skeptical activist I've met claims that part of their motivation is to support and improve universal human rights by demolishing the kinds of religious and superstitious myths that prop up discrimination and hatred. I think that's admirable; it's a point of view I share.

But if we enlightened modern secular western guys can't take the concerns of the women in our midst seriously, how can we claim to be working for the rights of women in Saudi Arabia, say, or in deepest, darkest Utah?

So I think we need to add some myths to the list of false beliefs that we should challenge. Here are two to start with.

  • Men do not have a right to expect women to cheerfully treat with respect any and every sexual advance, just as long as it falls short of physical violence.
     
  • Men do not have a right to expect women to be silent, to protect them from their stupidity for the sake of whatever organization or movement they might happen to be a part of.

Until we men figure these things out, we can't really claim to be good humanists, and probably not even decent human beings.

(I think that a lot of men have figured this out, actually, but I suspect that many of them would rather nod in agreement than wade into a flame-fest on a comment thread. Even I don't want to do that, which is why I'm posting my thoughts here.)


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