Watcher in the Water (c New Line Cinema)


A couple of months ago a woman was presenting at a conference in a foreign (to her) city. Her talk was on feminism, and as part of it she mentioned that one of the issues women have at conferences is that many men think they are there simply to make themselves sexually available. This, unsurprisingly, is not how the women feel. She spoke of her own personal feelings Рthat she did not see conferences as a place for men to  hit on her, and that as a professional, she did not like or welcome such advances.

After the day’s talks were over, many of the speakers and attendees moved to the hotel bar, where conversation went on into the wee small hours. At around 4am, this woman stood up, saying thanks, people, but I’m bushed, and I really need to get some sleep, and left to go to her room.

A man followed her, a man who had been hanging around all evening, was at the conference, but had made no attempt to speak to her. He followed her into the elevator.

And when the doors were closed he said don’t take this the wrong way, but… and asked her back to his room.

She said no.

And the next day she mentioned it in her vlog about the conference. She described what happened, and said don’t do this, guys. It’s creepy.

And the internet exploded.

Because a man’s right to proposition a woman, anywhere, at any time, takes priority over the needs, feelings and wishes of a woman.

Because ‘she can always say no’. (And we know that always works, don’t we?)

Because the fact that a man can pick a less scary place than a confined space at 4am with no one else around, that he could have chosen the bar, or earlier in the day, or at breakfast the next day, doesn’t mean that he should ever consider doing so.

Because his penis Wants Satisfaction! Right Now!

And any woman saying no, this is wrong, this is inappropriate is a man hating feminazi.

And that, pretty much, was how the ‘discussion’ went. Round and round in circles, as man after man stood up to explain the primacy of the needs of his penis.

Now there were men that understood, and who tried, with many women, to bash some sense into heads with a clue by four.

We told them about Schrodinger’s rapist.

They said we were calling all men rapists.

We told them how some men cross the street at night to avoid causing a woman anxiety by walking behind her.

They said we were making unreasonable demands. (We weren’t even asking them to do this. Go figure.)

We told them that sexism was a significant problem within the sceptical/humanist/atheist community.

They said it was all in our heads, a product of our fevered pink ladybrains. (thanks, Tiger Beatdown!)

They demanded scientific evidence of male on female assaults, and when we produced it they said it wasn’t true.

They told us that no one ever got raped in an elevator, and when we produced news reports of such, they ignored them.

And then Richard Dawkins weighed in, telling us it wasn’t a problem, because we weren’t muslim women, who have real problems, and then that being propositioned in an elevator was like him standing next to someone chewing gum, ie annoying, but in no way (no, not ever ever) a threat.

And people got pissed off, because Dawkins is supposed to be one of our leaders, and he completely dismissed the idea that being propositioned in a lift, in a strange country, at 4am, is a worrying, often scary, and sometimes downright terrifying experience.

Because men don’t go around with ‘rapist’ on their foreheads. And emergency buttons stop lifts between floors. And you don’t have to rape a woman to do serious damage to her physical and/or mental health. And if he gets out on the same floor as you, do you go to your room and hope he won’t push his way in before you can get the door shut? Do you make a run for the stairs and hope he isn’t faster? Do you stay in the lift and go back down to the lobby and hope this doesn’t make him angry?

There are a lot of decent men out there. But when one lurks about without speaking to you all evening, then follows you into an enclosed space in the wee small hours, and waits until the doors are closed before propositioning you, the likelihood that he’s one of the scary ones has risen sharply.

Studies show that 1/60 men are rapists. If there are more than sixty men at a conference, and one of them behaves like this, the chances that he’s that one in sixty start to look pretty good.

Remind me again why this wasn’t creepy?


But now we get to the worst part, and the reason for that picture at the top of this post.

What happened to Rebecca Watson was like Pippin throwing stones into the lake. Remember how Aravir grasps his wrist, telling him that some things are better left undisturbed? Over the last year or so, women have been saying that something isn’t right in the sceptical movement. That many of them feel sidelined, patronised and as if they’re there simply to be sexually available to the men.

And a lot of men told us it was all in our fluffy pink ladybrains, and to stop making a fuss, and to concentrate on important things (read: things that men think are important).

And then Rebecca threw the rock into the lake.

And the thing that had been there all along, the thing that had been our ‘imaginations’, rose up from the deep. An ugly thing. A very, very scary thing.

The realisation that for a significant proportion of men in this community, we are only sexual objects. That if we demand more, then we can just fuck off. That if we’re not attractive enough to be a sexual object, we can just fuck off. That men know far better than us how to interpret these issues, and if we have an opinion, we can fuck off. That it’s not sexism, because nothing is sexism until a man says it is. Oh, and fuck off anyway, because girls don’t do science properly.

And it hasn’t stopped.

That isn’t to say that the clue-by-four didn’t work on some men – and some women, too. But the hard core of misogynists remains, enabled by a series of bloggers, which inevitably includes at least one woman.

And it gets worse.

The woman who said guys, don’t do this, is still receiving hate mail. Whole blogs have been devoted to hatred of her. Men are campaigning to have her removed from any role as a speaker within the sceptical movement. She has been threatened with rape. She has had death threats.

They write lists of her negative characteristics, the kind of thing familiar to anyone who has met a man who’s furious that his boss is a woman.

It all boils down to things like this:

She gossips (because men discuss)

She’s arrogant (because men know their own value)

She’s argumentative (because men hold their own)

And so on, and so on, ad nauseum.

All because she said guys, don’t do this.


And all I want to say is Rebecca, you’re fantastic. And you’re absolutely right. You saw this long before most of the rest of us did. You spoke up, and you brought the haters, the slime at the bottom of the lake, roaring into view. You gave us a litmus test for who is truly part of this community, and who is threatened, or furious, or disgusted at the idea that women are demanding to have an equal part of it.

Feminism is the astonishing idea that women are human beings.

You, and PZ, and Phil, and Greg, and the Pharyngulites, and countless people too many to name are on your side, because it’s our side, and our community, and our future.

I give you:

Rebecca Watson

There was a great deal of discussion on Pharyngula, and much smacking down of trolls and MRAs. It’s well worth reading; I’ll summarise some of the best comments in another post.










Publishing update


The Painting is up on Amazon, Smashwords and Lulu, and is selling at a steady rate. All ebooks so far, no paperbacks, although I think the paperback royalties take longer to appear on the statement.

Stormwatcher 1 is up in both ppb and ebook versions, and Stormwatcher 2 as an ebook (just finishing the adjustments to the proof – more on that later)

Sense and Celebrity is up in ebook and ppb.

I’m back to working on A Season of Singing. I’m on the last few thousand words, wriggle room I leave myself in the final edits as I tend to underwrite and have to go back and do a lot of filling in between events, foreshadowing, making sure motivations are realistic, that kind of thing.

I never really thought about how much I write about disability until now. I assumed it was because I’m a doctor, but now I no longer think that’s the reason. I suppose it’s that firstly, I prefer to write about people who are disenfranchised in some way – gay men in Nazi Germany, for instance. In Pride and Precipitation (spoilers!) Stephen Rowan ends up the most seriously injured among a small group of people; not a role he has ever envisaged himself in, nor one he’s particularly well equipped to cope with.

Season of Singing follows a deeply religious man who’s the victim of a vicious, mistakenly homophobic attack, from which it has taken him a year and a half to return to independent living. He believes everything that happens has a purpose, but cannot square this with what he’s experienced.

And lastly, The First Time They Met, the most challenging (for me) book I’ve yet written. One character has a lifelong disability, the other has acquired permanent spinal injuries as a result of his own recklessness. One has had it all, and thrown it away, while the other has struggled to be normal, struggled to achieve and yet is still the outsider in her own life.

I’ve suddenly realised that I would find it hard to write without tackling these kinds of issues. I can’t imagine writing a book where all the characters are healthy, privileged people. I’ve often felt guilty about not including more POC, but maybe that’s just not my bag. And if any group of people needs a fictional voice that speaks of them as being fully human, then we certainly do.

Writing m/m

If you frequent forums discussing m/m fiction, sooner or later you will inevitably see the question ‘Can women write m/m romance (or m/m sex, or gay characters generally)?

The discussion rarely draws any conclusions, mainly because it’s so easy to find evidence of poor quality m/m fiction online. That’s not a criticism; by the same argument it’s possible to find examples of poorly written fiction of any type online, or printed. If there’s a literary genre, there will always be people writing bad fiction within it.

But it’s a curious question.

A list of gay writers:

Walt Whitman
Oscar Wilde
Marcel Proust
Federico Garcia Lorca
Cole Porter
Leonard Bernstein
Tennessee Williams
James Baldwin
Christopher Marlowe
Herman Melville
E.M. Forster
Noel Coward
Christopher Isherwood

Most of these writers, in fact all, had heterosexual characters in their work. And I’d imagine most of them had heterosexual female characters (the horror! The horror!). And yet nowhere, on any blog or forum, have I seen readers/writers questioning the ability of these men to write about heterosexual relationships.

Oh well, but these men lived during a time when they were forced to participate in a heterosexual lifestyle. All too true. And if modern gay writers were therefore criticised in a way their forerunners are not, it would be less surprising. But still no criticism. Nil. Nada.

[Just a note – I’m sure, in the depths of literary criticism, there are many ruminating on this very point. But that isn’t the group I’m talking about. You don’t tend to see them on the kindle forums.]

There is a taint of mysogyny in these attitudes. Of privilege. You’d think by now men would know better than to start out with ‘Women writers can’t write a convincing X’. You’d think we’d all know better than to stereotype any group like this. It harks back to my previous post, about how a majority of men won’t knowingly read books by a female writer.

When I pick up a book my main consideration is whether it’s a good story. Whether the characters are complex, and the motivations comprehensible. I care if the prose is well written, that the pacing is good. But if any of these fail, I don’t flip to the front cover and go, ‘oh, well, a male author, what did I expect!’ There are certainly some genres I have no interest in; westerns have never appealed, and I have read very little horror. SAS-style military fiction leaves me cold. Cosies and religious fiction, too. But a badly written book is a badly written book. A poorly paced book is dull. One dimensional characters are just one dimensional.

As readers we really have to get over ourselves. We have many female writers hiding behind their initials. Hiding their gender completely with careful, gender neutral bios and no public appearances, or writing under a pseudonym of the opposite gender. This is crazy. It’s about the story, people!

The success of the book for me as a reader lies in the writer’s craft – and that has nothing to do with gender.