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 – that 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:
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.