Rebecca Watson's first-hand account of sexism in the skeptic community — and the 5,000+ comments it's inspired in the past 24 hours — illustrate that just because someone says they value "rational thought" doesn't mean they're not also a misogynist troll. But the controversy also highlights how hard it is for women to broach "feminist" topics within tight-knit communities. What are Watson's violently aggressive bullies so afraid of?
When Watson, who is better known online as "SkepChick," first got involved with the skeptic community — which, she explains in her Slate piece, doesn't mean that she doesn't believe in the Holocaust, but that she believes in the mission of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry: "to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims" — she thought she had found her people. But when she started talking about feminism, everything changed:
...women started telling me stories about sexism at skeptic events, experiences that made them uncomfortable enough to never return. At first, I wasn't able to fully understand their feelings as I had never had a problem existing in male-dominated spaces. But after a few years of blogging, podcasting, and speaking at skeptics' conferences, I began to get emails from strangers who detailed their sexual fantasies about me. I was occasionally grabbed and groped without consent at events. And then I made the grave mistake of responding to a fellow skeptic's YouTube video in which he stated that male circumcision was just as harmful as female genital mutilation (FGM). I replied to say that while I personally am opposed to any non-medical genital mutilation, FGM is often much, much more damaging than male circumcision.
The response from male atheists was overwhelming. This is one example:
"honestly, and i mean HONESTLY.. you deserve to be raped and tortured and killed. swear id laugh if i could"
I started checking out the social media profiles of the people sending me these messages, and learned that they were often adults who were active in the skeptic and atheist communities. They were reading the same blogs as I was and attending the same events. These were "my people," and they were the worst.
The rest of Watson's essay, which details the countless ways she's been villainized and threatened for speaking out against misogynist skeptics both online and in person, is worth a read in full, but one anecdote about an interaction she had with a convention attendee in an elevator sticks out, especially since that's the part of her piece that's incited the most comments by far:
In June of 2011, I was on a panel at an atheist conference in Dublin. The topic was "Communicating Atheism," and I was excited to join Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous atheists in the world, with several documentaries and bestselling books to his name. Dawkins used his time to criticize Phil Plait, an astronomer who the year prior had given a talk in which he argued for skeptics to be kinder. I used my time to talk about what it's like for me to communicate atheism online, and how being a woman might affect the response I receive, as in rape threats and other sexual comments.
The audience was receptive, and afterward I spent many hours in the hotel bar discussing issues of gender, objectification, and misogyny with other thoughtful atheists. At around 4 a.m., I excused myself, announcing that I was exhausted and heading to bed in preparation for another day of talks.
As I got to the elevator, a man who I had not yet spoken with directly broke away from the group and joined me. As the doors closed, he said to me, "Don't take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting. Would you like to come back to my hotel room for coffee?" I politely declined and got off the elevator when it hit my floor.
A few days later, I was making a video about the trip and I decided to use that as an example of how not to behave at conferences if you want to make women feel safe and comfortable. After all, it seemed rather obvious to me that if your goal is to get sex or even just companionship, the very worst way to go about attaining that goal is to attend a conference, listen to a woman speak for 12 hours about how uncomfortable she is being sexualized at conferences, wait for her to express a desire to go to sleep, follow her into an isolated space, and then suggest she go back to your hotel room for "coffee," which, by the way, is available at the hotel bar you just left.
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Watson is not at all aggressive in her video; she says, "Guys, don't do that," with a laugh and a shrug. So why did her advice prompt tens of thousands of disturbing, threatening comments on various social media sites, including a scornful reprimand from Dawkins himself?
Even more interesting (and troubling) to me is how nearly all of the 5,000+ comments on her Slate piece (well, at least all of the ones I got through; more are popping up as I type this) are about that elevator interaction. Watson's essay is about the way the skeptic community disenfranchises women. It's about how anyone who dares to speak up — within the skeptic community and similar forums — can expect to be bombarded with rape and death threats. Yet, so many comments ignore Watson's feelings, the treatment she's received, and the plight of the women she represents in lieu of discussing how the poor scorned man in the elevator must feel. Some examples:
If feminists have gotten to the point where a polite proposition by a friendly male is rape, you all need to go live on an Island somewhere and have your hate fest there...
Feminists have gone from doing things which actually supported the causes of women to trying to tell the menz how they are supposed to behave at conferences.
so, just to be clear, nobody ever said or did anything actually TO this girl, in real life, other than ask her to coffee, correct? other than that, this is all about a tweet and some anonymous internet snarks? seriously?
And those are some of the nice ones.
Watson didn't report the guy. She didn't even get angry in her video! She offered some polite advice on how men could have more positive interactions with women, based on the very basic concept of human respect.
Why did her video make so many people so angry? Or, again: what are these self-righteous commenters so afraid of? Why are they so resistant not only to integrating women into their space, but to even attempting to understand where Watson is coming from? And why is the first instinct of so many men to call Watson a cunt, or threaten to rape her, or worse? "It wasn't until I started talking about feminism to skeptics that I realized I didn't have a safe space," Watson writes. I'd like to end on a positive note about how, perhaps, if she continues to speak out and talk about her experiences, more productive discourse will follow. Watson's Slate piece has definitely inspired discussion. But what does that discussion say about all of us?