Is there a problem with sexism in the Skeptic’s movement?

If you would have asked me yesterday I would have said no.

I feel like I can judge people pretty well when it comes to issues of sexism. When our skeptic group meets at the bar we talk very openly about many “feminist” issues including pornography, prostitution and female politicians(good and bad) If there were sexists among us I think I would have known. I think the first sign that the men in our group aren’t sexist is that when these issues did up; they are usually brought up by men and are never actually referred to as feminist issues. They are simply topics worth discussing.

Today my answer has changed. Like a lot of people, I base my views on what I see around me. I had seen nothing but the good side of men in the skeptical movement. I had no idea that there would be such outrage at a women who said nothing more than she felt uncomfortable at being asked out for coffee by a guy she didn’t know at four in the morning in an elevator. This says to me there is a problem…. a pretty big problem.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about Rebecca Watson was out drinking with a group of people. Around four in the morning she decided to turn in and headed to the elevator to go to her hotel room. A random guy (who was in the hotel bar she just left) followed her into the elevator and said something to the effect of “don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting. Would you like to go back to my room and have coffee and we can talk more?” Rebecca said that this is the kind of thing that makes her feel uncomfortable and asks guys not to do things like this. Here is the video where she talks about it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKHwduG1Frk&feature=player_embedded (It’s closer to the end)

From here controversy ensued.

I heard the response to what she had said before I had actually seen the video. It really bothered me. To me it boils down to Rebecca saying she doesn’t like this kind of behavior and she thinks many women don’t like this kind of behavior, so if you want to “have coffee” with her or other women who are like her… don’t go about approaching her in that manner. I have no idea how this = man hater.

So what’s the problem?

There seems to be an easy common ground to reach. I hope most would agree approaching a women you don’t really know in an elevator is a not a good idea, and most would agree that it would make a woman feel uncomfortable.

Lets start from there. I think that we can all agree that a women, or man, or child should be able to talk about something that makes them feel uncomfortable. I think (hope) that most people can agree with this. I also think that there are many men who fear that by asking a women out for coffee they will be branded as sexual predators. I think that this is where the problem lies.

Earlier this year in Winnipeg there was a case (that in spite a 1988 Supreme Court ruling that said women do not invite sexual assault through their appearance) in which a man got a lighter sentence because the women he raped was drinking and dressed in a tube top with no bra, high heels and makeup, I should also mention that the assault took place in 2006 and the sentence is now being reconsidered again… in 2011. Men who are afraid of being thought of as sexual predators need to keep this in mind when they look at what should and should not make a women feel uncomfortable.

I think we all need to look at the reality of the situation. Things kind of suck if you’re a girl, I think that most men would agree. I also think that women in our attempts to protect ourselves sometimes will view men as sexual predators when in all likelihood they aren’t, and that isn’t fair to that man.

So what’s the solution?

I don’t think that this is a male/female problem. I think this is a “no one want’s to be treated unfairly” problem. I think it’s unfair of women to assume every man is a potential rapist and I think it’s unfair of a man to think it’s unfair for a women to assume a man is a potential rapist when he puts her in a situation that makes her feel uncomfortable. Yea, I know that might have not maken much sense, let me try that again.

So what’s the solution?

Maybe we should focus on the justice system. If we had a supreme court ruling that said women do not invite sexual assault through…. no… wait. I guess we do have that ruling…. lets try one more time….

So what’s the solution?

Maybe it’s the men who need to be the bigger man. If they could talk to their friends and sons and the guys at work about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior, women wouldn’t have to say it as often and then be accused of “bragging” when we talk about guys hitting on us, and how we don’t like the ways we go about it. A lot of the men I know do this. Men are always going to have boy talk and women will always have girl talk…. if men would start shooting their buddies down for being creepy, I think that would stop a lot of the girl talk. A lot of the men in my life do exactly that.

I have a feeling that a lot of the men in our skeptics group have also had conversations with their buddies that went to that effect. Maybe that’s why we have so many women in our group compared to other groups.

Maybe all women should always wear tube tops with no bra, high heels and make-up. If we all dress the same judges can’t say we invited the situation anymore than any other women… I don’t know how that would go over with my safety rep. who says I need to wear a safety vest and steal toes at all times… I did find one place that sold steal toed high heels, but heels don’t work well with freshly laid sod….. ahhh that won’t work either…..

So what’s the solution?

I don’t know.

I hope there is a solution. I’m pretty sure that whatever the solution is it involves no one over reacting… No one throwing out accusations…
I know it involves better communication.
I know it involves both sides letting things go.

I also know it starts from setting an example.

If anyone has made someone else feel uncomfortable in our skeptics group it would be me. So I will apologize.

At a semi-recent bar night (after a totally innocent comment by a male member of the group that went something to the tune of “What would be the point of X-ray glasses? So you could see some chicks bone structure?”) I am the one who said I would love it if there were glasses that could only see through cloths because my breasts look much better in a push up bra than they do when they are just hanging loose. I am sorry for my comments and I am sorry if I made anyone feel uncomfortable.

I am also the one who went up to two female members of our group and started stroking there hair. Just because one member had gotten a short(er) hair cut and the girl sitting next to her had long curly hair and I wanted to see if there was a different texture in there hair… that was pretty creepy of me; I’m sorry to both of you.

I’m sorry for announcing at a very early meeting that I watch a lot of porn… no one needs to think about me watching porn.

And I’m sorry that at a recent filming I told the gentlemen who seemed nervous about accidentally touching my cleavage when putting on my mic. that the reason I wore that dress was that I was hoping for a cheap grope. I’m sure I made you more uncomfortable and I’m sorry.

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10 thoughts on “Is there a problem with sexism in the Skeptic’s movement?

  1. Leslie, I don’t think you should have to apologize for being comfortable with your sexuality. There is a distinct difference between being being open about such things and behaving inappropriately to other people. If it is something that is reciprocated, then that’s okay. I have conversations with friends that frequently “cross the line,” but we have the sort of friendship that we are comfortable with it and know what everyone’s intentions are. I think a lot of the problem in this case comes from interacting with a stranger with no context. If Rebecca had been flirting with the guy all night, then there would have nothing untoward about his actions. It’s none of my business nor anyone else’s if there are hook ups (casual or otherwise) going on, as long as both parties are consenting.

    You are welcome to be proud of your body, enjoy your sexuality, and be outspoken. None of those are bad things, and I would argue are important for mental health. However, I think it can be said universally that we should be careful of how what we say might be misinterpreted or make people uncomfortable. We want to be an open, welcoming community, one that neither censors nor scares away our members. The solution, as with most things, is to think before you speak, and really, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be about anyway?

    1. I don’t think this is so much generalizable to the skeptics movement, these failure of communication occur in all walks of life, in all social circles…..Still, I am surprised that someone who is usually so incisive and spot on in his crticisms is capable of misreading the situation so poorly, and his intransigence in not good-naturedly apologizing is similarly puzzling…..Still, just as Rebecca is well within her rights to share her discomfort with early-morning unsolicited cloddishness, Dawkins too is free to be as douchy as he feels is necessary….

      In any case, seeing as I respect both of their work, I do hope tehy find a way to kiss and make up….

      Preferably with tongue…..

      So long as no body is made too uncomfortable….::-)

  2. In most social groups there will be sexists, racists, etc. to some degree, I have my own biases as well. The nice thing about skeptics and using the balony detection kit is that hopefully we can be rational enough to recognize our faulty minds and positions and take efforts to correct them.

    1. For instaces with racism, it is often based on faulty ideas and over-generalizations about groups of people; recognizing those generalizations (and most generalizations are false) can lead towards a reduction in a persons racist attitudes.

  3. Hee hee, I remember the xray glasses comment. I believe my response to you was “Prove it! I need evidence.” – of course I recognized the joke and followed it up with one of my own.

    I find it hard to believe that the skeptical group alone has issues with sexism. I think civilization as a whole has this issue. Our group in particular (Winnipeg Skeptics) seem to respect females enough not to do that.

    Perhaps “guy talk” and creepy stares at women as they walk by are an evolutionary trait. But that would not make them any less inappropriate.

    I am conflicted on the subject as I know women can be just as sexist as men. In an equal society I would expect no less, however should I expect it at all from anyone? Does a free an open society enable people to be ignorant without regret?

    The issue with Rebecca I think should be dropped. The issue of sexism should be discussed at length. Time and communication will change peoples minds, at least until the issue worms it’s way back into the spotlight.

    Time flows like the water cycle. It will always rain again.

  4. This is definitely a cultural issue. We live in a world of male privilege and rape culture, and dealing with sexism in the skeptic movement requires critical thinking and action against the systemic sexism of the larger culture, by both men and women.

    Sure it’s unfair that men are viewed as potential rapists, but it’s a lot more unfair that one in six women will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes, and many more will experience other forms of sexual assault.

    Being seen as potentially dangerous sucks but guys who can empathize with women’s experiences will:

    1. not take it personally or get all butthurt and defensive about it, because it’s not personal.

    2. be conscious of their behaviour and modify it to avoid making women feel threatened. When you’re part of a privileged group it’s your responsibility to not use your privilege to make life harder for less privileged groups.

    3. will realize that women’s caution and fear comes from a completely rational place, and support whatever precautions women around them choose to take, rather than giving them shit for it or telling them to stop.

    Good male allies will call other men out when they are being sexist, will be aware of their privilege even if it’s hard or unpleasant, and will keep the dialogue about feminism and sexism going within the community.

    There’s no one solution but many ways we can actively resist sexism in the skeptic community and society as a whole, and breaking down systemic sexism will make things better everywhere.

    For what it’s worth, the Winnipeg skeptic community seems, from my personal observations, to be somewhat better on average than wider skeptic community, when it comes to being welcoming to people who aren’t white, straight, middle-class cis-men.

    1. Agreed.

      I’ve heard from several people that things seem better in Winnipeg than elsewhere. I’m very happy to hear that (although I have no idea why that is) and I’m sure that we’re all open to suggestions with regard to how to make it even more welcoming for everyone.

      1. Off hand, I’d be inclined to attribute it to having women in leadership/organizing roles, and the genuine interest in and awareness of feminist issues that you have (and maybe the other organizers too? I can’t speak about them, since I don’t know them at all.)

        In my experience with social minority-group communities similar to this, the character and diversity of the leadership group goes a long way towards setting the tone for the overall group, what kinds of attitudes and behaviours are acceptable and expected and how welcoming the group is for new people and members of marginalized groups.

        Interest in intersecting issues does a lot to make a group feel welcoming too. My impression of some skeptic spaces is that critical inquiry is limited to science vs woo, atheism vs religion and the issues that otherwise extremely privileged skeptics face. By taking a critical look at a broader range of issues (feminism, racism, classism, various other social justice issues) that are relevant to skeptics who lack privilege in other areas it makes the community not just welcoming but also relevant.

        So I think you should keep doing what you’re doing, but if you identify gaps in the type of people who participate then it’s worth looking at why people in those groups are absent and figure out how to address those causes.

    2. I want to agree completely and just point out that this holds true for all privileged groups. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about fighting for LGBT equality, or feminism, or racial equality – you don’t need to experience discrimination to exhibit empathy. It is easy to be a bystander, but it feels good to be a fighter. When your grandchildren look back at how crazy we were in the early twenty-first century, do you want to be able to tell them that you were brave enough to do the right thing, or are you going to have to say that you let the discrimination happen?

      And, I agree, I think Winnipeg doesn’t have the same extent of issues, not just in the skeptical community, but as a whole. We’re a progressive, diverse and integrated city. I think most of us have grown up having to confront the fact that there are people who are “different” than us, and learned that they’re not so different after all.

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