Kudos, Rebecca Watson.

Yes, I’m weighing in on this debacle. You might be familiar with Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson’s account of the misadventures of Elevator Man, either from her own blog, Pharyngula, or one of the numerous feminist blogs that have called attention to the sexist responses she’s faced from the skeptic community. If you’re not, here’s a summary: Watson gave a talk at a skeptic’s conference, and explicitly stated during the talk that she dislikes being propositioned by men as it makes her uncomfortable. And that she wished to go to bed, soon, and alone, that same night. She said these things only for a male conference attendee to ask her back to his room for coffee, at 4 am, while alone in an elevator with her.

There are clearly some problems with Elevator Man’s behavior. Or at least, they should be clear, yet a large portion of the skeptical community does not see it. Count Richard Dawkins among Watson’s detractors. In a splendidly nonsensical comment on Pharyngula, Dawkins posted the following: “Dear Muslima: Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with. Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so…”

I’m sorry, what? Let’s ignore, very briefly, the asinine assumption that all Muslim women are oppressed, and that Islam is inherently misogynistic. Let us reflect upon the fact that according to Dawkins, Watson’s brief anecdote somehow trivializes the suffering of every oppressed woman in the world. For a man so deeply dedicated to rational dialogue, this reliance upon false equivalency evidences a lack of regard and respect for the experiences of women within his movement. Rebecca Watson did not refer to Elevator Man as a rapist, or even an attempted rapist. She stated that the situation made her uncomfortable. The feminist blogosphere has done an excellent job of explaining this and the problematic elements of Dawkins’ posts. I don’t need to repeat their fine work.

I do want to take the time to explain that though I am a skeptic,  and my inclination toward skepticism is what ultimately drove me away from my devotion to the Christian faith, I do not believe that any religion is inherently violent and I have done enough work for and with Muslim women activists  to recognize that Islam is only as oppressive as it is interpreted to be. People are violent.  And I’ll agree that participation in organized religion seems to fuel the human tendency toward social division. That is why I choose not to participate in religion. I also don’t think it makes any sense, which is where my skepticism comes in, but! Religious women are hardly universally oppressed. Don’t victimize them. They are not props for you to base an argument on, and to treat them in such a manner deprives their experiences of legitimacy. It alienates them from the progressive movement, which I’ve covered before in a piece for Feministing. Right now, Dawkins is just as guilty as any religious leader can be of creating division where there should be rational dialogue.

Watson’s experience called for just that sort of dialogue. It has not occurred. Instead, we’ve got Dawkins and his impressively solid denial of male privilege at Pharyngula. We’ve got Stef McGraw at Uni Freethinkers offering a willful misreading of Watson’s original video post.  And then we’ve got her co-blogger, Trevor Boeckmann, issuing a “Fuck you” to Watson for calling Stef out at a small gathering for that misreading. Evidently, it’s acceptable to criticize Watson for being somehow anti-sex in a blog post available to anyone with access to the internet, but responding to that criticism in public is Not Done. Best yet, Boeckmann argues that Watson misused her position as a speaker by discussing the reaction she’s received to her post rather than using her time to focus on other activist issues, like gay marriage and reproductive rights.

GLBT equality and reproductive justice are absolutely important issues. I agree that they merit passionate support and activism. But they are part of a broader discourse about the human condition. We support civil rights for GLBT and non-binary people and defend the bodily autonomy of female-bodied people because we believe that members of these communities deserve a level of respect that they do not receive socially and a degree of equality that they are not granted legally. If we concern ourselves with equality and respect, we should also concern ourselves with the dominance of male privilege and its negative consequences for the dominated. And it is a manifestation of privilege to proposition a woman in an elevator at 4 am directly after she has explained her express desire to go to bed that night alone. Elevator Guy was not entitled to an opportunity to change her mind. He did have a responsibility to respect her wishes. And it is deeply problematic for the skeptical community to behave as if Rebecca Watson did other oppressed classes a disservice by focusing on the ways her peers have responded to her concern for her safety.

It is part of the same fight. It is disingenuous to separate causes like reproductive justice and GLBT equality from the need to address male privilege and the injustices that force women to display caution in certain situations. So I support Rebecca Watson. I support her primarily as another woman who has received countless warnings about stranger danger, and can empathize with the discomfort and concern caused by this man’s behavior. It is not a difficult thing to understand, which is why I’m so disappointed that a community that prides itself on its intellectual caliber still remains so deeply in thrall to sexism.


5 thoughts on “Kudos, Rebecca Watson.

  1. I don’t see how you could establish that Stef was willfully misreading Watsons original video and I see you didn’t try. Why attribute to malice what could more aptly be attributed to Stefs misunderstanding.

    Towards Watson calling stef out, she gave no warning to Stef that she would be speaking about her at the conference that she was attending. She said Stef was “parroting misogynists”, while she did not have a chance at the podium to respond. In the media world I believe they call that ambushing. I have no intention of implying that Watson did this to on purpose but try to see it from another prospective I think you will see that she should have at least warned Stef.

    I hate seeing people assume things about others to make a point. This random guy will never be able to tell his side of the story. I see additions to the story to ever so slightly make it seem worse than it is. Like adding on that Watson said she wanted to go to bed [b]alone[/b]. I can’t find the alone part in Watsons original message. We don’t even know how much of the conversation EG even heard and whether he knew prior to asking that she was uninterested. Why assume intent over him being awkward and unknowing of her stance. Its possible that if he knew the situation, EG might have apologized right there on the elevator. Though, of course, we can’t know that now. Can’t we just stick to the facts instead of adding malintent on the parts of Stef and EG.

    • Ok, I’ll explain my statement about Stef’s post here. Stef completely ignored the fact that Rebecca Watson had said, publicly, that being propositioned makes her uncomfortable. She ignored Watson’s explicitly stated intention to go to bed that night alone. She ignored those things, and instead accused Watson of demonizing the man for daring to be a sexual being. Which is not what Watson said in her video at all. In fact, she goes on to explain her statements prior to the elevator incident in the comments on the original post, which you clearly didn’t read. It’s reasonable to assume that EG heard those statements, because he had attended the conference and had been in the bar with her. Even if he hadn’t, his behavior reflects an unawareness of his own privilege in the situation–in other words, it’s clear that he’s never had to worry about his personal safety while alone with another person in a closed space.

      So yes, EG deserved to be called out. So did Stef. And Trevor is highly out of line in his follow up post.

      • and you see no problem with watson’s obtuse comment that included all men? she did say ‘guys’, she did not say ‘that guy in the elevator’, she did not say ‘guys who are socially challenged’, she said ‘guys’, and she offered us all some ‘advice’, right? please, explain to me how her deliberate inclusion of all ‘guys’ in her statement, is not the same as making racially stereotypical arguments against the black, hispanic, or other non-white communities.

        the only people that don’t “get it” are watson and her supporters. real, actual feminists are concerned with equal treatment and rights for women beaus they are human beings-not because they’re women, because then you aren’t a really a feminist, your a misandryst. and not to put too fine a point on it, you’re defending a bigot. it’s really as simple as that.

        my apologies if you feel that i just hate women, but if you feel that, then you aren’t even rational, are you? and no, i’m not part of any “man’s rights” movement–though i’ve been accused of such tripe. no, i’m a minority, who happens to be male, and also, is afraid of what a privileged white woman might claim i did or didn’t do–which could land me in prison, or at the least, the hands of less than racially and sexually liberated NYPD police officers-who’ve been known to rape minorities in their custody.

        so please, i like that you aim your arguments at the predominantly white atheist/skeptic community, but just keep in mind that by doing so, not only are you trying to delegitimize my point of view for being a man, but also, you are perpetuating the ludicrous idea that because i’m a man, i’m merely an elevator ride away from being a rapist. by your logic (and believe me, i hesitate to call it that) , i suppose i should just assume that you would accuse me of rape if i ever rode in an elevator with you….because after all, you’re a woman.

  2. Dan — I’m having a little trouble following:

    “We don’t even know” — “Why assume intent over him being awkward and unknowing of her stance” — “Its possible that if he knew” — “Though, of course, we can’t know that now.” And then you follow all that ‘don’t know/why assume/it’s possible that if” and “we can’t know” with “Can’t we just stick to the facts”?

    The facts that we do have about what happened in the elevator are Rebecca’s statement about it, which in my opinion was very mild, and which you apparently find insufficient. Why is it necessary to attempt a psychic reading of Elevator’s Guy’s mind to find out his intent? Rebecca’s whole point was that the combination of his ignoring her statements she didn’t like being hit on and her statement she was going to bed, and his choosing the elevator to extend his invitation, an invitation he prefaced with a statement that he wished her to ignore its problematic character, and the fact that this was the first time they had met or spoken, left her UNABLE TO DETERMINE HIS INTENT — and therefore creeped out.

    I truly do understand your wish to believe the very best of your fellow, but the thing is, if none of us can determine his intent NOW, it seems unreasonable to require Rebecca to have been able to determine it then. It would certainly be nice if, as well as extending the benefit of the doubt to Elevator Guy, we could all extend an equally generous benefit of the doubt to Rebecca.

  3. @Ikonografer: Since your post is full of assumptions about my perspective and includes the declaration that I am a bigot that hates men, you’re not really in any sort of position to malign my logic, are you?

    So let’s examine the rest of your post. I am not in a position to shed light on Rebecca Watson’s motivations for addressing men as a group in her vlog. I can only tell you how I interpreted it. And I did view it as advice, and a call for men in the skeptic community to check their privilege. That call is warranted. Propositioning a woman in an elevator, alone, at 4 am after she’s just explicitly stated that she wants to go to bed alone that night and is disturbed by attempts to pick her up is the act either of a predator or someone who is deliberately obtuse. Given that other leading figures in the skeptic community have said some very misogynist things (like Christopher Hitchens, and now Richard Dawkins), her decision to address men in that community makes sense.

    I hear that you are afraid of being accused of misconduct by white women, and while I am not a racial minority I know there’s a history of such accusations. Watson, however, did not accuse anyone of rape, nor do we know if EG was a racial minority. She merely addressed some problematic behavior.

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