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.