Note: I’m overwhelmed by the response this blog has gotten! If your comment has been trapped in moderation, sorry about that–I work full time and didn’t expect my blog would get this level of attention. I’ve left some particularly atrocious comments up because I feel they prove my point. So, survivors, trigger warnings ahead.
There’s a subculture with a healthy Internet presence, centered around passionate advocacy for a particular ideological cause. It has several popular male leaders. These men enjoy comfortable jobs, speaking engagements and publishing credits. That places them in a position of power in this subculture, and they’ve got the dedicated followers to prove it.
And then these leaders are accused of abuse: sustained sexual harassment, even rape, all directed at women, an under-represented demographic in this community. Rather than treat these allegations with respect and serious inquiry, there is backlash. These women, people say, are sluts. They are liars. They exaggerate. They can’t take a joke. They shouldn’t have been drinking. Their allies are traitors. They should be sued.
Reasonable guesses all but you’d be wrong. The subculture in question is the mainstream atheist/skeptic movement, as it exists in the United States. I’m referring, specifically, to the backlash now facing Karen Stollznow, Carrie Poppy, and other survivors, in addition to their allies, like PZ Myers.
For the uninitiated: the American atheist community has faced accusations of entrenched sexism for some time. You might remember Rebecca Watson and ElevatorGate. Recently, these accusations ramped up again after several women came forward to report serious allegations of rape, assault, and harassment perpetuated by atheist men at popular conventions. These men include Michael Shermer and Ben Radford, among others.
You might also guess that a community centered around the pursuit of reason would react…reasonably, and treat these allegations seriously. But you’d be wrong about that too. Shermer et al enjoy devoted followings and these followers have reacted viciously to the suggestion that their heroes could be capable of abuse.
I have never been particularly involved with the American atheist, humanist or skeptic communities. I sided with Rebecca Watson during ElevatorGate, but the extent of my participation in that fiasco is a single blog post. The backlash Watson received made me wary of any further interaction with this community; I didn’t think that as a feminist, and especially as a survivor of sexual assault, I could share my experiences without finding myself the object of harassment. And after my experiences with Christian fundamentalism, I felt I’d really hit a lifetime quota for that sort of abuse.
But then this week happened. About a month ago, I appeared as a guest on God Discussion, which is run by Al Stefanelli and Deborah Beeksma, along with other members of Homeschoolers Anonymous. I didn’t realize then that Stefanelli has a reputation for being an anti-feminist blowhard. If I’d known, I would have never agreed to appear on his show. His views only became known to me after I read his latest screed against PZ Myers. I felt then, and still feel now, that Stefanelli’s post showed a deep ignorance of how rape and assault survivors respond to trauma, and that his attack on Myers was unwarranted.
And so that’s exactly what I said on Stefanelli’s Facebook. I didn’t accuse Shermer or anyone else of rape. I said, simply, that I was disturbed by Stefanelli’s post for the reasons I described above.
Cue the abuse. I got immediately swarmed by atheist anti-feminist men and the situation escalated until one of them threatened to kill me. Several times, in fact. Al’s since deleted the threats, but as far as I know, he still acknowledges that the threats were made. The person making the threats is possibly unwell; he also told me he’s a genetically engineered soldier. But that doesn’t make me feel any better about the fact that someone repeatedly threatened to kill me.
Which seems reasonable–unless you’re EllenBeth Wachs. Wachs, who identifies herself as the past president of the Florida Humanists Association, told me I’d brought the death threats upon myself for being so easy to troll. She repeated those statements on Twitter.
I’m not sure why Wachs is so convinced the person was joking; there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that’s the case. I have no idea if I was being trolled or not, but ultimately this doesn’t matter: making death threats crosses a line. It’s never funny. It’s totally inappropriate behavior and if Wachs was in the least bit invested in actual rationality, rather than the fevered defense of Michael Shermer, she would have acknowledged that.
But she hasn’t. She still thinks it’s hilarious that someone threatened to kill me and the abuse didn’t end there. Shocked that I called her behavior sociopathic, she demanded an apology–for obvious reasons, she didn’t get it. And that’s when she name-dropped my boss and threatened to call him.
Summary: she laughed at me for getting threats, told me I deserved it, then threatened my job.
And this is from an atheist. Not a fundamentalist Christian. An atheist. Someone who calls herself rational.
Her definition of rationality is as creative as Ken Ham’s definition of science.
Wachs’ abuse is just a highlight of the abusive tweets I got from other atheists, mostly men, over a 24 hour period. And let me reiterate: I’ve never actually accused Shermer or anyone else of committing a crime. My offense? I suggested atheists take rape allegations more seriously.
This isn’t reason in action, it’s fundamentalism. If your response to the suggestion that you take rape seriously is threaten and abuse me, then you are not rational. If your response to anyone making these allegations is to blame them for their own trauma, you are not rational. If you immediately assume that a woman who says she’s been raped, assaulted or harassed is lying, you are not rational. If you refuse to believe even the possibility that someone you admire is capable of assault, then not only are you irrational, you are actively protecting a toxic subculture.
I grew up with this bullshit. I went to school with this bullshit. I got over this bullshit years ago. My patience for it is buried right alongside my faith in God.
I will not participate in any movement that attacks survivors. I will not swear allegiance to a set of leaders at the cost of my ability to think critically. I will not do either of these things because these are the trappings of fundamentalism and I rejected fundamentalism years ago at no small personal cost.
Over the last 24 hours I’ve heard that I’m milking this for attention, that I’m out for a career as a professional victim. Let me tell you something: if I really wanted to be a professional victim I already have enough material to last me two lifetimes. I experienced religious abuse. I survived a sexual assault. I have an incurable genetic disease. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for years.
And the only reason that I am stable, gainfully employed and yes, happy, is because I have rejected victimhood. I am not a victim. I am a survivor. I do not owe you anything.
I commented on Stefanelli’s article because I know what it’s like to be attacked when you finally come forward about sexual assault. If your response to that is to wish me dead or otherwise abuse me, that says more about you than it does about me. It tells me that you’re fanatical. You’ve bought into this idea of culture war and just like the Christian fundamentalists I knew, you’re willing to sacrifice the vulnerable in order to protect your movement. If survivors have become collateral damage for your cause, then something has gone terribly, tragically wrong.
So count me out. I’d rather stay here in no man’s land than fight in the trenches on either side of this war. And right now, I feel like I’m stranded in the middle and both sides are trying to gun me down.
But you know what?
That means I’ve done something right. When you speak truth to power, expect power to shout you down. Or at least, it’ll try. I don’t intend to let it win.
See you in the middle.