Two atheists at a conference get into an elevator at 4 AM. The dude atheist, apropos of nothing, invites the chick atheist to go to his room with him. The chick atheist, who’s never even spoken to the dude before, is creeped out by this. (She says no.) She mentions the incident in a YouTube video. A shitstorm erupts in the atheist-o-sphere because, like, how could she possibly call an atheist dude a creep and aren’t women treated worse in Islamist Theocracies?
Then Richard Dawkins says,
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 . . .
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
In a followup comment, Dawkins tops that bit of hilarity with this:
Rebecca’s feeling that the man’s proposition was ‘creepy’ was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.
Damn. That joke didn’t turn out to be really very hilarious at all. Maybe I told it wrong?
In any case, as you might already know (or have gathered), this whole thing actually happened over the past weekend. The atheist chick in question is Rebecca Watson, a popular blogger who calls herself Skepchick. The conference in question was the Center for Inquiry’s Student Leadership Conference. The part of Richard Dawkins was played by, well, Richard Dawkins. (You can find both of his comments quoted here.)
The incident has been hashed and rehashed endlessly in the atheist-o-sphere (and even out of it), but I think it deserves a tiny bit more re-rehashing. Mainly because it illustrates that some really creepy, backwards attitudes can lurk deep in the hearts of dudes who think of themselves as enlightened, rational dudes fighting the evils of superstition and, yes, religious misogyny.
The strangest thing about the whole incident is how supremely mild Watson’s comments on the creepy elevator dude were. Here is literally all she said about him, in passing, in her video (transcribed here):
So I walk to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me and said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?’
Um, just a word to wise here, guys, uh, don’t do that. You know, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4:00 am, in a hotel elevator, with you, just you, and–don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.
That’s it. That’s the whole thing. You would think that most guys would be well aware that accosting a woman you’ve never met before in an elevator at 4 AM is, you know, kind of a no-no. But, no, Watson’s comments suddenly became an attack on male sexuality and men in general. One critic put up a video lambasting Watson, ending it with the question:
What effect do you think it has on men to be constantly told how sexist and destructive they are?
Never mind that she didn’t, you know, actually do that at all. Nor did she even remotely suggest, despite Dawkins’ weird screed, that creepy dudes on elevators were somehow equivalent to genital mutilation or the general denial of women’s rights in Islamist theocracies. She merely suggested that guys might want to think twice before hitting on women who are alone with them in an elevator at four in the morning. Pointing out the creepy behavior of one particular dude is not the same as calling all men creepy.
Now, the atheist movement tends to be a bit of a sausagefest, pervaded by some fairly backwards notions about women. (Prominent atheist pontificator Christopher Hitchens, you may recall, seems to sincerely believe that women just aren’t funny. Not that he’s exactly a barrel of monkeys himself.) But some of the most vociferous critics of Watson have been other atheist women – including the one I quoted above.
Watson responded to this in the first of several posts she wrote about the whole weird controversy:
I hear a lot of misogyny from skeptics and atheists, but when ancient anti-woman rhetoric like the above is repeated verbatim by a young woman online, it validates that misogyny in a way that goes above and beyond the validation those men get from one another. It also negatively affects the women who are nervous about being in similar situations. Some of them have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, and some just don’t want to be put in that position. And they read these posts and watch these videos and they think, “If something were to happen to me and these women won’t stand up for me, who will?”
In a followup post, she noted:
When I started this site, I didn’t call myself a feminist. I had a hazy idea that feminism was a good thing, but it was something that other people worried about, not me. I was living in a time and culture that had transcended the need for feminism, because in my world we were all rational atheists who had thrown off our religious indoctrination so that I could freely make rape jokes without fear of hurting someone who had been raped.
And then I would make a comment about how there could really be more women in the community, and the responses from my fellow skeptics and atheists ranged from “No, they’re not logical like us,” to “Yes, so we can fuck them!” That seemed weird.
Watson began hearing from other women in the skeptic/atheist community who’d met far too many of that second sort of male atheist.
They told me about how they were hit on constantly and it drove them away. I didn’t fully get it at the time, because I didn’t mind getting hit on. But I acknowledged their right to feel that way and I started suggesting to the men that maybe they relax a little and not try to get in the pants of every woman who walks through the door.
And then, as her blog garnered more attention, she faced a virtual invasion of creepy dudes being creepy:
I’ve had more and more messages from men who tell me what they’d like to do to me, sexually. More and more men touching me without permission at conferences. More and more threats of rape from those who don’t agree with me, even from those who consider themselves skeptics and atheists. More and more people telling me to shut up and go back to talking about Bigfoot and other topics that really matter.
She didn’t shut up.
So here we are today. I am a feminist, because skeptics and atheists made me one. Every time I mention, however delicately, a possible issue of misogyny or objectification in our community, the response I get shows me that the problem is much worse than I thought, and so I grow angrier. I knew that eventually I would reach a sort of feminist singularity where I would explode and in my place would rise some kind of Captain Planet-type superhero but for feminists. I believe that day has nearly arrived.
Go read the rest of her post. Despite the creepy dudes and the misogyny and Richard Fucking Dawkins’ patronizing little screed – which led Watson to a moment of despair much like that of virtually every movie hero(ine) at the end of act two in the story arc — Watson ends it fairly hopeful. It’s kind of inspiring, really.