The Atheism Movement's Misogyny Problem

[Trigger warning for misogyny, rape culture, violent imagery, anti-Islamism.]

Rebecca Watson of the skeptics blog Skepchick recently posted a video in which she speaks, in part, about being on a panel in an atheist conference in Dublin during which she spoke about misogyny in the atheist movement. The video, with transcript for the relevant section, is at the bottom of the post. (If the video does not automatically start playing at 2:20, skip ahead.) She then describes how the discussion continued at the hotel bar late into the night, and how a man who purported to be interested in what she was saying followed her into the hotel elevator and propositioned her. Missing the point award.

PZ Myers wrote a post in which the video was mentioned, largely making another point about naming people with whom one disagrees, but acquiescing that perhaps hitting on women and backing off when they signal disinterest possibly is not enough: "Maybe we should also recognize that applying unwanted pressure, no matter how politely phrased, is inappropriate behavior. Maybe we should recognize that when we interact with equals there are different, expected patterns of behavior that many men casually disregard when meeting with women, and it is those subtle signs that let them know what you think of them that really righteously pisses feminist women off."

I almost can't conceive of a more innocuous, virtually noncommittal ("maybe") expression of support for the idea that it's pretty gross to creepily pursue a woman who has said she is going to bed in order to invite her back to your hotel room to further discuss an idea she had introduced in a professional capacity, no less when the idea is not sexualizing women.

And yet, totally predictably, the thread erupted in a hideous gushing explosion of misogyny, anti-feminism, and rape apologia, not only proving Rebecca Watson's point, but illustrating precisely why it is that, despite being an atheist and online activist, I don't touch movement atheism with a 10-foot pole. Were it a place merely hostile to feminist women and outspoken survivors of sexual assault, well, so is the rest of the world. Of course, the rest of the world doesn't passionately advocate against ignorance, only to feign it when asked to examine its privilege.

Anyway, among the many comments in the thread was one left by the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, who had also sat on the panel at which Rebecca Watson spoke about misogyny in the atheist movement. Given Dawkins' history of doing things like making anti-Muslim rape jokes and reckoning that a child is "arguably" better off repeatedly raped than raised religious, his comment (which Myers has confirmed is indeed the real Dawkins) is not surprising, but it is nonetheless appalling.

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 . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


Ah, the old there are more Important Things to worry about chestnut. I always love when a man decides what the Important Things feminists should be worried about are for us feminist women. I also love the idea that "Muslim women" and "American women" are mutually exclusive groups, and the idea that there no American women, Muslim or otherwise, whose lives are controlled and whose bodies are violated with impunity. And I love the mendacious misrepresentation of Rebecca Watson's experience—being innocently invited to coffee, as opposed to followed into an elevator at 4am after announcing her intention to go to bed and asked back to a man's room "for coffee" immediately following her public request to not be sexually objectified—and the profoundly disingenuous implication that because Watson had the unmitigated temerity to mention this incident, she is either equating it with other women's suffering or somehow arguing that her experience is more important than other women's.

I love those things almost as much as I love the embedded premise that the marginalization of women is a series of unrelated injustices that exist in competition with one another for attention and concern, as opposed to a spectrum of injustices on which exists both women being creeped on in elevators by strangers and female genital cutting.

That is a silencing mechanism.

The implication is that women with relative privilege have no reason or right to "complain" as long as there are women who are experiencing something worse somewhere in the world—a truly despicable position given that it creates a justification for continued brutalization of women across the globe. Feminist scolds like Dawkins, who fancy themselves enlightened, recoil with horror at the suggestion that they support the violent oppression of women, and yet they nonetheless reference it at every opportunity they have in order to defend their lack of concern about injustices done to relatively privileged women in their own communities.

The abject suffering of the world's most vulnerable women is thus used as rhetorical weapon to silence feminists—and feminism is treated as some sort of finite resource that is meant to be kept under glass, broken only in case of a "real" and "serious" emergency, as determined by men who want to silence feminists.

Men who police feminism and feminists, and judge the worthiness of feminist complaints on a sliding scale, don't recognize oppressive acts as interwoven strands of the same rope, and they don't respect the reality that most feminists can multi-task: I can write about a sexist t-shirt being sold to little girls at Wev-Mart, and I write about the rape epidemic in DR Congo in the same day. And do, frequently.

Commenters in the thread made variations on the same argument I am making now, reasonably concluding that Dawkins was arguing that "since worse things are happening somewhere else, we have no right to try to fix things closer to home." But Dawkins left a second comment, insisting that was not his meaning:

No I wasn't making that argument. Here's the argument I was making. The man in the elevator didn't physically touch her, didn't attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn't even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics' privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker. PZ didn't physically strike any Catholics. All he did was nail a wafer, and he was absolutely right to do so because the heightened value of the wafer was a fantasy in the minds of the offended Catholics. Similarly, 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.

Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical privations, legally sanctioned demeanings. The equivalent would be if PZ had nailed not a cracker but a Catholic. Then they'd have had good reason to complain.


Again, he implies that "Muslim women" and "American women" are mutually exclusive groups; again, he implies that American women do not "suffer physically from misogyny," nor are their lives "substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny." Certainly, Dawkins and I would disagree on what constitutes "substantial damage," as I suspect his definition would start just beyond what any relatively privileged woman had ever suffered, but suffice it to say I disagree with his contention. As, I imagine, would the many American women who have been sexually abused by religious leaders, without justice. Just for a start.

Of course, I don't guess this is the sort of stuff that really matters to a man so privileged that he can, with a straight fucking face, assert an equivalency between being followed to an elevator and propositioned by a strange man and having to share an elevator with someone who is chewing gum. Yiiiiiiikes.

PZ Myers followed up with another post, attempting to inject some perspective back into the conversation, to no avail. Dawkins continued to insist that Watson had nothing to complain about in the first place:

I sarcastically compared Rebecca's plight with that of women in Muslim countries or families dominated by Muslim men. Somebody made the worthwhile point (reiterated here by PZ) that it is no defence of something slightly bad to point to something worse. We should fight all bad things, the slightly bad as well as the very bad. Fair enough. But my point is that the 'slightly bad thing' suffered by Rebecca was not even slightly bad, it was zero bad. A man asked her back to his room for coffee. She said no. End of story.

But not everybody sees it as end of story. OK, let's ask why not? The main reason seems to be that an elevator is a confined space from which there is no escape. This point has been made again and again in this thread, and the other one.

No escape? I am now really puzzled. Here's how you escape from an elevator. You press any one of the buttons conveniently provided. The elevator will obligingly stop at a floor, the door will open and you will no longer be in a confined space but in a well-lit corridor in a crowded hotel in the centre of Dublin.

Spoken like someone who does not understand what it's like to live as a woman in this world and has never even bothered to try.

Eventually, Myers appended this to his post: "[Rebecca Watson] asked for some simple common courtesy, and for that she gets pilloried. Sorry, people, but that sends a very clear signal to women that calm requests for respect will be met with jeers by a significant subset of the atheist community."

And 'round and 'round we go.

[H/T to Shaker Insomniax, who hat-tips Jen.]


And I was on a panel with AronRa and Richard Dawkins [which] was on 'communicating atheism.' They sort of left it open for us to talk about whatever we wanted, really, within that realm. I was going to talk about blogging and podcasting, but, um, a few hours prior to that panel, there was another panel on women atheist activists, and I disagreed with a lot of what happened on that panel, uh, particularly with something that Paula Kirby had said.

Paula Kirby doesn't have a problem with sexism in the atheism community, and, because of that, she assumes that there is no sexism, um, so I thought that I would, during my panel, discuss what it's like to communicate atheism as me, um, as a woman, but from a different perspective from Paula. I don't assume that every woman will have the same experience that I've had, but I think it's worthwhile to publicize the fact that some women will go through this, and, um, that way we can warn women, ahead of time, as to what they might expect, give them the tools they need to fight back, and also give them the support structure they need to, uh, to keep going in the face of blatant misogyny.

So, I was interested in the response to my sort of rambling on that panel, um, which, like this video, was unscripted and rambling, for which I apologize. [grins] But the response was really fascinating. The response at the conference itself was wonderful, um, there were a ton of great feminists there, male and female, and also just open-minded people who had maybe never considered the, um, the way that women are treated in this community, but were interested in learning more.

So, thank you to everyone who was at that conference who, uh, engaged in those discussions outside of that panel, um, you were all fantastic; I loved talking to you guys—um, all of you except for the one man who, um, didn't really grasp, I think, what I was saying on the panel…? Because, um, at the bar later that night—actually, at four in the morning—um, we were at the hotel bar, 4am, I said, you know, "I've had enough, guys, I'm exhausted, going to bed," uh, so I walked 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 the wise here, guys: Uhhhh, don't do that. Um, you know. [laughs] Uh, 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 4am, in a hotel elevator with you, just you, and—don't invite me back to your hotel room, right after I've finished talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.

So, yeah. But everybody else seemed to really get it.
Whoooooooooooooooops, Richard Dawkins! Almost everyone else.

Shakesville / By Melissa McEwan | Sourced from

Posted at July 5, 2011, 4:34am

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