July 3, 2011

Elevators and Sexism in the Atheist Movement

ElevatorIf you spend any time in the atheist blogosphere, you have undoubtedly heard that a man asked Rebecca Watson (Skepchick) back to his hotel room for coffee at 4:00am at an atheist conference. She felt uncomfortable and expressed these feelings on her blog. And for reasons I still can't quite understand, all hell broke loose in the atheist community. It seems that every atheist who has a blog has already weighed in, and I do so with great reluctance because I think something is missing amidst all the intensely emotional reactions.

When addressing a subject like this, I think it is important that one be clear about one's biases. Here are mine:
  • I believe that sexism exists, that it is a problem, and that it is widespread in contemporary American society.
  • I believe that male privilege is a real thing and not something angry feminists dreamed up to make men feel guilty.
  • I have no reason whatsoever to think that the atheist community is so unique that it would not mirror the larger society in which it exists in a number of ways. Therefore, I believe that both sexism and male privilege are problems in the atheist community too.
With that out of the way, I'd like to offer a few thoughts on Rebecca's elevator encounter. First, she was the only one in the elevator with the man who extended the invitation she interpreted as inappropriate. In all likelihood, her interpretation was based on many factors that only she was in a position to evaluate. She knows what was going on prior to this encounter, how she was feeling at the time, what the man's demeanor and tone were like, etc. All I have is her brief description of what he said. Based solely on her description of the content of the man's words, I see nothing inappropriate. But again, I am missing the context that she had, and I do not know her. She was uncomfortable and considered the invitation to be inappropriate. That is what matters.

Second, it is entirely possible for a woman to feel creeped-out when a man asks her out without either of the following conditions being true:
  • The woman was overly sensitive.
  • The man did or said something creepy.
Contextual factors such as the time of day, location, the woman's prior experience, and the man's appearance, often contribute to such feelings and require neither oversensitivity nor inappropriate behavior. These and other variables often influence our reactions in ways of which we are not even conscious.

This has at least two important implications. As far as the man in the elevator and his defenders are concerned, Rebecca's reaction may have been entirely appropriate. Just because you do not think you did or said anything creepy does not mean that Rebecca was necessarily being overly sensitive. And to Rebecca and her defenders, just because you felt creeped out does not mean that the man had done or said anything wrong. His behavior might have been perfectly appropriate, and you could have still felt that way.

I know this last point is going to rub many people the wrong way, so let me be clear what I am saying. If Rebecca is concluding that the man's words or behavior were inappropriate because she felt creeped out during their encounter, she is making a mistake. The man's words or actions may have indeed been inappropriate, but this does not follow solely because of Rebecca's emotional experience.

Finally, I have seen countless atheists rushing to condemn the man on the elevator. Perhaps he was after sex and was behaving inappropriately. But aside from Rebecca herself, I am seeing a lot of people jumping to unwarranted conclusions. Is it at least possible that he really did just want to talk?

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