June 3, 2012

Sexual Harassment in the Atheist Movement

Moth flameYou know the common simile, "like a moth drawn to the flame?" Everyone knows what it means. We've all seen moths flying into lightbulbs or open flames, only to be fried on contact. And we have all felt the pull to do or say things we know will have unpleasant results.

I am beginning to feel this way about addressing sexism in the atheist community and related subjects like sexual harassment in the atheist convention circuit. Based on what I've heard from many others, I'm not the only one. This is unfortunate because sweeping things under the rug is rarely a good strategy for solving problems (just ask the Catholic Church). I believe that conventions should be places where people from diverse backgrounds can gather without having to worry about sexual harassment. And you know what? For the most part, I think they are.

Yes, I have read about all the same incidents you have. I agree that many of them are problematic, although a couple of the most talked about ones do strike me as overreactions. But while many of these incidents are problematic, I think it is important to remember that they represent a very small number of all the interactions that occur at these conventions. That doesn't make them right; it does make them relatively rare. The key points of contention I have observed involve how best to handle the few offenders and whether the larger community can manage to discuss the issues productively. I'm very optimistic about the first and far less so about the second.

Can We Have Productive Discussions About Sexual Harassment?

This is greatly oversimplified, but I am noticing a divide among the atheists I hear from regularly online. On one end, we have some vocal feminist bloggers and their allies who have repeatedly called incidents of harassment to our attention and called for changes. A few have provided our community with an outstanding service by being willing to take real risks, becoming lightning rods for the issue and reminding the rest of us that it will not going to disappear on its own. A few others have earned a reputation for overreacting in some fairly trivial circumstances and may have made it somewhat harder to have the sort of dialogue we need.

On the other end, we have a some vocal bloggers and prolific commenters on a number of blogs who have repeatedly questioned the veracity and severity of these incidents. They typically agree that harassment is a problem but think it has been somewhat overstated. A few feel like they have been attacked unfairly for trying to ask worthwhile questions designed to advance the discussion and generate solutions. A small minority of this group have become quite defensive, either dismissing the importance of the discussion completely or engaging in enough name-calling to warrant accusations of sexism and/or misogyny.

Many of us, and I include myself here, fall somewhere between these positions. We believe that harassment is a important issue which deserves attention, and we believe that some of the ways people have tried to have the discussion have not been particularly productive. We may even think twice before wading in again. I find that sentiment perfectly understandable but a bit unfortunate.

Coming Together

One obstacle to coming together to discuss the issues and craft effective solutions has been that many of us have not taken the time to think through the position from which we are starting. I fully expect to be changed through meaningful discourse with others who hold different opinions. But in order to facilitate this process, I need to first have some idea of my point of departure. So here's my starting point:

Atheists who attend these conferences need to take some responsibility for their own behavior and for working with organizers to develop standards of appropriate conduct. Such standards can inform potential attendees about what is expected and reduce ambiguity. "Boys will be boys" and "shit happens" are not acceptable excuses for making an ass of oneself. Neither is alcohol. Sorry. Moreover, the fact that sexual harassment occurs in many other settings does not somehow absolve atheists who do it at atheist conventions of responsibility. And what a person looks like is not relevant to whether or not one should feel free to harass them. "But she was really hot" is not a get-out-of-harassment-free card. I know, these things shouldn't have to be said. I agree with you completely. But it is clear to me that they do need saying.

What else? We need to be willing to answer some of the questions being asked by those who are genuinely trying to understand the issues (e.g., "What am I supposed to do if I am attracted to someone at a convention?"). Ignoring the questions, mocking those who ask them, and repeating "knock it off guys" isn't helping. I am quickly losing patience with the "just stop it, guys" approach, as I find it about as productive as standing over an illiterate adult and screaming, "Just read, dammit!" And perhaps the practice of turning every awkward or borderline inappropriate incident into a series of blog posts delivered in a highly sarcastic tone might be counterproductive too. I may be wrong here, but I wonder if we shouldn't at least consider the possibility.

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