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    Categories: Feminism

On Naming Names at The CFI Student Leadership Conference

Last weekend I gave a talk at CFI’s Student Leadership Conference. They asked if I’d talk about the Religious Right’s War on Women, and I was only too happy to oblige because it’s an important issue that I enjoy discussing. The night before I spoke, though, I became aware of what I think is a pretty serious problem with anti-feminist thinking amongst the very people I was meant to be addressing.

You may recall that last week I posted this video, in which I describe an unpleasant encounter I had with a fellow atheist that I thought might serve as a good example of what men in our community should strive to avoid – basically, in an elevator in Dublin at 4AM I was invited back to the hotel room of a man I had never spoken to before and who was present to hear me say that I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed.

The night prior to my talk, I happened across a video rebuttal from a woman who I was told would be at the CFI conference. I was pretty frustrated, seeing a young woman who I’m sure is intelligent be so incredibly dismissive of my experience and that of other women in this community, and so uneducated about the fundamentals of feminist thought. She ends the video by asking, “What effect do you think it has on men to be constantly told how sexist and destructive they are?”

I made the mistake of replying to the uploader (stclairose) and some of the hateful commenters at 2 AM – never a good idea. My response to her question at the time was that I never called all men sexist and destructive, nor did I do it constantly. In fact, in my video I specifically said that most of the conference attendees – men and women – were awesome. What I should have added is this: for the men (and women) who are behaving in sexist and destructive ways, I hope that pointing it out to them has the effect of making them consider their actions and stop being sexist and damaging.

When I was discussing the video with friends the next day, I was blown away to be told that there were other student leaders who had expressed similar dismissive attitudes recently on Facebook and on other blogs. An hour or so prior to my talk, someone sent me this link to a post by Stef McGraw on the UNI Freethinkers site. I added a paragraph of that response to a slide for the intro to my talk, in which I hoped to call out the anti-woman rhetoric my audience was engaging in.

This is the paragraph I ended up quoting:

My concern is that she takes issue with a man showing interest in her. What’s wrong with that? How on earth does that justify him as creepy? Are we not sexual beings? Let’s review, it’s not as if he touched her or made an unsolicited sexual comment; he merely asked if she’d like to come back to his room. She easily could have said (and I’m assuming did say), “No thanks, I’m tired and would like to go to my room to sleep.”

I pointed out that she posted a transcript of my video but conveniently left off the fact that I had already expressed my desire to go to sleep. I also pointed out that approaching a single woman in an elevator to invite her back to your hotel room is the definition of “unsolicited sexual comment.” But those are unimportant details in comparison to the first quoted sentence, which demonstrates an ignorance of Feminism 101 – in this case, the difference between sexual attraction and sexual objectification. The former is great – be attracted to people! Flirt, have fun, make friends, have sex, meet the love of your life, whatever floats your boat. But the latter involves dismissing a person’s feelings, desires, and identity, with a complete disinterest in how one’s actions will affect the “object” in question. That’s what we shouldn’t be doing. No, we feminists are not outlawing sexuality.

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?”

After my talk, I met a ton of amazing young men and women who came to talk to me about their own experiences. Some were considering not attending the conference due to the anti-woman sentiments they were reading. Some told me that the previous year, they watched in horror as Heidi Anderson was shouted down while on the stage discussing feminist issues. I think that the intelligent, thoughtful, caring people I met at the conference were very much in the majority, but are often out-shouted by an angry minority. Over the next two days I would see that kind of angry bile dominating the #CFICON Twitter hashtag, demanding I retract my statements and apologize. The Tweets emanated from only three or four Twitter accounts, none of whom appeared to be McGraw or stclairose. Those that weren’t anonymous were men (EDIT: @ramenneedles has informed me that one was @DoctorHoenikker, who is a woman).

The demands for an apology were very interesting. None of my critics at any point offered any counterargument concerning my points on objectification or feminism . . . all their criticism was entirely about tone. At first they were angry because I had criticized a student. For instance, Trevor Boeckmann, a CFI intern, Tweeted, “It’s one thing to call out a public figure, it’s another to spend your keynote calling out a student.” (Boeckmann must have actually missed my talk, since I spoke about McGraw’s post for about two minutes out of sixty. Despite this and the fact that he did not mention my name, I saw the Tweet on the #CFICON feed and correctly guessed it was about me, anyway. See below for more on that topic. )

This struck me as extremely disrespectful to McGraw. She is not a child, and is not incompetent. She is an adult woman who is a director for a prominent campus organization and who is more than capable of defending her own words if she chooses. When I pointed out that we all should be held accountable for our words, I was told that I should have informed McGraw before my talk. I’m not sure why that’s a requirement since it would have only given her a few minutes’ additional notice, but I would have been happy to had I known who she was at the conference. I was then informed that I was in the wrong because (according to @AaronFriel) I “ridiculed” a person instead of attacking an argument when I said that McGraw’s “post was a pretty standard parrotting of misogynistic thought”. I hope I don’t need to point out to this audience that criticizing a person’s words is not the same as criticizing the person. At no point did I ridicule McGraw, and I even started that part of my talk by stating that I had no desire to embarrass anyone — only to use actual, relevant examples to show the anti-feminist thought that seems so pervasive.

With all other complaints answered, my critics fell back to one complaint: I was wrong to use McGraw’s name.

Now I must share one additional fact about me: I loathe passive aggressive behavior. Loathe it. I sincerely believe that if you are going to criticize someone’s argument, you should clearly and honestly state to whom you are referring and what exactly they have said or done that you find objectionable.

For me, this is a question of respect: I have enough respect for the person I am criticizing to not make them guess that I am talking about them or guess at what they said that needs to be defended, and I have enough respect for my audience to allow them the opportunity to double check my work. If I hide the person and the exact words that I am criticizing, how does anyone know whether or not I’m creating a strawman? How can the person in question respond?

McGraw and stclairose had enough respect for me and/or their audiences to state my name and link to my video when they criticized me, and though I vehemently disagree with their arguments, I appreciate the fact that I at least knew they were addressing me directly. And so, I did the same during my talk, using McGraw’s name and exact words as an example of what I see as a problem in this community. And I hope that when she or anyone else disagrees with what I’ve written here, they again have enough respect to say my name.

Zombie Fail Whale image courtesy of our friends at Topatoco.

Rebecca Watson: Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

View Comments

  • P.S.

    Are you also an HIV denialist like our friend Michael Wright, who in this article chooses to present himself as a "Former AIDS Researcher"?

    It looks like he's a self-appointed internet 'expert' in everything he chooses to discuss. One wonders where he finds the time....

  • Well lets looksie at the FBI stats.

    "In 2009, the number of forcible rapes was estimated at 88,097. By comparison, the estimated volume of rapes for 2009 was 2.6 percent lower than the 2008 estimate, 6.6 percent lower than the 2005 number, and 2.3 percent below the 2000 level. (See Tables 1 and 1A.)"

    hmmmmm. Can those numbers ever get us even close to the Ms. Magazine 1 in 4 statistic?

    Okay lets look at the frequency of rapes.

    "The rate of forcible rapes in 2009 was estimated at 56.6 per 100,000 female inhabitants, a 3.4 percent decrease when compared with the 2008 estimated rate of 58.6."

    Now let's do some napkin math. I know it's not easy for a person who doesn't think for themselves to understand the validity of such a procedure but bear with me.

    If we multiply the frequency (56.6/100,000) that rape occurs according to the FBI by the number of years a woman lives in a life time we can roughly estimate the likelihood that a woman will be raped. Now for the sake of being as fair as possible to your view lets suppose this woman lives to be 100. That's a (56.6/100,000) chance of being raped multiplied by 100. Now 56.6 multiplied by 100 equals 5,660. This means that 5.66 percent of women will be raped in there lifetime which pretty bad when you think about it.

    However that is way way below the 1 in 4 woman women who attend college have been raped stat propagated by mindless ideologues.

    Of course you will try to argue that the FBI was only including reported rapes into it's estimate. (when it wasn't) Or that the FBI defines rape too narrowly (when it doesn't for our purposes here) etc. etc. Blah. Blah. Blah.

    When official stats are good enough for the zealots they feel the need to commission sham studies to confirm their biased world view.

    But basically it's good news for women or those who care about women because it means that you can talk to boys in elevators at conferences. (even in foreign countries at 4 am.)

  • So the response to being told that the sources you are providing are playing Calvinball with the rules of mathematics is to gather some FBI data and then play Calvinball math with them?

    Yeah, brilliant and utterly convincing. *rolls eyes*

    Do you really think that multiplying the 2009 figures for the incidence of forcible rape per 100,000 women in the population by 100 will give the likelihood of a population 100 year-old woman being raped sometime in her life? And if so, have you always suffered from organic mental damage or can we just write this off merely to stupidity and innumeracy? There is a difference between the concepts of rate and the arithmetic mean, and multiplying the rate by 100 doesn't give you anything but a abstract figure to play with. If we multiply my zip code by my height in inches, my shoe size, and then divide the mess by the last four digits of my telephone number, that will give you a number too, but it has no real existence and represents no property to do with me.

    At least the MRA rape apologist brigade gives the lie to the notion that men are inherently better at mathematics.

  • I also LOLed at this:

    "But basically it’s good news for women or those who care about women because it means that you can talk to boys in elevators at conferences. (even in foreign countries at 4 am.)"

    I don't think that finding oneself cornered by a random asshole hitting on oneself at 4 a.m. is the goal here, unless you're the asshole (admittedly, the evidence to date strongly supports the hypothesis that you are an asshole). For the non-asshole part of the population, a sexual proposition from a complete stranger is not what is generally wanted when taking the elevator up from the hotel lobby at 4 a.m, rape stats or no rape stats. It's just the fact that society places the burden of vigilance squarely on the shoulders of women that makes a woman have to evaluate the risks of an unwelcome sexual proposition at 4 a.m. And you know what? For the vast majority, such a proposition from a stranger is not going to be crowned with success, because hotel rooms are not safe places to interact with people you've barely met.

  • Hmmmm. I think it's possible to have a discussion without all the harsh name calling.

    Oh, yes the whole "But it was 4 AM!!!" gambit.

    You know what they say about girls that party till 4 AM don't you??................

    They party till 5 AM, sometimes even later.....

    The idea that every time a guy hits on a girl that he's just looking to get her into the sack is the problem here.

    I see that you can't even bother to address the content of my previous argument, presumably because facts don't interest you as much as sensationalism.

  • "Do you really think that multiplying the 2009 figures for the incidence of forcible rape per 100,000 women in the population by 100 will give the likelihood of a population 100 year-old woman being raped sometime in her life?"

    Slaps forehead. You totally failed to even grasp the point of what I was doing.

    People like you are just too smart for their own good. They are good at sophistry and verbally deconstructing things but when it comes to common sense they are miles away from reality.

  • "Hmmmm. I think it’s possible to have a discussion without all the harsh name calling."

    It is possible, but I don't feel like extending rape apologists the benefit of any courtesy.

    "You know what they say about girls that party till 4 AM don’t you??"

    You do know that this wasn't a party, don't you? And furthermore that even women who party at 4 a.m. are not asking to be sexually propositioned in elevators anyway? Of course you know that. But you want to ignore these salient facts in the service of making an apologia for an asshole's 'right' to proposition women anywhere at any time.

    "The idea that every time a guy hits on a girl that he’s just looking to get her into the sack is the problem here."

    That is rather implicit in the definition of "hits on". Now, if you wanted to use the more neutral term "invites a woman out", then congratulations: I already agree that when a man invites a woman somewhere, that man is not necessarily doing so for the purpose of sex. However, you'll have to do a damn sight better at explaining away the circumstances under discussion as being anything other than a barely concealed sexual proposition. Consider that they had just left a lounge that served coffee (all hotel bars do). Consider that EG could have introduced himself and bought her a cup at any time. But all of a sudden, now that she's alone and in an elevator at 4 a.m., he thinks now is the appropriate time to spring a "request for coffee" in his hotel room. These are not circumstances that lead one to believe that the request was innocent of any subtext.

    "Slaps forehead. You totally failed to even grasp the point of what I was doing."

    I understood the point perfectly well. You were doing rape apologism with bad math. Understanding that fact doesn't make your math any less bad.

    "People like you are just too smart for their own good."

    Thank you. I accept your concession.

    Nobody ever tells me that except when I've just shot down their flimsy 'argument'.

    And here's some further shocking news: you are not the voice of common sense in this discussion. Common sense would be taking a woman at her word as to how elevator propositions at 4 a.m. make her feel, not second-guessing her in the interests of establishing your 'right' to be an entitled jackass with his dick hanging out of his pants everywhere he goes.

  • "Common sense would be taking a woman at her word as to how elevator propositions at 4 a.m. make her feel, not second-guessing her in the interests of establishing your ‘right’ to be an entitled jackass with his dick hanging out of his pants everywhere he goes."

    No my friend common sense is being aware that their are two sides to every story. That's something I learned when I was 6 years old.

    Once again you are miles and miles away from ordinary reality.

  • The idea that every time a guy hits on a girl that he’s just looking to get her into the sack is the problem here.”

    That is rather implicit in the definition of “hits on”. Now, if you wanted to use the more neutral term “invites a woman out”, then congratulations: I already agree that when a man invites a woman somewhere, that man is not necessarily doing so for the purpose of sex.

    Well getting someone in the sack is not "implied" in the definition as you evasively state. It's part of the meaning of the term or it isn't.

    http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/hit-on

    hit on someone mainly American informal to try to start a conversation with someone because you are sexually attracted to them

    http://onlineslangdictionary.com/meaning-of/hit-on
    verb - transitive
    to attempt to attract verbally; "flirt with"

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hit%20on

    to flirt with someone

    Sex isn't the entire meaning of "sexual interest" or sexuality despite the sadly typical way of thinking about sexuality that certain supposedly progressive factions of our society adhere to.

    But then I'm a marxist so I don't always have the same assumptions about human community that is so common among "liberal" thinkers that reduce humanity to a mere abstraction.

    It's not all about sex bro, despite whatever you learned when you were 8 years old. You've been brainwashed by television.

    • So you're a Marxist, and your big stand for the cause is to come on here spouting MRM talking points from self-appointed internet experts? Perfect. It's no wonder Marxism is in trouble if it has advocates like you.

      Thanks for allowing me that heaping dose of Schadenfreude, and then finishing it off with a delicious topping of implication that I'm a liberal. That's yet another way in which you resemble the average far-right loudmouth. I can't tell you how many of them have told me quite confidently that I'm a liberal Obama-supporter. But I suppose to all authoritarian dickweeds, it's first necessary to confine anyone who disagrees with you to a handy compartment, and the intellectually incestuous world of Marxist sectarianism, that is even more important than it is to your average teabagger.

      I think that with this last message, you managed to be even more entertaining than if you were to spend the rest of your time defending your ridiculous Calvinball math. But, of course, that means that it will all be downhill from here, so, like a woman who has just been propositioned by a clod at 4 a.m. in an elevator, I will now say "Farewell, and let's try to not meet again!"

      Bye bye now.

      • Was that your closing argument? Because as an impartial 3rd party, I have to say you didn't make your case. Unless your case was that you prefer ad-hominem attacks and irrelevant but emotionally stirring arguments to logically sound ones.

        • Which, by the way, is too bad, because as much as I agree with the distinction between flirtation, friendly interest and sexual interest that silencio makes, I'm a died-in-the-wool capitalist and feel slightly like I'm betraying my country or something by agreeing with him.