Dear Richard Dawkins…
We here at Skepchick – and basically all of you – have been outraged and saddened by the recent comments made by Richard Dawkins on PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula. If you’re just coming in on this, I won’t get into the details, as you can read them elsewhere, and you can read the offending comments here. Suffice it to say that I, along with many of you, are disappointed that a man of such stature in the community has chosen to belittle the experiences of women. But I’ve also been heartened that so many of you recognize how wrong Dawkins is (just read the comments on Rebecca’s most recent post on the subject if you don’t believe me.) In that post, Rebecca asked you to write letters to Richard Dawkins the explain your disappointment, anger, confusion and disapproval. Some of those letters are published after the jump. And please post your own letters to Richard Dawkins in the comments. **Edit: We will be adding letters as we go, so stay tuned for updates!
I can call you Richard, right? I hope so. I’ve never been one for formalities. But enough with the pleasantries. You know why I’m here.
In truth, I don’t really know what else I can add to this discussion. I don’t come at this as a particular fan of yours. I have, to myself, questioned the effectiveness of your tactics, but I had to respect your knowledge and passion. Otherwise, I paid little attention.
But now, sir, you have my attention, and I look forward to watching your legacy crash and burn.
I apologize if that sounds mean spirited. Well…maybe not “apologize.” It’s unfortunate. I don’t delight in the desire to see a fellow human being fail. Really! I want everyone to win Wipeout. But your comments on PZ Myer’s blog were so beyond the pale that my desire for comeuppance is overwhelming.
And who wouldn’t be outraged? Not only were your comments dripping with huge gobs of misogyny, but they were vaguely racist. (Come on. Muslima? You and the writers of Avatar should get together and compare notes.) Who are you, man?
You entered this conversation in the most jerk-tastic way possible. You’re Richard Effin’ Dawkins, and you commented on a blog? On a topic that had so little to do with you that no one I know ever said, “Gee, I wonder what Richard Dawkins thinks about this.” And then your comments (the initial one, especially) were so dripping with bile and your own superiority that I was left befuddled and hurt, for myself, my friend and every woman I know.
I’m not trying to silence you in any way. You have a right to your opinion and a right to express that opinion in the manner you see fit. And so does Rebecca. And so does every other woman out there whose feelings and experiences you have invalidated by your obtuse and short-sighted comments. You don’t get to tell people how to feel. You don’t get to tell people that what they experienced was “zero bad.” You are, with all due respect, zero correct in this situation.
I hope you can see why I’m a little spiteful, and I trust that I don’t have to go into any more detail, as other people have provided their thoughtful and articulate insights. From following this on the Internet, it makes me hopeful to see so many people on the side of basic human decency and respect. It is just as satisfying to hear from all the people who will no longer buy your books or attend your lectures or recommend you to their friends. You have become irrelevant in the eyes of many, many people. You are not the first promoter of atheism or the theory of evolution, and you won’t be the last. I guess I should be thanking you, because now it’s clear that you’re not even the best the movement has to offer.
I hope it was worth it. As you know better than most, you don’t get a second chance.
Note: This letter originally appeared on Almost Diamonds.
At your request, we write to you to tell you what it is that you do not understand about elevators, invitations, and sexual assault. Who are we, and why are we in any position to tell you anything? We are atheists and skeptics, but more relevantly, we are victims of sexual assault.
There are two important things to note about Rebecca Watson’s experience. The first is that she had spent much of her evening telling the people around her, “Please don’t hit on me,” and finished by saying she was done talking and wanted sleep. This was ignored by the man now widely referred to as Elevator Guy. (Yes, it’s been established that he was in a position to hear her. Yes, it’s been established that he followed her out of the space in which she’d been saying this and got on the elevator with her.)
She had said, by unequivocal implication, “No.” He ignored this and did what he wanted to. This is important.
The second important thing to know is that her response was to say publicly, one more time, “Please don’t do that. It makes me uncomfortable.” That’s it. That was her entire response to Elevator Guy beyond telling him she wouldn’t go to his room.
For that response, Rebecca came under considerable fire. This is also important.
The entire drama-filled discussion came about because Rebecca asserted her right and the right of other women to say, “No,” and be heard. It happened because she asserted that men, as well as women, have a role to play in maintaining that right.
Then you spoke. Then you, widely regarded as one of atheism’s leaders, one of the Four Horsemen, decided you needed to say something about this.
You didn’t have to do that. If you felt, as your comments seem to indicate, that too much attention was being paid to this event, you could have simply declined to add yours.
However, that wasn’t what you did. Instead, you said that Rebecca, who was voicing our concerns, was thereby telling other women with other concerns that they were whining. Or perhaps that the rest of us who supported Rebecca when she was criticized for expressing her preferences were accusing these women of whining.
Even if you had stopped there, this would merit an apology. Not only has Rebecca spoken out loudly against female genital mutilation (drawing the ire of those who told her she wasn’t paying enough attention to the boys) and other religion-driven wrongs against women and girls, but her demand that women’s self-determination be respected is exactly what needs to spread in order to prevent the ills you mention. If this is an issue you care about, instead of a distraction from Rebecca’s point, you should be thanking her for her work instead of emphasizing the “chick” in the name of her organization, diminishing her stature.
Then, in response to complaints about that, you told us all that what happened to Rebecca–having her clearly and repeatedly expressed preferences about being hit on ignored–was “zero bad.” It should be clear by now why that requires a correction from you. It also calls for another apology, whether or not you knew the facts above when you wrote your comment. If you didn’t know, you weren’t in any state to lend your position and reputation to any characterization of what happened, much less the mischaracterization you used.
That is where you injured us, the victims. You have made one more space blatantly unsafe to us. We don’t mean safe as in free from any kind of sexual interest. We’re not asking for that, and we don’t want it. We mean that you, a leader in our community, made free with a woman’s experience and rewrote it to suit your own ends.
You decided you knew better than she did what had happened, and you were comfortable explaining it to everyone else. That is part of how communities are ruined and ultimately shaped to support sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. That is how offenders operate and how they are excused. That is how the world that hurt us was built. And you have added to that.
That is why you owe us an apology as much as you owe Rebecca. When may we expect it?
Dear Professor Dawkins,
You have taught me much; now I hope to teach you something.
Sexual advances are threatening and intimidating to the less powerful person in any situation of vastly unequal power. In the context of this incident: Rebecca, a woman who is, just by virtue of being a woman, a severe minority in the freethought community in which she was participating, in the enclosed space of an elevator, in the middle of the night, with the isolation of any potential allies being far away and/or asleep, was in a position of vastly unequal power.
I am a second-degree black belt, and I’d have been intimidated, too.
I attended my one and only freethought conference in 2009. I’ll only ever attend another if I get married to someone who doesn’t mind sticking by my side. I averaged a proposition of some sort during the socializing times about every forty-five minutes. As a result, I had to think defensively the whole weekend, and it was neither productive nor fun.
I hope this helped. Thank you for all the ways you’ve helped me.
Dear Mr. Dawkins,
I’m an atheist, too, and I try to be skeptical. I’m an admirer of your books and your lectures and other videos. This morning I read your posts on PZ Myers’ site in reference to Rebecca Watson’s comments about her experience at the conference in Dublin.
I’m actually rather numb.
I’m stunned. If someone had simply told me that you had said these things I wouldn’t have believed it. I’m still hoping that the comments actually come from someone impersonating you.
Sadly, I am not at all surprised at the number of guys posting in various online forums who don’t get it. Gatherings of skeptics, atheists and fans of comic books, sf, fantasy and gaming – frequently interrelated – feature women vastly outnumbered by men (less so these days, fortunately) in areas where absolute morons do actively hit on, maneuver and badger women all the time. Female guests as well as attendees have found themselves accosted by other guests and attendees for decades.
It’s not that every guy is always on the prowl. That would be an obvious fallacy. In this instance, the man in question didn’t ask her to go “somewhere” for coffee, or if they could “meet later” for coffee. Even if he genuinely had no ulterior motives and simply thought his hotel room would be a convenient place to have a conversation (unlikely at 4AM but possible), it put her in an uncomfortable position when she was otherwise alone in an enclosed space.
Let’s put another spin on the scenario. You’re on an elevator in the USA with a guy. He pulls out a gun as he’s talking to you. Further suppose that you’re in a part of the US where it’s perfectly legal for citizens to carry firearms, so this isn’t a matter for a policeman; he doesn’t shoot you, threaten you or even point it at you, he’s just holding the gun. After asking him to put it away, he acquiesces. But would your heart rate slow any time before one of you left the elevator? Would it really make you feel any better about the situation if someone later told you that it probably wasn’t loaded? Within the context of this situation (a woman alone on an elevator at 4AM with a stranger who asks her to come back to his room for any reason), the woman would have no idea what his reaction would be to being rebuffed, however kindly she declines, and justifiably could still be nervous however well he seems to take it.
In this instance, it worked out fine, he may (or not) have been horny, but he wasn’t an ogre. But it’s not a cheesy scene from a movie from the “free love” ’70s, and until they parted and the elevator doors closed securely between them again, she was understandably nervous.
In a perfect world, he could have posed this question (or even directly asked for sex), she could have said no, and that would be the end of it. We do not live in a perfect world. Have you not gone through an airport screening recently? Knowing that, and knowing the physical power imbalance between most men and women, how can anyone not understand on some level that women can feel nervous – even when not overtly threatened – in certain situations?
We live in a world where attitudes and actual violence toward women do not have to be the law of the land or acceptable to the eyes of the law. It simply happens. Not being the norm, it can become as nerve-wracking as finding yourself alone on a train or a bus with a posturing gang member. Chances are he’s not a going to pay the slightest attention to you, but perhaps you’re thinking “What if?” What if he decides to harass you? What if friends of his get on at the next stop and they’re looking to let off steam? Even when you’re accustomed to riding late at night through a rough neighborhood and have never been accosted, there’s likely to remain at least a low-level of apprehension.
And that seems to be all that Ms. Watson was conveying. The guy wasn’t passively sharing an elevator with her, he approached her in an uncomfortable manner. That nothing happened isn’t the point; that he crossed a line of etiquette was the issue. Was it as severe as throwing a drink at her, calling her names or physically attacking her? Of course not, and she never claimed that it was. But it is something that people should be aware of.
I sincerely hope that you will think about this, not simply because it tarnishes your reputation, but because it’s something that you’ve overlooked in your analysis. As a scientist and a skeptic, you should be happy to review the “data” of your perception. If you do, I’m sure you’ll see the point. Anyone who appreciates the complexity and beauty of evolution must be able to see this. And perhaps you will find that a formal apology to Ms. Watson (especially), Mr. Myers and the atheist/skeptic/feminist community to be not only appropriate but necessary.
Thank you for your time,
I have no idea how to contact Richard, I doubt my voice would make it through what must be a very busy inbox, so I’m sending my message here. If it is worthy, please forward it on.
The following link is a recent news story about a Canadian woman who was raped in a hotel while at a conference in Houston Texas. In this case the victim was not assaulted in an elevator, but was stalked to her room at 11pm where she was forced inside and raped.
The Houston police did nothing. The Toronto police tried to help her but nothing happened. Only after an officer she personally knew in Toronto looked into the case and persistently raised hell with the Houston police did anything happen to finally bring the criminal to justice. Three years later. The effort required was significant enough that the Toronto police officer received an award for her actions.
The rapist was the hotel manager, with full access to the entire hotel. He has likely raped others. In such cases the rapist is protected by the fact that it’s her word against his, with no witnesses. He has the woman’s embarrassment and shame to protect him.[Editor's note: Read the story here.]
In my opinion, Richard’s comment on the Pharyngula blog, stating that escape from an elevator is as easy as pushing a button to stop the elevator on the next floor is very short sighted and unrealistic. He seems to be making the common mistake of assuming that everyone (including the rapist) is as rational as he considers himself to be. Did Richard not even think that a woman could be incapacitated in an elevator? That a man could just say “Oh, she just had too much to drink, I’m getting her back to our room” to stop the concerns of people in the halls?
I understand that Richard is a man molded by the times and environment he has lived in, that it is probably not his intention to appear sexist, and that there certainly are cases of people (men and women) apparently being overly concerned about seemingly trivial occurrences. But this is not one of those times.
Richard’s archaic way of thinking is no longer acceptable. Rebecca Watson deserves a public apology.
Dear Prof. Dawkins,
Since you ask, I’ll attempt to explain what you are not getting.
A man asked her back to his room for coffee. You said it was the end of the story, but that’s not the case. You have cut off the beginning of the story, and the beginning is where the point lies. The reason his request was a problem was not the request itself, but the time and place. The context is what made it creepy, and the elevator was not the only context. I trust that PZ Myers and others have covered the elevator issue well enough that you understand why it’s not a good place to proposition a lone woman. Let me elucidate the rest of it.
1 – She had had no prior conversations with this man, but he tried to get her to go back to his room anyway. That’s not only creepy, that’s presumptuous and rude.
2 – It was 4 am, and she noted that he had been present when she said that she was tired and it was time for her to get some sleep. He chose to ignore her explicitly stated desires and tried to get her to have coffee with him in his room. Again, this is presumptuous and rude. It’s creepy because it’s an indicator of what might be a larger problem – if he can’t listen to what she just said, what else might he ignore?
3 – At 4 am, a hotel, even in a big city like Dublin, is not crowded. That makes it less safe.
4 – The irony, which is what Ms. Watson originally pointed out in her video, is that this man tried to pick her up at a conference where she had just spent the entire day talking about why that kind of thing is not acceptable behavior. He claimed that he found her interesting, but evidently he didn’t find her interesting enough to actually listen to what she had to say.
5 – He could have said, “I enjoyed the talk you gave today. When is your next presentation scheduled?” He could have said any number of innocuous things. Instead, he chose to put her on the spot and ask her to come to his room to serve his needs, either conversational or sexual, completely ignoring her stated desires.
6 – He could have talked to her when they were still both in public spaces with other people around, but he chose to wait until they were alone. This is another red flag.
It is critical to your understanding of this situation that you grasp that all women, everywhere, are engaged in constant low-level threat assessment when in public. When I go out, I walk well-lit streets. I pay attention to who else is walking near me. If I take public transit, I try to find a populated train car. When I talk to men I don’t know, I pay attention to what they say and how they say it, because that can demonstrate red flags. For instance, if I am at a convention and a man tries to separate me from the rest of the crowd, either by asking me to his room or simply cornering me at a party, that sets off a flag. This man did both to Ms. Watson.
My argument is that there was no need for him to make her uncomfortable in the first place. He didn’t need to set off all those flags. She had already said “no“ by stating her plan to go to sleep, but he chose to ignore that and proposition her anyway. That’s disrespectful, and is exactly the kind of behavior that as a feminist I’m fighting against.
It’s also critical that you understand that his intent does not matter. What matters is his behavior, and what he did is exactly what predatory men do: they isolate women, they ignore stated desires, and they wait until their target is in a weakened state. Up until the point Ms. Watson got off the elevator, she had no way of knowing that this man was simply rude and not predatory. If men don’t want to be seen as potential predators, then they need to learn how not to act like predators.
As atheists, we need to address problems like this because they cumulatively contribute to an atmosphere where women feel unwelcome. If a conference is known as a place where incidents like this happen all the time, then people will be less likely to come. Women will stay away because we don’t want to be creeped on, and men will stay away because they don’t want to be around other creepy men. It was a small thing, but small things add up, in society just as in biology.
In “The God Delusion,” you wrote a moving passage about how feminism raised all of our consciousness, and how you hope to emulate what feminism accomplished. When I read it, I took it to mean that you now identify as feminist. That gives me hope that you will not simply dismiss this issue out of hand, that you will listen to feminists, and raise your consciousness again. We still have work to do.
I was befuddled by your dismissive response on the Pharyngula blog. I was highly disappointed to see you, someone so highly regarded within the atheist movement, repeating the inconsiderate and misinformed statements which male-rights activists shouted when anyone opposed.
Nobody disagrees with the idea that Middle Eastern women cope with much more serious tribulations every day. This injustice is intolerable, but simply because it exists does not give anybody the right to overlook or dismiss lesser suffering. I realize that your statement might have been in sarcasm, as I seem to remember you saying on Pharyngula. If it wasn’t, I only have reason to be further disappointed. If it was, it was simply appropriate. The scale of the reaction to your first response on Pharyngula was massive, and many people re-used your inappropriate argument about women in the Middle East during the thread.
The statement I’m reasonably certain you were serious about that I would like to address in full is the matter of your asking Rebecca Watson to “grow thicker skin”. Her response was appropriate; he made an unwanted sexual proposition in an inappropriate place at an inappropriate time. She discussed the behavior and said that it was creepy. She did not lament the woe of her oppression, as many have tried to make it seem. However, given that this particular experience is not all that unusual for any woman to encounter, it’s something that needs further discussion.
This is certain; many women feel intimidated to attend atheist conferences. They do not want to experience unwanted sexual advances or, in extreme cases, inappropriate and unsolicited touching. It alienates women from the mainstream movement. I feel that this is of paramount importance. To the skeptical movement, which seems to have such a diversity in the opinion of its people, the loss of the group is both a shame to the women who would like to participate, but feel intimidated, and to the people who are losing the chance to broaden and diversify their conventions and groups.
I encourage you to reassess your opinions. It’s an important subject to many, and I’m sure you realize how disappointing your dismissal of it was.
I am a big fan of yours. The God Delusion and The Selfish Gene were both pivotal books in my life.
So it is with great pain that I read your recent comments, publicly trivializing Rebecca Watson and her experience.
Very, very disappointed in you, Professor.
The language used. The dismissiveness.
Although I do appreciate your involvement, make no mistake: you are not a spokesperson for us, or for the women who have gone before us. Those rights that have been won by our mothers and our grandmothers remain tenuous even in the west.
These are human rights and NOT privileges.
How dare you imply otherwise.
Small erosions, when left unchecked, lead us back to less enlightened days. How far back can it lead? We don’t know.
You are well aware that the separation of church and state, especially on the educational front, consists of an endless chain of small efforts over what seems to be trifles. Constant vigilance. Reviewing laws, reviewing curriculum. Rooting out inroads made by creationists demanding a “balanced view.” Checking the wording of textbooks. Losing a little ground and gaining it. Court battles squabbling over words.
Over mere words.
But according to your attitude, all these First World concerns are nonsense.
After all, there are people out there being beheaded for apostasy.
Professor Dawkins, you should apologize publicly.
Because I continue to respect your work, and I don’t want to lose respect for you as a person.
If I were the type of person who had heroes, you would be one of them. I read your book “River Out of Eden” as a teenager and it would deeply affect my view of the world and the course my life would take. (As I write this, I am taking a short break from being one of the leaders at a humanist youth camp. The others are facilitating the kids’ discussion about identity.) I met you twice, and remember how excited I was that you remembered me the second time. I had given you some feedback on “Root of All Evil?” that you took seriously and made me feel like you are truly an honest and humble individual. This is why I am now so deeply disappointed.
I know you’re an old, white, highly educated man, thus part of several of the most privileged groups in society and therefore statistically one of the least likely to “get it”. Still, the same is true for for instance my dad and PZ Myers, and they do seem to get it. I thought you were at least as smart and openminded as them. (It was dad that gave me your book to read, and years later it was I that introduced him to PZ’s blog Pharyngula.)
But you don’t get it. You don’t seem to understand that while some things may seem innocuous enough, it is the context that makes them bad and our feelings about them make sense. The context is one you will never experience personally, because you are a man, and you will thus have to give those of us who DO experience it the benefit of the doubt. When we tell you that women don’t feel safe in this society, you have to trust that we are not lying about our feelings.
Consider a dog. It’s big and (in it’s owner’s eyes) cute and completely harmless; it loves children and belly rubs and wants to be everyone’s friend. But only those who know that dog KNOWS that this is so. The rest of us have to consider the fact that dogs are domesticated predators and that people are irresponsible and careless with their pets. So to anyone who doesn’t know the dog, when it comes running towards you barking, you are completely in your right to be afraid of it, and angry at the owner for not keeping it on a leash.
That is what happened in the elevator with Rebecca. We live in a society where women aren’t safe, and thus it doesn’t matter how pure the intentions of an individual man is, how harmless he is — he has to consider the fact that to us, if we don’t know him, making an inappropriate suggestion in an inappropriate setting will make us see him much the same way we see that strange dog. It will make us creeped out and a little angry at best, afraid for our lives at worst.
(Yes, I am generalising. Not all women react the same. But you’re a biologist, you know all about useful generalisations.)
And this is why the suggestion to walk away is so utterly ridiculous. The point is that we don’t know if we will be ABLE to walk away, or if that man will be strangling us against the wall if we try. And the point is we shouldn’t have to worry about it.
You’ve demonstrated you don’t get it. I wish you would do as my dad did. He hung out with the women at his workplace, and despite him being their superior in social norms, despite him having every privilege you do, after some years they still got used to him. As a fly on the wall, he listened to their tales, and understood that it’s all real. We’re not making shit up. He, like you, is in a position to be one of the most piggish, insensitive oafs that run this society, but he isn’t, because he listened, and he took us seriously.
I really wish I could admire you as I admire him. You’ve meant so much to me, you’ve shaped my life and my philosophy with your writings on biology. And now I am just so, so disappointed.
Featured image credit: ricardodiaz11