Beyond Jokes and Pick-Up Lines: Sexism in Skepticism
I avoided mentioning specific instances of sexist behavior in the skeptic/atheist community in my original piece on the topic because making such a list was not, I felt, necessary. In response to several sincere-seeming comments, I put out a call for personal accounts and began halfheartedly compiling them, sure that the response would merely be more in the way of denial of women’s experiences.
Then, it happened.
It was not so much the fact that a woman had not experienced sexism in the skeptic community that struck me. In fact, as others have pointed out, that is quite the goal of those of us who stand up to sexism.
I was not terribly surprised at the piece’s seeming dismissal of women’s experiences; when I posted examples of sexism in the community on my personal Facebook page, the responses were often along the lines of “well, I don’t see it/haven’t seen it, therefore you’re wrong.”
I barely blinked as the author voiced the same anti-feminist arguments I have been hearing all of my adult life: that we are anti-sex, anti-jokes, anti-fun.
Saddest of all, I was far from shocked that the author conflates having a penis with being a man and desiring women as well as having a vagina with being a woman, since cissexism Is A Thing everywhere and I get accused of being oversensitive on an almost-daily basis just for pointing it out .
No, I was taken aback by the fact that she thinks that the sexism that many of us want to defeat is just, you know, guys joking around and hitting on women. Boys will be boys, am I right?
Personally, I cannot count the times that I have had to debate a man at a skeptic or atheist gathering for his blatantly sexist assumptions and comments. One tires of hearing “women are complicated,” “women are just more emotional,” and the like. In the context of skepticism/atheism, emotion is viewed negatively in a lot of ways. It is often posited as the opposite of reason and rationality. Insisting that women are more on that side is implying something not-so-pretty.
I attended an atheist meetup where I was attempting to talk to other atheists about our experiences. [A man sits at our table and] begins talking about women drivers (apparently he had a bad experience on the way to the meetup), and how we need to just accept that women are naturally less good than men are at certain things. I said would love to hear his reasoning and supporting evidence for his argument, because it sounded like blatant sexism to me. [Note: All skeptics should gladly provide evidence when asked for it, right? That's the reason I decided to compile this post in the first place, despite my misgivings, right?]
He said “Oh, right, I forgot. We atheists are supposed to drink the feminist KoolAid and pretend the natural differences between men and women don’t exist. Instead of being called ‘heretics,’ now we get called ‘sexist’ just for telling the truth!” I reiterated that I would like to consider his argument if he could present one, since all he had offered so far were baseless generalizations. He stopped talking to me, though, as another man at the table had chimed in to agree with him.
My husband suggested we leave, but I was determined to gain something from this interaction. I tried talking to another man, but all he began the conversation by saying “How old are you? You look like a teenager! I get enough of talking to teenaged girls now that my daughter has moved in with me and my son. We both wish she would go back to live with her mother. She’s just miserable all the time! Girls are just awful at that age!” My husband said something like “Wow. I can imagine why your daughter would be miserable!” Then we left.
Women as Sexualized Meat
Sometime in 2009, a leader of a local group attempted to entice men to come to an event he was hosting at the beach by mentioning, multiple times, that there would be “hot babes in bikinis” there. When he suddenly noticed me, he decided to add on a little comment about “handsome men” at the end of his speech. Nice try, but I already knew that I was not going.
In early 2011, I attended a volunteer’s meeting for a conference. A prominent male member of the group suggested that the restaurant at which the meeting was taking place ought to have been a certain one of which he knew where the women had “nice tits” (or something equally crude) instead.
I would also like to point out that the second man in question went on to become one of the speakers at this year’s version of the conference. This sort of behavior and attitude is not limited to so-called “neckbeards” as suggested in the comments thread on my previous post. Leaders and public faces in the atheist and skeptic community are part of it.
“But it’s worse in the non-atheist/non-skeptic community!”
So what if it is? Should we not attempt to make our community more welcoming, especially if the lack of female participation is something about which many male participants seem to care?
“Those don’t seem like sexism to me because [insert mansplain here].”
Whatever you personally feel about the personal stories is irrelevant. The fact is that women are marginalized to the point of leaving the atheist/skeptic movement. Sometimes, it pays to just listen and acknowledge the other person’s perspective.
“Well, who cares about how women feel?”
All the men who ask me why women don’t participate more care. If no one cares, then there would be no issue. Instead, you have men engage in or tolerate sexist behavior and then turn around and ask why women don’t participate.
Silencing and Erasure
In early 2011, I volunteered at a conference. The person in charge needed people to do introductions for the speakers. He asked every male volunteer if he wanted to do one and even pressured reticent ones into speaking, but totally ignored all of the female volunteers, including me.
A few months ago, in the discussion surrounding a debate I was doing with a friend of mine, my (male) friend was mentioned by a prominent local skeptic with a history of making sexist remarks, where I was not mentioned until I spoke up. The irony of the situation is that I was the one who helped to arrange the debate, and invited him to debate with me. I did get an apology from the responsible parties, but why I had to clamor to be mentioned is beyond me.
Some female skeptics and atheists remove themselves before they can be removed by others, and I cannot say that I entirely blame them.
From Jane Atheist:
I made the mistake of asking on my own blog space there if any women had experienced sexism from atheists/skeptics. In response, I got a callout thread telling me that I had no right to mouth off and ask such a question, that I was assassinating the character of all men by asking (not just the sexist ones, even though I’d made it clear that those guys were the problem, not ALL men), and that I probably hadn’t really experienced any sexism at all, I’d just been treated as an equal and didn’t like it. I didn’t respond to the call-out because I don’t like to make a flame war worse; I figured it would die out on its own. 14 pages later it was still going strong. [...] I reported the callout thread, since it violated the site’s own anti-harassment policy, but the mods never did anything about it. I later learned that the guy who started the thread was known for this sort of behavior and was considered something of a site mascot; the mods not only tolerated his bullying, but welcomed it.
The flaming on the atheist social networking site actually silenced me. It was harsh enough that not only did I feel a lot of shame for even speaking up at all, but it got me scared that if I kept blogging and writing and talking about this sort of thing I’d only get it worse. And while I know that there are plenty of people who thrive on that kind of interaction, I’m just not one of them. So I stopped blogging. I stopped participating in feminist/atheist discussions online at all, regardless of venue – I don’t blog, I don’t take part in fora, I don’t post on other blogs, nothing. I canceled my YouTube account – heh, and I haven’t even mentioned the times I got called “dyke” and “lesbo” there, just because such comments seem so run-of-the-mill. (And it tells you something about the mentality of someone who thinks that calling a person a lesbian is an insult.) I lurk and read and learn, but I’m too afraid and ashamed to speak up. [...]I don’t attend atheist/skeptic conferences either, partly because I can’t afford it right now, but partly also because I’m skeptical that I’ll feel welcomed there as anything other than a pair of tits.
I was at a social event hosted by my local atheist/humanist organization. I broke off with an older woman who was telling me that she’s been an atheist for years, but that atheist events always seemed so younger person / male dominated that she felt really out of place. I mentioned that I, too, had been an atheist for quite a while before I ever came out to an event, mostly because the perception I had of who atheists were from the internet was not at all flattering. She agreed with me that it’s very intimidating for a woman to show up at an atheist event for the first time. Then she tells me that she doesn’t come out to the events too often because she feels like she’s often being talked over and ends up just angry and flustered.
Suddenly, a wild male appears! This guy was a leader in our community and had often talked about ways to get more women involved, etc. He butts in to our conversation to tell us that it’s not any different between men coming out for their first event and women doing it, and that women are totally welcome to participate in discussions and men don’t just talk over them, and there’s no sexism in our local group at all because some of our past presidents have been women and we have TWO female board members (out of ten). After listening to him talk at us for quite a few minutes, the lady smiled at me and excused herself. I’ve never seen her at one of our events since.
I never talked to the guy about his behaviour and I’m sure he has no idea how he came off. To a bystander, I’m sure it seemed like “just people talking/debating,” maybe a little uncomfortable but not obviously sexist. But the fact that a man felt that he had the right to come over, to talk over us (we didn’t get a single word in after he started talking), and to tell us that our perceptions and feelings were wrong is the perfect example of “modern sexism.”
What Does It All Mean?
I don’t see how persistently arguing for a sexist perspective is somehow a pick-up line or a joke; there is a difference between hitting on someone and treating women as a whole like nothing but pieces of flesh. Unfortunately for Mallorie Nasrallah’s premise, the sexism I have experienced, witnessed, and heard about in the atheist and skeptic community has nothing to do with having a sense of humor or experiencing/expressing desire. Indeed, it is the opposite of receiving the same treatment from men as other men receive: being told and treated as if we were lesser-than.
What Should Be Done?
At the very least, incidents like this should not be as common of an experience for women in atheism and skepticism. Think of racism: plenty of people hold racist views but when they make racist remarks, especially in mixed company, others do not tolerate them and they realize that they need to stop expressing such views, as much as they might believe in them. You cannot always change people’s bigotry, but you can make sure that their bigotry does not end up affecting others to such a large extent.
In every instance that I described above, had even one other person called out the sexism or agreed with me openly, I would have felt that the incident, while disgusting or annoying, was not an indicator of an overall pattern. The men in the skeptic and atheist community who care and want for it to be better can stop tolerating other men’s sexism — or, at the very least, take women seriously when we call out sexism.