Our very own El Mofo laid the smackdown yesterday on how the overt sexualization of speakers is unprofessional, uncouth, and just plain unproductive in building a better skeptical community. Recently, the blogosphere has been abuzz with the issues that sexual harassment by speakers raise, such as disclosure and what can be done to improve the situation. I’ve written in the past about the type of sexual harassment that cannot be blamed on so-called “clumsy Romeos.”
Anytime the word “sexism” comes up in the skeptical and atheist community, someone will usually cite the Morgan Freeman Principle: we need to ignore it by not talking about it so that it will go away. Misogyny is clearly a pimple, so let us not inflame it further, yes? Ostriching (or not) is obviously a poor course of action to prescribe if the community ever hopes to be as better than mainstream society as many of its members consider themselves be.
The chilling effect goes further than just on improving the community as a whole, or ensuring that it is welcoming for prospective members: it can kill the spark of activism that exists in women.
Picture if you will a young, enthusiastic woman, full of vim and verve, quite ready to take on the world. She used to volunteer at religious events as a child and adolescent, and, post-deconversion, has missed the feelings of fulfillment, community, and, simple happiness that came from such service. When she hears of skeptic-related volunteer opportunities, she jumps on the chance. During her volunteering stint for a particular gathering, she is assigned to and is more than happy to fulfill a public-facing role.
As the doors open and she puts on her best face, she realizes that she will be interacting with all of the speakers. In order to appear professional and official, she expresses her impulse to fangirl through an energetic tone and quick smile that she consistently uses with everyone, speakers or not. One speaker in particular seems responsive to her enthusiasm. She chats with him sporadically throughout the day.
At one point, between the speeches, he tells her of a gathering that he is orchestrating. It is too far and too soon for her to attend, but she is thrilled that someone of his caliber has taken note of her. At dinner, when she brings up her ideas and criticisms related to the community, he not only responds positively to what she has to say, he corroborates her and rolls his eyes at others’ clueless comments, to her great satisfaction.
Later, during his speech, her heart swells with hope for the community into which she has stumbled. How well the day has gone, coupled with the fact that her ideas have seemed well-received by a leader, has put her on cloud 9.
Then, a week or so later, when she mentions her interaction with the speaker and how much hope it has given her, a friend who had been at the gathering and seen her interact with the speaker mentions that said speaker has something of a, shall we say, reputation, somewhat implying a rather demeaning explanation as to why the speaker had paid so much attention to her.
A record scratch zips through in her head as she asks herself, for the first time, but not the last, “so, did he really think that I would be able to contribute towards the community, or what… ?” No matter how she looks at it, she loses. If she thinks that he actually values her ideas and she is proven wrong, she is a fool for not seeing through his facade and arrogant for considering her intellect of any sort of worth. If she decides that what he did was due to the actions that garnered him his reputation and she is proven wrong, she is an arrogant woman who thinks too much of her looks and too little of men.
You’ve probably guessed this already, but I have been disillusioned in this exact manner. Where overt sexism couldn’t get me to leave, this experience left me seriously considering fully backing out of the community.
To this day, I don’t know if the person in question really thought that I could make a contribution, wanted to add me to his scorecard, or some combination of the above. What I do know is that I can’t be the only young woman who has called into question the value and validity of her ideas and her potential because the person who paid attention to what she had to say is known to be a certain type of man. Even if the young woman in question were to remain secure in her worth to the community, others could easily construe any help given to her by a certain type of man to be a sign that he wants to have, or already has had, some sort of sexual entanglement with her.
Not all of us grow up to write for Skepchick and speak at cons. Some of us are left eternally wondering if the things that were said to us by prominent community members were sincere or just slimy sexual flattery. And that?