During my visit to Germany last week, I was asked by a conference attendee how I thought we could get more women to attend skeptic and atheist conferences. I gave the answer I nearly always give: when we increase the number of women on stage, we increase the number of women in the audience. As usual, I gave this example: The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) run by the James Randi Educational Foundation. I pointed out that when I first started attending (TAM 3), there were very few women on stage and the audience was only about 20% women. I explained that last year (TAM 9) an effort had been made to have women comprise 50% of the speakers. Most of those women were on panels and workshops, but it was a huge step. That, combined with ongoing promotion in places like Skepchick where Surly Amy raised thousands of dollars to give travel grants to dozens of women, helped finally raise the percentage of women in the audience to 40%.
Also, I suggested that more conferences should institute harassment policies as TAM did last year, and they should also enforce those policies in order to help women feel welcomed and safe.
So it’s odd for me to be announcing that I will not attend TAM this year, because I do not feel welcomed or safe and I disagree strongly with the recent actions of the JREF president, DJ Grothe.
I’ve attended TAM since TAM 3 in 2005, and since TAM 4 I’ve actively raised money for grants to send more women. That’s actually how Skepchick got started – selling calendars to raise money for women to go to TAM. Signed calendars were even auctioned off at TAM in order to raise even more money for the JREF. For several years, we at Skepchick actively tried to work with the JREF to help increase the number of women on stage, as well, creating long lists of potential female speakers and suggesting panels and other events that would be of interest to women. TAM was the main event for Skepchick, even after we started running our own event at SkepchickCon.
This year was supposed to be like all the others: I would go to TAM, set up a table for Skepchick with Surly Amy at my side, perform on stage as part of the live Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, and see old friends and new at the conference and at the Del Mar bar. Maybe win some more blackjack money.
Amy and I worked out a plan a few months ago – she would once again run her highly successful fundraising for grants for women to attend TAM; we would get tables together, and plan for fun “events” like Skepchick reader parties at the tables; I’d continue to drum up excitement about the event and encourage our readers to attend.
All that was going very well, with Amy raising even more money than last year.
Yesterday one of the other Skepchick contributors sent us a link to Stephanie Zvan’s site, where DJ was quoted as having said this:
Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.) We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking, and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.
DJ was blaming women skeptics for creating an unwelcoming environment. I found that claim astonishing, since I was only aware of women speaking frankly about their own experiences and their own feelings. I couldn’t imagine that DJ would be literally blaming the victim for speaking out. To be sure, I asked him in that thread to give us examples of what he was talking about. To my surprise, this was his response:
Rebecca: Off the top of my head, your quote in USA Today might suggest that the freethought or skeptics movements are unsafe for women. This is from the article:
“I thought it was a safe space,” Watson said of the freethought community. “The biggest lesson I have learned over the years is that it is not a safe space. . . ”
Over the past several years, I’ve been groped, grabbed, touched in other nonconsensual ways, told I can expect to be raped, told I’m a whore, a slut, a bitch, a prude, a dyke, a cunt, a twat, told I should watch my back at conferences, told I’m too ugly to be raped, told I don’t have a say in my own treatment because I’ve posed for sexy photos, told I should get a better headshot because that one doesn’t convey how sexy I am in person, told I deserve to be raped – by skeptics and atheists. All by skeptics and atheists. Constantly.
This is quite obviously not a safe space for me or for other women who want to be free of the gendered slurs and sexual threats and come-ons we experience in our day-to-day lives. But apparently, DJ thinks I am lying about that, since apparently my feeling that the freethought community is not a safe space is “misinformation.” I should apparently put on a smile and pretend it doesn’t happen, because by reporting on my treatment, I am creating “a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe.”
DJ says I am the one doing that. Me, who has never discouraged people from attending TAM and in fact has given thousands of dollars to the JREF in order to send more and more women to the event. Me, who has never said that TAM is a dangerous place for women. I’m the problem.
And once again we see that the tragedy isn’t necessarily in the initial problem – like say a man propositioning a woman who has just said she doesn’t want to be propositioned, at 4am in an elevator – but in the reaction to a mild rebuke from the woman. The nonstop avalanche of rape threats she gets because she had the temerity to say “Guys, don’t do that.”
And so here, the tragedy isn’t in the initial amount of harassment. It was (initially) only slightly more harassment than I had had to deal with in my every day life, after all, outside of this community. No, the tragedy is when the president of the organization that inspired me to join this community tells the world that women feel unsafe and unwelcome because of me. Because I talk about the men who harass me in this community, even while I encourage more women to attend these conferences and stand up and be counted, while I give conference organizers tips on improving the experience for women, and even while I help raise thousands and thousands of dollars to send women to these conferences.
In addition to blaming victims of sexual harassment for being too open about their harassment, DJ has also insisted that there have never been any problems with harassment at TAM (a topic I have never actually commented on, actually, even when on Twitter last year a man told me he was going to grope me in an elevator; when others complained about him to the JREF, they did nothing more than ask him to please not molest me). Ashley Miller pointed out that a drunk man was harassing her and several other women at the speaker’s dinner last year at TAM, and she congratulated DJ for taking swift action when DJ himself had the man thrown out. This should be a wonderful example of JREF acknowledging the problem of harassment and taking the appropriate action to ensure that the man was removed and the women once again felt safe.
Instead, DJ is so committed to his idea that harassment never happens and it’s all just made up in order to drive women away from his conference that he gaslights Ashley, telling her that she isn’t remembering properly. He tells her that she only assumed it was a JREF member who removed the man, despite the fact that Ashley remembered DJ himself participating. There are at least six people who say they witnessed the event. One says she personally congratulated DJ after it was done. One says he tagged DJ on Facebook in a congratulatory comment. But despite the fact that DJ did the right thing, he would prefer it be forgotten so that he can maintain his new narrative. It’s truly jaw-dropping. And now Ashley is dealing with a flood of angry DJ supporters who are demanding she provide evidence that her harassment took place and that DJ threw the guy out and that she’s not secretly a filthy liar.
I bet a lot of women reading that now feel perfectly cool with reporting harassment at TAM.
DJ doesn’t seem to realize that women won’t come flooding to TAM because he claims harassment never happens (and anyone who says otherwise will be badgered into compliance). The way to make women feel comfortable is to show them that when harassment happens, it is acknowledged and fixed. For instance, we had a similar incident happen last year at SkepchickCon, which is a part of the larger Convergence con. A man inappropriately touched one of our volunteers who was serving drinks in our party room. The act was witnessed by a Skepchick, who called for help in having the man removed from the suite. I was found and informed immediately, and we then called for Convergence and hotel staff. Convergence staff removed the man’s con badge and the hotel kicked him out and told him to never return.
I’m not happy that there was an incident of harassment but I am proud that at every level the response was quick and harsh. That response is what kept our volunteer feeling safe and a valued part of our team. And you can be damned sure that I remember the incident clearly, even though it happened late at night while we had a thousand other conference issues to worry about. Because it was important.
So when it comes to DJ Grothe, I can no longer support someone who is so incredibly dismissive of women’s experiences. I can’t give my time and money and energy to a man who blames women for speaking out about their own harassment, and I can’t give my time and money and energy to the organization he runs. I will always have the utmost respect for James Randi, who is responsible for inspiring me and millions of others to think critically and fight dangerous pseudoscience and superstition. It makes me incredibly sad that I can no longer support JREF.
The money that Amy has already raised will, as promised, still go to women who want to attend TAM, and I believe that Amy has decided to still attend TAM this year like a champ, in order to support those women who she is funding. There may also be other Skepchicks who have responsibilities at TAM, who have nonrefundable travel plans, or who just want to go, and that’s completely fine. The events of the past few days have been extremely stressful for all of us, many of whom first met at TAM and who have fond memories of the good times we’ve had.
But officially, there will be no Skepchick presence at TAM this year or for the foreseeable future, and if we raise money to send women to future conferences, we will choose a different conference. I’d rather use our platform to encourage people to attend conferences hosted by groups that have made a commitment to putting on fun events that truly value all their participants – obviously many of us will be at SkepchickCon next month and we hope to see you there. Also, several Skepchicks including myself (and the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe) will be at CSICon 2 in Nashville, TN this October, and a few of us will also be in attendance at Skepticon in Springfield, MO in November. I’m also aware of future cons like the excellent Women in Secularism that are now in the planning stages, and you can be sure I’ll be involved as much as possible in those.
Because this has been a shit-storm for the past several days already, I expect there to be a shit-storm in the comments. As a reminder, we moderate comments here so that they aren’t dominated by asshats. Before commenting, you may want to read our comment policy. If you’re not sure your comment will make it through moderation, first try writing it down on a little piece of paper, then crumble it up and eat it. Wait for it to “pass,” and then never bother trying to comment on Skepchick again. Thanks.
Featured image courtesy of Surly Amy, who created it for the Mad Art Lab’s project.