Welcome to the fourteenth installment of my series that directly addresses the sexism and hate directed at women in our communities.

Today, I bring you the words of, Michael De Dora. Michael is Director of Public Policy and the U.N. Representative for the Center for Inquiry. Michael addresses some of the misconceptions surrounding the requests for harassment policies and discusses the potential reasons for the push-back. He explains the importance of secular ethics and explains why it is a driving force in his work.

Michael’s comments after the jump.

From Michael:

Note: I’d like to thank Amy Davis Roth and SkepChick for inviting me to join this series. May it help us all become slightly wiser.

Nearly four years ago, I accepted an offer to become Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry’s outreach branch in New York City. A couple months into my exciting new position, I discovered a surprising fact: at least three-quarters of our active members were men, most of them senior citizens. While I appreciated their devotion and attendance – I consider many of them friends – I found this troubling and ineffective. So, I made a conscious effort to diversify our membership. For the most part, it has worked, and I am proud to say that the current executive director, Stephanie LeRoy, leads a vibrant community of people young and old, male and female, and of various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Fortunately, secular and skeptic groups across the United States have pursued similar efforts, with similarly positive outcomes. In particular, over the past four years there has been a noticeable increase in the number of women, both speakers and members, who are involved in the movement. This is undoubtedly good. But it is important to note that this is also a change from the past, when men were more likely to be in control. As such, there have been conflicts. Forgoing specific details that have been discussed at length on various websites, there are probably dozens of disturbing instances of women on the blogosphere being subjected to jokes about rape, murder, and looks; and of women at events and elsewhere being excluded, disrespected, or subjected to treatment as purely sexual items.

In response, a number of people – both men and women, mind you – have put forward a reasonable request: that women be treated fairly and equally within the community, and that leading organizations implement, and intellectuals support, attitudes and policies that would help to see this request realized.

To my surprise, apparently some are hesitant to comply with this request. It appears they have taken it to imply other ideas, such as: that this problem is unique to, or even more common in, the secular and skeptic movements (no one has said that); that secular and skeptic men are monsters who cannot control themselves (no one has said that); that men should never flirt with or desire sex from women (no one has said that); that secular and skeptic events are havens for sexual harassment and abuse (no one has said that); or that every organization should focus more on women’s issues than other issues (again, no one has said that)*.

Notice that these are all misunderstandings in communication, and are thus rather easily fixable.

Unfortunately, I suspect that for many of objectors, there’s something deeper at work. I suspect some reject the recent push for equality of the sexes in the secular and skeptic communities simply because they do not like that women are now asking for, and often receiving, an equal seat within previously male-dominated forums.

Admittedly, this is speculation in some degree. Yet whatever the reason for the poor treatment of the women around us, it is happening, and it is disgusting. And whatever the reason for the opposition to a new way of thinking about how men ought to treat women, it is happening, and it is completely wrong.

As if I should need to, allow me to explain why I believe this.

My decision to take the job at CFI was based on several reasons, but chief among them were the organization’s dedication to a range of important ideas: separation of religion and government, the scientific outlook, freedom of inquiry, and secular ethics. That last idea is one I’d like to focus on for a moment.

I have written several times about my views on what a decent secular moral framework might look like. I am under no impression these posts will solve longstanding and widespread moral disputes. But whatever your preference on ethics — religious, utilitarianism, Kant, virtue ethics, etc. — I think there is one thing we can all agree on: all human beings have the potential to experience pleasure and happiness, and pain and suffering, and generally seek to secure the former and avoid the latter. Consequently, as moral agents who affect the well-being of others, I believe we have an obligation to afford them enough respect and individual autonomy so that they can pursue their own ends.

You might consider this a scientifically or philosophically advanced version of the Golden Rule. Allow me to provide a few concrete examples of how this would operate in relation to the present discussion. Because I would not want someone to disrespect me simply because I am a male, I do not make sexist remarks about the intelligence of women. Because I would not want a person, especially unfamiliar, to comment on my private parts at a public gathering, I would not consider doing it to another person. Because I would not want a person to treat me as means to some one-track sexual end, I would not treat another person in that way. Because I believe human beings deserve the right to determine when they are to be physically touched and when they want to engage in sexual activity, I leave it to a woman to decide when she would like to allow me into her world.

If you are among the people who have been the target of criticism for supposedly making sexist remarks or acting in a misogynistic manner, think about all of this. Have you rejected arguments simply because they are coming from a woman? Have you disrespected women? Was it simply because of their sex? Have you afforded women the same respect you feel you would afford all human beings? Have you tried to put yourself in any of these women’s shoes? Have you treated women as you would treat yourself? Have you let sexism and misogyny slide when you could have tried to stop it?

These questions represent a crossroads for the secular and skeptic movement, as many good people are questioning their involvement. I understand and sympathize many of their points of view, and direct this message to those who consider themselves on some other “side” of the argument: imagine the message it would send and the potential consequences both within and outside the movement if secularists and skeptics finally collectively stood together against sexism and misogyny, and for equality of the sexes and fair treatment. I dare say it could be historic.

Women have experienced and to continue to endure social oppression and harassment at the hands of men – even within the secular and skeptic communities. It’s time for us all to condemn this unacceptable behavior. It’s time to articulate as a community why the sexes, and indeed all people, should be treated fairly and equally. And it’s time for us to act in accordance with this thinking, to treat one others with kindness and empathy. Otherwise, not only will women continue to face poor treatment, but we might also see the end of the already fragile secular and skeptic movements.

* I welcome evidence of such statements if they do exist.

Michael De Dora is the Director of Public Policy and U.N. Representative for the Center for Inquiry

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Michael and thank you for joining us at this crossroads. Together, we can forge a pathway to an enlightened future.

Prior posts in this series can be found here:

Speaking out against hate directed at women: David Silverman

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Dale McGowan

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Ronald A Lindsay

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Nick Lee

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Barry Karr

Speaking out against hate directed at women: David Niose

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Matt Dillahunty

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Jim Underdown

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Michael Payton

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Michael Nugent

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Dan Barker

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Carlos Alfredo Diaz

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Todd Stiefel

More to come.

Amy Roth

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is the founder and president of the Los Angeles Women's Atheist and Agnostic Group: LAWAAG. She is also the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab and cohost of Mad Art Cast. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+.

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  1. August 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm —

    10^6 x this!

  2. August 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm —

    Again, Amy, thank you for this series. It is rocking my world.

    “…Because I would not want a person, especially unfamiliar, to comment on my private parts at a public gathering, I would not consider doing it to another person…”

    I see a lot of men responding to this kind of reasoning with “I would LOVE it if women hit on me like that all the time!”

    They would love it. So we should, too! *sigh*

    • August 14, 2012 at 2:39 pm —

      I wonder how long you would have to treat a man like a sex toy, ignoring anything he has to say on any topic apart from his duties in bed and carrying out the garbage, before he said, “Hey! wait a minute…”

    • August 14, 2012 at 2:58 pm —

      I was thinking something similar last night, i.e. the golden rule needs to be applied carefully in this situation mainly because it is easy to completely lose all societal context. In addition, I’m sure people who say this are only thinking of a person and situations that suit their desires and to walk in another’s shoes requires that they think of *unwanted* advances. To really walk in the women’s shoes though, they need to take into consideration the vastly different life experiences that affect how one feels about the advances.

    • August 14, 2012 at 3:53 pm —

      It might help het men to imagine themselves attending a secular event in a gay bar, and then having several large gay men targeting them with innuendos or come-ons. Not trying to foment homophobia – just think this example might help some men conceptualize being hit on by people who they have absolutely no sexual interest, and who are often physically intimidating.

      • August 24, 2012 at 11:50 am —

        Yeah, that’s usually how I try to put myself in another’s shoes… but even then, one has to be careful about relying too much about the “golden rule” thing. Different people have different levels of tolerance for that. Just because YOU wouldn’t find a particular thing a big deal, that doesn’t mean everyone is comfortable with it.

  3. August 14, 2012 at 1:53 pm —

    I’ll throw in a wrinkle:

    A big chunk of his talk predominately seemed to address a “Golden Rule” approach to the treatment of others. As I get older, I’ve begun to see the Golden Rule as well-intended but perhaps not surgically precise enough for all avenues, especially for this one in particular. The reason why is simple:

    Different people have different boundaries when it comes to social contact. Where one person may be fully comfortable with hugging everyone he or she meets, another person might be far more reserved (and for any number of personal reasons). I think relying only on our own perception of how WE personally like to be approached or treated, rather than inquiring after someone else’s, is a tiny bit selfish.

    I think a better idea is to simply ask: Do unto others as THEY want you to do unto them. Ask if it’s okay to bear hug them first; or err on the side of reservation if you’re too shy to ask. Don’t assume.

    Otherwise, great article.

    • August 15, 2012 at 4:04 am —

      To be fair, I don’t think any rule that fits into a single sentence is “surgically precise enough for all avenues”, but I still think the Golden Rule is just about as good as it gets (and I don’t think objections like “What if you’re a suicidal masocist?” etc. deserve a serious response.) It’s just not a substitute for thinking. An argument like “I want my boundaries to be respected, therefore I should respect the boundaries of others” still fits into the Golden Rule even if their boundaries are not the exact same as mine.

  4. August 14, 2012 at 2:34 pm —


  5. August 14, 2012 at 2:52 pm —

    This is definitely one of my favorites! Thanks, Amy, for putting this together.

    Have you rejected arguments simply because they are coming from a woman? Have you disrespected women? Was it simply because of their sex?

    The problem is that most men will answer “no” to these questions. We hear it all the time, especially with the hyper-logical people who deny the validity of personal experience. These people think that they are rejecting arguments on merit, not gender. There are exceptions but most people can convince themselves of anything.

  6. August 14, 2012 at 3:58 pm —

    My favorite to date.

  7. August 14, 2012 at 6:37 pm —

    Ooo, another awesome one. I like that he specifically addressed most of the strawperson arguments used by the opposition.

  8. August 14, 2012 at 8:40 pm —

    This piece is great.

  9. August 14, 2012 at 10:32 pm —

    This is really good, very clarifying for me.
    “Have you rejected arguments simply because they are coming from a woman? Have you disrespected women? Was it simply because of their sex? Have you afforded women the same respect you feel you would afford all human beings? Have you tried to put yourself in any of these women’s shoes? Have you treated women as you would treat yourself?”
    Is it me or do the MRAs and others have a bit of trouble treating most people with respect? That it isn’t just women but are unable to address many issues respectfully without attacking the person also. And because they can’t, they take issues about their behavior personally. I am trying to understand, I am not a good one with human nature. Especially since I find their position incomprehensible.

    • August 15, 2012 at 4:49 pm —

      I mean, to me, anyone who legitimately thinks a “men’s rights movement” seriously needs to be A Thing is already pretty out of touch with reality. The last thing I expect from them is rational and/or respectful behavior.

  10. August 24, 2012 at 9:04 am —

    Sorry, I need to pick a minor nit here:

    “that this problem is…more common in, the secular and skeptic movements (no one has said that)… I welcome evidence of such statements if they do exist.”

    Well, that HAS been said, not by everyone who is pushing for a change, but by some. e.g., here’s Jen McCreight in her post introducing the (wonderful, by the way) idea for Atheism+:

    “I don’t feel safe as a woman in this community – and I feel less safe than I do as a woman in science, or a woman in gaming, or hell, as a woman walking down the fucking sidewalk.”

    It would not be difficult to find more examples. Opinion appears to be somewhat divided on this issue, even among those who agree on the substantive issues.

    That really is a minor nitpick, though. I agree with everything you’ve said in this article, and all the other “no one has said that” points are exactly the strawmen you make them out to be. But this jumped out to me when I was reading the article because, yes, some people have indeed said that. I have no opinion as to whether or not they are correct. FWIW.

  11. September 22, 2012 at 5:10 am —

    This is a great piece, so I hate to nitpick, and comment so long after the post date but –

    I really with he has said “desire sex *with* women” instead of “desire sex *from* women”. Sex is not a commodity that transfers value from women to men.

    In a conversation about sexism, I think the inclusion of that trope is unfortunate.

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