Welcome to the 19th installment in my series where I ask secular leaders, who are men, to speak out against the violence and abuse we have seen directed primarily at the women in our communities.
Today, I bring you the words of Jonathon Figdor. Jonathan is the Humanist Chaplain at Stanford University. Jonathan speaks about the fact that major activists in the secular community are burning out due to the constant harassment that we get for speaking out about feminism. He also discusses two arguments often brought into the ring by the ant-feminist groups and gives a rundown on rape culture and gives what might be a surprising view of the concept known as white knighting.
Jonathan’s words after the jump.
Trigger Warning: This post discusses rape and contains quotations of very strong language.
Hi. My name is John Figdor, and I’m the Humanist Chaplain at Stanford University. I wanted to write one of these posts in the “Speaking Out Against Hate Directed at Women” series for some time now because I’ve been stunned by the level of vitriol and hate thrown at some women in this movement, some of them my good friends, such as Greta Christina and Jen McCreight, (among many, many others). Whatever disagreements one might have with another person, wishing rape or threatening rape on someone is NEVER an appropriate response. I feel obliged to share a comment or two to illustrate my point. From Greta’s blog, we have these gems, “GRETA CHRISTINA YOU FUCKIN HOE… I HOPE YOU GET RAPED YOU FUCKIN FEMINAZI SLUT… GO CHOKE ON A DICK AND DIE” and, “go fuck yourself with a knife you irrational cunt.” And these comments bear a serious toll on people. Jen McCreight writes in her latest blog post, a post about how she is so upset, frustrated, and harassed that she is taking a break from blogging:
“I wake up every morning to abusive comments, tweets, and emails about how I’m a slut, prude, ugly, fat, feminazi, retard, bitch, and cunt (just to name a few)…This morning I had to delete dozens of comments of people imitating my identity making graphic, lewd, degrading sexual comments about my personal life. In the past, multiple people have threatened to contact my employer with “evidence” that I’m a bad scientist (because I’m a feminist) to try to destroy my job. I’m constantly worried that the abuse will soon spread to my loved ones. I just can’t take it anymore… the only solution I see is to unplug.”
I am disturbed that we have gotten to the point that major activists in the Secular movement are beginning to burn out from the intense sexually fraught push-back they receive for saying such “controversial” things as, “male privilege exists,” or “we should have explicit sexual harassment policies at conferences.” But no matter what the disagreement is about, there is no reason for civilized adults to use language like the slurs “slut,” “cunt,” and “feminazi” when referring to women in our community or in any community. I sincerely wish that those people who write such toxic invective would first think about the women in their life and think about how they would be affected by having such slurs thrown at them.
It’s time to elevate the level of discourse in Humanist/atheist circles and show the world that being good without god begins with being decent to each other. After all, a movement where women are routinely sexually harassed both online and in-person is hardly a welcoming environment for women transitioning out of their religious beliefs. I want to create Humanist/atheist+ communities where women feel like valued members of the community, not sex objects being hunted. This is the environment that we cultivate at the Humanist Community at Stanford, and is one that I hope all Secular Student Alliance affiliate groups will seek to create.
Now I want to take a minute to discuss two arguments commonly trotted out by anti-feminists: (1) women are overly sensitive to sexual harassment; and (2) men who defend feminist positions are “white-knighting,” or fighting women’s battles for them, thus “proving” that feminist men believe women are too weak to stand up for themselves. While the first argument is more prevalent, it is the second that I find more damaging as it discourages men from standing with female feminists. Let’s begin with the first argument. I actually used to think something like this before I worked in a domestic violence shelter and actually started to listen to women tell me their stories. It was an eye-opening experience.
For those folks who don’t know me, I’m about 6’2” and not of slight build. As a result, I walk around late at night like an idiot with my headphones in, paying no real attention to my surroundings. I’ve lived in big cities like Boston and Paris, and I’ve lived in small towns like Butte, Montana, and I must say, I’ve never in my life been afraid for my person or possessions. I walk through the streets of whatever town or city I live in without a care in the world, knowing that about the worst thing that could happen to me is getting mugged. However, after talking with domestic violence and rape victims about their experiences, I began to understand that the world looks considerably different from the perspective of a small woman than it does from the perspective of a big guy.
I think the reasons for this are obvious, but I’ll focus on one particular fear that is almost exclusive to women: rape. Let’s start with some facts. According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a non-profit organization that seeks to decrease violence against women, “9 of every 10 rape victims were female in 2003,” and “1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime” compared to “About 3% of American men — or 1 in 33 — have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.” I say this not to trivialize male rape, which is a serious problem, particularly in the prison system, but instead to attempt to illustrate how the fears that most women are forced to confront are significantly different than the fears most men are forced to confront. When you face a greater than 15% chance of being raped in your lifetime, that conditions your behavior. When I walk down a dark alley late at night with my Ipod on, I never think about the possibility of being raped. But women do face this possibility – nearly 70,000 women a year are raped by strangers. These are not hysterical delusions, but real fears based on frightening evidence. So when women tell you that they’re uncomfortable being hit on in elevators in the wee hours of the morning, or that they find creepers walking around conventions with upskirt cams disturbing, or are angry with the way that their concerns are minimized by some male skeptics and atheists, listen to them! Realize that Jen, Rebecca Watson, Surly Amy, et. al., are not troublemakers bent on tearing a schism in the atheist movement, but rather women who just want to feel safe, and not like zebras being stalked like prey on the Serengeti when they attend Humanist conferences . I wish it was as easy as saying, “please don’t be skeezy,” but clearly that isn’t sufficient. Hopefully the sexual harassment guidelines adopted by many movement orgs will help ensure that our conferences become more welcoming places for women (and other minorities as well).
Now let’s talk about this second point – that men who speak up on behalf of women undermine women’s agency by implicitly regarding women as unable to stand up for themselves. I’ll be honest, I was personally silenced at first from commenting in the feminist discussion by this argument. Fortunately, when I met Gloria Steinem, the American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year for 2012, in New Orleans. I was able to ask her about this directly. I told her that I wanted to be a good ally to feminists, but didn’t want to be a white-knight who rode in to help the implicitly “helpless” women. I found her response helpful. She suggested that this wasn’t really an argument, but rather a silencing tactic used to police men’s behavior and keep them from being too openly in agreement with feminists. It would be true if it were the case that the women didn’t want this support. But women like Greta and Jen and Ophelia and many others do appreciate support from men specifically because it sets an example for men that it is okay to care about feminism and that your participation in feminism isn’t some patriarchal hijacking of feminism. Your support, whether it comes in the form of a comment posted in defense on a message board, or, even better, in a personal email to some of the women standing up and pointing out the sexism in our movement, means an awful lot.
TL/DR version: (1) skip the sexually aggressive toxic invective and argue with people like grown-ups; (2) create communities that value and respect women and men equally; (3) women are not overly-sensitive about sexual harassment; (4) the charge of “white-knighting” is a silencing tactic and ought to be ignored.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Jonathan!
Prior posts in this series can be found here:
More to come.