Remember the good old days of skepticism when everyone got along and went to TAM together? We were not divided along ideological lines. We all mingled at the same events and parties and you did not have to declare a side in the great war on how women should be treated in the movement. Those were the days. Right?

I hear this sentiment a lot, often from people who agree that big “S” Skepticism has a problem with how we treat ladies in the movement. Even so, they wax nostalgic about how great everything used to be in those pre-elevatorgate days.

In a way, this sentiment is true for them. They really are worse off now than they were then. In the old days they could go to any event they wanted and see all their friends. Now they have to pick and choose events based on which “side” they support, often being judged by their friends who would never be seen with the kind of people who attend that event. Just going to a party or taking photos with certain people has become a political statement of whom you stand with. Perhaps they have even lost some friends over these internal movement squabbles. Certainly, things for them were better back before everyone started talking about harassment.

What they fail to consider is that even as things seem to have gotten worse for them, the good old days had a dark underbelly. Back in the pre-elevatorgate days, harassment of women at skeptic cons was rampant.

My first TAM was TAM 7. I went by myself as a young woman eager to meet others who shared my mindset on all things skeptical. I might as well have had a giant target on my back. The first person I met at TAM, after learning that I was there for my first time and on my own, quietly gave me warnings about who I should be avoiding and which people I should absolutely not ever be in a room alone with. These whisper campaigns were meant to protect women and they certainly helped, but I can’t help but wonder what happened to the women for whom the warnings never reached.

As I met more people at skeptic cons and was propositioned or groped, I added more names to the list of people I needed to avoid in my head and quietly shared my experiences with other women and they with me. The first thing I did when walking into a room or bar area at and event was to scan for the people on my list. When I saw them, I made sure to choose a spot far from them. As I sat with others and socialized, I always kept one eye on the people I was avoiding, lest they make their way over to my area and I need to make a quick getaway.

Sometimes I was unable to find a good exit and had to put up with lewd comments or unwanted touching, often from people well-known within the movement and after I repeatedly said I wasn’t interested. I continued my own whispering campaign against these men in order to warn other women, but never said anything publicly. The culture at that time was one in which complaining about harassment meant being labeled as a prude ruining everyone’s fun. Being the victim of harassment was merely the price you paid to be a woman accepted in skeptic circles.

Around two years ago something started to change. Women started to speak up about the rampant harassment at skeptic and atheist cons. I have to admit that at first I was a little dismissive. I had to put up with all the same stuff and I dealt with it, so why couldn’t they?

The more I thought about it though, the more I started to question why things had to be the way they were. Why should I have to put up with harassment at cons? What happens to the women who don’t get warnings about certain individuals in time? Was the culture that allowed for harassment hiding something even worse just below the surface? But most of all, why should I have to “pay a price” at all for being a woman in skepticism? Why shouldn’t I demand that I should be able to go to a con and not expect men to make lewd comments to me, or grope me, or have to take extra measures to avoid being a victim of sexual assault? Why shouldn’t I be able to speak up without receiving torrents of harassment and threats? Why can’t I publicly name the names of my harassers?

For most of the people who were around pre-elevatorgate, things are worse now for them individually, but for many of us this new skeptic movement may be divided but at least it’s honest. This new movement still has a dark underbelly, but at least it’s no longer hiding in the shadows but being faced head on. We’re making strides on being able to talk about our experiences with harassment by well-known people in the movement. Even if some cons may still feel unsafe, there are many others with take harassment seriously.

The good old days weren’t so good after all. We just didn’t talk about the bad bits. Although those women and men who are speaking out about their experiences today are getting a barrage of hate and threats they’re also getting throngs of support. Things seem really dark now but I believe shining the light on the worst parts of our skeptic culture is the thing that is going to move us towards a brighter future for everyone in our movement.

Featured photo is from Jamie’s Instagram

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie is a data, stats, policy and economics nerd who sometimes pretends she is a photographer. You can usually find her at skeptic events in Chicago or on Twitter or Flickr. She also blogs about music at Notes From Chicago Music Underground.

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33 Comments

  1. Profile photo of DataJack
    August 10, 2013 at 6:50 pm —

    Jamie, I agree with everything you said here. However, this post makes me smile a bit too, as TAM 7 was our first TAM as well, and it is where we first met you! Dinner at the Italian place. :)

    • Profile photo of Jamie Bernstein
      August 10, 2013 at 6:54 pm —

      Are you sure that wasn’t TAM 8? I don’t think I met you at my first TAM. I’m pretty sure that was the next year. That was pretty great though!

  2. Profile photo of Nora Reed
    August 10, 2013 at 9:46 pm —

    “Isn’t there an incredibly over-simplistic nostalgia we could be wallowing in? Of course there is,” said Jon Stewart like a year ago about all the conservatives talking about this idealized “traditional” past, and this rose tinted glasses bullshit is a big part of privilege. Why can’t we get back to the good old days of skepticism, when nothing divisive happened? (Because then we were just shoving sexual abuse under the table and pretending it wasn’t there.) Why can’t we get back to the good old days before “political correctness” took over all of our speech? (Because then we were super fucking racist, misogynistic and homophobic.) Why can’t we get back to the age of chivalry where men fought for women’s honor and shit? (Because that only applied to some women, was marginalizing to all women, and people kept slaves and rape was pretty much okay.) Why can’t we get back to this idea I have about the 50s that I picked up because I apparently don’t know the difference between PBS documentaries and Nick at Night? (I don’t think I have to explain this one.)

  3. Profile photo of delphi_ote
    August 11, 2013 at 3:03 am —

    Let’s just pretend I wrote “I agree” several trillion times in a large, gaudy font and spare everyone the bandwidth and eye sore. Of course the privileged have nostalgia for the time when their entitlements weren’t questioned.

  4. Profile photo of Phillip Hallam-Baker
    August 11, 2013 at 8:48 am —

    I have a suspicion that skepticism tends to attract the libertarian Nietzschian superman types who consider themselves above ordinary morality etc.

    There are certainly some folk who go to a certain type of conference because they regard them as prime pickup spots. The Poly folk at one of the local SF conventions have set up a second SF convention that is 18 up apparently because the rest of us were cramping their stye. I did briefly wonder about whether a full scale replica of the horgon sculpture from that Star Trek episode on Risa, the pleasure planet…

    Problem is that the Nietzsche fans aren’t really into rules (apart from the ones they set).

    What I found bizarre about elevatorgate was the reaction to what was a pretty off hand comment on a podcast. ‘WHAT? ELEVATORS ARE OFF LIMITS!! NOOO!!’. The perverts really do have to mark out their territory.

  5. Profile photo of vexorian
    August 11, 2013 at 9:20 am —

    I am too far away from places with actual skeptical communities to be involved in any conferences and in the days of “elevatorgate” I was just getting started on that “skepticism” stuff. So I really had no idea things were this bad. To me at least it was very bizarre to see how the “community” exploded after “Guys don’t do that”. The recent revelations and this post finally puts things into context. For too long there were guys at conferences who felt entitled not only to proposition , but also to grope and other terrible things. When Rebecca Watson said “Guys don’t do that”, she was a serious threat to these guys.

    This context makes Rebecca Watson seem more awesome in retrospect. It was a backhanded comment at the end of a video, but she knew what consequences to expect after speaking up about unrequested propositions publicly.

    • Profile photo of Phillip Hallam-Baker
      August 11, 2013 at 11:54 am —

      Yep, I think that the backlash on elevatorgate was really outrage at the idea that groping was now off limits.

      So now what I think folk need to do is to contact James Randi and Dawkins and point out that as the nominal ‘old guard’ leaders of the skeptic movement they need to step in here and recognize that there is a problem. Because having a divided skeptic movement is unhelpful. And the movement is going to have to come from the institutions they are responsible for (Randi) and the firestorm they set off personally (Dawkins).

      Having a flame war across the blogs is not going to really help here. I doubt that those of us who wrote to Lindsay to talk him down out of his tree said anything that he hadn’t read on the blogs.

      • Profile photo of delphi_ote
        August 12, 2013 at 6:46 pm —

        “she knew what consequences to expect after speaking up about unrequested propositions publicly”

        Actually, I suspect the exact opposite. I suspect she thought it was a perfectly reasonable thing to say, and that the ridiculous backlash was unexpected and nauseating to her. What makes Rebecca awesome is that, despite all the inane bickering and hate targeted at her over such a trivial comment, she stuck around. Not only did she stand her ground fighting on this new feminist front, she kept doing the podcast and being a cool, fun skeptic. In the middle of that shit storm, she somehow keeps laughing.

        When I started to see the creepy underbelly of “organized skepticism,” I just gave up and moved on. Rebecca is made of stronger stuff than I am.

  6. Profile photo of drken
    August 11, 2013 at 3:26 pm —

    While I think some of the outrage comes from those who are afraid that the days of being able to grab various female body parts without consequence are numbered, if it was just them v everybody else, there wouldn’t be much discussion about it. They need the rest of us to fight for them. ElevatorGate™ works well as an issue for the pro-harassment crowd because if they can frame the harassment debate as women complaining about being propositioned by awkward men in elevators instead of the more egregious examples (groping, stalking) that drive the anti- harassment movement, then they can scare the rest of us into fighting for them because a lot of us have been elevator-guy at one point or another, but very few of us have stalked or groped somebody.

    • Profile photo of blaisepascal
      August 12, 2013 at 7:40 pm —

      It’s hard to say (not being her, of course). Rebecca had a long history before that video of being on the receiving end of harassment. She used to comment on SGU about receiving unsolicited offers of marriage from strangers because of her appearance on SGU, an action I was offended by at the time (not her comments, but the idea that someone would do that). It was such a known thing that she used it as a joke in her own wedding. I was always curious if actually getting married so publicly stopped the “will you marry me?” emails.

      I suspect she was expecting some backlash, but probably not more than usual. The explosion probably caught everyone off-guard, but some reaction was probably expected.

      I have watched the video (but years ago). “Guys, don’t do that” was such a minor part of her message it falls into the “That? That’s what you got out of that?” territory.

      • Profile photo of blaisepascal
        August 13, 2013 at 11:04 am —

        Unlike almost all other online commenting systems, Skepchick puts the “reply” button at the top of the comment you want to reply to, not the bottom. I intended to rely to delphi_ote, not drken. Please read the above comment as in response to the comment by delphi_ote.

  7. Profile photo of Jack99
    August 11, 2013 at 5:29 pm —

    drken, that analysis is faulty because Rebecca eventually confirmed that EG was a confident alpha male. This took a while presumably because to her everlasting credit she was reluctant to identify EG in any way.

    Unfortunately in the meantime the idea that EG was a low confidence socially awkward type had got traction. (Certainly I myself believed that for a while). There must be many who failed to see the update and you can’t blame them because there was a LOT to follow. Nevertheless, that is the way history gets rewritten.

    • Profile photo of drken
      August 11, 2013 at 7:51 pm —

      I’ll go one up on you, given that Rebecca had been talking for the past several hours about how she doesn’t like to be hit on at conferences, I’m pretty sure elevator-guy was gaslighting her. But, that doesn’t matter now. In fact it didn’t matter at the time. How many people complaining about ElevatorGate™ have even seen the video? It’s about frightening people. It’s about attacking strawfeminists.

  8. Profile photo of daedalus2u
    August 11, 2013 at 10:29 pm —

    I had an epiphany about why there is so much misogyny in skepticism and why it is taking the particular forms that it is taking and am in the process of writing it up. This is just a teaser.

    The whole, entire, complete, and unified point is differential (and especially increased) reproduction by alpha-male patriarchy-types who are misogynists. This isn’t “genetic”, it is learned, so there is hope. But the learning starts in utero (or maybe even before through epigenetic programming of gametes). Certainly it is going on in utero (the cycle of violence).

    Left to their own devices, women limit their reproduction and have the number of babies that they can take really good care of, because it is only babies that are really well taken care of, via nutrition, nurturing, protecting, teaching, TLC, who can become really productive and capable adults. That is what all women want for all of their children, so they limit how many they have.

    However, women deciding for themselves how many children to have means that men can’t coerce women into having sex with them. Coerced sex is not planned sex, so children born of coerced sex are “by definition”, unplanned children. A child of rape is by definition an unplanned child. That child of rape may be “wanted” at birth, because the mother may decide through her choice that she wants to keep it. That child is still unplanned and would not be there but for the coerced sex.

    When children are unplanned, there are more of them and they are not as well nourished, times between pregnancies are shorter, not as well cared for, not as well supervised, not as well off. God does not magically supply resources, the resources the mother can obtain must be divided among more.

    The adult phenotype of the adult child depends on resources available during development. Socioeconomic status is one of the best predictors of health and success and even IQ. Genetics is essentially unimportant. The “important stuff”, cognition, feelings, etc. is too important to depend on genetics, the phenotype has to be “tuned” to match the environment. Compel a child to grow up in a bad environment, and they will become a less capable adult. The easiest way to do that is to deny resources to women and compel them to have more children than they would otherwise choose themselves.

    What happens to these adults made less capable through nutritional and other deprivation during childhood? Can the boys grow up to be alpha-male Patriarchs? Not likely, they have stunted bodies and brains. All they are “good for” is as “cannon fodder” for the Patriarch to use to maintain the Patriarchy by giving them the “promise” of maybe moving up the Patriarchy themselves. Killing them off results in an excess of females, perfect rewards for those who support the Patriarchy.

    So why do women go along with this? They don’t, at least not voluntarily. That is where the coercion comes in.

    So where does the misogyny come in? The whole point is to coerce women into having sex. Women would not choose misogynists voluntarily, so the misogynists need to hide who they are. They hide by increasing the “noise” in male-female interactions so that females can’t tell (as easily) who are the misogynists (and would coerce them into having sex (or rape them if they were unconscious)) and non-misogynists who would never do such a thing, ever, under any circumstances.

    Why is this such an issue in Skepticism? Because the default in Skepticism is always “I don’t know”.

    If you haven’t asked the question “do you want to have sex with me” in unambiguous terms and in a place and under circumstances where your potential partner feels safe enough to say “no”, or even “hell NO!”, then you are doing it wrong and are not a Skeptic and you don’t care whether a “yes” or “no” is voluntary and uncoerced.

    That is why there was so much push back against Rebecca Watson in elevator gate when she said “guys don’t do that”. She wasn’t telling guys to never ask women if they want to have sex, she was saying only ask that question at a time and in a place and under circumstances where a woman would feel completely safe to say “no”, because if she doesn’t feel safe, then it is coercive. Maybe not as coercive as gamma-hydroxybutyrate, a knife or a firearm, but it is still coercive.

    This isn’t a big deal for guys who are mature in their Skepticism. They use cognition and reason to determine their actions. They only know things by going from facts to conclusions by using valid logic. If you don’t have an unambiguous answer to an unambiguous question, as a Skeptic you have to default to “I don’t know”.

    This is also why there is so much push back. Because in Skepticism, the default is always “I don’t know”. Skepticism should be a place where if a woman is unconscious and so obviously can’t say “yes, I want to have sex with this specific person who has asked”, she has not consented to sex. If she is cognitively impaired by excess alcohol, she has not consented to sex.

    Once you explain it, it becomes, “oh right, duh”, like many things in Skepticism. Of course, non-skeptics want to maintain their non-skeptical world view because they benefit from it by having sex with women who have not consented to having sex with them. All Skeptics are better off without them. Certainly female skeptics would be better off, but so would male skeptics. If every place where there are Skeptics becomes a safe and non-coercive place, then everyone of good will benefits.

    There will continue to be push-back by pseudo-skeptics. They will continue to gas-light, to confuse, to increase the noise-to-signal ratio so they can use their real default, “all that matters is what I want”.

    This is the whole point of the misogyny. To increase the “noise” so that even non-misogynists are perceived to be misogynistic. If misogynists make women feel unsafe everywhere, then there is no place that non-misogynists can ask them if they want to have sex. Misogynists don’t care about the answer, so it doesn’t matter to them. A toxic and unsafe environment only inhibits the non-misogynists.

  9. Profile photo of starfury
    August 12, 2013 at 6:46 pm —

    You know, I am a CIS white guy, and I must say that I am in a better movement now than I was three years ago. Yes, there were some moments of brain-bending horror as I saw words that I had thought and spoken coming from the mouths of some truly reprehensible people, but that has helped me learn. It has helped me be a better person and make the area around me better for others. I like to think of this as a definite gain for me, despite enjoying unquestioned, unexamined privilege a mere three years ago. That said, this is not all about me (nor should it be). Its about the people without the “Easy” setting getting safe spaces and safer lives. I would think that to be worth any momentary shame or discomfort I might feel.

    • Profile photo of Vene
      August 12, 2013 at 7:44 pm —

      I have a question maybe you can answer. Why do you put cis in all caps? It’s a adjective, not an acronym. I see this being done a lot and it makes no sense, especially because nobody ever writes TRANS.

      • Profile photo of blaisepascal
        August 13, 2013 at 11:13 am —

        Although I have often seen the trans- prefix outside the field of gender studies (transmission, transylvan, transport, etc) the only place I’ve seen the cis- prefix elsewhere is in organic chemistry. More often than not, there I’ve seen it as “cis-“, like “cis-1,2-dichloroethene”. Perhaps better usage would be “cis-white guy” (or “white cis-guy”)?

        • Profile photo of blaisepascal
          August 13, 2013 at 11:14 am —

          Those “cis-” were supposed to be italicised. How do you do that in thsi commenting system?

        • Profile photo of Jack99
          August 13, 2013 at 4:27 pm —

          In organic chemistry, using the example of cis -1,2 dichloroethene, the cis prefix indicates that the 2 chlorines are on the same side of the rigid carbon-carbon double bond, while trans would indicate that they are on opposite sides.

          The hyphen indicates which 2 atoms we are referring to, namely the chlorines. This is a spatial relationship.

          With gender studies, it is gender itself that is cis or trans, so the word itself is always assumed even if usually dropped for brevity.

          In the examples above, cis-white would imply that the white was somehow the same and cis-guy would mean guy was the same. Those usages would carry the wrong message.

          As gender studies is completely different usage, I don’t think that the conventions of organic chemistry need to apply, although the rules of logic and grammar should be upheld. I don’t think italics are mandatory even in organic chemistry and to me add little to clarity or understanding.

          TL;DR make up your own rules!

          • Profile photo of Jack99
            August 13, 2013 at 4:29 pm

            …and smash double bond hegemony!

    • Profile photo of sallystrange
      August 13, 2013 at 4:56 am —

      Nah, I don’t think so. Now, if you could say it with fewer words AND be less confusing, THEN we might be talking about an interesting idea.

  10. Profile photo of Buzz Parsec
    August 12, 2013 at 8:44 pm —

    CIS is the successor organization to the USSR. Maybe some spell-correctors change cis to CIS? (Firefox doesn’t like either upper or lowecase versions.)

    What about TRANS vs. trans? (Firefox likes both of those. But Googling “acronym:TRANS”, while getting over 3 million hits, doesn’t seem to yield any useful information on the first several pages, at least as far as acronyms are concerned. I did learn about FAAB and MAAB, though…)

    More on-topic, though, yearning for a past, superior Golden Age is very appealing, as all fans of LotR, Star Wars, Star Trek TOS, D&D, sword and and sorcery fantasy, Jane Austen and Homer (the poet, not the nuclear engineer, though remember when The Simpsons was really good?) know, but it is always fantasy. The Golden Age never really existed, and I and most of you would almost certainly be dead if we lived in such an age. It’s fine (and often fun) to fantasize, but improving the real world requires moving forward, not backward.

    Good on you, Jamie!

    • Profile photo of sallystrange
      August 13, 2013 at 4:57 am —

      Misplaced comment…

      CURSE YOU NESTED COMMENTS!!

      The first comment I made was intended for Starfart–I mean Starfury.

      • Profile photo of punchdrunk
        August 13, 2013 at 7:23 am —

        I think you were talking to daedalus2u?
        I can barely tell whose is whose, what’s happened? I’m confused and afraid.

        • Profile photo of Jack99
          August 13, 2013 at 4:46 pm —

          The Goddess of Font and Format (Rebecca) is having an epiphany. Be patient and all will be glorious…

  11. Profile photo of starfury
    August 12, 2013 at 11:52 pm —

    I put cis in all caps because I had a memory fail and thought it stood for something making it an acronym. I’ll not make that mistake again. My sincerest apologies.

  12. Profile photo of evil
    August 13, 2013 at 3:54 am —

    Just found a brilliant blog post on the topic “Harassment, Rape, and the Difference Between Skepticism and Denialism”
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2013/08/12/harassment-rape-skepticism-denialism/

  13. Profile photo of Paul
    November 15, 2013 at 1:12 pm —

    I remember the good old days.
    You know the funny thing about good old days? About any rosy, nostalgic reminiscence of a past innocence?

    It’s all fundamentally based on lies.

    As a young man attending skeptical events for the first time, I was never made aware of these things. I’ve met with Michael Shermer, I’ve seen Richard Dawkins and DJ Grothe. Now I wonder if I should have seen some sort of shadow following them around.

    I shook hands with Jen of BlagHag and told her how much I appreciated her work. I look back on that meeting now and wonder if there was anything I saw there, any hint of concern that should have warned me. What about all the other women at the conference? Were they secretly fearing what might happen to them, and I was just too blind to notice it?

    I know that there is no way I could have seen any such thing, of course. I’ve always been wretched at picking up on subtle undercurrents.

    The thing is, though, I wish I had known earlier. I am grateful for everyone who has stripped the innocence from me and tarnished my memories. Awareness of the problem is the first step to fixing it.
    I hope that next time I attend a conference, no one will ever have reason to be afraid again. Keep up the good work.

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