Speaking Out Against Hate Directed at Women: Jonathon Figdor

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.

From Jonathon:

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.


John Figdor

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.

Jonathon Figdor is the Humanist Chaplain at Stanford University.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Jonathan!

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

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Michael De Dora

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Paul Fidalgo

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Phil Plait

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Aron Ra

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Eran Segev

More to come.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I’ve never in my life been afraid for my person or possessions.

    But I have. Here’s something that happened to me about ten years ago while studying abroad. A middle-aged Russian man halted me on the street under the pretense of asking me for the time. After I told him, he started following me around while talking as if we were already the best of friends and ignoring my (not very) subtle hints that I only wanted to be left alone. During our whole encounter I was under the distinct impression that he was trying to lure me away from the crowd, and I was not eager to find out why. After several attempts to lead me into a deserted back alley on some bogus excuse, he invited me to his home to show me, not his etchings, exactly, but his Buddha statues! I finally had to tell him in the bluntest possible terms that I most definitely was not interested before turning my back and walking away.

    So what has this got to do with the current “war on women” in the atheist/skeptical communities? As I see it, there are two things:

    1. There is no way my story would ever stand up to the kind of hyper-skepticism that women are routinely subjected to when talking about similar experiences. At no point during the encounter with my stalker did he say or do anything that could not be defended as “normal behavior” by some, and I most certainly would not be able to make a case that would stand up in a court of law. But the truth of the matter is that I felt immediately threatened, and I have never once regretted passing up on the opportunity to learn whether or not the Buddha statues were even real.
    2. Even if that guy honestly just wanted to show me his Buddha statues, he had no right to expect me to assume that that’s all he wanted as long as his behavior was indistinguishable from that of a predator seeking to rape and kill me, and the same goes for anyone who corners a woman in an elevator at four in the morning, even if he honestly just wants to have a cup of coffee with her.

  2. Well said Jonathan. I’ve worked with the victims of sex abuse and domestic violence for around 28 years and that experience has definitely educated my views on feminist issues and changed who I am as a person. A little empathy and some grownup thinking can definitely go a long in helping guys understand how harmful sexist and mysognistic thinking can be.

  3. “Whatever disagreements one might have with another person, wishing rape or threatening rape on someone is NEVER an appropriate response.”

    Thank you. This is the basic truth which has been missed by so many people in this entire episode.

    Whatever disagreements one might have with another person, *sitting silently by while someone else* who disagrees wishes rape or threatens rape on someone is NEVER an appropriate response.

  4. Can we not misuse the idea of ‘privilege?’

    It smacks of the anti-woman tropes about ‘privileged’ western women complaining about the Taliban.

    To say that ‘male privilege exists’ is a backward way of saying ‘women are robbed of their rights.’ Being able to walk outdoors is scarcely a privilege, NOT being able to walk outdoors is a deprivation.

    Voting is not a privilege, being prevented from voting is an oppression.

    ‘Privilege’ language is also regularly used in ‘white knight’ accusations. I just think the expression does more harm than good.

    Call oppression and deprivation of rights by their own names. I think it makes direct opposition to evil a bit easier.

    1. @John the Drunkard

      I’ve reread your comment about 5 times and still don’t really get what you’re trying to say.

      Mr. Figdor used the word “privilege” exactly once in his entire piece. It was in the single phrase you quoted: “male privilege exists.”

      This is not a misuse of the word privilege. It’s not a backwards way of saying anything. It’s actually a very direct way of saying “male privilege exists.”

      In case you’re unsure of what male privilege is and is not, here are a few helpful resources (note that I found these simply by typing “male privilege” into Google):

      1. jinxybunny, I think I understand what he means. John the Drunkard, please correct this if I’m wrong.

        Voting is a right. If someone stops me from voting because I am a woman then they are stopping from exercising a right that I already have by virtue of being a citizen. I also have the right to walk around my neighborhood; if someone intimidates or threatens me so that I cannot walk around my neighborhood then they have robbed me of my right.

        Country club membership is a privilege. If for some unlikely reason I take up golf and want to join a country club, if I am blackballed for membership then they have denied me a privilege I have applied to have, not robbed me of a right that I already have.

        I don’t think he was denying that male privilege, as we commonly use the phrase, exists or happens. I think he was saying that robbing women of rights but referring to it as “male privilege” trivializes the seriousness of what is happening to the woman being robbed.

        1. “I think he was saying that robbing women of rights but referring to it as ‘male privilege’ trivializes the seriousness of what is happening to the woman being robbed.”


          I suppose that could be a valid point in regards to certain male privileges (e.g., almost all sexualized images in mass media are designed to appeal to heterosexual men, and that simultaneously harms women by perpetuating objectification). But I’m not sure it’s applicable at all in regards to male privileges that don’t directly (or even indirectly) involve women. For example, from Ampersand’s list, #27: The grooming regimen expected of me is relatively cheap and consumes little time. Men being mostly immune to the complete body-hair-phobia directed at women doesn’t really rob women of any rights; it just means it’s easier–in regards to grooming–to be a man.

          I feel like the comparison of the privilege to be in a country club and male privilege is basically a misunderstanding of (or disagreement with?) the actual definition of privilege in social sciences.

    2. I used to make this exact argument. I’ve since changed my opinion.

      I think that the concept of privilege is important. I don’t think it’s helpful to describe oppression in terms of the ways it deviates from some ideal world. It’s easier for privileged people to understand, because that’s the world they live in, but the rest of us don’t. I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about the world as though everyone has the right to vote, to get married, to go to school or to report rape.

      We should have those rights, but in practice, we don’t. I think it gives the wrong impression when we don’t discuss these issues in terms of privilege.

      I know that language feels unnecessarily confrontational and it turns a lot of people off. It requires people to consider the experiences and perspectives of people that aren’t privileged in the same way and to change the way they talk about the world based on those perspectives. For a lot of people, that’s a bridge too far.

      It’s a really short bridge. People that won’t cross it should feel bad.

  5. Good stuff! Thank you for taking on the arguments that women who complain about sexual harassment are being over-sensitive and that men who support them are “white-kniting.” I’m delighted that you asked Gloria Steinem about it.

  6. Awesome letter. Really hit a lot of points that weren’t brought up before. Especially the “women are not being over-sensitive about harassment” one.

  7. bibliotequetress;

    That’s about what I meant. I am not sure what jinxybunny is confused about. I thought my example about people grousing against ‘privileged’ western women supporting the thwarted rights of women under Islamic theocracy illustrated the point pretty well.

    While Jonathan only used the ‘p-word’ once, he did also talk about the accusation of ‘white-knighting’ as a tactic to silence men from speaking up about the abuse of women. It was the parallel between the two terms that made me comment here.

    An artificial dualism between ‘opressed,’ and ‘privileged’ robs both terms of value. I realize that the ‘p-word’ is so ingrained in some vocabularies that people don’t think about it.

    Dawkins’ old comment (which I haven’t re-read, so I may be wrong here) had nothing to do with him being ‘privileged.’ I gather that he did not register how much hatred had been pouring out against Jen for her VERY reasonable complaint. If you don’t know about the trolling and stalking, it would be easy to think that honor-killings and rape in the Congo deserved more attention. He may have posted his note before the creep-avalanche got underway.

    Such relativising of stalkers IS mistaken at best. These animals are in our neighborhood, trying to destroy our movement. They are standing next to US in the elevators WE ride. I don’t really care if they were born with silver spoons in their mouths or went to Choate and Harvard. They are rotten, evil motherfuckers and deserve all the scorn and revulsion they have earned.

    1. Privilege can have multiple meanings depending on context. When talking about social justice, people often use privilege to describe a systemic advantage some people get over others in a particular culture. The belief, for example, that men are more rational than women might grant me the privilege of finding it easier to get certain kinds of jobs relative to an equally qualified woman–or it might mean that my doctor is less likely to second-guess me when I tell him what I plan to do about my health.

      It doesn’t have anything to do with class advantage, but is instead the consequence of the way everybody treats you–all a consequence of the beliefs they have about you.

      It’s important to think about because one consequence of privilege in this sense is often that it gives the privileged person a distorted sense of reality, like if I were to assume that it’s silly to fear being raped because I’ve never experienced the world the way a woman does and have no personal experience with threats of sexual violence or harassment. In that case, my “privilege” would be never having been subject to unwanted and aggressive sexual advances, while many women have to endure such treatment every day. This is the sort of thing Dawkins was criticized for last year: that was his “privilege.”

      1. Jack_Gladney’
        “In that case, my “privilege” would be never having been subject to unwanted and aggressive sexual advances, while many women have to endure such treatment every day. This is the sort of thing Dawkins was criticized for last year: that was his “privilege.””

        This is precisely the use of ‘privilege’ that I am objecting to. As a man, I have had the ‘privilege’ of living 56 yeats and only once being groped by a stranger. This is not a privilege, and the word is abused when employed in this context.

        Dawkins can, and perhaps should, be criticized for failing to grasp the broader meaning of the elevator incident. As men, most of us just don’t see how some men behave. These pigs modify their behaviour when there are witnesses–who they don’t think they can, or have the right to, intimidate.

        Jen and co. have done a tremendous service by bringing this issue into the light. Just as Taslima Nasreen, or even Phyllis Chesler has done by turning the light of day upon conditions for women in Bangle Desh and Afghanistan. ‘Western’ women who don’t live under Taliban, or Muslim Brotherhood, conditions are NOT ‘privileged’ because these conditions weren’t obvious to them. Dawkins, and I, are not ‘privileged’ to have such paltry personal histories of sexual abuse.

        A lack of knowledge about the sufferings of others can be corrected by simple truth-telling.

  8. While I appreciated the words of (Minister? Sorry not familiar with the terms) Figdor, it is a tad annoying to hear that women are afraid of being overpowered because they’re “small”. I’m tiny but I’m also a 2-time Tough Mudder Vermont finisher and I can take pretty much anyone. The reason a guy would be able to rape and overpower me is because like you I walk down the street but I don’t go around carrying knives or sneaking up on people from behind. But I appreciate men who are working to understand how to be better feminists. The most effective ones I’ve met quite simply drop the “compassion” nonsense and instead have outright respect for women. That does not mean being distant, but rather dropping the hint of pity.

    1. I’m personally very small, and I felt no pity from Jonathon when he mentioned the size differential as a reason for concern. It IS a reason that I feel more on edge than if I were at risk of being assaulted by, say, people who are also 5’3.

      1. I am 5’3″ and I don’t think of myself as small… Tho, I am rather stout like most of the women in my family. Still, I am more concerned about weapons or ability than size. Indeed, the one fight I have been in was with a dude about almost a foot taller than me. And I kicked his ass. My twin sister put a dude in the hospital when he attacked her.

        But yeah. 5’3″ isn’t even particularly short, Imo. But I am a bit of a bulldog. I realize most people don’t have my temper. :p

  9. On this “size of women’ kick, we really can’t win, can we?

    Young Zoe Smith, a few weeks ago, won an Olympic Gold in weightlifting. She’s shorter than I am, she weighs less but a fair amount of what she does weigh is muscle. And guess what? She had barely put the bar back on the mat after her winning lift when the attacks began – she had no business being so muscular, expressed with the sort of abuse which Rebecca, Amy, Jen and many others hear far to much of .

    Her response was instant and belongs among the classics of feminist riposte. Worth googling for!

    And, guys, do please get over this fear of the word privilege. It makes you look wimpish and pathetic. In one sense it is only a word and cannot bite you. In another dimension it is an established concept in several social sciences.

    You have to share this language with all the other people who use it. You do not get to tell anyone, especially women, what words they may use and what they must think. The very idea that you might have the right to do so just reeks of privilege!

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