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