Punishing Women for Speaking Up

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca!

Back at the end of February, I made a big fat mistake. I posted a video about a male doctor who seemed to me to be bullying a female doctor because she said that he treated her in a sexist way during a TV interview. During that interview he spoke over her, accused her of “shouting” when she was simply being assertive, and was generally just really rude.

She Tweeted about the incident, pointing out the problem of sexism in medicine and other fields. In response, the man reported her to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, who are in charge of issuing licenses to practice medicine in that province. To defend her career, she has had to pay for legal help.

I deleted my video about all this shortly after it went live at the request of the woman in question, Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth. I don’t think I‘ve ever deleted a video at someone’s request before but this was a special circumstance, and I’d like to take a few minutes to explain why.

As many of you already know, when I lived in London I worked with Simon Singh and sympathetic MPs to try to improve the UK’s draconian libel laws, which at the time allowed various quacks and nefarious actors to bully critics into silence by threatening to sue them. The problem was that even if the critic had an airtight case (the easiest defense for libel being the truth), they would be bankrupted by the cost of hiring lawyers to defend themselves. In the face of that, they would often simply cave, deleting their fair criticism. Others would hear about that and simply self-censor, choosing to not criticize the quack in question at all.

Simon Singh wrote a critical article about the British Chiropractic Association, who tried this little libel trick to silence someone they mistakenly thought was a poor, timid journalist. Singh fought back though, and after years of expensive court cases, he actually won. He went on to make substantial improvements to libel law, though to be honest it’s still not great there.

I got my own libel threat back in 2016 when Skeptical Inquirer editor Ben Radford had his lawyer send me a cease and desist because I reported on his alleged sexual harassment of his ex-girlfriend Karen Stollznow. His lawyer suggested that I hire my own lawyer, so I hired the guy who had just previously beaten his lawyer in a defamation lawsuit. Because I’m an asshole. This worked very well, as Ben ended up saying that actually he would not sue me after all. In the end, I still had to pay about $5,000 to not go to court, money that I did not have and had to collect via donations on Indie-a-gogo.

It sucked because when I first got the lawsuit threat from Radford’s lawyers, lawyers I consulted told me that I should NOT go public with the threat, because anything I said publicly could make the legal case worse. So it’s like, cool, I have a real-life lawyer threatening to BANKRUPT me and I cannot deal with this the way I deal with all other anxieties in life (by tweeting jokes about it). And I certainly couldn’t set up crowdfunding to afford the retainer for a lawyer, which was several thousands of dollars that I had to put on credit cards.

It was actually several weeks of back and forth between lawyers before my lawyer finally gave me the go-ahead to post publicly and set up the crowdfunding site. Those weeks were chock full of anxiety, wanting to talk to my friends about the biggest thing happening in my life but not being able to.

When I was finally able to set up the fundraiser and post about it publicly, Radford accused me of escalation, telling people on Twitter that he wasn’t actually planning to sue me (despite the fact that he had never engaged with me before his lawyer sent me the letter, and the letter literally said that if I didn’t delete my posts about Radford then I would be open to a defamation lawsuit). This led to men spamming anyone who tried to spread the word telling them that I was lying and urging them not to support me. So that was fun.

It all worked out, considering that people did still support me, my lawyer was great, and I didn’t have to go to court.

So that’s a bit of background on why when I saw what I perceived as another woman being bullied by a man just because she felt he was sexist, and when I saw that she had set up crowdfunding to help with her legal costs, I was champing at the bit to help. What I forgot is what happens to women in these scenarios, and what happened to me in this scenario: any response other than meekly folding can be seen as “escalation;” any publicizing can be met with an equal and opposite amount of threatening, either by the initial bully or by additional bullies who come to learn about the case and want to put another “feminazi” in her place. And so by trying to “help” Dr. Kaplan-Myrth I also may have increased her very understandable anxiety.

So, I took down the video and I felt terrible remembering the stress that I was under back in 2016 and knowing at least a little bit how Dr. Kaplan-Myrth may be feeling.

That said, she reached out to me again and thanked me for my support and suggested I try to do another video, which is this video that you’re watching right now. Because remember how Radford’s libel threat attracted trolls who attacked me? Well, the same thing has happened to Dr. Kaplan-Myrth: this week, she received some hate mail. In the actual mail. Like, when is the last time you felt strongly enough to type something out, print it, put it in an envelope and snail mail it to them? For me it was this past Christmas when I sent a few friends letters about how much I love them, and even that took an extraordinary amount of energy. Here’s what one anonymous person decided to send to Dr. Kaplan-Myrth:

(hate mail)

Now, nowhere does he threaten her, physically, but as someone who has received many correspondences like this I can tell you that it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to know that somewhere out there a person is this obsessed with you, and who hates you this much just because you spoke up against sexism and racism. Against hate. And that is the exact point of this letter, which is why it was sent anonymously: to terrify her into silence. The point is to make her feel alone and worthless, and to make her wonder if every person she passes on the street thinks this way. 

Even a woman like myself, who has been through all this before, can be negatively affected by this kind of shit. Because I know that men like this (and let’s be honest, a man wrote this, and he’s probably white) don’t always stop at an anonymous tweet, or email, or blog, or printed letter. They drive to your house and murder your family, like the “Men’s Rights Activist” Roy Den Hollender did after previously writing a racist and sexist blog about U.S. District Judge Esther Salas. They gun down women outside a sorority house like Elliot Rodger did after posting a sexist rant about women rejecting him on YouTube. They drive to a gym to murder women because they’re a misogynist like George Sodini did after nine months of posting on his own website about how much he hates women. They murder women at a yoga studio like Scott Paul Beierle did after posting videos on YouTube complaining about “diversity.” It’s so easy to find these examples. There are so many of these men out there. And remember that when I got actual death threats from men whose identities I could establish, the cops told me there were too many of them to bother following up on, and they had no way to know which of them would be the ones who actually carry out the violence so they would just make a report so that if someone did kill me they’d have a good suspect list to start with. 

This is the shit that women deal with when they speak up, and this is the reason why many women understandably don’t want to speak up. It’s easier for some people to simply deal with the sexism, or the racism, or the homophobia than to risk “escalating” it to real-world violence.
I want you to know all of this because there’s a way you can help: if you have extra money, please consider contributing to Dr. Kaplan-Myrth’s GoFundMe. Whether you can donate or not, please send her a message of support on social media and let her know that she’s not alone, and that her fight is worth it. Whenever I go through this kind of thing, you guys have been my rock, so I can tell you that every donation and kind message and retweet helps. So thanks to those of you who supported her after seeing my previous video that went down after 30 minutes and thanks to those of you who will support her after this video.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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