Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Elevatorgate: A Belated Perspective

While I was away from the Internet (apologies; I owe a few Music Mondays!), drama erupted in the atheist/skeptic/science community, Internet and otherwise. Interestingly enough, pretty much on the one-year anniversary of the Sexy Scientists kerfuffle—and yet again it is gender and feminism drama.

This is multifaceted and unfolded over a few days.

1. Rebecca Watson posted a video on her blog about, among other things, boorish behavior of some men at skeptic/atheist/science (which I'm just going to abbreviate as SAS from now on) conventions. Specifically, while she was on the elevator to her floor, a man who had heard her already voice complaints about being sexualized and objectified, who had heard her say she was tired and going to bed, asked her back to his room for coffee at four in the morning. The whole Mythbusters, Robot Eyes, Feminism, and Jokes video is up.

2. A few posters on the blog and YouTube channel were summarily dismissive of the situation. Some video rebuttals appeared as well. Friends of Rebecca's mention that they've seen similar attitudes on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

3. Watson disagreed with these dismissals of the situation and mentioned a few commentators by name in a talk she then gave at the CFI Student Leadership Conference. Most notably, she quoted a student (Steff McGraw) as part of her presentation on the Religious Right's War on Women.

4. People became incensed that Watson would quote Ms. McGraw's post and mention her by name specifically. The Internet exploded with bile.

5. P. Z. Myers decided to weigh in and took Rebecca's side, arguing that a good skeptical thinker always names names and that she was justified in feeling weirded out in the elevator. People posted comments.

6. Richard Effin' Dawkins showed up in the comments on Pharyngula and basically commented that Rebecca should stop complaining because, "You weren't violently assaulted! It wasn't that bad!"

7. Shit just got lost all over the place.

Got that all sorted? Great. Time to put on the Social Awareness Goggles!

Now, how many problematic (or potentially problematic) things can you spot in this picture-find? I found:

1. The original "ElevatorGate" incident in question (i.e., one man's act of propositioning a woman whom he knew at the least to be tired, and probably also knew was skeeved out by unwelcome sexual advances).

2. People's defense of Elevator Guy.

3. Watson's decision to call out an undergrad student by name, without permission or at least forewarning.

4. Dawkins' (and not a few other anonymous Internet commentators') opinion that Watson should stop complaining because she doesn't have it that bad.

1. The original "ElevatorGate" incident in question.

This one splits into two sub-problems. First, there's the problem of threat. Simply put, similar scenarios to this (late at night, enclosed spaces, invitations to private quarters) can and do lead to rape. It's not unreasonable to be nervous in this situation. An invitation to really private quarters (a private hotel room) for a really illogical reason (coffee? at 4 am? when she wants to go to bed?) only escalates that. At the very least it's a sexual proposition. And if her gentleman companion is an angry, violent drunk, for all she knew he might have reacted violently.

The second sub-problem is totally separate from the rape issue. It would be an issue even without the threat of rape, and it's the issue of this: disregarding stated desires. He had been present in the bar and had heard Watson declare her intention to retire because she was fatigued. He had probably also heard the talk she had given about not being sexualized and objectified at SAS conferences. Certainly this fellow had access to enough data to know that really, truly and seriously, Ms. Watson just wanted to go to bed and was not looking for any attention from him.

A really great article on both of these sub-problems (in a general sense, not related to this specific incident) is Schrödinger's Rapist (or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced).

My advice to you, ElevatorGuy and all men who might find themselves in this situation some day, is this: get some business cards. Cards with your name and cellphone number. Should you stumble upon an attractive, intelligent, funny, intriguing young woman in an elevator, don't ask her back to your place in fumbling desperation to see if maybe she's The One. Instead, hand her the card, with a brief explanation. "I think you're really interesting, maybe we could meet for coffee and brunch tomorrow morning," for example, is a good one. It leaves the decision in her hands, and it moves the encounter away from a potentially dangerous private space to a much safer public space (thus making her more amenable to agreeing).

("But I'm not a rapist!" you whinge. "She's judgmental and wrong to think so!" Too bad, so sad. Once rapes stop happening, she'll have no reason to consider you a potential rapist. So maybe talk to your fellow men about their behavior.)

But I don't think the biggest problem here is ElevatorGuy. On a scale of one to five Cups of Coffee, I give him a one and a half.

2. People's defense of Elevator Guy.

A lot of men (and some women) have chosen to focus on the Elevator itself, defending Elevator Guy from imaginary accusations of being a rapist. As if Rebecca is somehow at fault for not appreciating an unwelcome sexual advantage, or at the least for publicly mentioning a most-likely sheepish-feeling fellow's failed attempt to get into her pants. I call this the "Won't Somebody Please Think of the Men?" argument. Can you see the invisible sarcasm tags around that?

In other words, this argument is based on the assumption that in this situation, the man's desire for sex somehow trumps the woman's desire to be treated without regard for baby-making parts, or at least her stated desire to be left alone. If a man wants to have hot 4 am atheist sex, why does he need to proposition a woman who has clearly expressed her disinterest in anything except sleeping? If his desire is so great, he can satisfy both Rebecca's desire to be left alone AND his desire to get laid by asking someone else

Also,to outline the larger paradigm that I think contributes to this assumption: men's desire to not be considered potential rapists somehow trumps women's desire to not be raped (and sometimes killed). If we stop acting like there are potential rapists out there, sure you get to feel better about yourselves, but then we also get to be raped more. What?

I mean, I'm sure Elevator Guy was probably just awkward and drunk and desperate, and I do kind of feel shitty for him because now his faux pas is all over the SAS community for people to laugh over, but there's still no good excuse for his actions.

Now we're getting into the problematic territory. I rate this one three out of five Cups of Coffee.

3. Watson's decision to call out an undergrad student by name, without permission or at least forewarning.

Watson justified her decision on her own blog, saying that she did it because basically she would expect it out of someone quoting her in a presentation; that she expected Ms. McGraw to be mature enough to be adult about it; and also pointing out that they had all linked and quoted her specifically when disagreeing with her.

I think these are all good justifications, and I can see how if Watson were quoting another woman of her own caliber on stage, no harm no foul. But we can't know that, and neither could Watson as she was writing up her presentation. If you are a badass skepchick, you can forget what it's like to be younger, more sensitive, more unsure of yourself. What it's like to see someone you admire (or at least someone with more renown and more social sway in your community than you currently enjoy) shut you down.

Plus, McGraw and stclairrose were posting about Watson on the Internet. On the Internet. It's quiet on the Internet, and if you are attacked or mentioned in a debate on the Internet, you have the capacity to respond, in real time, and in equal merit in front of your audience. Not so when your post is up there on the stage. In that moment, the power dynamics of the situation were all about Watson. If McGraw were giving a presentation herself later in the day, it would be another matter entirely. But she wasn't; McGraw was a student attendee.

But again, this is hardly the biggest problem here. One and a half Cups of Coffee out of five.

4. Dawkins' (and not a few other anonymous Internet commentators') opinion that Watson should stop complaining because she doesn't have it that bad.

And finally, where everyone lost their shit (myself included). This is the coveted five out of five cups of coffee.

I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of Dawkins. Truth be told, I think he's an asshole. I don't care how brilliant you are, if you can't bring yourself to play nicely, I have very little respect for you. Who you are is more important than what you do. This is a bone of contention with The Boy, who is a huge Dawkins fan despite acknowledging he's made some pretty significant missteps. (What you do trumps who you are.)

But for a man who advocates for women's rights elsewhere in the world and who makes passionate arguments against things like female genital mutilation or stoning adulteresses; who talks about having more women in science; there is some serious cognitive dissonance in him telling Wagner to basically be quiet and deal with it. No, seriously. Phil Plait over at BA quoted the meat, if not the entirety, of Dawkins' response in that entry.

I mean the argument that "some women have it worse so stop complaining" is totally fallacious. Not only that, but if Dawkins wants more women in skepticism and science, guess what? Boorish behavior on the behalf of some men needs to be addressed. You don't just snap your fingers and get equality, Dawkins. You don't just wake up one day and suddenly there's just as many women there as there are men. They're not joining the sciences and the skepticism movement solely because they're somehow too dumb or too ignorant, they're not joining because you're not making it a very comfortable place. You generally but also, with the that comment, you specifically.

Mr. Dawkins, you enjoy a certain position of power within the SAS movements. While people are free to disagree with you, you influence the way many of the people in the think about issues—probably doubly-so when the people in question are involved in a debate they normally don't think much about. It's a bit lazy of them, yes, but you're otherwise intelligent and it's generally accepted that the views you hold are rational and well thought-out. Especially for someone whose nerdery is more about evolutionary biology than about sociology and feminism, could they really be blamed for simply towing the (Dawkins) party line? And the truism holds just as much for you as it does for Spider-man: "With great power comes great responsibility."

I can already hear the outcry. "But skepticism and free-thinking is all about challenging authority! Science is all about objectively looking at the data and not who says it! We're not just dumb sheep!"

Reality check: we're all human; we're all inclined to put people on pedestals and forgive people mistakes we would not allow from others simply because we like them better. Crow about your objectivity all you like, but at the end of the day it's still that unreachable calculus limit.

Dawkins' ill-thought, unnecessarily snarky and condescending brush-off of the incident in question (and Rebecca Watson's hysterical audacity to even feel uncomfortable in the first place!) has the net effect not only of alienating countless "skepchicks" (who doubtless looked up to him to begin with) with his words alone, but also to encourage and justify prevailing attitudes of other persons not quite so celebré—who in turn continue acting in ways that alienate women.

This incident casts an unfortunate pall over at least some of Dawkins' words and writing about Western women and the sciences. It seems more and more that for him, "More women should study the sciences" really means, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"

Hopefully, Dawkins will have the same grace, tact, and self-awareness that Luke Muehlshauser exhibited about the "Sexy Scientists" debacle and offer up an apology. (Note: not an explanation or a rationalization, but an apology.) And hopefully in the future, he'll take issues like objectification and male entitlement seriously, even if no one's stoning us to death or permanently mutilating our genitalia.


  1. Hey, I found your blog through a series of links I was following, and just wanted to say this article was really well thought out and fair. And it made me laugh a bit, which made me feel guilty. :) Thanks!

    I'm off to read that link you posted on Schrodinger's Rapist, but /followed!

  2. Thanks! And thanks for sticking around!

    Feminism issues within science can be hot button issues for me, so I'm glad I didn't come across as RAGE RAGE RAGE AGAINST THE DYING OF THE LIGHT/THE MACHINE/THE PATRIARCHY. And if I can make you laugh? Bonus!