Skeptics Skeptical on Sexism (Part One)

As someone relatively new to the online skeptical/atheist community, I can say I am genuinely disturbed to think that bastions of reasonableness could be mired in the bad behavior of their advocates. I'm speaking, specifically, of the worries raised by many people that these communities (from here on lumped under the label 'skeptical') are effectively barring women from their ranks through sexist, misogynistic behavior. What's worse are the stories of those who are attacked for pointing out that these behaviors exist within the skeptical movement. I'm going to take some time to give a few of my thoughts as to why a community supposedly centered on the application of reason can be downright nasty to those who point out such serious failures thereof. I should point out that my reading on this has been fairly limited, though I get the sense continued research will yield more stories of the same sort. The story I will focus on as an example in this post is the infamous "Elevatorgate". For those who are not familiar with it, I suggest reading this.

Long story short, Rebecca Watson, the founder of Skepchick, posted online about an incident with a man during an elevator ride at a skeptical conference. The man in question asked her if she would be interested in going back to his room for coffee and conversation. Watson found the exchange uncomfortable, stating she felt sexualized by the offer, given the late night setting and close quarters in which it happened. The man made no physical gestures towards her and the elevator ride ended without further incident. The timing of the incident seemed to be the biggest problem Watson had with it, given that she had lately been speaking out against being sexualized or harassed at skeptical conferences.

What took this story to the front page was the reaction of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins wrote a sarcastic letter from the perspective of an abused third world girl which aimed to make Watson's claims seem trivial in comparison to the brutality women in others parts of the world face as a matter of course. This led to a series of exchanges between the pair. Neither came of terribly well, in my opinion, but the fact that a man as invested in the skeptical movement as Dawkins felt compelled to respond to a fairly minor story in such a way was unsettling to many, myself included.

My first reaction was outright disbelief that these stories were even possible. My gut reaction was denial, followed by worried doubt. While I don't want to believe that these tales are true, I have no doubt upon further introspection that they are. The degree to which they are is largely irrelevant, in my opinion. If a trend is noticed, even by a small segment of the involved participants, it bears investigating.

Why my initial denial? I think it is the reaction most people have to an attack on them and theirs. That's not to say that it is right to have such a reaction, I just think that it is a very human response to a perceived threat. I imagine a lot of free thinkers that reacted so abhorrently did so because they did not think deeply. Richard Dawkins is definitely the biggest name to get thrown into this mix during the “Elevatorgate” spat, but I have to hope he was being reactionary and not merely an insensitive bigot. His other work and expressed humanism give me hope that this is the case, but his public responses to the incident make me cringe either way. In light of these sort of responses to sexist behavior, it is obvious that reacting quickly is easy and intellectually cheap, making it the go-to solution for many people. It requires nothing to call someone a liar, whore, slut, or equally awful name and then leave the conversation. However, as I'm not willing to lay the problem at the feet of 'tribal allegiance' to the skeptical cause, how else can you explain what some are claiming is a widespread issue?

My follow-up thought is that these inappropriate reactions stem from a lack of social schooling. As someone who has lived squarely within 'geek' or 'nerd' culture, I can attest to the fact that many, many young men out there have ZERO idea how to interact with women. Girls were not playing Magic: the Gathering with me at the lunch table or building homemade ballistas with me in my front yard. A large part of my formative years were sorely lacking of female presence by my peers and I can say wholeheartedly that it has had an impact on me. I can only imagine that others out there have had similar experiences and that this lack of social interaction is destined to make some male/female interactions inherently more awkward. I also think that this can easily tie back to my initial gut reaction, which was to say people were reacting to a perceived threat. Let's face it, it's easier to react to someone in such a way as to alienate them than to try and establish a meaningful relationship with them.

That interesting and attractive woman you see at the con? Man, talking to her would be terrifying if it involved an investment of self that she might reject. Better just compliment her rack and avoid making myself vulnerable to a possibly negative response. I think large groups of men who might tend to come from groups that have not had a large female presence might be more prone to a lack of social graces that can manifest themselves in sexist ways. I've seen evidence here that shows a 5:1 ratio of men to women who are declared atheists within the U.S. This same data shows a ratio of almost 3:2 regarding men over women who declare themselves as non-religious. These rough numbers show the disparity that seems to exist within the skeptical movement. Does the skeptical boy's club thus suffer from this disparity by manifesting sexist tendencies, however unconsciously, because the people who participate are not as socially adept with women than the general population? It does not seem far-fetched to me, though this would obviously need to be backed up by empirical data, and I'd be curious to see the results if someone took the time to investigate this matter. It feels real to me, and might explain a meaningful portion of the negative interactions women seem to be experiencing at these cons.

Fueling all of this could be the irritation and frustration that obviously runs solidly through the non-believing community. Doubt that? Check out r/atheism on Reddit and you'll get a good sense of the vitriol present there. Much of this is born out because of the crap we, as a community and individuals, have dealt with at the hands of the religious. These are also people who often see themselves as activists that are preaching the cause, and any distraction from that can be seen as traitorous. It does not seem to be much of a stretch to conclude that this anger can be inadvertently redirected at the wrong targets. When harassed individuals bring attention away from skepticism and towards sexism or feminist issues within the group, people cry foul and aim to quash the distraction. I'm sure we've all had a bad day that sets us up on a hair trigger, ready to go off at the slightest provocation. For people who are already involved in a movement that is motivated - in no small part - with irritation towards religion's machinations, I believe these same people could misfire at a higher rate than others. Perhaps those who have pointed out problems within the skeptical community are innocent bystanders in such a scenario?

I think these are three plausible explanations for an undercurrent of sexism that is seen within the skeptical community. In a vacuum any one of them could be explanatorily useful, but when mixed together it seems obvious how they can feed into one another. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Every individual will have a different set of factors playing into their unique behavior, whether good or bad, and I don't mean to generalize definitively. I am only trying to highlight some trends that I believe could explain why there might be more sexist behavior within the skeptical movement than is present in other communities. Such behavior is deplorable and needs to be eradicated to the greatest extent possible. As a community aiming to promote reasonable thinking and humanism I think we have a distinctly strong duty to show how we, as human beings, should live. Treating each other with basic levels and respect should be the easiest thing in the world, and we owe it to ourselves and our fellow man to show how reasonable people should live.


Next time, I aim to investigate how we, as a community, should react to this problem.


EDIT: Here's a link to that follow-up post.


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