It Stands to Reason, Skeptics Can Be Sexist Too
I spoke out about sexual harassment among atheists and scientists. Then came the rape threats.
Twitter accounts were made in my name and used to tweet horrible things to celebrities and my friends. (The worst accounts were deleted by Twitter, but some, such as this one, are allowed to remain so long as they remove my name.) Entire blogs were created about me, obsessively cataloging everything I’ve ever said and (quite pathetically) attempting to dig up dirt in my past. The best they seemed to come up with was that I obtained a bachelor of science in communication from Boston University. The horror! I actually made a joke about this in one of the first talks I ever gave, many years ago: “Don’t take my word for it—I’m not a scientist. I have a BS in communication. I literally majored in talking bullshit.”
Nevertheless, my shameful past as a college graduate was “exposed” and passed around on social media and forums and blogs, as triumphant skeptics demanded I stop writing and speaking about science since I lacked the proper credentials. (Interestingly, no one has ever petitioned for my three non-scientist podcast cohosts to be removed from the show. Probably just a coincidence.)
Just a week after Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” comment, I was scheduled to speak at The Amazing Meeting (TAM), a skeptics’ conference in Las Vegas that in years past I had fundraised thousands of dollars to send dozens of women to. In the weeks leading up to TAM, a man tweeted that he was attending and that if he ran into me in an elevator, he’d assault me.
Screenshot via Twitter.
The organizers of the conference, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF)—the organization started by the person who first introduced me to skepticism—allowed the man to attend the conference and did nothing to reassure me. I attended anyway and never went anywhere alone. This past year I finally stopped attending TAM when the organizers blamed me and other harassed women in our community for driving women away by talking about our harassment.
Other skeptical organizations have been more compassionate. Center for Inquiry (the umbrella organization for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), American Atheists, and several humanist organizations have enacted anti-harassment policies for their conferences. But still, there are leaders in the skepticism community who refuse to accept that there is a problem, and those who play the “both sides are wrong” game, insinuating that “misogynist” is just as bad an insult as “cunt.”
Meanwhile, other skeptical women are being bullied out of the spotlight and even out of their homes. My fellow writer on Skepchick, Amy Davis Roth, moved after her home address was posted on a forum dedicated to hating feminist skeptics. In September, blogger Greta Christina wrote that “when I open my mouth to talk about anything more controversial than Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster recipes or Six More Atheists Who Are Totally Awesome, I can expect a barrage of hatred, abuse, humiliation, death threats, rape threats, and more.” And Jen McCreight stopped blogging and accepting speaking engagements altogether. “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),” she wrote. “I just can’t take it anymore.”
I know that this article will only rile up the sexist skeptics. I’ll hear about how I’m a slut who deserves whatever I get, about how I’m a liar who made everything up, about how I’ve overreacted, and about how I should just ignore the trolls and they’ll go away. I’ve written this article anyway, because I strongly believe that the goals of skeptics are good ones, like strengthening science education, protecting consumers, and deepening our knowledge of human psychology. Those goals will never be met if we continue to fester as a middling subculture that not only ignores social issues but is actively antagonistic toward progressive thought.
I also believe that old line about sunlight being the best disinfectant. Ignoring bullies does not make them go away. For the most part, the people harassing us aren’t just fishing for a reaction—they want our silence. They’re angry that feminist thought has a platform in “their community.” What they don’t get is that it’s also my community.
Rebecca Watson is the founder of the Skepchick Network, which consists of seven blogs focused on science, skepticism, and secularism. She also cohosts the weekly Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.