It Stands to Reason, Skeptics Can Be Sexist Too
I spoke out about sexual harassment among atheists and scientists. Then came the rape threats.
Photo by Larry Auerbach.
I’m a skeptic. Not the kind that believes the 9/11 attacks were the product of a grand Jewish conspiracy—we hate those guys. “Stop stealing the word ‘skeptic,’ ” we tell them, but they don’t listen to us because they assume we’re just part of the grand Jewish conspiracy too.
No, I’m the kind of skeptic who enjoys exposés of psychics and homeopaths and other charlatans who fool the public either through self-delusion or for fun and profit. It’s not just me—I’m part of a growing community (some would even call it a movement) consisting of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who value science and critical thinking. We’re represented by organizations such as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which was established in 1976 and has included fellows like Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Bill Nye.
I learned about the skeptics back in college, when I worked in a magic store and performed gigs on the side. I was a huge fan of James “The Amazing” Randi, a magician who offers a million dollars to anyone who can prove they have paranormal abilities. (There’s a huge overlap between magicians and skeptics, both of whom are interested in the ways we fool ourselves.)
When I first started finding a large audience on my skepticism website, on my podcast, and on YouTube, I wasn’t terribly bothered by the occasional rape threat, sexist slur, or insult about my looks. There was something downright amusing about a creationist calling me a cunt while praying that I’d find the love of Jesus. The threats were coming from outside of my community. Outside of my safe space.
It wasn’t until I started talking about feminism to skeptics that I realized I didn’t have a safe space.
When I first got involved with the skeptics, I thought I had found my people—a community that enjoyed educating the public about science and critical thinking. The sense of belonging I felt was akin, I imagine, to what other people feel at church. (I wouldn’t exactly know—like most skeptics, I’m an atheist.) I felt we were doing important work: making a better, more rational world and protecting people from being taken advantage of. At conventions, skeptic speakers and the audience were mostly male, but I figured that was something we could balance out with a bit of hard work and good PR.
Then women started telling me stories about sexism at skeptic events, experiences that made them uncomfortable enough to never return. At first, I wasn’t able to fully understand their feelings as I had never had a problem existing in male-dominated spaces. But after a few years of blogging, podcasting, and speaking at skeptics’ conferences, I began to get emails from strangers who detailed their sexual fantasies about me. I was occasionally grabbed and groped without consent at events. And then I made the grave mistake of responding to a fellow skeptic’s YouTube video in which he stated that male circumcision was just as harmful as female genital mutilation (FGM). I replied to say that while I personally am opposed to any non-medical genital mutilation, FGM is often much, much more damaging than male circumcision.
The response from male atheists was overwhelming. This is one example:
“honestly, and i mean HONESTLY.. you deserve to be raped and tortured and killed. swear id laugh if i could”
I started checking out the social media profiles of the people sending me these messages, and learned that they were often adults who were active in the skeptic and atheist communities. They were reading the same blogs as I was and attending the same events. These were “my people,” and they were the worst.
Thinking the solution was to educate the community, I started giving talks about the areas where feminism and skepticism overlap. I encouraged audiences to get involved with issues like ending FGM, fighting the anti-woman pseudoscience of the religious right, and aiding those branded as “witches” in rural African villages.
In June of 2011, I was on a panel at an atheist conference in Dublin. The topic was “Communicating Atheism,” and I was excited to join Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous atheists in the world, with several documentaries and bestselling books to his name. Dawkins used his time to criticize Phil Plait, an astronomer who the year prior had given a talk in which he argued for skeptics to be kinder. I used my time to talk about what it’s like for me to communicate atheism online, and how being a woman might affect the response I receive, as in rape threats and other sexual comments.
The audience was receptive, and afterward I spent many hours in the hotel bar discussing issues of gender, objectification, and misogyny with other thoughtful atheists. At around 4 a.m., I excused myself, announcing that I was exhausted and heading to bed in preparation for another day of talks.
As I got to the elevator, a man who I had not yet spoken with directly broke away from the group and joined me. As the doors closed, he said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting. Would you like to come back to my hotel room for coffee?” I politely declined and got off the elevator when it hit my floor.
A few days later, I was making a video about the trip and I decided to use that as an example of how not to behave at conferences if you want to make women feel safe and comfortable. After all, it seemed rather obvious to me that if your goal is to get sex or even just companionship, the very worst way to go about attaining that goal is to attend a conference, listen to a woman speak for 12 hours about how uncomfortable she is being sexualized at conferences, wait for her to express a desire to go to sleep, follow her into an isolated space, and then suggest she go back to your hotel room for “coffee,” which, by the way, is available at the hotel bar you just left.
What I said in my video, exactly, was, “Guys, don’t do that,” with a bit of a laugh and a shrug. What legions of angry atheists apparently heard was, “Guys, I won’t stop hating men until I get 2 million YouTube comments calling me a ‘cunt.’ ” The skeptics boldly rose to the imagined challenge.
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so …
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
Dawkins’ seal of approval only encouraged the haters. My YouTube page and many of my videos were flooded with rape “jokes,” threats, objectifying insults, and slurs. A few individuals sent me hundreds of messages, promising to never leave me alone. My Wikipedia page was vandalized. Graphic photos of dead bodies were posted to my Facebook page.
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.